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Box Score: The code has been cracked

Box Score is a weekly column that offers a look at sports games and the athletic side of the industry from the perspective of veteran reviewer and sports fan Richard Grisham.

“Where’s our point guard?”

The plaintive cry in my Xbox Live headset jarred me loose from my thoughts as I realized two things – first, I’m the point guard my teammate was looking for, and second, I’d stumbled behind the scorers’ table like an idiot. Playing Team Up mode in NBA 2K12 with four other buddies, I’d briefly forgotten that I wasn’t in control of all the players on my squad and wound up accidentally (and hilariously) turning my player into a bumbling fool. While my brain thought I was about to shoot from the post with a power forward, my controller was pushing the point guard off the court. It was an embarrassing start to a match, to say the least.

For decades, sports simulations have been a paradox. On one hand, they strive to be as hyper-realistic as possible, allowing players to control real-world rosters, playbooks, salary caps, stadiums and revenue opportunities. Then, when it’s game time, users instantly become all-powerful gods; whoever has the ball or puck at any given moment is under your complete control, doing whatever you tell them to do each instant. It’s tremendously fun, yet patently absurd.

The proliferation of broadband internet and power of today’s current generation of consoles has enabled a transformation of sorts. No longer limited to a group of players tethered to a machine with multi-tap adapters, the concept of having a complete team filled with human players is now a reality. More than ever, major sports games offer the kind of cooperative play that has created an entirely new, and in some cases, markedly better experience.

“The most gratifying thing in the world is running a fast break and the guy that’s running on the left wing knows you’re going to alley-oop,” says Fanboys and Player One Podcast host Mike Phillips about NBA 2K12’s Team Up. “He cuts right to the basket, you toss the ball up, and he slams it home. It’s fantastic.”

What’s more, it’s become his and his crew’s favorite way to play the game.

“When I go back to playing single player, it’s still fun, but honestly doesn’t compare to having actual humans on your team. Over time, you build on-court relationships with your friends; you have to play as a team, you each have a responsibility and accountability for what you do. It becomes a reasonable facsimile of the actual sport, and is the most interesting, exciting thing to happen in sports games.”

After I got over my initial discombobulation, I had to learn an entirely new way to play. In single-player modes, I have no problem jacking up selfish shots with superstar players – but didn’t want to be “that guy” even when I was Kobe Bryant. I tried desperately to pass the ball to other players and get back on defense, with varying degrees of success.

Basketball is seemingly the perfect sport for cooperative play; the fairly small number of players needed, the fact that everyone is always involved in what’s going on, and the ability for each person to choose a position they like the most translates beautifully onto the virtual hardwood.

“Everybody has an important role on the team. I play point guard because I’m a control freak and I don’t like to shoot all that much,” Mr. Phillips continues. “I’m awful at rebounding. My buddy Rob (one of the regulars in his group) is an animal on the boards, though, and I have no idea how he does it. He can dominate down on the glass.”

With 11 players on a side, soccer is on the other end of the spectrum. You’d think it would be a drowsy experience, waiting around and hoping for the ball to make its way to you from one of 10 other teammates. Not so, at least in FIFA 12’s Pro Clubs mode, says T.J. Lauerman of ThatSportsGamer.com.

“I’m in a group of guys that’ve been playing since FIFA 11, and it’s a ton of fun,” he says. “I’ve been able to bring people from across the world to team up in the international game of soccer; one night we had people from New Jersey, Wisconsin, Michigan, Delaware and the UK. When it clicks, it’s amazing.”

The best moments transform an ordinary match into a memorable one. “One night there was a lobbed pass that went a little too far,” he continued. “I did a Booker T jump kick to cross the ball into the middle to a waiting teammate who easily volleyed the ball in. Having a real person on the other end of your pass is far better than a semi-competent computer player.”

According to Gareth Reeder, FIFA 12’s producer of online modes, it’s been a long and winding road to create a compelling, large-scale cooperative mode.

“The concept started in FIFA 08 after internal discussions with NHL, FIFA, and NBA Live,” Reeder told us. “In the early stage, the number of users was limited, and you could only play with real players and teams from the game. The 09 titles were the first to introduce ‘Clubs,’ which were persistent groups of players that could start teams, recruit players, and compete. Recently this evolved into ‘Virtual Pros,’ where gamers could create a virtual avatar and grow their skills online. Instead of being [international superstar Wayne] Rooney online, gamers can now play as themselves.”

As you’d expect with the fanatical following that FIFA 12 has, entire co-op-based communities have sprouted up across the world.
“Delivering online features in 11 vs 11 is a big challenge,” Reeder continued. “As always, the community for Clubs is very vocal and very dedicated! There are even community-driven websites and organizations that take it to the next level, like the FVPA (FIFA Virtual Pro Association). Outside of what we deliver in the game, these groups provide leagues and even Nation Cups, where Virtual Pros try out for their national team to take on the world.”

NHL 12 has taken online cooperation to a higher plane entirely with EASHL, its fiercely competitive online cooperative leagues that re-start every month. Featuring monthly championships, banner-raising ceremonies, and a level of depth that hockey aficionados fawn over, it has a relatively small but loyal following.

“When Online Team Play was introduced, it was a major innovation for the franchise, but it was clear that our fans wanted to see more,” says Clement Kwong, online producer of EA’s NHL 12. “Along came EASHL in NHL 09, a feature that is built on OTP gameplay but organized in a league structure; a sort of ‘virtual beer league.’ It allowed us to create a sense of community and competition that’s true to the sport of hockey. Since its inauguration, the EASHL community has grown year by year and is going strong.”

The key, as always, is playing with the right people – which had until recently been my biggest barrier to participating very much. As co-op has matured and expanded, it’s more important than ever for publishers to make sports gamers aware of how much fun it can be – and how it can transform a game that may be getting stale into an entirely new experience.

“We want to make it easier for people to play together,” Reeder concluded. I couldn’t agree more – now l just need to eliminate decades of selfish single-player habits.

Richard Grisham has been obesessed with sports and video games since childhood, when he'd routinely create and track MicroLeague Baseball seasons on paper. He currently lives in New Jersey with his wife and four-year old son, who he'll soon be training to be an NFL placekicker. As a freelance journalist and writer, his work has appeared in GamesRadar, NGamer, and 1UP.