Sports games are a crowded market
It's pretty inconsiderate of people, really, to flock to sports events and the like in such voluminous numbers. As a result, poor video game developers have had to spend the past two decades trying to do crowds right. One person on-screen? Easy. Ten people? Pretty tough, but alright. All 109,901 spectators in Michigan Stadium, all the officials and a game of American football? Give the poor guys a break!
Fortunately, the new generation of consoles have finally given developers sufficient grunt to start doing crowds right. So you'll find several of them on this list. But even so, history is still crowded (yeah?) with amazing attempts to convey the throng of a good crowd on limited tech. So let's celebrate the best crowds of all time...
Def Jam: Fight for NY (Multi, 2004)
Def Jam's super-'street' fighting gameplay is context-heavy, which is undeniably one of the game's greatest pulls. But while cars and other scenery elements all make for interesting diversions, it's the crowds that are the best part.
For starters, the individually-rendered onlookers add a real Fight Club atmosphere to the proceedings as they goad the fighters on. But the best thing about them is the quality of their haircuts. Nah, not really. It is, of course, their interactivity. Shove your opponent into the crowd and someone will grab hold, even assisting you in a team-up move. Mightily impressive for 2004, it's surprising it hasn't caught on more in recent years.
Super Street Fighter IV (Multi, 2010)
But while Def Jam has the interactivity, Street Fighter has superior reactivity. The stages in SFIV are full of individuals that each appear to have an interesting story to tell. They watch the fight with excitement or annoyance, especially when the fracas destroys an element of the background scenery.
And of course, it all goes back to Street Fighter 2 and the infamous chicken-choker. Does one man and a chicken count as a crowd? We're going to go with yes. But two frames of animation aren't enough to make our 'best crowds' list. We hope the news doesn't leave the chicken too choked.
NHL '94 (Multi, 1993)
NHL Hockey actually predated FIFA in the shape of EA Hockey, which came out in 1991. And, sure enough, it offered 2D crowds with individual people in them. Again, they were animated at varying speeds to simulate excitement if someone hit the post or upended another player. But I've chosen this version for a reason.
There was one dude in a red top and blonde hair, who would sometimes get up out of his chair and walk down to the perspex barrier and watch the game from there. An audience member actually behaving like a real person as an incidental detail. It was the most amazing thing my friend and I had seen. Combine that with NHLPA Hockey '93's glass getting smashed at the back and it was evident this was the best sports game ever.
Virtua Fighter 4 (PS2, 2002)
Similar to Def Jam, VF4 featured one stage with a 3D-rendered crowd. OK, so you couldn't get caught up in them and they were only ever really silhouettes of people, but it was the atmosphere that this gave the fight, not to mention the technical achievement of rendering that many 3D bodies at 60fps.
Does anyone else care about such things? Sometimes I wonder if I'm alone in that respect. I like a good 60fps 3D rendered crowd, I do. Which is lucky really, because the new console generation is full of them. Hooray! Of particular note, in fact, in this next game...
FIFA 14 (PS4/XBO, 2014)
This is what happens when a gameplay engine is already at the peak of its evolution and then a shed-load of new power comes along to help make everything else that little bit more awesome. FIFA 14's crowds are vast, fully 3D-rendered and react to the action realistically. Admittedly, they don't hand-sign 'wanker' when the opposing team scores right in front of them, but maybe the Millwall Fan Pack DLC is still to come.
Either way, what there is is wonderful, with no visible compromises in terms of resolution or frame rate. They're just there, totally absorbed in the unfolding match, ready to jump up and down when the ball goes in. Lovely.
FIFA Soccer (Mega Drive/SNES, 1993)
Conversely, this was how FIFA first depicted its football fans. Cartoony, huh? Now, if you're too young to remember, you'll likely laugh when I say this, but this was a revolution in visuals in 1993. Reviews at the time said things like 'squint a bit and you could be watching Match of the Day'.
Complete nonsense, of course. Especially as Match of the Day rarely sees a player sprint five laps around the pitch hoping the ref will give up trying to give him a yellow card. Gaming may have come a long way, but we've arguably lost something in that respect. Anyway, individual isometric 2D people in a crowd = awesome.
NBA Action '98 (Saturn, 1997)
Now this is an interesting one. You know how great the NBA 2K series has always been? Well, it's developed by a team called Visual Concepts. Visual Concepts made NBA Action '98, which was also known as NBA Fastbreak on PlayStation. In other words, this was the first NBA 2K game, before the year 2K had even come around. Predictably, the result was sensational.
On 32-bit machines, people had become accustomed to crowds being rendered as flat textures of crowds on polygonal stands. It wasn't ideal, looked crap from acute angles and basically forced us to pretend gaming was actually better than it really was. But Visual Concepts' NBA spectators were not only strips of upright rows of spectators, they were animated too. Sure, it was always the same animation run at different speeds to show various levels of enthusiasm, but it was a major breakthrough.
NBA 2K series (Dreamcast, 2000)
The NBA 2K series on Dreamcast is still visually impressive. The first video I saw of the game in action was pure wizardry, riding the Hogwarts Express and chanting an Oculus Explodum charm. Because behind the impossibly detailed and smoothly-animated players were individual spectators sitting on individual seats. Considering this was scant few years after NBA Action 98's flat rows of people, this kind of fidelity was akin to the leap between 480i and 1080p. Nay, bigger.
I don't know whether it's just that basketball courts are smaller than football stadia or whether Visual Concepts are just the best crowd-makers the business has ever seen, but it's always been the NBA 2K series that's offered the most realistic crowds. As demonstrated by...
NBA 2K14 (PS4/XBO, 2013)
This is the best crowd in gaming. Ever. Every single spectator is rendered in full 3D, affected by lighting and what's happening on the court. They get louder as the game gets more intense. They stand up and wave things around. Could be handkerchiefs, could be underwear. Depends if Tom Jones is playing.
Obviously the Power of Next-Gen means they're all unique, albeit with a few shared dress sense decisions. And at 1080p and 60fps, it really is like watching a real NBA game on TV. Having said that, I fully expect people to look back in another 20 years and laugh like you just did at FIFA Soccer, as there's still room for improvement. But for once, we can be happy. All of the people are accounted for. All of them.
Which one got crowded out?
This has been a pretty crowded article about crowds, but you what they say: Nine entries in a gallery is company, 10's a crowd. Or something. And apparently you know more Crowded House songs than you think you do. So crowd around and share your favourite crowds in the comments. Don't worry about crowding out other people, we want to 'cheer' what you think. Um... crowds.