Box Score: Online sports where simplicity goes to die

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.

It was double overtime in Game Seven, and Patrik Elias saw his chance. Gathering the puck after a Mats Sundin turnover, he skated towards Maple Leafs goaltender Andrew Raycroft. He zigged, zagged, then zigged again ever-so-slightly for the deke that proved to be fatal to Toronto. Elias slipped the puck past a sprawling Raycroft, the New Jersey Devils were suddenly victorious, and I jumped out of my seat so quickly that my Xbox Live headset snapped out of its controller.

I’m not referring to any real-life Stanley Cup playoffs, but the ATK Cup. Circa 2007, it was the most prized virtual possession that my buddy Beergut or I could own, because we invented it. We spent hundreds of nights battling each other on Xbox Live – he in Toronto, me in New Jersey – in endless numbers of these series in NHL 2K games. These playoffs were tracked on paper, as 2K offered no seven-game series online option. I remember desperately hoping that future versions would allow me to create small two- and four-man tournaments so I could finally see who the MVP would be, or have my guys skate a Cup around the ice.

Smash-cut to 2011, and times have changed. The once-dominant NHL 2K franchise is dead, having succumbed to the sublime pro hockey offering from EA Sports. What’s more, there’s an incredible array of online options available; head-to-head and co-op matchups, the popular EASHL, and Ultimate Team. With all of that, though, there’s still no way for me to set up a seven-game series against Beergut. We’re reduced to pencil and paper.

The problem isn’t limited to pucks – no major sports title offers simple, user-built custom online tournaments or leagues. My five-man NBA 2K12 Online Association forces us to play through a season that includes dozens of matches against the CPU. I play my brother-in-law in MLB: The Show all the time, and we have to police ourselves during our fake World Series bouts to make sure we don’t use pitchers that wouldn’t normally be available due to fatigue.

The missed opportunities are numerous, because many players are either intimidated by the size and scope of online franchises, or aren’t affiliated with the right community to make such an undertaking any fun at all. After all, every sports gamer knows how difficult it is to find like-minded people who don’t simply exploit glitches to cheese their way to wins.

Some may remember XSN Sports, an ambitious Microsoft project that was built to combat this problem, letting users create customized private leagues and tournaments for Microsoft Game Studios sports titles. Unfortunately it was tied to mostly awful games, which did the service no favors, and it died a few years after launch. Since then, no developers or platform holders have dared take on such a project.

That may be changing in 2012, however, although it’s not coming from the direction you’d think. If you’ve played Madden 12, you’ve seen the Virgin Gaming logo splashed throughout the menus. The company runs tournaments for many sports titles through its service (Madden, NHL, NBA 2K, and others), including some for cash. It just so happens that they’re building out services to support gamers running these custom tournaments within their framework. I learned of this when I was recently talking to Virgin Gaming CEO Rob Segal on a different topic – but pestered him when he briefly mentioned these plans.

“We want our product to be for the masses. Most gamers don’t think they’re going to make it to major tournament finals and win big money,” said Mr. Segal. “They just like gaming and have been doing it for a long time with their buddies for entertainment value. We thought the next step in that was to look at fantasy sports, and apply that to the gaming space.”

Does this mean I can set up my own tournaments or leagues, with as many teams as I want, with self-configured formats and stats? And for money?

“Yes,” he said. ““On our platform, you and your friends will choose the way you want to play, when you want to play, on your own terms.”

Virgin plans to roll out these services in 2012, and there’s still plenty of details to be arranged. Clearly, there will be limitations since they’re a third party and not fully integrated into the games. I’m also not entirely sure I can handle the pressure of playing for money – as it is, the intensity of the online franchises I’m in is significant. Luckily for my wallet and blood pressure, playing for money is purely optional.

Ultimately, if I can reclaim the ATK Cup from Beergut and track my stats on the web without resorting to a pen and paper, it will be amazing – and what online sports gaming should have been like for years.

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.