It could be argued that sports and video games go together like peanut butter and jelly, and both sports and video games have been used as mediums of escape. It seems that in recent times, gaming has even been considered a sport of its own, though that line of thinking has been met with some resistance. Regardless, this marriage of sports and gaming has no end in sight, with “new and improved” versions published every year. Contrary to the belief of angry politicians and parents throughout the world, video games have been around for more than half a century. Sports and gaming has been connected since the very beginning, with the first game ever created being a very primitive tennis game developed back in 1958. In the early days of gaming it would be a stretch to say sports games were good, with early technology preventing most sports games from remotely resembling the sport they were portrayed. The 70’s brought us gaming versions of basketball, baseball, and soccer, all of which were terrible by today’s standards but marvels at the time. In the 80’s the console wars began, and that’s where sports games really took off.
Almost every sport you can think of has been represented in gaming, but to truly make a great sports game you have to get to the root of all sport: competition. If the game wasn’t fun to compete against friends (or enemies!), then I dare say it was not a good sports game to begin with! This jaunt through history will be separated into 5 categories: Football, Hockey, Basketball, Baseball, and Other. Though somewhat arbitrarily chosen, I’ve separated these categories by popularity and prevalence throughout gaming history. And just because you didn’t ask for it, I’m going to give you my personal favorite(s) from each category. You’re welcome.
Electronic Arts (EA) put out some of the most prominent and successful games of the genre, but there have been several examples of stand-out games from other publishers over the years. There was a time when EA wasn’t the hated monster that it has become, and was instead the example other publishers would be compared to when putting out a quality sports game. The first football games in the 80’s had simplified play books and little else in common with what we would identify as American football. Nonetheless, much to my personal delight, 1987 brought us the release of Tecmo Bowl into arcades. 1989 Tecmo released one of the most popular sports games of all-time, Tecmo Bowl, on the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). The NFL wouldn’t allow the use of the team names, but they didn’t seem to mind the use of their players names…and skills. Just ask anyone who chose Chicago or New York.
It was in the 90’s that football games really diversified, with games from quarterbacks John Elway and Joe Montana to the progressive but still fairly limited NES Playaction Football, there were a number of football games to choose from. The next generation of consoles were soon to hit the markets, and EA brought us what would become the most popular and powerful franchise in all of sports gaming. John Madden Football. Though it debuted on the Commodore II in 1987, Madden (on the Super NES and Sega Genesis) revolutionized the genre by giving us a new version every year we never asked for. Nonetheless, my choice for favorite in this category came easy: Tecmo Super Bowl.
Tecmo Super Bowl was the first in many categories in football sports gaming. It allowed for real team names and players, as well as player injuries. Later iterations would allow you to create a player and simulate entire seasons while you ate cereal and waited to play the Superbowl. Tecmo Super Bowl even kept track of stats, including all-time records that could be broken by the players under your control.
Though you could easily pick Blades of Steel (NES, 1987) or even Ice Hockey (NES, 1988) for the NES (if you were truly petty and strictly a Nintendo fanboy), to me the only choice in this category is EA’s NHL ’94 on the Sega Genesis (EA, 1994). Not only did this game allow for brawls when you body checked your opponent a little too hard (seen in NES’s Hockey and Blades of Steel), but time a check just right and later versions of the game would give you your first taste of blood on the ice (literally), knocking your opponent out cold and sending him to the locker room early. See the movie Swinger’s where Vince Vaughn punishes little Gretzky. Classic. Mind the language though.
Warning: Video contains explicit language!
Basketball games have quite a few gems over the years, from Double Dribble on the NES to NBA Live and 2K games of today. In the early 90’s EA’s Lakers versus Celtics and the NBA Playoffs changed basketball as we knew it, adding some wrinkles that made it a must play at the time (1991). Lakers versus Celtics and the NBA Playoffs brought all the big names in NBA basketball, and each marquee player had signature moves that could be triggered from the appropriate location on the court. From Jordan’s iconic up-and-under lay-up or free-throw dunk to the “Gorilla Jam” two-hand dunk by Barkley, the point of every game was to dominate your opponent while also attempting to pull-off these moves.
However, my favorite basketball game of all time, the one that I wasted more hours destroying opponents on than any other, is another Tecmo entry to this list; Tecmo Super NBA Basketball (SNES, Tecmo 1992).
Tecmo Super NBA Basketball had the license of all the teams and players in the NBA, similar to the EA titles of the time. However with this game I felt controlling the players was more intuitive and match-ups with real players as well as computer opponents were just more fun. The learning curve wasn’t all that steep either, so it was easy to pick up and play without much experience. That’s not to say there was no skill involved, and an appropriately timed basket/steal and fast break could be the difference in the game. Plus, I’m a terribly inconsistent Jazz fan since forever, and this may have been the only game where the Jazz where competitive at all. Blue Edwards, oh how we will miss thy clutch shooting.
Participation Award: NCAA Basketball (SNES)
Decent graphics for the time and a ton of fun playing head to head when wired to the same console (back when that was a thing), NCAA Basketball had a lot going for it. You could play with every major Division 1-A team of that time, close to 100 different teams, but playing with Kentucky or Duke even during this era would have you dominating every other team on the court…so…basically nothing has changed. However in this game, you could make ridiculously unrealistic half-court 3’s with alarming consistency. So there’s that, which is nice.
Baseball games have more or less gotten the shaft over the years. Being an older gamer, I think baseball gaming has gotten too technical to be fun, much like the real game of baseball. The most recent versions of these games were slow-paced and relatively boring, unlike earlier examples of baseball games from the late 80’s and early 90’s. RBI Baseball (NES, 1986) was the example the other games were measured against, with actual MLB teams and player names to choose from. Baseball games went from entertaining to ridiculous (robot baseball?), but none could hold a candle to the greatest baseball game of all time; Baseball Stars (NES, SNK 1989).
Baseball Stars allowed players the freedom to create everything: their own league, their own team, and their own players. You had the option as a gamer to manage your team’s salary cap as well, making adjustments and trading players based on their monetary worth. Heaven forbid you create a dominant player, because chances are if you weren’t careful you wouldn’t be able to afford any talent to play with them! You could earn money during the season by beating other teams, and all of your progress was saved on the cartridge itself, all functions way ahead of their time for any system. Just remember to turn off the console properly, or risk losing weeks of progress…
Almost every sport you can think of has been represented: bull-fighting, dodge ball, rock climbing, professional wrestling, golf, bowling, and tennis are represented in gaming and belong in this category. No, I’m not saying these sports are any less important than the others listed above, I am saying these sports have some of the most iconic gaming experiences on the list.
Personal favorites: Tecmo World Wrestling (NES, 1990)
With yet another entry from Tecmo on this list, I often wonder why they aren’t a greater presence in gaming today. In addition to better graphics and game play, players were granted a bit of a role-playing ability to customize their own wrestler. Players trained their customized wrestler before entering the ring to challenge their opponent, performing squats and various other exercises. Matches could be won many different ways, including the traditional three-count pin, submission, or by count-out if you were caught outside the ring for more than 20 sec (more common than you’d think). When you finally best all of the computer opponents, you faced the final boss, “The Earl of Doom” Blue King.
What set this game above the rest was how much fun players could have during two-player mode. Each player selects a wrestler and matches were set, but the addition of the momentum meter added a little twist that simulated what you might have experienced when watching an actual wrasslin’ match! This meter switched back and forth during the match, based on your performance, and determined which player would have the advantage in a grappling situation.
Dodgeball on NES (1988)
The objective of each match is to defeat your opponent by throwing a dodge ball at their faces. Each character had a life gauge that gradually depleted when smacked by a dodge ball. When their life reached zero, they will be eliminated and literally fly up to heaven as a little fat dodgeball cherub. Each player on their respective team also had their own stats, including two different power shots (one which is performed while running, and another that is performed during a running jump). Teams were from all over the world, and each had it’s own strength and weakness. I played this game until it actually quit on me, and later found it was one of the more expensive games to find when sifting through cartridges owned by used game dealers. Fortunately Super Dodge Ball can now be found on the Wii’s Virtual Console for a reasonable price.
ADDED BONUS! THE GREATEST SPORTS MOVIE (You might have missed) EVER!
It could be argued there are many great sports movies over the years; many inspire hope, make us laugh as well as bring people to tears. There are sports movies that make you feel good, and there are sports movies that tell incredible (based-on) true stories of troubled athletes that totally make it in the end. But what if there were a movie that had the troubled athletes, a proper story arch for the team to come together as well as the coach to complete his journey, all the while teaching valuable lessons that only sports can teach while making you cheer and cry. Sounds like too much to fit into one movie, right? The greatest sports movie of all time (you might have missed) is also about one of the greatest sports moments in our nations history: Miracle: based on our country’s 1980 Olympic gold medal hockey team and their “Miracle on Ice”.
Let me first say this; I am not a hockey fan. At all. However Disney is known for their feel-good depictions of sports-related stories, and this is no different. What makes this movie special is not only that everything I listed above makes it’s way into the movie, but the textbook psychological approach to coaching and team development are depicted as if they used coaching textbooks to write the character of Herb Brooks. Kurt Russell flawlessly plays a mid-western coach who changes his entire approach to coaching based on the composition of his team. Russell plays the perfect leader, who’s plan and motives are masked until what seems like the very last moment, when everything seems to come together. Whether you are a player or a coach you have to adapt to win, and Coach Brooks understood this so well he became someone fundamentally different to inspire and lead his team. The USA hockey team had it’s own adversity within it’s ranks, but their problems are universal and most anyone can relate. I’m not saying hockey is the greatest sport, or that the “Miracle on Ice” is the greatest moment in our countries history of sport. What I am saying is that Miracle has the perfect formula of adversity, inspiration, and historical context to create a timeless sports movie. Disney got me to watch a movie about hockey that didn’t have the “Mighty Ducks” in the title…that’s a win.
Well there they are, great sports games (and movie) that you might have missed, including some of my all-time favorites. Almost all of these games are available on the virtual console or emulator of your choice, so why not check ’em out? But what are your favorites? Sound off in the comments below!