Now that the year is winding down, it's time to take a few moments to look back on the year that was in sports gaming with our annual Cover Athlete Report Card. After all, being on the cover of a sports video game is an honor both for prowess on the field and a certain degree of popularity off it. How did this year's crop of video game cover stars fare in the real world? Read on to find out, and keep in mind, if you disagree with any of this, it's only because you are somehow ethically opposed to the facts.
Game: Madden NFL 10
Star: Troy Polamalu
Most players prove their mettle by playing. In Troy Polamalu's case, he has proved his value to the Pittsburgh Steelers--and why he is Madden cover material--because of his absence due to injury. Simply put: When Troy plays, the Steelers win. When he's out, they struggle. Of the only five games Polamalu has started this season, Pittsburgh has won four of them, with Troy snagging three interceptions and recording 20 tackles on the season. It's perhaps a bit cruel to call Troy a victim of the Madden Curse--as his level of play is as high as ever when he's healthy--but it's hard not to wonder what could have been if he'd stayed healthy--for both the man and his team.
Star: Larry Fitzgerlad
The Arizona Cardinals wide receiver kicked off 2009 with an appearance in the Super Bowl--not a bad way to start the year. And though the Cards came up short against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII, Fitzgerald has proven time and time again this season that he is one of the game's premier receivers. With two games to go in the regular season (at the time of this writing), Fitz is one touchdown away from his previous season high of 12; giving him three straight seasons with more than 10 TDs. With the NFC West clinched, the Cardinals may be looking to rest Fitz for another deep run into the playoffs. Stay tuned.
Game: NCAA Football 10
Star: Michael Crabtree
At one point earlier in the season, it looked like we might not have anything to write about the former Texas Tech receiver's NFL career in this space. After being drafted by the 49ers 10th overall in the 2009 NFL Draft Crabtree and irked at the thought of making 10th overall money when the Raiders had picked the unheard-of Darius Heyward Bey at the seven position, he decided to hold out. He finally negotiated a contract and officially joined the 49ers in week seven and has so far managed to rack up 499 receiving yards and two touchdowns--which, incidentally, puts him 375 yards and one touchdown ahead of Heyward-Bey...despite having played two fewer games.
Star: Brian Johnson (PlayStation 3)
Former Utah quarterback Brian Johnson started off 2009 in fine fashion, as he led the Utes to a surprise 31-17 beatdown of the Alabama Crimson Tide in the 2009 Sugar Bowl, a game in which Johnson threw three touchdown passes. Unfortunately, that game might have been the highlight of Johnson's quarterback career. Currently a free agent, Johnson went undrafted in the 2009 NFL Draft and was later picked up by the New York Sentinels in the upstart United Football League, only to be released soon after.
Star: Brian Orakpo (PlayStation 2)
If you ask us, Orakpo should have gotten the PlayStation 3 cover. Whereas Brian Johnson currently toils in football limbo, Orakpo, the former Texas defensive player--and winner of the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, Ted Hendricks Award, and Lombardi Award--has become a force on the Washington Redskins' defensive front. Orakpo has recorded 11 sacks this year (tied for first on the team) and 46 total tackles. The Redskins' coaching staff and front office might be a mess, but with Orakpo around, the team's defensive front looks like it's in good hands for years to come.
Star: Mark Sanchez (PlayStation Portable)
With former USC star Sanchez, it's a good-news, bad-news situation:
Good news: Hey Mark, you've been selected fifth overall in the 2009 NFL Draft...
Bad news:...by the New York Jets.
Good news: You are the first rookie QB to win his first three games of the NFL season...
Bad news:...but since then, the Jets are 4-7 in games you've started. And you've thrown 20 interceptions.
Good news: Hey Mark Sanchez likes hot dogs! I like hot dogs too...
Bad news:...but why is he eating one on the sidelines during a game?
Good news: Hey Mark, you're on the cover of a sports video game!
Bad news: Oh, it's the PSP version.
Game: NBA 2K10
Star: Kobe Bryant
While it's fine that 2K Sports snagged Kobe for NBA 2K10, let's be honest here: It's not like the guy hasn't put his face on video game covers before. Let's not forget his multiple appearances on Sony's NBA b'ball games, as well as a Nintendo hoops series that featured his
Game: NBA Live 10
Star: Dwight Howard
Last season, Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic came up short in the NBA Finals against NBA 2K10 cover star Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers. This season, Howard will once again need to live up to his "Superman" nickname in order to keep his Orlando Magic ahead in the NBA's tightly contested Southeast division. The sixth-year center is currently down statistically from previous years--though he is leading the league in blocks and rebounds. If the Magic is to keep ahead of the Hawks and make a return to the finals--perhaps for a rematch against Kobe & Co.--Superman will need to rise to the occasion once again.
Game: NBA 10 The Inside
Star: Brandon Roy
We're not sure what it says when you're chosen to be on the cover of a basketball game that's known more for its minigames than its actual basketball gameplay. Still, as the face of the PSP version of NBA 10 The Inside (the only version of Sony's basketball game released in 2009), Roy is a good choice--an up-and-coming player who's currently leading his Portland Trailblazers in scoring and assists. He's been elected twice to the NBA All-Star game as a reserve. Perhaps this season will be the year he actually gets to start.
Game: NCAA Basketball 10
Star: Blake Griffin
Boy, it must be a splash of freezing cold water to the face of a first overall pick like NCAA Basketball 10 cover star Blake Griffin: "Congratulations on all your amazing success at the collegiate level. Here's your Los Angeles Clippers uniform; go toil away in obscurity for a few years until your contract is up." It's doubly disappointing in Griffin's case--not only is he a member of the one of the NBA's worst teams, but he's also not even playing, thanks to stress fracture in his knee that's delayed his regular season debut for weeks. The kid showed some promise in preseason games, hitting nearly 57 percent of his shots, but until he's in there banging bodies with the starters, it's hard to tell how his season will go.
Game: MLB 09: The Show
Star: Dustin Pedroia
The Boston Red Sox second basemen had another solid year for the BoSox, hitting .296, 15 home runs, and 72 RBIs, as well as earning a place on the 2009 AL All-Star Team (though he withdrew from the game). As impressive as those achievements are, they pale in comparison to his work as cover athlete of 2009's version of Sony's heralded baseball series--most notably Pedroia's series of self-deprecating commercials where he argued with Sony reps over whether or not he can hit the high and inside pitch. They were arguably the best sports gaming spots of the past few years.
Game: Major League Baseball 2K9
Star: Tim Lincecum
The simplicity of being a Major League Baseball starting pitcher really must bore MLB 2K9 cover star Tim Lincecum to no end. Ho hum, the youngest player to win the Cy Young Award winner since Dwight Gooden and Bret Saberhagen. *Yawn,* winning his second straight Cy Young in 2009. A 2.48 ERA in 2009 (a career low), 261 strikeouts, and a 15-7 record. Oh, it's so dull! The Freak, as he's known, is just getting started--here's hoping the San Francisco Giants don't decide to run him out there for all 162 games next year...though he probably wouldn't mind it.
Game: NHL 10
Star: Patrick Kane
Oh Patrick. We so enjoyed
Game: NHL 2K10
Star: Alexander Ovechkin
2K Sports fully immersed itself in its decision to put Alexander Ovechkin on the cover of NHL 2K10. 2K brought him out to Las Vegas and recorded a
Game: Tiger Woods PGA Tour 10
Star: Tiger Woods
If that day-after-Thanksgiving car accident had never happened, the life of the world's best golfer would be much different than it is today. Unfortunately for him, that car accident and the tawdry reverberations that continue to ring in the weeks since have become arguably the biggest sports story of the year. Despite Tiger's shattered image as a wholesome advertising-friendly money machine, his golf record remains unimpeachable. After coming off of surgery that shortened his 2008 PGA campaign, Tiger returned to golf this year, managed to win six events, and came within three strokes of winning his 15th Major at the 2009 PGA Championship at Hazeltine.
Despite his personal failings--and his leave of absence that puts his PGA career (as well as his future on the cover of EA Sports' golf series) in question--should Tiger decide to take up the sticks again in 2010, there's no reason to think his success won't continue.
Grade: B (professionally), F (personally)
Game: Fight Night Round 4
Star: Muhammad Ali & Mike Tyson
It's tough to judge the year for fighters who are long since retired, so we'll keep grades out of this particular entry.
Game: Grand Slam Tennis
Star: John McEnroe
We love Johnny Mac and would love to give him an "A" for his cameo appearances on 30 Rock but like Ali and Tyson, the guy is retired, so we'll reserve our grade for the active players on the Grand Slam cover.
Star: Roger Federer
There's little doubt that Federer is a legend-in-the-making and one of tennis' all-time greats. And despite 13 Grand Slam wins before this year, Federer still found a way to make 2009 a banner year by doing something he had never done before: winning the French Open. The only Grand Slam event missing from his pristine resume, Federer defeated Robin Soderling. Ironically, Soderling paved the way for Federer's first French title in more than one way--the Swede managed to beat French Open master Rafael Nadal in the fourth round of the championship, which was something Roger himself couldn't do in the previous three French Opens where he finished as the runner-up. A sixth Wimbledon title in a hard-fought championship match against Andy Roddick proved that Federer might be aging a bit, but he's still got it when it counts.
Star: Serena Williams
What's not to love about Serena Williams? She's a legendary tennis player, has a terrific fashion sense, and, along with sister Venus, is part-owner of the Miami Dolphins. She also managed to win five Grand Slam events in 2009: two singles (the Australian and Wimbledon) and three doubles (the Australian, Wimbledon, and U.S. Open). Sure, she verbally abused a lineswoman after a controversial call at this year's U.S. Open--and was subsequently fined $175,000 for her outburst--but that just shows she cares. Right?
Game: UFC 2009 Undisputed
Star: Forrest Griffin
In the octagon, UFC 2009 Undisputed cover man Forrest Griffin had an up-and-down year: First, he was utterly humiliated against Anderson Silva at UFC 101, which Silva won in dominating fashion with a first-round knockout. At UFC 106, Grffin won a split decision against Tito Ortiz, bringing his overall MMA record to 17-6. Things were better for Forrest outside the ring in 2009, which saw him release a book called Got Fight?: The 50 Zen Principles of Hand-to-Face Combat. Included here is an excerpt, written by a friend named Big John:
"That's why [Forrest's] been so successful--he can take himself mentally and spiritually to a place where everything is bathed in blood and devilish creatures feed on the limbs of babies."
Yes, Forrest has struggled professionally this year, but based solely on the above sentence, I'm going to forgo my usual judgment and award Forrest with a...
Grade: A+++ (We cool, right Forrest? We cool? Please?)
So how do you rate this year's class of cover athletes? Let us know in the comments below.