Ten Things That Need To Change in Sports Games

Online cheesers, catch-up AI, shoddy player ratings. We all love sports games, but there are a number of things that could be improved that would make them even better. Read on to find out which aspects we think really need fixing.

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By Brian Ekberg
Design by Collin Oguro

We all know sports games aren't perfect. Nowhere else in the gaming world is the word "simulation" thrown around so casually as in the sports genre. With each season comes a new crop of games, and each one claims the throne as the most accurate simulation of a particular sport. While many of these offerings portray aspects of their sports in remarkable detail, it's rare, if not impossible, to find a game that perfectly renders a sport accurately. As good as they are, most sports games--indeed, the entire genre as a whole--suffer from one or more failings that, while not necessarily ruining a game's fun factor, seriously undermine any claims of true simulation for a particular sport.

The problems aren't relegated only to sims, however. Just because games like NBA Street or NFL Blitz make few, if any, claims of realism doesn't mean they don't have their fair share of problems. How many thousands of console controllers have been broken because of cheap artificial intelligence catch-up logic or miracle defensive plays? How many friendships have been permanently ruined because of one person's insistence on eliminating the word "punt" from his online football dictionary by going for it on every fourth down?

Whether in simulation or arcade games, the time for change is now. With the next generation of game consoles appearing on our gaming radar screens, a subsequent wave of innovation is within sports game developers' grasps. No longer will mere cosmetic upgrades, such as enhanced graphics and improved sound, be acceptable. Instead, because of the technological potential inherent in this next console wave, we want to see some of the big warts on this generation's games fixed. Here, then, is GameSpot Sports' list of "10 Things That Need to Change in Sports Games."

1) Fix Your Ratings

Remember last year when the Carolina Panthers were in the Super Bowl? The same team that came so close to winning a championship a year ago now sits near the bottom of its division, plagued by injuries and poor performances. It's obvious that the success of the 2003 Panthers found its way into the ratings for the team in this year's Madden and ESPN NFL games. Madden 2005, for example, rates the Panthers as a 93 overall, with particularly high quarterback and running back scores attributed to the team. Granted, the real-life Carolina Panthers have been racked with injuries since the season began, but quarterback Jake Delhomme's mediocre numbers don't seem to warrant the praise he's received--or the rating attributed to him in Madden.

Jake Delhomme is as good as Tom Brady? Survey says no.

Basing a team's rating on its previous year's success (or lack thereof) is flawed, because each year is simply just that: a new year. Anything can and often does happen. Because of this, it's only fair that teams be given a clean slate at the start of a season. They should be judged solely on roster talent and coaching ability. While this doesn't take into consideration things like team chemistry--and it's obvious that even a team with a huge roster of talent can fail miserably (see the 2004 Washington Redskins and the 2003-2004 Los Angeles Lakers)--it seems to be the only way to fairly gauge a team's chances for success.

2) Sim Away!

Who's got enough time to play every single game in a 162-game baseball regular season or an entire 82-game NBA season? Teenagers without enough homework and chronically sweaty adult men who still live at home, that's who. The rest of us most likely spend a good portion of time simming through the majority of the baseball, hockey, or NBA regular season games, choosing only to play key divisional matchups or the occasional rivalry game. Problems creep in, though, with the seemingly random outcomes of so many of these simulated games. It's hard to put together any kind of streak (either winning or losing) when simulating games, because so often the outcomes of these games feel more like the results of random chance rather than truly simulated matchups.

ESPN NBA 2K5's Full Authority mode lets you play the game, without having to play the game out.

To their credit, some of the most recent sports releases have started to address this problem. ESPN NBA 2K5's full authority mode, in particular, is an interesting twist on the standard "coach mode" commonly found in NFL games. Instead of merely calling plays and watching them unfold on the floor (as you do in another ESPN games, like College Hoops 2K5, for example), you are given a finer level of control over your players and their performances, which includes being able to choose substitutions, matchups, and even the number of shots a particular player will take in a given period. All told, a game simulated in full authority mode takes around three to four minutes, which is certainly quicker than playing it out, and it also allows you to have nominal control over the play on the court. More games should follow ESPN's lead here, because, in the future, simply hitting the "simulate" button just won't cut it.

3) Star Power

Everyone remembers Michael Vick in Madden 2004. The guy was practically unstoppable--as if he was the second coming of Bo Jackson circa the NES Tecmo Bowl days. Never mind the embarrassing fact that he went down with an injury early last season and had no opportunity to live up to the insanely high standards set by his video game double. However, the simple fact is that sometimes developers get player ratings wrong. In Vick's case, the results were pretty glaringly inaccurate. While he's certainly a dynamic player in real life, no player could match the kind of masterful performances a skilled Madden player could guide Vick to in the game.

The simple fact is that the day of the star athlete who's able to dominate a real sport seems to be a fading memory. With Gretzky, Montana, and Jordan long gone, and with Favre declining in skill rapidly, it seems that there are few, if any, players capable of truly dominating a sport for an entire season. Whether it's through simple parity, overexpansion, or a misalignment of the planets, it seems that these days, solid team play bests the LeBron James and Barry Bonds-like players of our time. Sports games, despite the star power depicted on the games' covers, should convey this sense of success through team play rather than simply letting a select few once-in-a-lifetime talents dominate gameplay.

4) Catch-Up AI: A Necessary Evil?

There are 10 minutes left in the third period, and you've got a 3-1 lead. One more goal would surely put your mind at ease, but you're not panicking. After all, you've played a defensive game so far, holding your opponent to fewer than 20 shots on goal for the game and exactly zero here in the third. The game looks to be comfortably in the basket.

A catch-up logic haiku: Kariya, top-shelf. One more broken controller. This is torturous.

Wait a minute... Paul Kariya has a breakaway. Oh no! You've got no one near him, and the guy you're controlling seems to have gone into a seizure on the ice, flailing back and forth violently on the ice instead of cutting off Kariya's path to the goal. Boom! Kariya scores, and now you've got a problem. Two minutes later, the game is tied when one of your computer-controlled teammates was caught out of position for only the second time in the game.

This, friends, is what is called catch-up logic, and it seems to be prevalent in nearly every form of sports game, be it football (especially arcade titles such as NFL Blitz and NFL Street), racing, basketball, or others. In a way, the idea behind catch-up logic is not a bad one. It comes from an honest desire, by the game developer, to keep a game challenging for as long as possible. Sooner or later, you see, a skilled player figures out the ins and outs of a game and can score at will. Enter catch-up logic--that malicious devil that's intent on ruining your skillful play by evening the score through whatever means necessary. Cheap plays, miracle performances, and conspicuous performance degradation of gamer-controlled players are all par for the course. Nothing is taboo to catch-up logic. Its only goal is to beat you down, no matter what the cost.

Many gamers don't have the broadband capability necessary for online play, so they look to the single-player game for their money's worth of entertainment. However, all too often the execution of catch-up logic can be cheap and frustrating. A miracle drive by an opponent's QB can be a thrilling thing to watch, even if you're the one being scored on. However, a certain line is crossed when the game goes from being thrilling to supremely frustrating as your AI opponent's QB picks apart double and triple coverages at will, all while slipping blitzes as if coated with motor oil. It's so heartbreaking to watch the opposing QB transform into Superman over the course of a single possession! In the end, though, there needs to be a balance in the design of game logic that keeps a contest interesting, particularly for the skilled player, while avoiding cheap tactics that feel, in the end, uncomfortably close to cheating.

5) Give the D Some Love

Talk of nasty catch-up tricks brings up another important point. Why has defense gotten such short shrift in sports games? After all, there are two aims in playing sports games: scoring and preventing the other team from doing the same. Scoring is certainly the sexier of the two aims. Who doesn't enjoy pulling off a perfectly timed alley-oop or scoring a shorthanded goal with no time left on the clock? There's a lot of satisfaction to be gained from good play on the other side of the ball, however. Yet many sports games seem to put defense on the back burner.

The hit stick is a big... ahem... hit for fans of the defensive side of football.

In football, for example, controlling a defensive back--especially a cornerback--can be an exercise in frustration. Camera angles play a big part in this, because the default camera is rightly centered on the play in the middle of the field, where the quarterback and running backs line up. However, this means that for wide receivers who are running specific out patterns, your controlled player may end up covering a WR who is completely offscreen. A possible solution might be a zoomable camera that is controlled by the user (attached, perhaps, to a shoulder button) and that allows the user to zoom the camera to the player he was controlling at any given moment, thus allowing for tighter, user-controlled coverage on a receiver. Of course, the trade-off here is a limited ability to see the actual play as it unfolds. Additionally, this zoom feature would be rendered useless during running plays.

With features such as the "hit stick," games like Madden 2005 have made some inroads on the defensive side of the ball. Still, it would be great to reward the player with just as many options on defense as there already are on offense.

6) Cheese-Free Zone

You've played the guy online... You know the type. He's got one trick shot that bounces off the goalie's back and into the net seven out of 10 times, and he uses it every chance he gets. You know the guy who finds a cheap warp bug in a racing game, which earns him a few extra seconds per lap over you, and then rubs it in your face when you finally straggle to the checkered flag. You know the guy who goes for it every fourth down, no matter how far back you've pinned him in his own territory, and calls deep passes every play. You know the cheeser. You hate the cheeser.

If there's one negative, ancillary effect to be found in the rise of online gaming over the past two or three years, it's the prevalence of questionable tactics in sports games, typically known by the colloquial name "cheese." Not exactly cheating, though the two often cross-mingle, cheesing implies strategic choices that are either entirely unbalanced (such as passing on every down) or outright malicious (like pausing a game and forcing the opposing player to watch the same replay over and over again with the intent of causing him or her to quit the game, take the loss, and take the subsequent ratings hit).

On one hand, you can't blame the cheeser. Incapable of winning by skill, wit, or a combination of the two, the cheeser instead exploits a particular feature of a money play and drives it (and you) into the ground. On the other hand, the sheer prevalence of cheesers found online means it can be darn near impossible to find a good contest against a perfect stranger. As it stands now, the best defense against cheese is simply refusing to play anyone you don't know.

Game developers have taken steps toward cutting down on cheap tactics by implementing the penalization of players for dropping games (or, possibly more effectively, showing the number of drops a player has initiated on his or her profile screen), limiting the number and duration of gameplay pauses, and relying on player feedback. Still, there's a long way to go. Sure, everyone wants to win when they go online. The goal, however, should be to win fairly and squarely. As Confucius might have said, had he been alive to play ESPN NHL 2K5, "A victory via cheese is a failure of spirit."

7) Smarts, Not Speed

Have you ever played Winning Eleven 7 on five-star difficulty and wondered why your players were moving as if they were knee-deep in Elmer's Glue? Or have you tried Madden 2005 on All-Madden difficulty and watched as your top running back was run down by mid-tier linebackers. Ultimate difficulty levels in sports games too often depend on artificial tweaks, such as a quicker game tempo or an increased performance gap between AI-controlled and human-controlled players. A case could even be made that this phenomenon is the game-programming equivalent of "cheese."

What we should expect from higher difficulty levels are smarter plays, more chances taken to make big plays, and an aggressive attitude on both sides of the ball. Instead, we are penalized with things like unrealistically poor fatigue settings or player performance handicaps that seriously undercut the "fun factor." What's needed is a raising of the bar at the topmost levels of play--both in game plan and game execution. Playing against the computer on expert level should mean you must rise to its level of skill to win the game; you mustn't simply overcome your suddenly artificial shortcomings.

8) Franchise This

Sports gaming franchise modes have become more robust than ever before. As few as five years ago, they were basically unheard of in console video games. Since that time, the video game industry has made tremendous strides in simulating the behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing that hardcore fans love. The problem is--almost without exception--the interfaces for these modes are cumbersome, inefficient, and just plain ugly to look at. FIFA Soccer 2005, a game that features a cast of literally thousands in its based-on-real-life rosters, is a major offender here, especially due to its lack of a player search function. Only the hardest of the hardcore will spend much time exploring the game's menu system while searching for viable transfers in to and out of their clubs.

Franchise modes have a long way to go in terms of user-friendliness.

EA Sports, smart cookie that it is, has an interesting solution in the case of the FIFA series: a management simulation series known as Total Club Manager. Built specifically for managing your team and the huge number of international players available to you, TCM allows you to run your team, scout talent, and make transfers. Your management decisions can then be reflected and updated when you play the games out in FIFA. This attractive and dedicated interface lets you get into the numbers games of soccer properly, and for fans of this aspect of the sport, it's essential.

Obviously, the downside here is cost. Players are essentially paying for an entirely separate product in TCM that simply enhances a career mode already present in FIFA Soccer 2005. Whether this sort of synergy would work in American sports games is an interesting question. Until it's answered, however, developers should do all they can to make the complicated business of running a franchise as attractive and user-friendly as possible for gamers.

9) Ball physics

Have you ever chucked up a deep ball during a game of ESPN NFL and watched it bounce between two or more defenders' hands before hitting the ground? How about that strange ball-on-a-rope sensation found in past iterations of the FIFA Soccer series? Ball physics, while they've certainly made strides over the years, still have a long way to go. Too often, the ball feels like an extension of the controlled player's body, and it's not an entirely separate entity that's subject to the same laws of motion as everything else.

Just where is this ball heading? Only time will tell.

For football games, the hot-potato syndrome so common in the passing game should be all but eliminated. Sure, defenders sometimes bobble the ball, but the sheer prevalence of such plays--especially when they result in cheap interceptions--makes for an unrealistic and unrewarding experience. In baseball games, when was the last time you saw an infielder take a bad bounce off his body or head and then suffer ill effects from it? The idea is simple (though perhaps not so in execution): Make the ball more a part of the game, and you increase the quality of the game.

10) Slider Settings

Sports games often live and die by the tweak. Developers are kind enough to give sports gamers the option of adjusting many aspects of a game through a prolific amount of sliders. Want to increase the blocking ability of your offensive linemen to improve your running game? What about the friction of the ice during home games in your NHL season? It's all there for the tweaking. Virtual cottage industries have sprouted up throughout sports gaming message boards to provide the latest and best slider settings for any game on the market. The problem is that many of these slider settings are not fully explained anywhere in the game, leaving you to only guess as to their definitions and, more importantly, how they can affect your game. While it's easy to see how adjusting the pass interference slider might affect your football game, can someone please explain the difference between puck friction and ice friction?

Can someone please explain the difference between ice friction and puck friction? Anyone?

The solution here is simple: documentation. These days, most manuals for sports games are pretty thin, at best, and laughable, at worst. Still, providing a description of each adjustable slider in a game, whether through the manual or through online means, would go a long way in helping you adjust the game to your liking. Sliders give sports gamers the power to fit the games to their styles of play. However, without proper information on how the sliders work, we're merely fumbling in the dark by relying on trial and error.

Summing It Up

Sports games are not caught in an innovation vacuum, no matter what people say. Despite the genre's flaws, we're optimistic for the future of sports gaming. Think of how far we've come in the past decade--and not just in terms of graphics and presentation. Today's sports games do a better job of portraying their sports than ever before, while still remaining (generally) accessible to both rookies and experts alike. Certainly there is always room for improvement. There are always ways to make sports simulations more accurate without ruining the crucial pick-up-and-play factor, without making arcade titles less fun, and without cheapening the sports they represent. In the end, constant refinement and innovation in sports gaming is a two-way street of communication between the developers who make the games and the fans who play them. If both sides work together, everyone benefits.

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