Welcome to the first installment of GameSpot Sports' Three and Out. The idea is simple: get five GameSpot staffers together--all of whom happen to be sports gaming nuts--toss out a few sports-related topics and let the fray begin. No topic is taboo, no game is safe, and no holds are barred.
Before we get started let's meet the contributors:
Position: Sports Editor
Favorite Teams: Auburn Tigers, Chicago Bears, Chicago Cubs
Position: Associate Editor
Favorite Teams: New England Patriots, New Jersey Devils, Seattle Seahawks
Position: Features Editor
Favorite Teams: Los Angeles Lakers, California Golden Bears
Position: Associate Editor
Favorite Teams: Bolton Wanderers, San Francisco Giants, Team England
Position: Features Producer
Favorite Teams: All Boston pro teams, Middlebury Panthers
This time out, the guys will be looking at online play for a new wrestling title, an interesting new take on a driving game, the NHL lockout and some really, really bad sports movies.
First Down: Get It Right the First Time
Brian: The recently released WWE SmackDown! vs. Raw has one innovative new feature never before seen in an American wrestling title: online play. However, the number of fight modes and features found in the online component are so sparse, it's hard to consider it a worthwhile effort. My first question is, why do companies insist on merely dipping their toes into the online pool when they could dive in? Is it a matter of development time, money, or something else?
Alex: It's a matter of several things, the most important of which is that this is, by nature, an incremental franchise. Yuke's has always taken baby steps when it comes to any new feature, and the online mode is no exception. However, this is probably the biggest baby step it's ever taken, and my guess is because it either just didn't have the time or the developmental know-how to do it up right. There are only two arenas to choose from, and no voice chat. The whole thing reeks of "this is what we could get working, throw it out there."
Justin: It has to be to do with development time and/or money, because I can't believe that anybody would make the conscious decision to implement online play in any game without supporting some kind of ranking system. One of the main reasons I play games online is that I want to see how the single-player skills I've honed in my living room stack up against those of other players from around the world.
Rich: Personally, until the quality of the pure gaming experience is improved online, companies can throw online play at me as much as they want, I'm not going to play it. I bought a Network Adapter for my PlayStation 2 along with Madden NFL 2004 so I could play with my friends from back home, and that was a fun time. When my friends weren't around, however, I was stuck playing optimatches against complete strangers. With the consoles' network technology still iffy, any disconnections with strangers are automatically assumed to be cheap and on purpose. At least when I play with friends I can call them so we can mutually express our frustrations. Strangers just think I'm a jerk.
Bob: I'm with Rich on this one. Something's missing. When we were growing up, the whole fun of multiplayer sports games like Tecmo Bowl and Nintendo Ice Hockey was having your friend right next to you as you were playing so you could talk smack, make faces, and even punch him if you had to. While you can talk online to total strangers as you're playing ESPN NBA or whatever, the whole experience still comes off a lot emptier and less personal. Add to that all the issues with network latency, griefers, and disconnectors and you can see why nothing beats having your opponent right there with you. You're not going to dare run that same cheap money play over and over again when the threat of my fist up in your grill is very real.
Second Down: Steering by Stylus
Brian: Ridge Racer DS features the option to steer your car using the stylus and touch screen that come with the Nintendo DS. After reading our previews of the title, I have to say it looks like this steering mechanic doesn't seem to work very well. It seems to me like a case of innovation for innovation's sake and not necessarily a move designed to serve the game. Is this trend likely to continue on the DS?
Justin: Playing a racing game with a stylus sounds about as much fun as updating the calendar on a Palm with a steering wheel. Just because the Nintendo DS features a touch screen, I don't see why developers feel the need to use it--especially when they're trying to shoehorn the functionality into an existing game, rather than designing a new one with the new control system in mind.
Alex: Absolutely we're going to be seeing more of this trend on the DS. At least, until someone actually figures out a useful mechanic for that damn stylus. Until such time, companies are just going to keep tossing out goofy ideas like this one just for the sake of being gimmicky. And, yeah, steering a car with a stylus is about as useful a concept as trying to put out a fire by swallowing a brick.
Rich: I think the DS will be amazing, and although steering with a stylus seems dumb, using the stylus for swinging a club in Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2005 seems like a great idea. But that's just me being hopeful. I'm trying to think of some cool sports-game mechanics that could benefit from a touch screen. How about a boxing game or a hockey fight where you tap the screen to punch? Or, um...yeah.
Bob: I've got an idea on how they can use the stick for something useful in a sports game. How about a football game called "Sandlot Football" or "Playground Pigskin?" Remember when you were a kid playing football with your friends and you'd draw the receiver routes on your palm or in the dirt while you were in the huddle? Why not do the same thing with the DS and the stylus? Point and position your receivers as you like--trips left, bunch right, whatever. And then you could use the stylus to draw the routes you want each guy to run. How cool would that be? The playbook would literally be your imagination. It'd even be fun to draw up defenses--draw in your own stunts, zone blitzes, or bump-and-run coverages. Hey, this game-design thing isn't very hard, is it?
Third Down: Locked Out
Brian: Everyone knows the NHL is locked out, likely for the rest of the season. As for the 2005-2006 NHL season, who knows what may happen? The only thing that's certain is that puck fans won't soon forgive or forget this work stoppage. Could the lockout extend to hockey video games as well? If the lockout continues, what are the odds of seeing NHL 2006 and ESPN NHL 2K6 next year?
Bob: You know how people who don't play sports games often accuse the genre of being nothing but a series of roster updates? Well, what'd be real funny is that it might actually be true for next year's hockey games! OK, that's actually not funny. Anyway, I'm pretty certain there will be hockey games to play next year. I just don't think there'll be any significant changes made, because the companies will be afraid to sink much development money into a sport that is literally killing itself.
Rich: Lockout or not, we can count on hockey games on a yearly basis for as long as developers feel like making them. I've been playing the sport since I was 4, but I've lost touch with the NHL over the last three to five years. But the lockout shouldn't keep developers from making hockey games with no-name players. Or hey, better yet, developers can finally make the greatest sports game never created: a college hockey game.
Alex: You can bet that the NHL will do everything it can to keep publishers churning out those yearly sequels, as that royalty money becomes even more important when there's no ticket or merchandise revenue coming in. Will the games suffer because of it? Quite likely. But the NHL clearly doesn't care much about quality these days, anyway.
Justin: I was actually having a conversation along these lines with some friends recently. We were wondering how the lockout will affect the sales of Sports Interactive's NHL Eastside Hockey Manager. Our opinions were divided straight down the middle: On the one hand, players might be disinterested in the game because the sport just isn't happening this season. On the other, maybe hockey fans missing their regular fix will turn to the game for comfort. I'd like to think that the latter will be the case--I know that if English soccer were put on hold it wouldn't stop me from playing Pro Evolution Soccer 4, FIFA Soccer 2005, or Worldwide Soccer Manager 2005.
Punt: All-Time Worst Sports Movie
Brian: OK, one last thing before we go. Give me your vote for all-time worst sports movie. For me, there's no question: Ed, starring Matt LeBlanc as a minor-league pitcher and a chimpanzee as his third baseman. Do I need to go on?
Justin: Can I think of a worse sports movie than Ed? I'm not sure that I can, actually, so I'll just take this opportunity to say that I really liked Trey Parker and Matt Stone's Baseketball. So there.
Alex: The worst sports movie of all time is Air Bud. You can say what you want about Ed, but at least there was only one of them. Since the original Air Bud came out, no less than four direct-to-video sequels have been spawned starring that damned golden retriever, further dragging down the careers of megastars like Edie McClurg, Tim Conway, Michael Jeter, and Richard Karn.
Rich: Why does everybody have to knock the sports movies with animals in them? I mean, have you seen MVP: Most Valuable Primate? It's a chimp playing hockey! As a former video-store clerk, I can say without hesitation that the worst sports movie that I've ever seen (barring lame sequels or remakes) is Driven. If I could stomach calling Jerry Maguire a sports movie, that would win. But I'll stick with Sylvester Stallone driving through city streets in a CART racer. Bonus points for including the horrible Estella Warren.
Bob: You're all way off on this one. The worst sports movie ever is Forget Paris. Wait, that's not a sports movie, you say? It sure as hell isn't. But you wouldn't have known it from all the trailers and commercials, which almost wholly consisted of scenes from the basketball court. Billy Crystal plays an NBA referee in the movie, and there were cameos from NBA players like Charles Barkley and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. But the sum total of "basketball" in the movie was about 86 seconds, 30 of which were in the commercial. I got snookered into seeing a pure chick flick when I was basically promised a bunch of sports to go along with it. Most misleading marketing ever.