For reasons that really need no explanation, it’s a lot harder than usual to play actual sports. Video game sports, though, are still there for us, and as a staff, we’ve had some great experiences with sports video games over the years.
From the college gridiron to Rucker Park, here are our favorite sports video games. What’s yours and why?
Rcon14 – NCAA 14
As someone who grew up playing the plethora of phenomenal sports games on the PS2, I was tempted to select one of those (honorable mentions to NFL Street, NFL 2K5, and MVP Baseball 05), but NCAA 14 combines what was great about those games, the depth and re-playability, with a more modern face. The physics in a game from seven years and a full console ago somehow plays better than the modern Madden games. It wasn’t subject to the microtransaction hellscape that has taken over AAA titles on the PS4/XBox One generation of consoles. You can get lost in a dynasty for weeks and months on end, something that no other sports game in recent years has been able to offer. The big reason for this was the customizability of how you can construct your team year-over-year, the depth of the game mode with recruiting and coaching, and the most realistic simulation of football that has existed in over a decade.
The fact that EA created this game but also has created the disasters that have become Madden and FIFA games is amazing in its own way.
Tex – NCAA 12 and NHL 2003
For football games, see rcon14 above. The caveat is that I wasn’t playing much video games after the 2012 football season and I didn’t buy NCAA 13 or 14 when they came out (nor can I find a disc for my old Xbox 360, because the price of used copies has jacked up during quarantine), so 12 it is. (That said, if anyone has a copy of NCAA 14 for 360 and is willing to part with it, hit me up!)
Going back a bit, though, I think back to NHL 2003 as one of my favorite games. It had a great long-term season mode, and the game play was pretty refined for an early-2000s game. The graphics also took a massive leap forward from the 2002 version of the game. But two things make it stand out for me, starting with a memorable soundtrack, which really leaned into heavy alt-rock. Hearing “Deny” by Default and “No One Knows” by Queens of the Stone Age while navigating the menus between games made them staples of my playlists at the time.
However, the real joy of this game was the commentary, provided by CTV Sportsnet play-by-play man Jim Hughson and cheesy color commentator Don Taylor, who was at the time the anchor of one Canadian TV network’s answer to SportsCenter. The two had absurd, canned dialogue that would pop up throughout the games, ranging from the ridiculous (“That’s incredible!” “Then don’t eat it!” “I said INCREDIBLE!”) to the flat out dumb (“You know what’s been the most fun about this game so far?” “Dare I ask?” “This swivel chair! WHEEEE!”) Here are several more examples of the kinds of comments that would come flying frequently throughout the game:
With games becoming more and more realistic and serious in the modern 4K era, NHL 2003 still takes me back to a time when being flat-out goofy was still acceptable. Plus it probably takes the title of being the sports game that I spent more time playing than any other in my life.
Shawn Wagner – NCAA 14
During this quarantine, I’ve been able to break out the ole NCAA and start a new dynasty. While EA Sports has been unable to release a newer version since, this game still brings some level of investment when I play, from the recruiting to trying to bring a program back from the grave. I’ve always had more of an interest in the NCAA games than Madden for some of those aspects of building a program and developing one’s own coaching skill tree. The unique stadium atmospheres with school-specific fight songs, chants, and flashy uniforms have always made NCAA games the go-to for me no matter my age.
Paul Noonan – Old Roster Building Games
The sheer variety of sports games in existence is incredible, and their influence on popular culture is as strong as their influence on the current analytics crowd. Back in the 80s you could hardly find a founder of Sabermetrics who didn’t play Strat-o-Matic baseball, and video games would quickly take up the mantle. Baseball Stars on the original Nintendo (not to be confused with the also fun, but completely different Neo Geo versions) was an incredibly realistic team-building sim for its day, bolstered by a very good underlying baseball game that happened to reward the baseball skills that are valuable in the real game (getting on base, power, high-velo strikeout pitchers).
The PC version of TV Sports Football did an admirable job of reflecting the reality of the NFL. You built rosters by applying points to the various positions on your team. If you neglected your line at the expense of the offensive skill positions, your quarterback would be killed which was a good first lesson for a young kid. TV Sports Basketball is even better. While the TV Sports games were fun to play, they also allowed you to sim season after season easily, while making minor tweaks to your roster strengths and weaknesses.
The Micro League games are also excellent for this purpose, though they don’t hold up quite as well.
The Hardball series, as well as the PC version of Joe Montana football also used fairly strong team-building sim engines, and were great fun as well.
It’s interesting that many sports games are now so sim-heavy, with Madden being the best example, while baseball has the very simmy “The Show” along with the Out of the Park games. In fact, for a novice, there is likely no better way to pick up the science of play-calling, and the jargon of the game than playing Madden, and the flaws that players find in Madden often reflect inefficiencies in the actual game. Video games have definitely influenced front office personnel in the recent past, and it will be interesting to see Madden start to creep into actual on-field play-calling as time moves on.
Jon Meerdink - NBA Street 2
A good video game, regardless of genre, can make you feel like you’re someone else. A superhero. A cowboy. A professional athlete. If the game is good enough, everything else falls away the second you switch it on, and you become that other person.
That’s how I felt when my brother and I popped the disc into our Gamecube for the first time. Instead of two white kids from semi-rural Wisconsin, we became two white kids from semi-rural Wisconsin who also were world-class street basketball players.
Okay, so maybe it wasn’t completely transformational, but NBA Street 2 gave us enough of a glimpse into a different world to feel like we knew, just for a second, what it was like to lace ‘em up at Rucker Park. Plus, hype man Bobbito Garcia’s virtual avatar gave us enough quotable lines to last a lifetime. Even today I can text my brother “lasagna on the grill!” and he knows exactly what I mean.
As a game, NBA Street 2 is fine. But as an experience, it’s something I’ll remember forever.