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Where Games Meet… Sport

History

If the VHS films of the 80s taught us anything, it’s that sport and video games don’t mix. The stereotyped pastimes of jocks and nerds respectively, the former displayed their muscle-bound prowess on the playing fields, whereas the bespectacled pencil- necks hunched in front of a screen shunting pixels. 

Nowadays, what’s on that screen is as likely to be a simulation of a sport as it is an alien invasion or a military escapade. In the space of a few short decades, sports games have carved out a huge slice of the sector despite their humble beginnings. After all, Pong was notionally based on tennis, and even that was preceded by Table Tennis on the Magnavox Odyssey.

Football, the world’s biggest sport, gained a foothold with Match Day on the Sinclair Spectrum, eventually superseded by the more playable Sensible Soccer and Kick Off. The advent of 3D graphics saw numerous attempts to recreate the so-called Beautiful Game, ultimately becoming a two horse race between Konami’s Pro Evolution Soccer and EA’s FIFA. With aggressive licensing, the latter destroyed its rival and transformed itself into an all-consuming behemoth, arguably now better known than the historically corrupt institution whose name it carries.

Substitution?

Perhaps it’s the relative simplicity of football that so readily lends itself to video game conversion. Despite a handful of efforts, rugby has proved trickier to emulate, arguably hampered by rules that most people don’t understand either virtually or in reality. And while essentially a turn-based strategy game, Cricket is also baffling to many, with only Brian Lara’s Cricket standing out in the field, one of many examples of a high profile sportsperson lending their name and marketing muscle to a game. As for golf, the longstanding Tiger Woods PGA Tour series is the best known, although that particular endorsement did take a prudent hiatus.

American sports have also lent themselves to the medium to varying degrees, with NFL, NBA and NHL providing the basis for some massive franchises. And of course Formula One has spawned games for decades, as have a slew of other motor sports. As for athletics, it arguably peaked with the keyboard-trashing Daley Thompson’s Decathlon

Indoor sports have fared less well, despite the likes of Jimmy White’s Whirlwind Snooker and PDC World Championship Darts: Pro Tour, the latter compatible with the PS3’s Move controller for the full kinetic experience. Nintendo’s Wii Sports had already got there of course, arguably the ultimate sports game until everybody realised you could play it sitting down with a flick of the wrist. Ideal for both jocks and nerds…

Today’s Trends

Gaming has piggybacked sport for decades, but the technology is finally beginning to give something back in a variety of innovative ways. After all, upon hearing of a potential signing, what football fan doesn’t immediately check his stats on Football Manager’s exhaustive database? Compiled by a global network of scouts, it might even be where the real world manager found him. Likewise with FIFA, as a generation of kids emerge with an in-depth knowledge of European football far in advance of their parents. 

Those same kids have grown up alongside the esports phenomenon, able to reel off team names with the same ease as Premier League football clubs, some of whom play to smaller crowds than the biggest virtual events. Mainstream recognition has been slow in coming, but it is gradually getting there, not least in the shape of Gran Turismo’s officially licensed Olympic Virtual Series Motor Sport Event.

Of course, sports games don’t have to be slavishly based on actual sports. In the Amiga glory days, more conventional sports were overshadowed by the sublime Speedball 2: Brutal Deluxe, itself owing a debt to Rollerball, a film about a fictional sport. Nowadays, when the kids aren’t playing Fortnite or FIFA, they’re playing Rocket League, essentially football with cars, something that has yet to be seriously attempted in real life. 

With professional sport suspended during the pandemic, virtual competitions sprang up in its stead. Motor racing was an obvious one, with cars and racetracks now almost indiscernible from their real world counterparts. After all, while there is obviously a greater sense of jeopardy, a Formula One steering wheel is little more than an elaborate game controller. Utilising electric cars, Formula E is arguably even closer to gaming, as proven when the regular drivers competed in a virtual ‘Race at Home Challenge.’ However, the event was thrown into disrepute when Audi driver Daniel Abt roped in a professional gamer to drive for him, and was subsequently sacked by his team.  

The world of horse racing is of course squeaky clean, and while it might irk the purists, virtual racing has been available in high street bookies for some years, providing an outlet for those who can’t wait the gruelling ten minutes or so between real races. The technology came into its own in 2020 when a Virtual Grand National was run and televised in place of the historic Aintree event. Horses for courses… 

Towards the Metaverse

The worlds of games and sport continue to merge seamlessly, whether it’s scanning your own face into the latest NBA title, or a footballer’s current real life form reflected by his virtual counterpart. And when sport fell silent, games stepped in, with televised football matches accompanied by fake crowd noise provided by EA. Arguably better than nothing, its inferiority to the real thing was evident in the recent FA Cup Final however, with the raw emotion provided by actual fans somewhat harder to simulate.    

The ultimate destination for the fusion of games and sport would appear to be Virtual Reality, which has been touted as the future since the past. As early as 1994, PC Zone magazine previewed the first cumbersome VR headsets. Even before that, London’s Trocadero Centre offered a rudimentary helmet-based experience, essentially a couple of minutes of panic-stricken confusion for a quid.

Much like 3D television, the technology seems to come round cyclically, flounder on the rocks of indifference and expense, before disappearing and re-emerging years later in a different box. But if this generation of VR does finally gain serious traction in gaming, the possibilities are endless. Imagine an 11-a-side game of FIFA, replete with subs jogging round their living room hoping to get on. And then imagine having to ring work to tell them you can’t come in because you’ve turned your ankle. It’s in the game…

Metaverse Milestones

  • Video Olympics, Atari (1977)
  • Match Day, Ocean Software (1984)
  • John Madden Football, EA (1988)
  • Kick Off, Anco Software (1989)
  • Sensible Soccer, Sensible Software (1992)
  • Championship Manager, Domark (1992)
  • FIFA International Soccer, EA (1993)
  • International Superstar Soccer, Konami (1995)
  • Wii Sports, Nintendo (2006)

Key Companies

  • Atari
  • Sensible Software
  • Konami
  • Electronic Arts
  • Sports Interactive
  • Nintendo
  • Sony

Further Exploration

Written By

Brian has been working in the games industry since the mid-1990s, when he joined the legendary studio DMA Design, as a writer on the original Grand Theft Auto. Since then he's worked with major publishers, founded his own digital agency, and the Scottish Games Network. At various times he's worked as a journalist, editor, narrative designer, lecturer, executive producer, and director.

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