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Where Do Sports Games Need to Focus Most? (Roundtable)

Sports Gaming

Where Do Sports Games Need to Focus Most? (Roundtable)

To have some fun with our staff writers, and to get them to pick a position and hold to it, today’s roundtable is going to make them choose a side in the following debate:

Going forward, sports games need to focus on one of the two following areas more — super realistic gameplay or enriching the experiences within modes?

Let’s see what the writers say!

Matt Llewellyn

It has to be that games focus on gameplay and get that as tight as possible. The way a game plays is the main draw. Having bad gameplay is like going to a fancy steakhouse and getting a burnt rib eye. It doesn’t matter how nice or elaborate the garnish is, if the main course is subpar then the entire meal is ruined.

This proves true in sports games. At the beginning of a game’s release window, many players will complain about franchise this or microtransactions that, but as the game goes along most end up finding gameplay issues being even worse.

I love NBA 2K. When I first popped in 2K19, I was still bothered by VC and having to “pay to compete” but my annoyance eventually faded. The same cannot be said about lingering gameplay issues like steal spamming in the park or the lack of a reliable post entry pass.

There’s no point building out modes if the game is unrealistic or broken in some way. Without a serious fun factor with the core gameplay, all the modes in the world won’t save a game from scathing criticism and rapid player drop off.

Brian O’Neill

I’ll play devil’s advocate and say they should focus on the modes. A game like 2K, which I play religiously, has gotten to a place in their gameplay development where they seem to tweak things too much. In the course of a year, they’ll mess with shot percentages and so on to the point where once you get used to something and are comfortable, they go and change it all up and you have to adjust. (This year people were losing their minds about potential tweaks to how often steals happen.) That might mean that they’ve peaked and should just leave it alone.

Sure, each year you can still spend a liiiiittle time between releases tuning things on the gameplay side, but throw 90 percent of the resources towards improving MyCareer (which has a zillion complaints every year). Or to keep innovating MyLeague and MyTeam. Or maybe, by god, fix the servers!

Then with a game like NBA Live, which I fire up occasionally, the selling points are the modes themselves, like The One. Casual gamers will be more tempted by stuff like that over the minutia of gameplay tweaks they don’t understand. Especially now as all of the modes in all of the different games start to bleed together, I’d like to see the developers take more chances and give me something I never knew I wanted, but can’t live without once I try it. Like Court Battles in NBA Live, or dodgeball in 2K. Someone took a chance on a card collecting mode a few years back, and it changed the landscape of sports gaming. I’d like to see another game-changing mode in next year’s cycle.

Elliott Jenkins

NBA 2K’s success can be translated into a formula that any sports game can follow: airtight gameplay and robust mode offerings. Though the programming work is significant, that combination is all that a franchise needs to elevate itself to that level of quality. Establish a masterpiece of a base game and bring on the surplus modes. MLB The Show was almost there this season, but post-launch patches negatively impacted the previously stellar on-field gameplay, and highly touted mode upgrades were disappointments. Retro Mode remained little more than a different camera angle, and franchise superstars still randomly retired in the middle of a frustratingly broken offseason. I am a big fan of the subscription model for sports games: lock down an excellent gameplay-perfect base game at a reasonable price, and charge for additions as piece-by-piece DLC or an annual subscription. This would also allow for additional features or modes to be stress tested and fully fleshed out instead of rushed to meet release deadlines.

I would buy the WWE 2K games every year if they fixed their in-ring product. The clunky collisions and archaic feel to the gameplay are a significant turnoff for a franchise that otherwise has a creation suite to provide gigantic long-term value. Similarly, NHL’s Expansion Draft mode was exceptionally appealing to me, driving me to purchase the game on day one. However, I didn’t even get five games into the season before I gave up on the title because of its gameplay. In my eyes, the in-game updates were negligible since NHL 11, the last entry in the series that I played for a significant amount of time. In this instance, the new mode did very little to improve the overall experience because of the stagnant gameplay, though it definitely lured me in for a day one purchase. Otherwise, gamers can stick to older upgradable titles that balanced gameplay and content, such as NFL Street, WWF: No Mercy, and NHL Hitz 2003.

Joel Smith

This is pretty simple. Gameplay needs to focus on realism and “cleanliness” — period.

“But it’s a video game bro! You can’t expect it to be so real!”

Yes, yes we can. As voiced by Matt and Elliott, gameplay is king. Deep modes lend well to fantastic gameplay and lead players to return time after time, wanting more. What I feel needs to be kept in mind and remembered is the fact that the big AAA titles are sports simulation games. A simulation is a reproduction of a real-life process or act. So to that extent games that have this moniker should feel and play like what we’d see or play for real. You’ve still got the “game” attachment of course, but my biased opinion is that the “game” part falls to the graphics and modes where realism may not matter as much. Using the only game series that I feel is close, NBA 2K shows us time and again over the last 3-4 years that they can build a product that has gameplay that is extremely hard to rival. Fans of the 2K series keep going back mainly because of the attention to detail and realism that NBA 2K brings to the table in terms of playing and feeling like a real NBA game we’d watch on TV.

Without A+ gameplay, you’re just not going to have a top notch game. Period.


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  1. Yay, I'm finally the first comment on something! But, anyways, I agree with Matt and Joel that gameplay has the main thing that sports games focus on first and foremost. As Joel said, "Deep modes lend well to  fantastic gameplay and lend players to  return time after time, wanting more." With good, realistic gameplay akin to what we'd see in real life, modes such as Franchise or Career ones become that much more enjoyable because it feels like we are actively playing in the league or are a real GM. Now, this is not to say that these modes shouldn't be seriously improved themselves, (so don't get those ideas, sports games programmers and developers) because they most definitely should. Career modes could stand to make it feel more like you are an real-life human being playing in the league as Franchise should make you feel the same in regards to being a GM. However, if I would say what they should primarily focus their efforts most towards, it would be to give us gamers realistic gameplay, which would serve as a solid base for the game and make any mode, however dull otherwise just that much more enjoyable.
    I love the premise that all of you agreed that realistic gameplay is the base for any good sports simulation..sadly its been put on the backburner for some sports simulation titles..this is a good read...
    This legit feels like a 2k promotion piece. With all the issues they currently have, how can you all stand by it without mentioning the issues?

    that's the consistent excellence of 2k. 2k shows and proves every year (some years, more so than others). as well as THE SHOW...
    on-line gaming will be the hardest thing to ever master. there are too many variables that factor into gameplay. and most those factors most of the time has to do with user preference.
    I would like to see a focus on user-created content incorporated thoroughly into the games themselves. I would like to see created teams with full-scaled commentary. Nothing un-nerves me more than making a team, only to have the commentator call them "home team". I want to be able to make a team and really engrave the team into the city I choose. I want to close the gap between reality and fantasy with my created content.
    Joel Smith is 100% right. Gameplay should always be top priority.  I want to see these companies make a major push towards realistic signature player movement moving into next gen.  I'm also hoping for the elimination of player clipping, however I know that it is tied to animation sequences.  Two man canned animations have to go!
    Its  very simple,   the  2 main focus points to should be making both gameplay and Franchise mode the  top priority. The online  crowd is always going to have a lot of crybaby casual fans, who will never be happy because they dont understand how the sport is played IRL.
    Plus you cant make a game to counter stupidity and ignorance, online will only be as realistic, or sim as the 2 people who are playing each other, simple as that, nothing the devs can do, they cant coded humans brains,lol.
    What is happening now, and I will use NBA2k for example, is the devs are trying to make gameplay based on both teams competing being humans. So what happens with NBA2k, and probably Madden, baseball is totally different, due to their isnt a constant flow of action. Anyway, whats happening is they are trying to code  to humans playing each other, and its affecting the simulation aspect of gameplay offline. Which is why were seeing such a lack of fouls being called off line, and why we arent seeing charging and blocking fouls, or really any over the back or loose ball fouls. The only fouls are reach ins and when a player is driving into the lane and going up for the shot, or a player posting and getting fouled in the act of shooting. There isnt any fouls being called on perimeter shot attempts, especially when a player is attempting a 3 pt shot, and with how so many teams are jacking up 3's these days, you always see atleast 1 or 2 shooting fouls on 3pt attempts per game.
    Devs will never be able to perfect online play with humans, it would be impossible, because they have no control on how a human is going to play. So they need to focus on playing the CPU, and focus on making gameplay in the Association as realistic as possible both in the gameplay and in the simulation stats.
    Your not going to loose online player by focusing on offline gameplay and Franchise modes. People are always going to play online against each other,  and those kids will always dish out money to buy VC to build there MyPlayer's skills up.
    Its simple there is always going to be a group of online players who are always going to cry and whine about something. If the devs put their focus of gameplay of playing the CPU and the realism of it, along with getting simulation stats accurate, it will ultimately make online play better as well. Because the true basketball fan with any knowledge at all will play MyLeague online with friends, who are all liked minded, in wanting realism. Wanting a foul to be called when a offensive player plows into the defender and knocks him down, and a bad pass being a bad pass resulting in a turnover, or a player taking to many steps for a travel which needs to be implemented in the game.
    Right now if a offensive player is backing you down, and you try to take a charge, and they knock you down, there isnt a foul called at all,and the offensive player goes right up and scores. That is BS, and the devs should be ashamed at their lack of effort in making what they call a basketball simulation.
    The NBA2k devs are lucky their competition is as incompetent as they are, because if they werent and they were capable of making a actual simulation of the NBA,  the NBA2k devs would be needing to find a new job, because they would lose a lot of business.
    Madden there isnt much to say, there isnt any competition, so they are able to get away with not putting any effort into their franchise mode, and why its still bare bones.
    MLBTS, the past couple yrs has taken their focus off of offline Franchise mode, and started catering to online play, and while I cant say  one way or another if their sales has been hurt any yet, but I knows there are quite a few people getting sick and tired of their lack of effort into Franchise mode, which was their staple and what made MLBTS, and what put MLB2k out of business. But I didnt buy it 2 out of the last 3 yrs due to their lack of improving Franchise mode, and I know this yr a few people on here  who were die hard MLBTS Franchise guys didnt buy and did like me and went the text sim route with OOTP.
    Both NBA2k and MLBTS got to where they were, due to their Franchise modes, is because of us hardcore fans, who play Franchise mode.  Its a shame they have  screwed those of us who made their company grow to what they are today.
    All sports games are NOT created equal. Some are years ahead of others in certain areas when it comes to replicating their sport, gameplay, modes, options, customization, etc. With that in mind, I there are 3 areas that I would like to see them concentrate.
    1. Gameplay
    2. modes & customization - looking at you Madden (franchise)
    3. QA/QC - adequate testing and bug/glitch resolution PRIOR to launch.
    Gameplay is definitely number one. But editing and customization is a close second. I spend more than half my time every year making up players, teams, and rosters. A game with a crap editor and no ability to share creations (like NHL) really suffers.
    Sent from my iPad using Operation Sports
    Gameplay first and foremost.... Franchise/Career/Season modes.. At least for me... I'm the minority but I love season mode... I am not a good enough player nor have ever been to compete online and I refuse to buy my way to a better team.. 
    Bravo Joel Smith!
    For years I have wondered why sports games cannot start with a foundation of fundamental strategy, logic, and biomechanics based on reality. This would be boring to most, but from there it would be easy to bend and distort reality by applying various modes and using sliders.
    Also, unlike other game genres, sports have huge statistic databases listing likely probabilities based entirely on reality. A disadvantage of a reality-based Skyrim is the lack of dragon fighting statistics.
    At the moment, NBA 2K is struggling with Steal outcomes: There are a finite number of turnovers in an NBA game, and of those, approximately half are defensive steals and the other half are offensive mistakes. It would seem pretty easy to attain a probability based on the number of possessions in an NBA game. From there onscreen win/loss outcomes from game theory would need to be linked to the probabilities, along with outcomes linked to what happens when the threshold is exhausted. That is just off the top of my head, but it is hard to understand how this is not a foundation in this particular game.
    I wholeheartedly agree with you.
    Could companies just make hardcore statistically probable sports games, and then turn them over to various creatives to make them more fun for the casual majority? After all, anyone can put mag wheels on a Mercedes and paint it like an Easter egg if they really wanted to; hardcore Mercedes drivers would prefer the factory reality.

Executive Editor.

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