Make The Dream Work: Creating The Perfect Sports Video Game

Updated: Nov 5, 2020

Pro Evolution Soccer 2020 was released on Xbox Game Pass recently, so I checked it out to see what all the hoopla was about. I'd known about PES for a while, mostly since Konami inexplicably developed and published this game alongside Metal Gear Solid and Contra. But recently, it's been one of the few video game feuds left. But what if they didn't feud? What if we took the best of each sports game and merged them to create the best? Let's discuss four possibilities.


FIFA Evolution Soccer (EA Sports' FIFA vs. Konami's Pro Evolution Soccer)

Pro Evolution Soccer is a very different experience from FIFA. FIFA is a star-driven, fast-paced game with scoring as the main focus whereas PES makes things a bit more realistic, taking into account things like grass length and team spirit. It's the age-old debate between fun and accuracy, but both games are so close to achieving that perfect balance, it's almost like they need each other to reach football video game nirvana. There have been unofficial slider sets to make FIFA feel a bit more like PES, but I think a real collaboration using EA's slick and streamlined presentation as well as Konami's gameplay would be special. I think the main sticking point here would be the engine: EA's Frostbite or Konami's Fox. Frostbite is far better when it comes to the looks and I think the nearly legendary glitches in FIFA are more symptomatic of rushed and unfocused releases, not unskilled developers or a bad engine. If Konami could take the high level of detail on PES on this pretty of an engine, we'd see something very special. There's another approach nearly unheard of in gaming, that is using multiple engines. Using the Fox Engine for the simulation-style football and the Frostbite Engine for the Volta-style football would be pretty cool, but I think the philosophies of the different companies is what makes this more interesting.

FIFA has become a sensation with pick-up-and-play controls, flashy moves and alternative modes like Volta and Kick-Off to keep the game fresh. After gaining exclusive control of UEFA Champions League and CONMEBOL Libertadores licenses, FIFA has essentially put a stranglehold on football. PES has tried to fight this through exclusivity deals with clubs like Juventus and stadiums like Camp Nou, but it's hard to make a truly great football game missing English and German clubs as well as the top competitions in Europe and South America. PES's controls are tight, making for more strategic runs and formation options, and I think a balance of the gameplay between the two brands would culminate in a very interesting game showing the precision of the beautiful game and how it can completely be broken by superstars like Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi. Balancing EA's fantastic Volta as a quick casual mode with Konami's budding Master League as a deep manager mode would create a very complete game, also being able to unify the wide world of soccer.

NBA Live 2K (EA Sports' NBA Live vs. 2K's NBA 2K)

EA and Visual Concepts' cold war began in 1999 when Visual Concept launched a series of NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB games on the Sega Dreamcast, but after the demise of the Dreamcast in 2001, the war heated up, fighting for supremacy on the PlayStation 2 and Xbox. EA won the football fight when they bought exclusive rights to the NFL in 2005 but after many failed reboots, the NBA Live series died in 2018 due to a lack of critical and commercial success. I played NBA Live 18, which had the unique Streets/League mechanic. The League was abysmal outside of its ESPN presentation, but the Streets were a breath of fresh air, offering a fast-paced single-player experience that was challenging and rewarding in equal measure, with rule changes that made it distinct from the regular game. Testing your meticulously crafted player and team against other players felt chaotic since there were no fouls, but it also felt fair since a rough block on one end of the floor might result in a physical steal on the other. No animation felt wasted since a foul animation in the main game turned into a steal animation in Streets. Playing in Venice Beach or Rucker Park was special, feeling alive rather than wooden and women playing with men unified the community behind the WNBA even more.

NBA 2K became an absolute juggernaut based on its MyPlayer mode and the corresponding park, but it's in desperate need of a refresh. NBA Live's Streets mode took real courts from all over the United States, added in celebrities, legends and original characters in a single-player game mode that was a worthy contender to NBA 2K's MyPlayer. The Streets and Streets World Tour in NBA Live added an entire dimension to basketball we don't see in pro sports very often. Streetball means so many things to so many people across the world, from the Nike-sponsored Drew League and Jordan-sponsored Quai54 to pro-ams like Crawsover League and Goodman League. Summer leagues worldwide are a very important part of basketball's culture, putting local legends and future legends and future stars on the same court. Seeing a fully realized NBA experience taking the best from streetball, summer basketball and pro basketball would be amazing, full integration of the WNBA, NBA, G-League and worldwide basketball to celebrate the new beautiful game.

MLB Out Of The Park (SIE's MLB: The Show vs. Out Of The Park Development's Out Of The Park)

This is a more obscure one, but hear me out. The Show has dominated baseball simulations since 2006 and OOTP has been the king of baseball management since 1999. With The Show releasing on all platforms in 2021, it's prime time to revamp the baseball debutante for a larger audience. Baseball is like few other sports in the world, a sport so firmly entrenched in American culture being played at high levels in three continents. Every play is meticulously calculated to its most minute detail but century-long curses can be determined by how a ball bounces from dirt to grass. Both of these games represent the thoroughly arbitrary nature of baseball in their own ways, with The Show nailing how the ball moves and how the batter swings and when a runner should go and Out Of The Park nailing the obsessive stat-keeping and scouting that goes into success on the diamond. I actually see this playing really well on the Switch. Your main TV screen would give you a view unblemished by a heads-up display and the joycons could be used as normal controllers, but the handheld second screen would be perfect to see pitching matchups, baserunners and fielder positions.

OOTP is a text-based game describing the action of baseball but features centuries of baseball history and an extremely deep creation suite that allows players to add leagues and tournaments from across the baseball world. That depth mixed with the sharp gameplay of The Show would be a baseball nerd's dream. So much of baseball revolves around stats, so being able to dig deep into the facts and figures to determine a gameplan and executing that gameplan to perfection in real-time would be baseball heaven. NFL Head Coach and Madden NFL tried to do this immersion over a decade ago but unifying these ideas never really took off. Making the franchise mode as deep as a dedicated management sim and the gameplay as deep as a dedicated sports sim is near impossible for one studio but with two, I can see it being very special.


Fire Pro 2K (2K's WWE 2K vs. Spike Chunsoft's Fire Pro Wrestling)

Fire Pro Wrestling has been the hardcore wrestling game for over three decades, releasing as a Japan-exclusive game for almost every game. It follows a very strict progression of intensity mirroring Japanese puroresu's match conventions. You can't use high-impact maneuvers until later in the match, wrestlers will get tired and struggle with moves, turning a wrestling match into a battle of attrition. It's kept its identity intact for so long, it's developed a rabid cult following. WWE has been struggling with a fractured identity, not sure if it wants to be a sports entertainment simulator matching 2K's efforts on NBA and PGA Tour 2K or an arcade wrestling game like in past generations. I think there's a happy medium between the two, but it's as hard to translate as King's Road or Strong Style are to American style wrestling.

Wrestling is interesting due to its predetermined nature and the roles each character plays in what is essentially a live show. Do you turn the game into an arcade fighter like Tekken, a legitimate fighter like UFC Undisputed or something else entirely? Should a career mode be based on the onscreen characterization of wrestling or the backstage reality or something in-between? In an industry built on blurring the lines between real and fake, it's hard to say. But that's where I think a wrestling game with these two titans could be very interesting. The clash between Japanese and American styles and how they affect the wrestling world at large is a far more compelling story than most would expect from a wrestling video game. So how do they do it? Building drama is the first step. Starting with low-impact moves works to warm the audience up, but in this place, the audience is the player. The foundation comes first, whether to bring in new fans, new players or both. And that should be one of the main tenets of this game: every match should be treated like a player's first. This allows novice players to anticipate the new and it allows veteran players to anticipate their next opportunity to do something amazing. Oh, and call it King Of Colosseum 3. Easing players into the backstage storylines with things like contract negotiations is probably the best way to go, especially if the global wrestling scene is explored. We've seen something like this in EA Sports MMA, but having to constantly tweak and update your character, moveset and look based on your promotion could be really fun.

 

Competition does bring out the best in many people, but there's nothing like healthy collaboration and exchange of ideas to create something truly special and unique. Two distinct cultures and philosophies uniting to create a celebration of something millions hold dear could be revolutionary. We've seen legendary directors and producers unite to make great cinema, we've seen legendary bands form supergroups to make great music, but it's very rare for video game developers to work together, mostly due to aforementioned issues like proprietary engines and licensing agreements. But in a vacuum, I think this is something that would be radically different and hopefully something that can happen with more regularity.

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