This Week in Gaming History: The understated importance of sports games0 Comments
In coming up with this week's look back into video game history, I noted we are upon the anniversary of Nintendo 8-bit classic Ice Hockey, first released on January 21, 1988. That moment was followed by thoughts of how silly it would probably look to my kids today, despite how popular it was at the time. That led to deeper thoughts about sports games in general, and how little respect they get from many gamers today.
No matter the console, no matter the era, sports games are usually treated as the disposable wet wipes of the video game world. Most retro sports games, even for the classic 8-bit and 16-bit consoles, hold so little retail value that they are often used and destroyed as "donor carts" for modern-day homebrews and hacks. My favorite local game shop can't keep NES games in stock, but they presently have multiple copies of every golf game made for the console. A similar situation could be found at almost any GameStop, where they typically have enough copies of older sports games from the current generations to build a nice treehouse.
Go into almost any online conversation about sports video games and you'll find complete hatred for them. "Nobody cares about sports games," said one poster in a Facebook group, a comment that received several likes from other gamers. The conversation went on to speak as to how "useless" and "pointless" sports video games are, and how they don't understand why companies make them.
I refrained from commenting and sat down to write this feature instead. It might have a far greater reach that way, and it is something video game fans need to realize. Bottom line, without question or hesitation, I will state that without sports video games, we probably wouldn't be here right now. The entire industry owes life to those same sports games that so many gamers are thumbing their noses at.
Pong was a sports game. Before it came Computer Space, an intergalactic space battle game that didn't earn a dime outside of the Stanford University campus. It was simply too difficult for the average consumer to understand the concept, and without the ability to make money from the average Joe, no product has a chance to succeed. Pong was instantly recognizable as a game of table tennis, and therefore it drew in people to try it. For much of that generation, Pong served as the introduction to video games in general. It is likely safe to say that would never have happened if they continued to stick to space battles at the time.
Handheld video games and devices caught on with consumers in much the same way. Mattel's Electronic Football was as hot as anything in 1977 and 1978, introducing the general public to the idea of holding an electronic game in their hands. It was far from the only handheld electronic game on the market at the time, but being based on a popular sport gave it the opportunity to catch on.
When the North American arcade industry fell into a downward spiral in 1983, the industry survived off of sports games. People had stopped lining up to drop quarters into Donkey Kong and Q*bert, but according to trade magazines such as Play Meter, games like Pole Position and Pole Position II continued to earn considerable money for years. Konami's Track & Field gave a huge income boost to the arcade industry at a time when it needed it the most, just one of many sports games that helped stabilize the coin-op side of the industry for the rest of the 1980s, along with Capcom Bowling, Birdie King II and 1989's Golden Tee Golf, the first in an arcade series that is still running today.
On the console side of things, the Nintendo Entertainment System's battle to break into the North American market is due in part to a sports game. While R.O.B. the Robot and the Nintendo Zapper are often given credit as the Trojan horses that allowed Nintendo to market it to retailers as an "Entertainment System", it was the black box launch title of Baseball that helped a great deal as well. The U.S. test marketing strategy focused heavily on showing off Baseball due the global recognition of the sport. Potential retail buyers that were too intimidated to use the robot could easily understand how to play Baseball. In fact, most of the NES launch titles were sports games, including Golf, Soccer, Volleyball, Excitebike, Tennis and 10-Yard Fight, all for the very same reasons Baseball figured so heavily into the marketing plan.
This trend has continued across each video game generation since. One could argue that the existence of sports games is the only thing about the video game industry that hasn't changed over time. While the players might not recognize this, the industry continues to do so. When launching a new console, consumers are going to understand the concept of enhanced graphics and animation through a game based on a sport they already watch on television. It worked for the Sega Genesis just as well as it worked for the Xbox 360 in this regard, as everyone can understand what they are looking at that way.
Fast forwarding towards the modern-day, sports games continue to be an important part of the industry, even if some gamers exclaim otherwise. NPD sales stats for November 2015 show titles such as Madden NFL 16, NBA 2K16 and FIFA 16 outselling titles such as Halo 5: Guardians due to strong Black Friday sales. Historically, as new consumers buy new video game consoles, they pick up sports games along with them. No matter the generation or the technology, sports video games still stand tall as gateway titles to a vast array of consumers. Without them, the industry and the many consoles and non-sports games we love so much may never have had a chance to exist.