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The Often-Overlooked aspects of Sports Games - Presentation

When you think of video games and what makes them good, you often think of two aspects of them that contribute to that: gameplay and how it looks. I'm not just talking about graphics, but also interface, how the game is presented to you. Yes, story is important too, but what if you're playing a sports game? Sports games have these same issues, except they don't have to wrap a story around everything else that makes the game great.

Or do they?

I'm not a major sports game enthusiast, though I do have a couple of passions that give me some familiarity with the genre. For years, I was a Madden enthusiast until I got tired of dealing with contracts and the salary cap. I remember NFL 2K5 (the much-loved last gasp of 2K Games before EA got the exclusive license), where injuries would decimate my team to the point that I had salary cap issues every year.

After that, I moved on to College Football, where you only had to deal with scholarships. Until they stopped making them, I loved the College Basketball games despite not caring at all about the NBA games (though I've preferred the real college basketball game to the real NBA for a long time anyway).

I may be a rare bird when it comes to playing sports games ("What, a dodo? Oh wait, those are extinct" - Empty Chair), but I hardly get any pleasure out of just picking up a controller, picking two random teams (or even my own favourite team and another team), and playing a game of football. Don't get me wrong, good gameplay is important to me and if the game's not fun, then it will quickly get discarded. But my main enjoyment from them is some variation of franchise mode. In EA's College Football games, it's called "Dynasty" mode because you are a coach trying to build up your school to domination and, eventually, a National Championship. In this mode, you're not just playing the games, you're also dealing with the players, recruiting new ones to come to your school, keeping in mind promises you made to them that helped convince them to come. Did you promise them a lot of playing time? You'd better deliver, or next year they may decide to transfer. Even if you didn't promise them, they may see the opportunity to get more playing time elsewhere and transfer from your school. Maybe you were stupid enough to promise them a National Championship? Then you probably deserve him leaving if that's the case.

I enjoy playing each game, but it's the trappings surrounding the games that are more important to me.

And that's where sports games often fail.

Presentation is such an important aspect of the game, and I think too often designers skimp out on it. Announcers can grow stale. Sure, you can track all of your stats, but how about some extra stuff to make the dynasty fun? How about a half-time show with highlights from around the country of games currently going on? How about a week-in-review show?

When I'm hearing Brad Nessler and Kirk Herbstreit saying the same things for the fourth consecutive year, that makes me sad. Sure, they do add some things. This year's NCAA Football 13 added game updates from ESPN's Rece Davis, so Brad & Kirk have to acknowledge those. But why am I hearing Herbstreit make the same asinine comments about Holding penalty calls that I heard back in NCAA Football 09? I find myself shocked when I do hear something different come out of their mouths. My jaw dropped when they acknowledged that I had played a team last week! Would have been nice if they acknowledged that I won that game, but you can't have everything, I guess.

It doesn't help that this year's game, the announcer logic seems even worse than usual. Herbstreit will whine about a QB throwing a ball into coverage, saying that he should have just thrown it out of bounds, when that's actually what happened as the ball sailed over everybody's head and into the crowd. I even had Nessler tell Davis that there was a 10-point difference in the score when the score was 30-10! I know there are always little things like that in these games, but this year it's just atrocious.

When you're doing a franchise or dynasty, the presentation is a very important aspect of the game, as it makes you feel even more involved than you already are. I want that same excitement that college football (or any sport that you're playing) gives you when you drown yourself in it, immersing yourself in the fanbase. I want that feel of tailgating for your favourite team.

With that in mind, here are some suggestions for sports games of all types, though I freely admit that I don't play that many, so others may already be doing some of these things. If they are, great!

1) Highlights

As i said, this year's NCAA Football 13 has added in-game updates from Rece Davis about other games going on around the country. This is great, though Davis' dialogue is already getting stale. I'm not sure how many times he's said "this game has been entertaining us all day!" There's also a ticker for those of you playing in HD, with scores along the bottom of the screen at all times during the game. That's wonderful!

But how about some highlights? Did USC's Matt Barkley throw 6 TD passes today? Let's see a couple! In-game updates are great, but how about a half-time show that gives us some highlights from other games? I don't remember if 2K's NCAA Basketball series did half-time shows, but they did do a weekly show that had highlights, and while the highlights got to be the same at times, it was a nice touch to add a bit of atmosphere, making you feel like you're not playing this thing alone. NFL 2K5 did this wonderfully, with Chris Berman doing the half-time show. If you had an Xbox (or installed the game on your PS2's separate hard drive), you even got highlights! That would be child's play nowadays.

(Berman has never looked so good)

Of course, some people may not want to sit throw highlights, so you should be able to hit a button and just go on to the next play.

2) Weekly Update Show

Speaking of a weekly show, that's another wonderful idea to make you feel part of a bigger world than just your team. As I said, 2K's basketball game had a show where they gave highlights and scores from around the country, talking about movers and shakers in the league. They had players of the week. I believe they even had periodic updates on coaches whose jobs were in danger due to poor performance. A few years ago, Madden had ESPN radio, which was hit and miss but the idea was very cool. They also had a mock draft as the season wore on. College sports games could talk about highly-touted recruits, such as 2K did in their weekly show in their basketball game. When you land the top-rated recruit in the country, wouldn't it be cool to hear about it?

This may not work for every franchise. Baseball with its almost daily games may not work in a weekly format, though it could. Hockey may be more feasible, but it would take a bit of imagination.

However it's done, having a show like this would enliven any franchise mode, making you feel like you're not in a bubble. And, of course, it should be skippable in case a player doesn't want to sit through it.

3) Persistence from year to year, and also within the year

Some games are making a few strides toward this, but most of the time it's still severely lacking. NCAA Football 13 has school and NCAA records that it tracks, but that's about it. Unless you are keeping track of who won the National Championship the year before, that's lost once you advance to the next season. Who did you play in the Cotton Bowl last year? That's lost too, unless you did it yourself.

It would be nice if records against opponents were tracked, especially against rivals (If my Iowa State Cyclones have beaten the hated Iowa Hawkeyes five years in a row, I want to see that!). I want the announcers to acknowledge it, with Nessler saying something like "The Hawkeyes are looking to avenge that blowout loss they suffered last year against the Cyclones." I want an acknowledgement of how the current season is going too, other than just a mention of what the teams' records are after the game ("The Cyclones are still unbeaten, with a record of 7-0" is what he says now). How about an acknowledgement during the game that references a player's stats? "Barnett is really struggling this year, throwing more interceptions than TDs." And referencing previous years, something like "After a National Championship last season, the Cyclones have to be disappointed with the way they've started this season."

All of this makes you feel like you're not playing an isolated game in an isolated season. It adds substance to everything that you've done and been doing, and will do in the future. Are the Cyclones winning their second National Championship in as many years? Have Nessler comment on how rare that is when they win the second championship game!

4) Better Announcer Situational Logic and More Variety

It would also be nice if what the announcers say more often fit what's going on down on the field. I've already referenced this, but it bears repeating. Don't say that the Wide Receiver caught the ball when it was the Tight End. Don't tell me that on third and 25, when you're up by 30 points with 2 minutes to go in the game, that you will definitely be passing the ball. Don't tell me that I should have thrown the ball out of bounds when I *did* throw it out of bounds.

And how about changing things up a bit? You don't have to change announcers every year, but how about bringing them in to record some more stuff? Not just stuff acknowledging changes that you've made (like having them introduce Davis' updates this year), but also changing some of their standard chatter. I should not be *regularly* hearing the same thing I have heard for the last four years. Sure, there will be some stock phrases, but they should be much rarer than they are. As it is, NCAA Football 13 has had essentially the same commentary since I started this game (other than getting rid of the annoying Lee Corso).

Also, how expensive would it be to have them record a few more numbers? I don't know about Madden, but in this year's college game, if it's 3rd down and more than 15, they can't say it. It's "3rd and a mile!" This is ridiculous.

There are certainly other ideas that could enhance the dynasty/franchise mode of any sports games. These would definitely make me enjoy them much more than I already do. Some of these may be cost-prohibitive, but c'mon, EA. You're rolling in dough! 

The lack of changes in the franchise mode contributed to my abandoning Madden (I put up with the other issues mentioned above for a few years). It just didn't feel much different and was becoming boring. If they had spiced up the presentation some, I may have stuck with it despite having to work with salaries and the like.

I see small improvements in NCAA Football 13 this year, such as the in-game updates. It's definitely a start.

But there are so many other things they could do.

What about you? Are you a sports game enthusiast? Do you have a favourite series that actually does some of this? Which one is the best, in your opinion?

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