Where Is The Playoff Spirit In Contemporary Sports Games?
The game changes when teams enter the playoffs. The stakes are higher and players can finally see the championship, a goal their team has been fighting for all season, in reach. Whether it's hockey's coveted Stanley Cup or the NFL's Vince Lombardi Trophy, every player in their respective sport strives for the chance to say they've won the biggest honor of all.
We're currently in the midst of hockey and basketball playoffs, and comparing any of these games to a regular season match just doesn't measure the intensity, pageantry, or hardship. Teams fight all season to just to get admission into the championship rounds, but once in they must prove themselves all over again. I've been struck by just how much more exciting these games are, and I've yet to see this executed well in a sports game. Sure, games like NHL 10 and MLB 13: The Show attempted playoff/postseason modes, but they failed to fully capture the intensity. Playoff games in video games have often been anticlimactic, and I want more developers to strive to make me feel the tension of these important bouts.
Don't get me wrong. Sports games have tried to make winning it all feel celebratory with cutscenes, trophy presentations, and even White House visits. That's all fine and dandy - but I want to feel a difference in the actual matches. The road through the playoffs, and especially the final contest, should feel much different from regular season games from a gameplay perspective. This feels like a missed opportunity for sports games. Matches should play out more fiercely. Ramp up the difficulty (without resorting to catch-up AI), make the hits harder, and let the players showboat more. Heck, include some heated exchanges. Allow the rivalries to build. Most importantly, get the virtual fans more involved.
Many sports games have tried to capture crowd involvement to some degree, but it always feels empty, only half-realized. For instance, EA's NHL lets fans boo an opposing competitor who deals an injury to a hometown player throughout the series. But other than that, the crowd hardly has an impact on the game, except for a worn-out "We want the cup" drone. The generic chanting just isn't enough. I want crowds more involved when penalties are called, when fights break loose, and completely erupt when their team scores or just misses. Virtual fans should play a bigger part in a team's celebrations and defeats, with villains and heroes on the field or the ice.
Crowd momentum can be a major factor in the playoffs, so I'd love to see it more explored in sports game. Think about it. If you're playing terribly, maybe part of the challenge is to win the crowd back, whether it's engaging in a fight, landing a huge sack, or going on a scoring run when the crowd has lost hope. Vice versa, if you're the away team, your goal could be to take the hometown fans out of the game. Some sort of momentum meter would definitely make games more interesting and small bonuses could arise from it, like increasing a player's ability to take a hit or boosting their speed for a short time. Right now, I love how NBA 2K crowds boo loudly while the opposing team shoots their free throws, akin to a real game. More touches like these and bigger crowd reactions during matches could make all the difference. Even in FIFA, adding Tifos to the crowd would capture some of the spirit, since these displays are much more likely in rivalry and important matches.
Developers also should take more advantage of using press headlines to showcase some of the playoff drama. The playoffs are full of ups and downs, after all. I liked how NHL noted before a game if a popular player isn't making an impact, but having a mere sentence while a game is loading isn't enough. Hold a press conference. Give the player or coach a chance to respond to this accusation. NBA 2K is getting there, especially in its My Player mode, where you approach press conferences with different temperaments and chalk up your successes and failures to various factors.
Unfortunately, as I played through My Player, the headlines and press conferences felt generic throughout the playoffs. The press would note if I had a good game, but the intense pressure that's put on a star player during the playoffs was never completely captured. If I underperformed during a game, I wanted to see it reflected, showing that the stakes are higher. Even after in My Player I took a team at the bottom (The Cavaliers) to win the Larry O'Brien Championship Trophy, he still didn't get recognition or fanfare the press usually floods a player integral to the championship win. Think back to Michael Jordan's victories with the Chicago Bulls. The chants. The legacy. His name and face were everywhere. During the same time, an underrated player, Steve Kerr made a name for himself as a surprise playoff factor and earned plenty of press because of it. Let the limelight of the playoffs show.
No matter how you slice it, there's a special excitement that comes around playoff time. These games are hard fought, overflowing with passion, and chock-full of intensity. Every time I play these types of matches in sports games, I just don't find the same level of fervor or competitiveness. Sure, it's just a video game, but shouldn't these matches at least feel somewhat different than the regular season ones? Shouldn't I have to fight harder, up my game even more? I want to feel like I've made it through the laborious battle, bruised and beaten - only to overcome the odds and be crowned the ultimate victor.