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RPG Grind Time – Why RPG Fans Shouldn't Overlook Sports Games

by Kimberley Wallace on Dec 21, 2016 at 09:00 AM

Genres borrowing mechanics from others is nothing new, but one thing I've found fascinating in recent years is how much sports games are becoming more like RPGs. It makes sense; RPGs are all about becoming more powerful  leveling up if you will. In sports, that's also the goal. Players always want to improve and be at the top of their game by practicing. The more games you have up your sleeve, the smarter you become as a player. As more sports games give you control of your player growth, craft narratives, and allow you to role-play being a professional athlete, I continue to be more drawn to them. I've always been a fan of the sports genre, but these RPG-like elements have kept me logging hours on par with what I put into a large-scale RPG like The Witcher 3.

Lately, I've been playing more and more of NBA 2K17. The series has intrigued me with its MyPlayer mode, which allows you customize your own character and live out the life of an up-and-comer in the NBA. This year, the mode has integrated optional practices, where you perform drills help advance your stats. Practicing also helps build your relationships with your teammates; you can consider them your "party members" as bonding moments occur throughout the season. You also earn currency for every match you play, and your performance rating dictates how many bonus coins you get each game. It's comparable to when RPGs give you a grade after battle that dictates your experience or extra loot. With this currency, you upgrade your player rating by increasing your stats for specific skills such as passing, defense, three-point shooting, and more. I often find myself min/maxing this area to build the player I desire. I'm a guard, so rebounding skills aren't exactly essential, but improving my ball-handling is extremely beneficial. NPCs are also around to drive your story, such as your agent, coach, and press members. The RPG parallels are all around. Heck, you can even consider championship games your final boss battles.

NBA 2K isn't the only game to do this. FIFA has a similar mode called The Journey, where you play as Alex Hunter and live out his story. While these narrative modes are still in their infancy, they have some choices you can make to show off your player's personality and decide the direction of their career. I'm hoping in the future even more branching narratives occur that capture a wide variety of player states for the ups and downs of a season. I also want to decide if I'm a flashy, arrogant player or just a person who puts the team first and never causes any drama. 

Just about everywhere you look in recent sports games, you can find similar elements to RPGs. Pro Evolution's team roles system in career mode assigns some players a label, such as Maestro, that confers bonuses to other players on the pitch. EA's NHL uses a morale system that can raise or decrease a players' ratings by speeches and how you respond to their concerns. New Soccer Star embraces the grind by making you work your way up the ranks by doing shooting exercises and passing routines to get noticed. The niche Inazuma Eleven games allow you to recruit and train members to make a failing soccer team great again; you then compete in random encounters via soccer battles that reward experience to spend on improving your team. While Inazuma has some shortcomings in its soccer mechanics, it's still a look at an intriguing concept that melds the sports and role-playing genre.

As sports games continue to become more complex, I only expect them to include even more mechanics we see in RPGs. This is a delight for someone like me who enjoys both genres. It's amazing after years of playing one-off games in various sports titles that I have modes that incorporate my favorite elements of RPGs, such as satisfying progression, a story to unravel, and fun character interactions. I like it even better that what I'm doing is building toward something. Part of what I love about RPGs is the improvement you see as you become more powerful from your humble beginnings. Your skills get more complex as you progress, just as I've seen in NBA when I can do fancier dunks or passing plays as my character grows.

People who haven't touched a sports game in years become interested as soon as I mention these RPG features. While they're not perfect and the genre is still experimenting with them, it's allowing people to connect with these games on a more personal level. There's something about not just playing some stock character, but a version you've crafted and put the time and effort into shaping. By capturing the best parts of RPGs, sports games are becoming more appealing to a wider player base. I also think they're finally capturing the things so important to sports that have long been neglected in games, such as team building, the drama of a season, and the quest for improvement. Time will tell how far they evolve, but in the meantime, I'm enjoying seeing them borrow features that have made RPGs so successful and special.