What defines the sports
video game genre?

The sports genre of video games recreates real-life rules, gameplay, culture, management or strategy of various sporting disciplines.  Sports video games have existed since the beginning of the medium with a wide spectrum of subgenres including photorealistic real-world tournament or league simulation, to a comical larger than life take on sports or somewhere in between.

A common expectation of sports games is that the game will feature accurate and up to date team names and likenesses. A side effect of this expectation is that some sports games have an annual release in order to keep these rosters and ratings accurate. Another common sports game trope is to compress the amount of time per game. A regular soccer game goes for 90 minutes plus extra time, however, FIFA & Pro Evolution Soccer have a default match time of 12 minutes.

The History of Sports Video Games

1958

Tennis For Two


William Higinbotham, a nuclear physicist, created the first video game ever using an analog computer and “used an oscilloscope for a screen”. The game was a “two-dimensional, side view of a tennis court” and was played by two players on either side of the court by using “buttons and rotating dials to control the angle of an invisible tennis racquet’s swing.” (Bnl.gov, 2017)

1958

1972

Pong


In 1972, Atari released the first commercially successful video game, Pong. Just like Tennis for Two, it was a basic form of Tennis but “consisted of two paddles that players used to volley a small ball back and forth across the screen.” (Hosch, n.d.)

1972

1973

Davis Cup

Taito expanded on Pong’s gameplay with the first team sport video game, Davis Cup, which featured a doubles match of tennis “where each player controls two paddles to hit the ball back and forth across the screen.” (Arcade-museum.com, n.d.)

1973

1974

Speed Race


Taito released the first driving video game, Speed Race, which was the first game to have a scrolling graphic background which gave the game an “exhilarating sense of speed”. It was designed by Tomhiro Nishikato, the creator of Space Invaders, who said that he “really enjoyed” creating the game. (Snider, 2009)

1974

1975

Video Action

Universal Research Laboratories released Video Action, a collection of mini games that could be played by four people which was ‘housed into an octagonal table’ (Winter, 2018). This was the first cooperative gameplay in a sports game.

1975

1978

Atari Football


In 1978, Atari Football was released and used a trackball as a control scheme for the American football game. It was not the first sports game to use that style of control as “Taito beat Atari to market with a soccer game that used one. According to Steve Bristow, when his engineers saw the game, they brought a copy into their lab and imitated it.” (Kent, 2002)

1978

1982

Pole Position


Pole Position by Atari was one of the first sports games to feature artificial intelligence and the now-standard convention of the rear-view racer camera angle. It was also the first example of product placement in a video game with the track billboards advertising real companies.  (Web.archive.org, n.d.)

1982

1982

Football Manager

ZX Spectrum released the first soccer management simulation game, Football Manager.
1982

1983

Dr J and Larry Bird Go One on One

Electronic Arts released Dr J and Larry Bird Go One on One for the Apple II. This basketball game was the first use of licensing a likeness and name of athletes for a sports game. This is now a common community expectation of the sports video game genre. The game saved the company, “pulling EA through its financial troubles”.(Polygon.com, n.d.) This success would guide EA to keep doing sports games throughout the next decades.
1983

1983

Intellivision World Series Baseball


Intellivision World Series Baseball by Don Daglow and Eddie Dombrower was the first sports game to use ‘multiple camera angles’ (Orth, 2019). The game was also the first game that ever had an announcer or commentator as part of the game. Before this innovation, commentary or player voices were communicated to the audience via on-screen text. The innovative ‘play-by-play color commentary’ (Orth, 2019) system was called the Mattel Intellivoice module. This rudimentary community evolved over time to a dynamic and adaptive commentary engine that many sports games use today. The announcer gave personality and matched the TV broadcast experience that many sports fans craved including ‘picture-in-picture views for runners on base’ (Orth, 2019).

1983

1985

Hang-On


Sega released the first full-body experience video game, Hang-On. It was played on a motion-controlled motorcycle seat as part of the arcade and was one of the first games to use 16-bit graphics. (System16.com, n.d.)

1985

1985

Tehkan World Cup


Tehkan World Cup was a soccer game with excellent gameplay for the time. “The game is trackball operated with one button for shot and pass powered by trackball inertia.” You’d use a button to kick the ball and use the trackball for direction and speed of a shot. (Arcade-museum.com, n.d.)

1985

1987

Punch Out!! – Nintendo

Punch Out!! by Nintendo evolved on the arcade machine by being the first to use two monitors in one arcade machine. The reason for two monitors was because there was ”a lot of excess televisions that had been purchased based on the estimated demand for arcade games” that wasn’t being used for Donkey Kong. (Iwataasks.nintendo.com, n.d.) The game was very successful leading to a long line of Punch-Out!! games.
1987

1988

Earl Weaver Baseball

Earl Weaver Baseball was released by EA and ‘was designed by Don Daglow and Eddie Dombrower, the same developers behind Intellivision World Series Baseball’ (Poho, 2017). It was a highly accurate simulation game with high-quality graphics. It was one of the first times that a sporting manager was consulted for gameplay enhancements. An actual baseball manager, Earl Weaver, provided the computer AI strategy. 
1988

1988

John Madden Football

Following the success of Earl Weaver Baseball, EA pressed on and created John Madden Football, the first of the still hugely popular Madden NFL franchise. It debuted on the Apple II. The graphics were rudimentary with ‘each player just a jersey and a constantly moving pair of legs.’ (Pierce, 2014)

1988

1989

Baseball Stars

Baseball Stars, developed by SNK, was released for the NES in 1989. The game introduced many now genre-defining game conventions and features into the sports game genre including creating your own player and team. It was also the first sports game to keep track of statistics outside of a single game, leading to season wide comparisons of stats from across the league. These new features changed ‘expectations of what a sports game could do’ in the decades to come. (IGN, 2013)
1989

1990

Football Champ

Taito’s Football Champ allowed players to perform more actions than any other football game before it. Including backheeling, sliding tackles and also let you play dirty by causing an intentional foul, grabbing the opponent’s ‘shirt to stop them running’, kicking or pulling a player down. (Retrovania-vgjunk.blogspot.com, 2012)
1990

1991

Tecmo Super Bowl

Tecmo Super Bowl was released on the NES in 1991. It was the first sports game to feature player and league licenses resulting in being the first NFL game to have real NFL players in real NFL teams. (Casamassina, 2006)
1991

1991

Bulls vs Lakers and the NBA Playoffs

Bulls vs Lakers and the NBA Playoffs by Electronic Arts was the first ‘basketball game with an in-game instant replay feature’ (ClassicReload.com, n.d.). This game also added a large star underneath the on-screen athlete so that the player would know what player they are controlling.

1991

1991

EA Sports Launched


EA Sports was launched as a sub-brand of Electronic Arts for sports games. The business model focused on an annual release cycle of the ongoing sports games series.

1991

1992

Madden NFL 92

Madden 92 was the most notable sports game to introduce injuries as a gameplay element with the arrival of the ‘Madden ambulance’. Whenever a player was injured, an ambulance would come ‘come ploughing onto the field, running over any player in its way, pick up the injured player, and speed off.’ (Mazique, 2011)
1992

1993

NBA Jam


NBA Jam was an arcade game with an exaggerated, larger than life take on 2v2 basketball. It was one of the first sports games to feature NBA-licensed teams and players and became ‘the highest-earning arcade game of all time’. (IMDb, n.d.)

1993

1993

NHL Hockey 94

NHL 94, released by EA Sports, was the first fully licensed hockey video game. It’s also known for the ‘One Timer’ trick to score, manual goal-keeper controls and the inclusion of ‘team specific themes in their home arenas’. (Sports.yahoo.com, 2013)
1993

1994

Virtua Striker


Virtua Striker, made by Sega, was the first soccer game use 3D graphics and was one of the first video games to use ‘State of the art texture mapping’. (Arcade-museum.com, n.d.) Texture mapping is now a necessity in 3D game pipelines across all genres. 

1994

1994-1996

Create-a-player mode spreads


Create-a-player mode becomes a widespread game genre standard with the mode added to “games like NBA Live ’96, Triple Play Baseball ’96 and Madden NFL ‘94, letting the player live out their athletic dreams.” (Johnson, 2016)

1994-1996

1999

Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater

Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater was an arcade skateboarding game series, published by Activision, which utilized motion capture of famous skateboarders “focusing on using their signature moves and, moreover, their personal styles.” (Fielder, 2000) Players could execute their elaborate moves and collect hidden items scattered in each arena.

1999

2000

Online Competitive Multiplayer

Sports games started to offer online competitive multiplayer including FIFA and NBA 2K, which allowed ‘up to 8 gamers’ to play together online (IGN, 2000).
2000

2003

Total Club Manager 2004


EA’s Total Club Manager 2004 introduced ‘Football Fusion’, which allowed you to play with your management team on the field in FIFA 2004 if you owned both games. You had to eject the Total Club Manager disc out of the console and insert the FIFA 2004 disc, resulting in lots of disc swapping but was also the first cross-data-sharing sports game that I could find.  (Oldpcgaming.net, 2019)

2003

2004

The exclusive licensing begins

During the early 2000s, EA, 2K Sports, Microsoft & ESPN also used to release annual American Football games. That all changed in 2004 when Electronic Arts announced ‘an exclusive licensing agreement with the National Football League’ and NCAA which stopped any other publisher from making a licensed American Football game. (Robinson and Perry, 2004) This landmark announcement of exclusivity still causes issues for up and coming game developers who want to tackle the sports genre. The workaround method that many use is to have a user-generated content model, where a game’s community can make the correct kits and names and share it on an in-game sharing menu. Games that do this include Don Bradman Cricket, WWE 2K & Pro Evolution Soccer, with the latter including instructions on how to do this in the game’s manual.
2004

2005

FIFA Interactive World Cup begins

The first FIFA Interactive World Cup, an eSports tournament put on by EA Sports and FIFA, was the first eSports competition endorsed by the licensed organising sporting body. (FIFA.com, n.d.) 
2005

2006

Wii Sports


Bundled with the Nintendo Wii was the 4th highest-selling video game of all time, Wii Sports. (Sirani, 2019) The game was a cultural phenomenon with its’ refreshing physically reactive gameplay. This was due to the new Wii Remote and Nunchuk which featured an accelerometer and optical sensor technology. Sports included Boxing, Bowling, Tennis, Baseball and Tennis. This also led to a whole new market of Wii Remote accessories including tennis rackets, boxing gloves and baseball bats to help augment the player’s experience.  The game ended up selling 82.88 million copies. (Nintendo Co., Ltd., 2019)

2006

2007

Be a Pro


FIFA 08 introduced a new variation on the career mode for sporting games called “Be a Pro” where the player only controlled ‘one player on the field’ and saw their viewpoint from either a first-person or third person over the shoulder type viewpoint.  This game type was copied by many other sports games including Madden NFL and NBA 2K. (Game Guides, 2007)

2007

2008

Wii Fit & the Wii Balance Board

Wii Fit, designed by Nintendo’s Hiroshi Matsunaga, was a fitness game, also called an ‘exergame’, using a new peripheral called the Wii Balance Board. (Iwataasks.nintendo.com, n.d.)  It made a Guinness World Record for the ‘best-selling personal weighing device’ by selling 42 million units (Whitehead, 2012) (Siliconera, 2012).
2008

2008

Adidas Live Season

FIFA 09 brought a new “Adidas Live Season” feature which kept player’s abilities and ratings up to date week to week over the course of a season. (Deleon, 2008) The game was also the first sports game to allow the player to choose a celebration after scoring a goal.
2008

2010

Ultimate Team

FIFA 09 brought Ultimate Team into the game for the first time. This new online-only mode allowed players to build their dream soccer team by opening ‘packs’ (earnt through in-game currency or by microtransactions) which contained multiple types of cards including players, fitness, contracts, kits and stadiums. Players could then decide to keep the items in the packs or to sell them on the transfer market.  People could use their items to create a squad and use that squad to play online multiplayer to win more in-game currency. (Lopes, 2015)
2010

2010

Kinect Sports


Kinect Sports, published by Microsoft Studios, followed Nintendo’s Wii Sports formula by being a launch title for the Xbox 360’s motion-sensing device, the Kinect. Rather than using a physical controller, the Kinect used depth-sensing technology to see players mimicking sporting actions and translating them into the game. Reviewers complimented that the “lack of a controller really does add to the sense of immersion.” (Minkley, 2010)

2010

2010

EA SPORTS Game Face


EA SPORTS Game Face allowed you to take photos of yourself and upload them to a website which would turn them into a personalised avatar that you could download into your game, including UFC, Madden and FIFA. (Mazique, 2013) This feature was eventually copied by 2K and implemented into NBA 2K15. (Good, 2014)

2010

2011

Fight Night Champion


Fight Night Champion is a boxing game published by EA Sports. It was the first major sports title to feature a full narrative story mode, called ‘Champion Mode’. Reviewers loved the addition of the new “compelling” mode saying that it gave the game “more sense of emotion out of what is usually a soulless experience.” (Goldstein, 2011) This narrative gameplay mode would later be copied by other sports games as a way of differentiation.

2011

2011

Ultimate Team goes everywhere

Due to the success of FIFA’s Ultimate Team release, EA Sports decided to roll out Ultimate Team to its other sporting franchises including Madden NFL and NHL Hockey. Ultimate Team was updated with timely content drops including new ‘In Form’ player items which only get released if a player has a Man of the Match performance week to week. The game mode was also expanded to have a web and mobile application so that players could manage their team, open packs and trade/sell items without having to be in front of their console. NBA 2K and other sports games also recreated the same microtransaction/gambling mechanics in their own respective games. (Lopes, 2015)
2011

2015

Rocket League


A completely different sub-genre of sports game, fantasy sports games, came to life with Rocket League, published by Psyonix. With a huge eSport fanbase, the rocket-powered cars mixed with soccer was a huge hit with over ‘50 million players worldwide’ playing the game by September 2018. (GamesIndustry.biz, 2018)

2015

2013-2017

Narrative modes

Narrative modes in sports video games became more common. NBA 2K added a story mode in 2013, FIFA added “The Journey” mode in 2017 and Madden NFL made its narrative-mode debut with “Longshot.” These story modes included full motion captured and acted cutscenes, with storylines with choices that affected potential career and gameplay outcomes. Match performance in game scenarios also effects story plots. This new community expectation of a story mode in a sports title added a new method to distinguish between the highest AAA sporting titles and their competition. 

Ross Symons, CEO of Melbourne’s Big Ant Studios, says that “Unfortunately now the way that marketing works with games is there’s a minimum amount of content for you to get it out and it’s rising every year. Career modes need to have depth and every day we’re asked for can we have cutscenes of managers telling players what they did right or wrong in a career mode. Those cutscenes alone would cost way more to do then our whole game budget.” (BeyondTheGameTV, 2018)

2013-2017

2018

Real Sport Games turn to eSports

 eSports continued to influence the major sports games with NBA and Take Two Interactive launching the NBA 2K League. (NBA.com: NBA Communications, 2017) EA soon followed suit launching the Madden NFL 19 Championship series.  (NFL.com, 2018)
2018

2019

Belgium vs EA over Ultimate Team Gambling


Belgium and Electronic Arts went to court after the country banned loot boxes stating that they were “unregulated gambling” (Tassi, 2019) This ruling caused EA to remove the ability to buy packs with real money in all Ultimate Team modes across their games. This was a major issue for EA as the Ultimate Team mode in their sports games makes ‘$1.38 billion (annually), which accounts for 28% of the total revenue share’. (Armughanuddin, 2019) This figure is higher than what EA makes off selling the actual games in retail.

2019

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