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A sports game is a video game genre that simulates the practice of sports. Most sports have been recreated with a game, including team sports, track and field, extreme sports and combat sports. Some games emphasize actually playing the sport (such as the Madden NFL series), whilst others emphasize strategy and sport management (such as Championship Manager and Out of the Park Baseball). Some, such as Need for Speed, Arch Rivals and Punch-Out!!, satirize the sport for comic effect. This genre has been popular throughout the history of video games and is competitive, just like real-world sports. A number of game series feature the names and characteristics of real teams and players, and are updated annually to reflect real-world changes.
Sports games involve physical and tactical challenges, and test the player's precision and accuracy. Most sports games attempt to model the athletic characteristics required by that sport, including speed, strength, acceleration, accuracy, and so on. As with their respective sports, these games take place in a stadium or arena with clear boundaries. Sports games often provide play-by-play and color commentary through the use of recorded audio.
Sports games sometimes make use of different modes for different parts of the game. This is especially true in games about American football such as the Madden NFL series, where executing a pass play requires six different gameplay modes in the span of approximately 45 seconds. Sometimes, other sports games offer a menu where players may select a strategy while play is temporarily suspended. Association football video games sometimes shift gameplay modes when it is time for the player to attempt a penalty kick, a free shot at goal from the penalty spot, taken by a single player. Some sports games also require players to shift roles between the athletes and the coach or manager. These mode switches are more intuitive than other game genres because they reflect actual sports.
Older 2D sports games sometimes used an unrealistic graphical scale, where athletes appeared to be quite large in order to be visible to the player. As sports games have evolved, players have come to expect a realistic graphical scale with a high degree of verisimilitude. Sports games often simplify the game physics for ease of play, and ignore factors such as a player's inertia. Games typically take place with a highly accurate time-scale, although they usually allow players to play quick sessions with shorter game quarters or periods.
Sports games sometimes treat button-pushes as continuous signals rather than discrete moves, in order to initiate and end a continuous action. For example, football games may distinguish between short and the long passes based on how long the player holds a button. Golf games often initiate the backswing with one button-push, and the swing itself is initiated by a subsequent push.
Beginnings of sports games
In 1958, William Higinbotham created a game called Tennis for Two, a competitive two-player tennis game played on an oscilloscope. The players would select the angle at which to put their racket, and pressed a button to return it. Although this game was incredibly simple, it demonstrated how an action game (rather than previous puzzles) could be played on a computer.
Video games prior to the late 1970s were primarily played on university mainframe computers under timesharing systems that supported multiple computer terminals on school campuses. The two dominant systems in this era were Digital Equipment Corporation's PDP-10 and Control Data Corporation's PLATO. Both could only display text, and not graphics, originally printed on teleprinters and line printers, but later printed on single-color CRT screens.
Around that time, electro-mechanical sports arcade games were being produced. Examples include Taito's Crown Soccer Special (1967), Sega's racing game Grand Prix (1969), and Chicago Coin's racing game Speedway (1969). In the 1970s, arcade video games began to appear, many of them centered around the sports genre, after it was popularized by the first commercially successful video game, Atari's Pong (1972).
In 1973, Taito released an early team sport video game, Davis Cup, a tennis doubles game with similar ball-and-paddle gameplay but played in doubles, with both players controlling two paddles each. That year, Taito also released another early team sport video game, Soccer, based on association football; it was also a ball-and-paddle game, but with a green background to simulate a playfield, allowed each player to control both a forward and a goalkeeper, and let them adjust the size of the players who were represented as paddles on screen. Both Davis Cup and Soccer were designed by Tomohiro Nishikado of Space Invaders fame. Early hockey video games were also released in 1973: Sega's Hockey TV, and Taito's Pro Hockey, which had similar gameplay to Pong, but with boundaries around the screen and only a small gap for the goal.
In 1974, Taito released Basketball. It displays images both for the players and the baskets, and is an early attempt at accurately simulating a team sport. Each player controls two team members, a forward and a guard. The ball can be dribbled and passed between team members before shooting, and the ball had to fall into the opposing team's basket to score a point. That same year, Sega released an association football game, Goal Kick, which was played like an early vertical ball-and-paddle game. The first driving video games were also released that year: Taito's Speed Race (1974) which introduced scrolling graphics, and Atari's Gran Trak 10. In 1976, the driving subgenre was extended into three dimensions, with the forward-scrolling third-person perspective of Sega's motorbike racing game Moto-Cross, soon re-branded as Fonz that same year, and with the first-person perspective of Atari's Night Driver.
In 1975, Universal Research Laboratories (URL) released an early four-player multiple-sports game, Video Action, which featured several different sporting minigames, including Pong-style variants of tennis, hockey, and association football, as well as an early volleyball game and a unique four-court tennis game. Video Action was also an early example of cooperative gameplay, as each sport could be played in teams of two. That same year, Nintendo released EVR-Race, an early horse racing simulation game with support for up to six players. In 1976, Sega released an early combat sport game, Heavyweight Champ, based on boxing and now considered the first fighting game. In 1978 Atari released Atari Football, which is considered to be the first video game to accurately emulate American football; it also popularized the use of the trackball, having been inspired by an earlier Taito soccer game that used a trackball. Taito also released an early bowling game in 1978, Top Bowler, followed by an early baseball game in 1979, Ball Park.
Between 1980 and 1984, Atari and Mattel's Intellivision waged a series of high-stakes TV advertising campaigns promoting their respective systems, marking the start of the first console wars. Atari prevailed in arcade games and had a larger customer base due to its lower price, while Intellivision touted its visually superior sports games. Sports writer George Plimpton was featured in the Intellivision ads, which showed the parallel games side by side. Both Atari and Intellivision fielded at least one game for baseball, American football, hockey, basketball, auto racing and association football.
In 1981, Taito released Alpine Ski, an early extreme sport game, based on winter sports. It was a vertical scrolling game that involved maneuvering a skier through multiple events: a downhill ski course, a slalom racing course, and a ski jumping competition. That same year, Sega's Turbo introduced a third-person perspective into the genre, with Namco's Pole Position then popularizing the now common rear-view racer format and introducing AI opponents the following year.
In 1982, Taito released an early golf game, Birdie King, Tehkan released an early swimming game, Swimmer, and Data East released an early fishing game, Angler Dangler. That same year, ZX Spectrum released the first association football management simulation, Football Manager, while Konami released an early Olympic-themed athletics game, Track & Field, which featured multiple Olympic track & field events (including the 100-meter dash, long jump, javelin throw, 110-meter hurdles, hammer throw, and high jump) and allowed up to four players to compete. In 1983, EA produced their first sports game Dr. J and Larry Bird Go One on One, which was also the first licensed sports game based on the names and likenesses of famous athletes. The inclusion of famous real world athletes would become one of the most important selling points for sports games.
Also in 1983, Alpha Denshi's arcade release Champion Baseball published by Sega displayed the playfield using several different camera angles, including a close-up shot of the player and batter, and gave players the option of selecting relief pitchers or pinch hitters, while an umpire looks on attentively to make the game calls. The game was very popular in Japanese arcades at the time. That same year, Mattel released Intellivision World Series Baseball (IWSB) by Don Daglow and Eddie Dombrower, possibly the earliest sports game to use multiple camera angles to show the action in a manner resembling a television broadcast. Earlier sports games prior to this had displayed the entire field on screen, or scrolled across static top-down fields to show the action. IWSB mimicked television baseball coverage by showing the batter from a modified "center field" camera, the baserunners in corner insets and defensive plays from a camera behind the batter. It was also, along with Champion Baseball, one of the first sports games to feature audibly-speaking players (as opposed to text), using the Mattel Intellivoice module.
Another early sports game to show multiple camera angles in 1983 was Irem's MotoRace USA, a motorbike racing game that switched between vertical-scrolling and third-person views depending on the player's location on the map, switching to third-person view when near a city and to a vertical-scrolling view when on country roads. Another early sports game to feature digitized voices from that year was Alpha Denshi's Exciting Soccer, an early influential soccer football game, which let one or two players choose from six teams, featured a control scheme where they could tackle, shoot, short-pass, and long-pass, featured an overhead view, and had realistic touches like corner kicks, throw-ins, penalty shots, and cheerleaders. Other early soccer football games from that same year were Data East's Pro Soccer and Commodore's International Soccer. Two early water sport games, both based on waterskiing, were also released that year: Taito's Water Ski and Irem's Tropical Angel, the latter also featuring a female player character. That same year, Taito released Joshi Volleyball, an early volleyball game, and they released Irem's 10-Yard Fight, an American-football game that featured an early career mode, where the player progresses from high school, to college, professional, playoff, and Super Bowl, as the difficulty increases with each step. Meanwhile, Kaneko released Roller Aces, an early roller skating game played from a third-person perspective. An early wrestling game, Technōs Japan's Tag Team Wrestling, was also released that year, and was followed by another wrestling game, Sega's Appoooh, the year after.
In 1984, several early sports laserdisc video games were released, including Universal's Top Gear which featured 3D animated race car driving, while Sega's GP World and Taito's Laser Grand Prix featured live-action footage. Sega also produced a unique bullfighting game, Bull Fight, and a multiple-watersports game Water Match (published by Bally Midway), which included swimming, kayaking and boat racing; while Taito released a fully third-person motorbike racing game Kick Start, an early female sports game based on high-school track & field, The Undoukai, and an early dirt track racing game Buggy Challenge, featuring a buggy. Other early dirt racing games from that year were dirt bike games: Nintendo's Excitebike and SNK's motocross game Jumping Cross. Nintendo also released an early four-player racquet sport game, Vs. Tennis (the Nintendo Vs. System version of Tennis), while SNK released an early horse racing game, Gladiator 1984.
That same year, early ice hockey games were also released: Alpha Denshi's Bull Fighter and Data East's Fighting Ice Hockey. Data East also released a unique lawn sports game Haro Gate Ball, based on croquet, while Nichibutsu released a unique game based on roller derby, Roller Jammer. Meanwhile, Technos Japan released a unique game based on sumo wrestling, Syusse Oozumou, and the first martial arts combat-sport game, Karate Champ, considered one of the most influential fighting games. That same year, game designer Scott Orr founded GameStar, a game publisher specializing in Commodore 64 sports games, and served as its lead designer. GameStar was the most successful sports computer game company of its era, until Orr sold the company to Activision in 1986.
In 1985, Sega released Hang-On, a popular early Grand Prix style rear-view motorbike racer, considered the first full-body-experience video game. That same year, Nintendo released an early arm wrestling game, Arm Wrestling, while Konami released a table tennis game that attempted to accurately reflect the sport, Konami's Ping Pong. That year, Tehkan also released Tehkan World Cup, one of the first multiplayer soccer football games featuring a trackball controller, where a button was used for kicking the ball and the trackball used for the direction and speed of the shot, with gameplay that was fairly realistic. In 1988, EA released Earl Weaver Baseball again developed by Don Daglow and Eddie Dombrower, which for the first time combined a highly accurate simulation game with high quality graphics. This was also the first game in which an actual baseball manager provided the computer AI. In 1996 Computer Gaming World named 'EWB the 25th of its Best 150 Games of All Time, the second highest ranking for any sports game in that 1981–1996 period (after FPS Football).
The 1990s began in the 16 bit era, as a wave of fourth generation video game consoles were created to handle more complex games and graphics.
In 1989 Electronic Arts producer Richard Hilleman hired GameStar's Scott Orr to re-design John Madden Football for the fast-growing Sega Genesis. In 1990 Orr and Hilleman released the game that is still recognized today as Madden Football, the best-selling sports game in North America up until that time. They focused on producing a head-to-head two-player game with an intuitive interface and responsive controls.
Also in 1990, Taito released Football Champ, an early soccer football game to allow up to four players in multiplayer mode, involving both competitive and cooperative gameplay. It also let players perform a number of actions, including a back heel, power kick, high kick, sliding tackle, super shot, and fouling other players (kicking, punching, and pulling shirts), which the player can get away with if the referee isn't looking, but the referee will hand out a yellow or red penalty card if he spots foul play. In 1991, the American football game Tecmo Super Bowl was the first mainstream sports game to feature both the league and player association licenses of the sport it emulated; previous titles either had one license or the other, but Tecmo Super Bowl was the first to feature real NFL players on real teams.
Orr joined EA full-time in 1991 after the success of Madden on the Sega Genesis, and began a ten-year period of his career where he personally supervised the production of the Madden Football series. During this time EA formed EA Sports, a brand name used for sports games they produced. EA Sports created several ongoing series, with a new version released each year to reflect the changes in the sport and its teams since the previous release.
Eventually in the 1990s, 3D graphics were introduced in sports arcade games. In particular, Sega's Virtua Striker in 1994 was the first association football game to use 3D computer graphics, and was also notable for its early use of texture mapping. That same year saw the arrival of the 32-bit era of video game consoles, with the release of the Sega Saturn and Sony's PlayStation, both capable of 3D graphics. Soon after, 3D graphics cards were introduced for personal computers (PCs). These updated systems allowed home sports games to also be made in 3D. The first sports console game to exploit these updates was Gremlin Interactive's Actua Soccer, released in 1995 for the PlayStation.
Meanwhile, Sierra Online released Front Page Sports Football in 1995 for the PC. The following year Computer Gaming World named it twelfth of the Best 150 Games of All Time, the highest ranking sports game in the list.
Extreme sports enters into the mainstream
At the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st century, extreme sport video games began to appear more frequently.
In 1996, two early snowboarding games were released: Namco's Alpine Surfer in the arcades, and the UEP Systems game Cool Boarders for the PlayStation console. The following year, Square's popular role-playing video game, Final Fantasy VII, included a snowboarding minigame that was later released as an independent snowboarding game, Final Fantasy VII Snowboarding, for mobile phones. In 2000, SSX was released. Based around boardercross, the game featured fast downhill races, avoiding various objects whilst using others to perform jumps and increase the player's speed.
In 1997, Sega released one of the first mainstream skateboarding games, Top Skater, in the arcades, where it introduced a skateboard controller interface. The following year saw the release of the console skateboarding game Street Sk8er, developed by Atelier Double and published by Electronic Arts. In 1999, the subgenre was further popularized by Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, an arcade-like skateboarding game where players were challenged to execute elaborate tricks or collect a series of elements hidden throughout the level.
Sports games becoming big business
On December 13, 2004, Electronic Arts began a string of deals that granted exclusive rights to several prominent sports organizations, starting with the NFL. This was quickly followed with two deals in January 2008 securing rights to the AFL and ESPN licenses. This was a particularly hard blow to Sega, the previous holder of the ESPN license, who had already been affected by EA's NFL deal. As the market for football brands was being quickly taken by EA, Take-Two Interactive responded by contacting the Major League Baseball Players Association and signing a deal that granted exclusive third-party major-league baseball rights; a deal not as restrictive, as first-party projects were still allowed. The NBA was then approached by several developers, but declined to enter into an exclusivity agreement, instead granting long-term licenses to Electronic Arts, Take-Two Interactive, Midway Games, Sony, and Atari. In April 2005, EA furthered its hold on American football licensing by securing rights to all NCAA brands.
Sega Activator: IR motion detection
In 1993, Sega released the Sega Activator, a motion detection game controller designed to respond to a player's body movements, for their Genesis console. The Activator was based on the Light Harp, a MIDI controller invented by Assaf Gurner.
Like the Light Harp, the Activator is an octagonal frame that lies on the floor. Light-emitting diodes (LEDs) on the frame vertically project thin, invisible beams of infrared light. When something, such as a player's arm or leg, ineerrupts a beam, the device reads the distance at which the interruption occurred, and interprets the signal as a command. The device can also interpret signals from multiple beams simultaneously (i.e., chords) as a distinct command.
Sega designed especial Activator motions for a few of their own game releases. By tailoring motion signals specifically for a game, Sega attempted to provide a more intuitive gaming experience. A player could, for example, compete in Greatest Heavyweights of the Ring or Eternal Champions by miming punches.
Despite these efforts, the Activator was a commercial failure. Like the Power Glove of 1989, it was widely rejected for its "unwieldiness and inaccuracy".
Wii Remote: IR motion detection with accelerometry
In 2006, Nintendo released Wii Sports, a sports game for the Wii console in which the player had to physically move their Wii Remote to move their avatar. The game contained five different sports—boxing, bowling, golf, tennis, and baseball—which could all be played individually or with multiple players. Players could also track their skill progress through the game, as they became more proficient at the different sports, and use the training mode to practice particular situations. As of 2013, Wii Sports became the second-highest selling video game of all time.
Wii Sports opened the way for other physically reactive sports-based video games, such as Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games, the first official title to feature both Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog, in which players used the Wii Remote to simulate running, jumping and other Olympic sports. In 2008, Nintendo released Wii Fit, which allowed players to do aerobic and fitness exercises using the Wii Balance Board. In a similar light, 2008 saw the release of Mario Kart Wii, a racing game which allowed the player to use their remote with a Wii Wheel to act as a steering wheel, akin to those on traditional arcade racing games.
Sports games today
The sports genre is currently dominated by EA Sports and 2K Sports, who hold licenses to produce games based on official leagues. EA's franchises include the Madden NFL series, the NHL series, the FIFA series, and the NBA Live series. 2K Sports' franchises include the WWE 2K series, NHL 2K, and the NBA 2K series. All of these games feature real leagues, competitions and players. These games continue to sell well today despite many of the product lines being over a decade old, and receive, for the most part, consistently good reviews.
With 2K & EA Sports' domination, the market has become very difficult to enter; competing games in any of the above genres, with the exception of racing games, tend to be unsuccessful. This has led to a sharp drop in sports-themed titles over recent years. One of the most notable exceptions is Konami's Pro Evolution Soccer series, which is often hailed as an alternative to the FIFA series, but does not contain as many licensed teams, players, kits, or competitions. Another deviation from the norm is Sony's MLB The Show series, which now has a monopoly on the baseball genre after the withdrawal of 2K after MLB 2K13. Racing games, due to the variation that the sport can offer in terms of tracks, cars and styles, offer more room for competition and the selection of games on offer has been considerably greater (examples being F1 and the World Rally Championship, and many unlicensed games). Sports management games, while not as popular as they used to be, live on through small and independent software development houses. Management titles today have transitioned to the very popular fantasy sports leagues, which are available through many websites such as Yahoo. Independent developers are also creating sports titles like Super Mega Baseball, The Golf Club, and Freestyle2: Street Basketball.
Nintendo has been able to make an impact upon the sports market by producing several Mario-themed titles, such as Super Mario Strikers, Mario Hoops 3-on-3, Mario Tennis Open, and Mario Golf: World Tour. These titles sell respectfully, but are only available on Nintendo's video game consoles, for example Nintendo GameCube, Nintendo 64, Nintendo 3DS, Wii, Wii U and Nintendo Switch.
Sports games have traditionally been very popular arcade games. The competitive nature of sports lends itself well to the arcades where the main objective is usually to obtain a high score. The arcade style of play is generally more unrealistic and focuses on a quicker gameplay experience. However the competitive nature of sports and being able to gain a high score while compete against friends for free online, has made online sports games very popular. Examples of this include the NFL Blitz and NBA Jam series.
Simulation games are more realistic than arcade games, with the emphasis being more on realism than on how fun the game is to pick up and play. Simulation games tend to be slower and more accurate while arcade games tend to be fast and can have all kinds of ad-hoc rules and ideas thrown in, especially pre-2000. For example, NBA Jam had only two players on each team and there was a NES game where every bicycle kick performed no matter where in the field it was made the screen flash and ended up as a goal.
A sports management game puts the player in the role of team manager. Whereas some games are played online against other players, management games usually pit the player against AI controlled teams in the same league. Players are expected to handle strategy, tactics, transfers, and financial issues. Various examples of these games can be found in the sports management category.
Sports-based fighting games are titles that fall firmly within the definitions of both the Fighting game and Sports game genre, such as boxing and wrestling video games. As such, they are usually put in their own separate subgenres. Often the fighting is far more realistic than in traditional fighting games (though the amount of realism can greatly vary), and many feature real-world franchises or fighters. Examples of this include the Fight Night, UFC 2009 Undisputed and WWE 2K series.
Games and televised sports
More and more, video sports games are starting to look and act like their TV counterparts as developers focus on creating realistic commentary and camera-angles. Additionally, televised sports, namely American football, have started to model some of their cameras on those seen in video games.
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