NICHE SPORTS GAMES AREN’T EXTINCT, BUT WE NEED TO BE MORE PROACTIVE IN SUPPORTING THEIR DEVELOPMENT.
Why 2019 can be the year of cricket, rugby, and, er, kabaddi
This has been an above-par year for sports gaming. For all its critics, FIFA 19’s Ultimate Team remains a brilliantly moreish time sink. A focused MyCareer mode returned WWE 2K19 to relevance. And NBA 2K18, NHL 18, and MLB 18: The Show put in stellar showings. Yet the most fun two hours I had within the genre involved none of these. Instead, it was a 73-ball century from Jonny Bairstow in little-heralded PS4 effort Ashes Cricket.
Released last November, Australian developer Big Ant kept its bat ’n’ ball sim strong with patches and fancreated team updates. Yet the immediate reaction from both friends and social media when I espouse its joyfulness is “it’s no Brian Lara” – usually followed by some remark about the ten-year wait for a decent cricket sim. The problem is those two responses are interlinked. Devotees recall the Lara series as faultless, so any imperfection in modern alternatives makes it a no-buy.
That issue extends across most niche sports. Digitising rugby? Be prepared for people to make negative comparisons to Jonah Lomu. Tennis? People have written you off against Top Spin from the outset. I don’t only mean the paying customer. After reviewing the reasonable AO Tennis for this publication I dared to compare my thoughts to fellow journalists’. Many marked it down for not feeling like Virtua Tennis – a take that’s both lazy and irresponsible. VT is an arcadey, almost cartoony, take on the sport. AO aims to be a slower, more realistic sim. “This banana? Doesn’t taste like a grapefruit at all. 3/10.” Since having kids, I’ve managed to keep one area of our house out-of-bounds to inquisitive toddler paws: the study, in which my favourite consoles from yesteryear sit side-by-side. Every six months I reintroduce Lara to Mega Drive or Lomu to PS1 and enjoy half an hour of throwback amusement. But that’s it: two decades after release, these games trumpeted as best-in-class actually warrant 60 minutes’ play per calendar year. Fond memories cloud current expectations. Ashes Cricket is superior to any Lara game.
A related issue is weighing games with smaller budgets against those made by EA or 2K. It’s easy to mock Ashes or AO because their graphics and animations fall short of FIFA standards. Yet if we – fans and journalists alike – want such titles to improve it’s necessary to look beyond the cosmetic. Niche sports games aren’t extinct, but we need to be more proactive in supporting their development. Can small studios invest millions on adventuring into uncanny valley territory? No. Can our feedback help them tweak mechanics to make these games better in terms of feel, which is what matters? Absolutely.
The beauty of spaces such as Twitter is every gamer has a voice, and word of mouth is paramount. Ten years ago PS3 sports-driver hybrid Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars emerged to minimal fanfare and was quickly forgotten. Reskinned and expanded for PS4, you now know it better as Rocket League – an exceptional genre entry which couldn’t have endured and evolved without social media love and feedback. That’s the power you and I hold. The power that can turn Ashes Cricket’s successor, or Rugby League Live 5, or Extreme Kabaddi 2019 (sadly not real yet, but I live in hope) into a household name, if only we’re more considered in harnessing it.
Ben Wilson’s commitment to lesser-known sports titles such as Ashes Cricket and Fire Pro Wrestling World has led him to postpone starting RDR2 until Christmas. Of 2019. He hopes to one day own console simulations of kabbadi, octopush, and Jet-era Gladiators.