The Return of Arcade Sports Titles Makes Video Games Great Again
Arcade-styled sports games were everywhere, but when the seventh console generation arrived, they were no more. Then came Rocket League.
I have a handful of truly great memories from the few times I trekked from New York City to Boston to attend PAX East, and nearly all of them involve getting lost for hours in the convention’s Retro Gaming Lounge.
It’s a room off the main showfloor in which you can kick back with a classic console of choice and play favorite old-school video games. The one title I always revisit is a staple of 1990’s gaming: NBA Jam.
Midway’s take on hoops strips the video game b-ball experience to its essence by removing stodgy gameplay, complicated controls, and play calling, yet builds upon it by adding a hyped announcer, legal elbows, flaming shots, and ridiculous dunks and blocks that make people who aren’t traditional sportsball watchers want to pick up a gamepad. You needn’t know the strategic importance of a zone defense or pick and roll to yuck it up and talk smack; all you need to know is that Shawn Kemp can throw it down from the foul line and shatter the backboard in spectacular fashion.
Certainly, arcade-style sports games existed before NBA Jam, but the game’s simplicity, unique digitized look, and sheer fun generated millions of dollars for Midway in the home and arcade markets. Soon, FIFA Street, MLB Slugfest, NBA Street, NHL 2-on-2 Open Challenge, and NFL Blitz appeared on the scene, following NBA Jam’s blueprint of pairing accessibility with ridiculousness.
Arcade-styled sports games were everywhere, but when the seventh console generation arrived, they were no more. Flaming basketballs were replaced by increasingly bombastic simulation and story modes featuring the likes of Creed star Michael B. Jordan as the up-and-coming basketball prospect Justice Young, and NBA star Michael “no B.” Jordan as the demon-king of hoops hell.
The once-thriving arcade sports game genre shriveled like a raisin in the sun, making the occasional zombified cameo in the PlayStation 3/Wii U/Xbox 360 era. It was a huge loss to generations of gamers who didn’t dig the realistic FIFA, Madden, MLB, NBA 2K, and NHL 2K series, but liked the wacky competition inherent to their arcade-style cousins.
What Killed the Arcade Sports Game?
I’m not certain what killed the arcade sports game, but I have many suspicions. It could’ve been rising development costs in the dawn of the high-definition era. It could’ve been the move toward realism, courtesy of the new high-powered hardware. It could’ve been leagues looking to clean up their images by demanding that the games, which frequently feature big hits and in-your-face antics, go the “kindler, gentler” route. It could’ve been all of the above. Or none!
But to prevent this piece from being a collection of tepid takes, I reached out to several game developers and publishers for insight into what happened to the once-great genre. Timothy Rapp, a founder of High Horse Entertainment, the team behind the fun Disc Jam, was the lone person to respond to me — via email — before this article published. He has three strong reasons why arcade sports game just aren’t as dominant as they were years ago.
The first is one I wouldn’t have thought of on my own: technological limitations. Arcade sports games are generally considered lightweight affairs, but they now require robust online components.
“Nailing fast-paced, fluid online gameplay is the biggest challenge in game development, and massive studios still have trouble executing on it,” said Rapp. “Overcoming latency in arcade sports is especially difficult due to their fast-paced nature. This can be troublesome and risky for developers/publishers without the necessary expertise.”
The second reason is one that’s a bit more obvious: the evil that is exclusive contracts between publishers and professionals leagues. When one publisher (say, Electronic Arts) controls the entire video game rights to a league (say, National Football League), it kills “competing” titles, even ones designed with more casual play in mind.
“This is a great example of business getting in the way of creativity to the ultimate detriment of the consumer,” said Rapp. “As soon as publishers found out they could corner a market by buying out league exclusivity, they eliminated all their competition. Games like All-Pro Football 2K8, sporting the same gameplay as the well-received NFL 2K5, faltered without the pro license. You’re starting to see this burden ease a bit, and there are some new games like NBA Playgrounds arriving, but it remains true that league exclusivity is a tremendous burden in the arena of arcade sports.”
Rupps final reason is declining interest in extreme-style sports games. “For whatever reason, extreme sports just aren’t as popular as they used to be. The X-Games are barely marketed on ESPN, video game sales have declined across the board in this genre, and even fan favorites like EA’s Skate are no longer in production, because I assume the profit margins were too slim. I think we can safely say if there was money to be made, Skate 4 would be in production right now.”
Then, coming from seemingly out of nowhere, there was a title that proclaimed, “Sports video games mustn’t be limited to hardcore simulations and management titles!” That game is Rocket League.
Psyonix’s unexpected smash hit, which boasts nearly 11 million units sold and more 29 million registered users in two year’s time, defied the odds. Rocket League is, essentially, a soccer game featuring rocket-powered cars instead of Messi and Ronaldo, which is an utterly ridiculous proposition that somehow works. The game’s low price point, simple controls, and basic premise — you knock a giant ball into a goal using a vehicle — combined to form an addictive multiplayer extravaganza that has grown so popular, it’s now an eSport.
I won’t go as far as to definitely say that Rocket League inspired developers and publishers to go back to lab and think of ways to tap into that sweet arcade sports game revenue stream. They’re notorious tight-lipped about behind-the-scenes happenings, after all, but it certainly seems that the game served as an industry-wide wake up call. Timothy Rapp agrees.
“Before Rocket League came out, we began production on Disc Jam because we felt, as gamers, drastically underserved in the arcade sports genre,” said Rapp. “When Rocket League blew up, it was incredibly validating to see consumers flock to an online-first, PvP arcade sport. Now that it has generated hundreds of millions in revenue, publishers are realizing how hungry people were for this kind of thing. However, I think you could also attribute this trend to the emergence of eSports as an enormous financial vehicle for publishers and broadcasters alike.”
A prime example of this resurgence is Saber Interactive’s recently released NBA Playgrounds. The hoops game combines elements of the beloved NBA Jam and NBA Streets series, but moves beyond being a mere clone of those titles by adding a fun sports trading card system and a novel scoring mechanic that rewards you for sharp play. It’s currently one of the best-selling games in the Nintendo Switch eShop.
Likewise, Andy Hull’s Dunk Lords builds upon the NBA Jam formula with over-the-top plays, but adds super-powers, armor, and the ability to use uppercuts as a means to thwart high-impact dunks. It’s slated to hit Steam in early 2018.
The upcoming Mutant Football League is another entry in the genre’s revival. Digital Dreams Entertainment’s gridiron monster mash, which is set to debut on PC this fall, and on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One sometime in 2018, is the spiritual successor to Electronic Art’s much-beloved Mutant League Football. It promises to be packed with the undead, robots, deadly weapons, and big explosions.
V7 Entertainment’s new Old Time Hockey not only gives hockey heads a taste of a retro style game, the setting is a throwback to the sport’s rough-and-tumble 1970s era, complete with wild fistfights and stick fights.
Although Sony Interactive Entertainment is the publishing behemoth behind the MLB The Show simulation series, it has dipped its toe into the lighthearted sports games pool. MLB The Show 17 boasts a Retro Mode that lets you play a quick-and-dirty version of the game that requires very few buttons and even fewer in-game strategic decisions. Like old-school games, such as Bases Loaded or RBI Baseball, you simply press the X button to swing the bat or throw a pitch. It even has retro players, such as Ken Griffey Jr., Edgar Martinez, Yogi Berra, and Jorge Posada. It’s pretty fun! And RBI Baseball, a giant during the NES-era, has been resurrected as a casual-fiendly takes on the sport. It, along with the cartoony Super Mega Baseball: Extra Innings, give baseball fans two, dedicated non-sim baseball titles.
The PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Vita platforms will receive high-definition Windjammers ports relatively soon, courtesy of publisher DotEmu. Finally, the addicting flying power disc action that’s developed a cult following since the game’s 1994 Neo Geo debut is about to get its biggest mainstream push yet.
Options. We finally have them. Sports gamers like me who’ve longed for something more than ultra-realistic simulations now have many new choices. Though, none of them, besides Rocket League, have yet to approach the hall of fame statuses reserved for NBA Street, Tecmo Super Bowl, and the like, the games’ existences are essential for serving a long-neglected part of the market.
It’s about time. Simulation-style sports games are barely worth the year-to-year asking prices with their roster updates and sometimes noticeable graphics and mechanics tweaks. But arcade-style sports games, with their simple playstyles and outrageous moment-to-moment gameplay, remind us of why we fell in love with sports titles and sports as a whole: the heated, but friendly, competition and extraordinary moves performed by extraordinary athletes.
Read more: “The Top 10 Video Game Athletes of All Time”
Originally published at www.pcmag.com.