Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Op-Ed: The Truth About Reviewing Sports Videogames (It Sucks)

For the last 11-years I was the Xbox Guide / Expert for About.com and a big part of my job was reviewing pretty much anything and everything, which meant reviewing sports games every year.  Now, I’m not a typical tech geek who looks down on sports games and holds a grudge against sports in general because the jocks were jerks to me in high school – actually, I got along pretty well with everyone – like so many in gaming communities seem to be.  I love sports.  I played sports.  I like watching them.  I like playing sports games.  In spite of my genuine love of sports, however, reviewing yearly sports games is the actual goddamn worst. 

Sports games get a bad reputation among cynical gaming nerds as being little more than roster updates with no effort put into them and they’re the same year after year, but in reality that isn’t true at all.  Seemingly small gameplay tweaks can actually make a huge difference out on the field.  Presentation changes matter.  New modes matter.  And, yes, roster updates matter.  To an outsider that doesn’t like sports and doesn’t care about sports games anyway, sure, it can seem like the games don’t change much.  But to sports fans and people who spend a lot of time with these games, they change fairly significantly from year to year.  There are exceptions, such as generational changes where EA takes two years to put back in all of the features they had last gen into the new gen version, but for the most part the newest release is almost always an improvement over the previous release.

That is part of what makes reviewing them so hard, though.  When every new release each year is the best football game or best soccer game or best basketball game ever, it makes your glowing praise of last year’s entry seem really, really stupid.  And your old reviews look especially dumb when you go on and on about how new sports games finally fix something, or finally add some key feature, and how this new entry makes last year’s game look like a huge pile of crap despite the fact you said the same stuff last year and slapped the exact same score onto it.  Every Madden review, for example, has called each new entry a “return to form” for about a decade now.  The hyperbole is ridiculous.

Reviewing sports games especially stings when a game is out for a few weeks and flaws you didn’t even notice or think about start popping up.  Newly discovered online playcalling exploits or glitches or stat tracking breaking after 27 seasons or something you didn’t have time to fully explore make you look back on your glowing review with extreme regret.  This is a no win situation, though.  You only have a limited amount of time to review something, so you might play through a full season or two and give all of the modes a try before writing your review and simply not notice or experience the flaws that more dedicated players who spend a lot more time with the game might find.  These super fans drive the public perception of a game because they “know what they’re talking about”, but the fact is that the vast majority of players will probably have a similar experience that the reviewer did and will think the game is fine. 

This pattern is frustrating as a reviewer because you’re still thinking, “Well, I honestly DO think this year’s game is better than last year’s!” and you know from experience that most players won’t notice and probably shouldn’t care about issues brought up by super fans.   The damage has been done, though.  Public perception turns.  This year’s game “sucks”, your positive review seems dumb and hyperbolic, and the cycle repeats itself next year. 

Don’t even get me started on sports where there is more than one game released each year.  Not only are you struggling with not painting yourself into a corner with glowing hyperbole every year, but you also have to compare and contrast two games that are 90% identical when it comes to features and modes and gameplay.  It is just a huge pain in the ass to write separate reviews when the games are mostly the same.  Granted, reviewing NBA Live versus NBA 2K isn’t as much of an issue because NBA Live is objectively awful compared to 2K and it is easy to explain why, but doing something like FIFA and Pro Evolution Soccer back-to-back is a nightmare (especially the last couple of years when both have been very good).

Forgive my ranting, but it feels good to get all of this off of my chest after dealing with it for 11-years.  The nice thing about making PSXBoxIndies is that I don’t have to worry about most of it anymore.  I’m still probably going to play these games – at the very least Madden and NHL and FIFA thanks to EA Access – but I don’t have to review them, and that is a huge relief. 

Bonus story time!  I was once offered a freelance job covering sports videogames for ESPN.com several years ago.  I turned it down for largely the same reasons featured in this editorial.  I love sports and playing sports games, but writing about them is the goddamn worst.

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