Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Reviewing Sports Games Sucks (And You Don't Need Them Anyway) - Eric Vs.

Want to hear a secret about reviewing video games? Reviewing sports games absolutely 100% completely totally absolutely freaking blows. Hi, I'm Eric - a games journalist for more than 15+ years who reviewed (probably, I dunno) a couple thousand games over my career - and the worst time of year (other than the hate mail from fanboys that came like clockwork the week after E3 ...) was always the Fall when a dozen sports games would come out and I was expected to cover them. Read all about it after the jump.

It isn't as if I didn't like sports games or don't have fun playing them. I like sports! A lot of the games are fine! But reviewing them is just the worst. At one point there were at least two games for every professional sport, and sometimes more. Two NFL games. Two NBA games. Two NHL hockey games. Two soccer games. Two baseball games. And they always came out the same week as each other. The problem was that the differences between the two (or more) games for each sport were usually pretty small and rather subjective, so the reviews for each game ended up being a lot of the same stuff. Eventually I gave up writing separate reviews and just wrote Versus-style articles where I directly compared the games and declared a "Winner" based on whether you were more interested in presentation or features or gameplay. 

Obviously there were occasions when one game was blatantly worse than the other for various reasons, but more often than not the games were pretty close with only subtle subjective differences between them. 

As a brief aside, once upon a time I was approached to possibly cover sports video games for ESPN's website. I turned it down immediately for pretty much all of the reasons I'm covering in this video. Unfortunately, that was all multiple computers and several work emails I don't have access to anymore ago, but I remember it, darn it!

Another problem with reviewing sports games is that, for the most part, this year's new game is better than last year's. I know, I know, the common complaint about sports games is that they're the same thing every year with just a roster update, but that was basically never actually true. Some years would have bigger and more obvious improvements, of course, but there was almost never a case, in the games I was reviewing on Xbox platforms at least, where a yearly installment sports game didn't improve. Sure, there were some hiccups when a new generation of systems would come out and the "next gen" version of games would be lacking features or something, in which case we would tell people to buy the last-gen version of that year's game because the last-gen version DID improve. 

The problem with the yearly update usually improving on the previous year is that it was easy to get into an awkward position where you gave last year's game a 9/10 and effusive praise but this year's game is better so you spend the whole review talking up the improvements and why it's better but still slap the same 9/10 score on it. You were so positive on it last year, but now that game seems kind of stinky and that 9 you gave last year feels more like a 7 now because this year's game is SOOO much better. That was mostly a problem back when I was a shitty reviewer, though. Eventually I started dishing out more 6's and 7's and 8's even to sports games that I liked, which opened up the top scores for games that truly did something special.

Something that doesn't really get enough attention with sports games is that they changed fairly significantly during the Xbox 360 and Xbox One generations. Sports games used to be kind of arcadey - even the SIM-style games were easy to pick up and play back in the day - but from about 2010 onward Madden NFL, NBA 2K, EA Sports NHL, MLB the Show, and FIFA / Pro Evo started leaning way harder into being more realistic simulations. And because of that, I suddenly didn't have as much fun with them anymore. Games got a lot more complicated to play and weren't nearly as accessible or fun. At one point I didn't review the new EA NHL game for two years in a row because I literally couldn't figure out how to score a goal, or at least not consistently enough where I thought I could talk about the games with any authority. Now the sports games that I kind of dreaded having to cover anyway weren't even enjoyable to play for fun anymore. That was super bad times and another reason why I tried to do direct comparisons or simple feature breakdowns for games instead of reviews.

Even with all of that, there was another massive problem when it came to reviewing sports games - which is the hardcore vs. the casual audience. You see, there are dedicated sports game websites and YouTube channels out there that are super hardcore about sports games and treat them very seriously. They play every new game for hundreds of hours and, as such, usually pick up on problems and issues that most normal reviewers simply don't notice or never actually experience. So when these folks come out with something like "After 22 dynasty seasons your save gets deleted" or "We played 1000 games and found this exploit that ruins the game ..." it kind of throws a wrench into my belief that each new release is probably better than the previous one. And the general public tends to trust these dedicated sports games experts more than other reviewers.

The problem with that, however, is that only maybe 10% (and that is being generous) of the audience is hardcore enough that most of the issues brought up in this type of review will even matter. The vast majority of the audience playing sports games are casual players that won't ever see or even notice the horribly egregious issues brought up by the big boy sports game websites and reviewers. Frankly, casual players really shouldn't be putting so much weight behind these hardcore reviewers, but they do because they are perceived as trustworthy experts even though their experience doesn't really represent the experience of most players. 

I always tried to cover sports games from the perspective of casual players, but then always felt pretty self conscious about my mostly positive reviews when I'd get shouted down with "OMG this game is horrible because so-and-so said terrible thing happens after you play for 100-hours". Ok. Cool. Most players won't ever experience that, but let's just shut everything down anyway and keep playing the same games from 10 years ago instead.

Basically, reviewing sports games sucked. Competing games in the same year are usually closer than anyone wants to admit but you get shouted down if you try to imply otherwise. New releases each year are usually better than last year's entry, but you get screamed at if you say this. Having to review the games when you can't really enjoy them anymore blows (so I stopped ...). And, finally, there is a great disparity between the most trusted hardcore reviewers and the actual experience of the vast majority of their audience. Folks like me who tried to review from a casual perspective get drowned out by voices casual players really shouldn't pay that much attention to, which was frustrating both as a reviewer as well as a gamer in general. 

All of that made covering sports games a giant pain in the ass. When I left it was honestly a relief that I didn't have to play any sports games (or the yearly Call of Duty ...) anymore. With that said, I leave you with this. Even in 2021 I would still recommend people just buy the newest sports game they're interested in almost no matter what, especially if you haven't bought one at all in a while. You don't even need to read reviews. Just skim news sites around release and see if a new sports game had some really obvious problem that even casual players noticed. If not, buy it. If so, buy last year's. Don't look at scores because you can't trust them for reasons mentioned earlier. 

One final thing I should mention is that brand new sports games from new developers or arcade style sports games DO need to actually be reviewed and you should pay attention to them. These scenarios are always when reviewing sports games actually feels worthwhile because you have something new to say for once. 

And that's it. Reviewing sports games sucks. The end. Thanks a lot for watching! Please like and subscribe.