Game design, most often, will favour game feel over realism. This results in games that are full of hidden mechanics which give the player the upper hand. Be it coyote time in platformers, extra-large hitboxes in shooters or health-bar trickery, designers of most genres have nailed down exactly how to give us the perfect fantasy we all know and love. But there is one genre in which fantasy and reality butt heads more than any other, and that is the sports game.
Anyone who has followed the development of sports titles over the last 20 years will have been privy to the debate (and rampant marketing) of the latest game being far more “realistic” than previous instalments in a franchise.
It’s not hard to understand what people mean by this. After all, if you pick up a game like FIFA 12 and compare it to FIFA 21, the former feels like little more than an arcade game while the latter screams realistic complexity and difficulty… At least by comparison.
But realism isn’t such an easy conversation to have when we’re talking about gaming. Especially when partaking in a simulation of a physical activity that is being reduced to moving joysticks and pushing buttons on a controller… After all, you don’t play football with a controller in real life.
Let’s inspect the common arguments which surround realism in sports games.
For: “Sports Games Should be Simulations”
Every sports game aspires to be the quintessential digital version of its real-world sport. I think we can all, more or less, agree on this statement, at least on paper. This is why with every iteration we witness better graphics, better animation, more precise controls and larger integration with the real world.
Take FIFA’s live player scores, for example, which alter players’ stats compared to their real-world performance. Such a feature screams that the game wants to be real.
This dedication to simulation is taken to another level with racing simulators and flight simulators, which often attempt to give you the experience of doing those things in the real world. Even if that means playing for literal hours on end before getting anywhere.
However, on the other hand, we cannot ignore the wealth of sports games that go the other way. From Wii Sports and Rocket League to Knockout City and Blood Bowl, there are plenty of sports games that shun reality in the hope of creating something which is simply fun—or, better yet, a new interpretation of what it means to be playing a particular sport.
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Against: “Realism is Boring”
A criticism levied against the FIFA franchise in particular, is that later games are “boring” compared to earlier ones. While players often can’t pin down these feelings, I think we can all understand them in a gameplay sense.
Later FIFA games have often opted for a slower, more methodical and, in many ways, more difficult interpretation of football. While in FIFA 12 you could hock in shots from a quarter of a pitch away with relative ease if your player’s stats are good enough, in FIFA 21 you need to channel some skill to score from outside the box even with the greatest strikers in the world.
While this can seem like a plus for many, especially those wanting that simulation feel, many players lament that the fun has slowly been sucked out of these games.
For: “We Want to Feel Like We’re Playing the Sport”
At the heart of the want for realism comes the want for us to feel like we are playing the sport we love at the highest possible tier. After all, if you’re going sports-crazy during your favourite sporting season, of course, you want to recreate the biggest plays (and even change history) on the small screen.
Thus, the feeling of struggle which a higher level of realism imbues on a game really does add a lot. Making each goal, point or touchdown feels more well deserved.
Against: “We Want to Feel Like We’re Playing the Sport”
While the desire to feel like we are participating in a real sports game is certainly there, especially with games employing cutting edge graphics, we have to face a clear fact—we are not playing real-world sports.
As we clutch our controllers in our sweaty palms, attempting to score the final point before full time, we have to take a step back to realise that we are just pressing buttons to move around our onscreen avatars in ways that seem real. No, kicking a ball isn’t as simple as pressing circle (or B), nor is running as simple as pushing a stick forward.
In this vein, the discussion of realism in video game sports somewhat falls apart as, unless we’re talking high-grade VR simulators like Eleven: Table Tennis, our actions are occupying a completely different reality to those we are feeling.
This takes us back to where we started, bringing back the discussion of creative development tricks which sell us the illusion of reality, instead of actually aiming for anything resembling hard realism.
Without a doubt, creators of sports games develop incredibly complex systems to give you an upper hand when it comes to playing sports virtually. Whether that be leniency of where you pass a ball or perform a skill move, or even on the fly difficulty adjustments to help you feel like you’re always facing a challenge that is surmountable. As we peel back the layers it’s clear that sports games rely on a whole host of leniencies to help players feel like they are experiencing a realistic sports simulator instead of implementing every complexity which would make the digital sport as hard to master as its physical counterpart.
Ultimately, this leaves us with a question of perspective. Where does the realism in sports games lie? Is realism achieved by trying to create a 1:1 replica of what it means to actually play the said sport, physical motions and all, or is realism a complex amalgam of finely tuned game mechanics which give the player the empowering illusion of being the best sportsperson on the planet?
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