I was there when the U.S. Men's National Team won the 2014 World Cup.
After a surprisingly easy run into the elimination round with wins over Ghana and Portugal, the USMNT was able to spring shock upsets on Belgium and Spain before waltzing through Switzerland and into the final. Waiting for them was Germany—the one team that managed to beat them in the group stage.
Still wobbly from the heat and injuries, the USMNT found themselves struggling to stay afloat against the powerful German side. At one point, Landon Donovan came within a hair of scoring the go-ahead goal, but was brutally turned away by German great Manuel Neuer. Suffice it to say, it wasn't looking good for the Americans. Nevertheless, the game went into extra time, and it was there that 19-year-old wunderkind Julian Green received a perfect through pass and put it into the upper-right corner of the net. The USMNT had won the World Cup.
I watched as the fireworks went up, the confetti fell, and each player shook hands with the rotund FIFA president Sepp Blatter (boo hiss). Then I watched as they danced with the trophy, and for a moment, I was there with them. For a moment, the USMNT really had won the World Cup.
It felt good. Actually, it felt great.
For those of us who aren't fortunate enough to follow championship teams, sports games are catharthis.
As any fan will tell, one of the damnable things about following a team is that their campaign almost always ends in failure. In movies or television, the hero may triumph in the end; but in sports, the fairy tale can end in an instant. I've watched Kirby Puckett drive the Minnesota Twins into a magical Game 7, but I've also watched Gary (Expletive Deleted) Anderson shank the field goal that would have sent the Vikings to the Super Bowl. Sports giveth, and they taketh, and then they taketh some more. Even if you follow a super team like Bayern Munich, you're bound to be disappointed at least some of the time. The point, ultimately, is that you're following a drama where the ending isn't set; where anything can happen.
Sometimes though, I do need control. Sometimes I need the satisfaction of sacking Aaron Rodgers seven times, knocking the LA Kings out of the playoffs, or besting Germany (and Belgium). And that's where sports games come in.
In the beginning, sports games were only an approximation of the actual game they were meant to represent. As late as 1984, John Madden was refusing to participate in John Madden Football unless it had 11 players per team—then a difficult proposition. It wasn't until 1987's Earl Weaver Baseball that it was even possible to simulate an entire season. The sports games of that era were more of a snapshot that captured a single aspect of the sport, but little else.
It could be argued that Earl Weaver Baseball was the first truly modern sports videogame. A technical marvel for its time, it featured authentic stadiums, complete customization (you could go so far as to fire your team), and advanced artificial intelligence. EA even offered roster updates via floppy disks. Though games like State-O-Matic had been simulating sports for years before the advent of the first commercial videogame, they were little more than a collection of numbers on a page. Earl Weaver Baseball and games like it brought those numbers to life.
As the years have passed, the conversation around sports games have continued to center on realism. In the early 90s, players marveled at digitized commentary. In the 2000s, they were floored by realistic-looking 3D models. And in 2014, much of the hype is around advanced player physics. In each case, the goal has been to create the most realistic sports experience possible.
More than any other genre, sports games have to pass the eye test for them to be taken seriously. The second something goes awry—a glitch here or a wonky pass there—the spell is broken and the moment is lost.
There's a practical reason for this obsession with verisimilitude. More than any other genre, sports games have to pass the eye test for them to be taken seriously. The second something goes awry—a glitch here or a wonky pass there—the spell is broken and the moment is lost. Even if it isn't 100 percent faithful to the sport, it's important that it seem faithful. It's a lesson that FIFA and NBA 2K have learned well over the years, and Madden NFL has lately been struggling with.
But what's really interesting is how much stock fans also put in a realistic-looking broadcast package. Increasingly, the use of actual television graphics mixed with live action footage is becoming the baseline for good presentation. It's a method that has been pioneered by NBA 2K and since picked up by NHL 15, with other sports games likely not far behind. The upshot of this approach is that fans care even more about what is happening on their TV screen than on the field. They want to feel as if they are reaching onto the field and controlling everything they see.
In a way, its counter-intuitive. Sports games have long been built around the fantasy of being a player or a manager; and to some extent, that still mostly holds true—it is pretty fun to pretend you're a world class athlete like LeBron James. But sports fans are just as interested in the idea of fandom as they are the sports they follow. Many have never even stepped on a football field, and the act of being a fan is all they know. Hence, gamers want to simultaneously be LeBron James and be the schlub on the couch watching LeBron James.
It's a feeling I'm intimately familiar with. In early 2013, I found myself training (yes, training) exhaustively for a playoff game against my archrivals—the Green Bay Packers. The previous year, I had gone 14-2 only to have them upset me in the divisional round of the playoffs. Having made it back, I wanted revenge. Adding fuel to the fire was the fact that this was a 32-player league, and that Green Bay was controlled by a real-life Packers fan whom the league referred to as Evil Kraig. I stayed up every night for probably two weeks straight playing practice games against a willing friend, training for my big moment.
I did this because I'm an utter maniac, but also because I felt like I had a personal stake in it. That game was my chance to get my own measure of justice for two decades of abuse at the hands of Packers fans, who have justifiably lorded their history and their championships over Vikings fans ever since returning to prominence in the early 1990s. Needless to say, I beat the crap out of him; and two games later, I watched as Prince lifted the Lombardi Trophy.
Yeah, I was pretty happy.
I'll grant that not every sports fan is as insane as I am. Having had my heart broken again and again over the years, I'm more apt than most to cling onto whatever I can get. I'll be the first to admit that winning a virtual league isn't quite the same as watching my actual team win it all. But in a way, it feels more real. Even if the Vikings win the Super Bowl in the next couple years, I won't be much more than a spectator. That Madden win though? That was all me. I was the one who constructed the roster and set the strategy. And I'll admit, it made me feel a tiny bit better about the real Vikings going 0-4 in the big game. Even if they never win it, I will have at least gotten a tiny taste of what it's like to experience it as a fan.
As the years have gone on, I've become increasingly drawn to sports games, attracted not just by the challenge but by the possibilities of a world that doesn't exist. I like sports games because they fulfill both my fantasy of being the general manager of a team and my own fantasies as a fan.
When the USMNT takes the field later today against Belgium, there's every chance that they will go down to defeat. That's sports. But there will always be a world where tragedy becomes triumph, and teams like the Vikings are champions at last. That's sports games.