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2014 in review: The sports video game of the year

Six months ago at E3, writers and critics previewed what looked like the year's best sports title. It completely remade its broadcast presentation. It brought in a guy who worked on the Large Hadron Collider to overhaul its physics. Already an acclaimed series, NHL 15 had the clearest path to being the sports video game of the year.

Except it left out practically half of the modes and features that had made the series great over the years. Die-hard fans treated it as a betrayal. Polygon's review torched it. For a series with 26 sports video game of the year citations, this was the lowest-scoring NHL title in franchise history.

This year, in which all licensed sports series were present on the new console generation for the first time, will be remembered by gamers as a collectively tentative effort at best. Just one console game scored better than 82 on Metacritic the entire year: MLB 14 The Show, which hit 83.

With that in mind, Samit Sarkar, Polygon's senior sports writer, and Owen S. Good, its sports columnist, will hash out their choice for Polygon's Sports Video Game of the Year.

Because, well, like the NFC South, someone's got to win this thing.

Madden NFL 15 Cam Newton screenshot 1920

Owen: You and I are panelists on the Press Row Podcast. Friday the show will name its game of the year, but two weeks ago we all expressed some reservations about what we've seen so far. Where do you begin when someone asks how sports video games did this year?

Samit: You could look at the sports genre as a microcosm of the gaming industry in general: plenty of good-but-not-great titles, hampered by a rocky transition to the new console generation. We saw this in games like NHL 15 and WWE 2K15, which lacked great swaths of content present on the previous generation.

I sense that the new generation hasn't truly arrived yet

More distressing is that a full year into the life cycle of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, we're seeing an increase in the number of big games released in a jacked-up state. Thankfully, the major sports games didn't launch broken, per se. But I sense that developers still haven't figured out the new consoles, and that the new generation hasn't truly arrived yet.

Some games were released half-baked, others were delayed and one suffered from both issues. MLB 14 The Show was great, but Sony pushed it back from its usual launch window by a month (two on PS4). Both NBA Live 15 and WWE 2K15 were late on PS4 and Xbox One by three weeks. When players are better served by buying the last-generation version of this year's game, there's a problem.

Still, there was plenty of great sports gaming to be enjoyed in 2014. MLB 14 introduced a long-desired feature that could be revolutionary: year-to-year career-mode saves. And if not for NBA 2K15's network issues, we'd probably be talking it up a lot more, don't you think?

NBA 2K15 James Harden screenshot 1920

Owen: True. I did say NBA 2K15 would be the best sports title of the year if not for online failures lasting more than three weeks from launch. Plus, the way that game installed itself on PS4, it led you to think it was broken right out of the box.

MLB 14 The Show's delayed launch frustrated me, but at least the game was feature-complete to its last version. With Player Lock and Quick Counts, it creatively addressed one of the biggest barriers to its career mode, the 162-game season, by giving a means of credibly playing portions of regular season games, instead of skipping or simming them wholesale. Like a downhill skier, The Show put in a respectable time early in the event, but I still kept waiting for someone to beat it.

If NHL 15 should have been that game, Madden NFL 15 could have been that game. It's still the best playing Madden to date. No feature has gotten more of a boost from the new consoles' firepower than Madden's run blocking, which had been disappointing even in the series' better years. Connected Franchise has become Madden's signature offering, the best online league in sports video gaming, but player advancement and hamhanded off-the-field elements like "confidence" really weaken that experience over time.

Pro Evolution Soccer 2015 gave me some of the most illuminating competitive experiences I've had, raising difficult questions about how much presentation and licensing should matter. Likewise I know you're still a huge fan of NHL 15's gameplay. After a few months, is it good enough to overcome the disappointment of the missing modes?

Samit: You're right. I do love the way NHL 15 plays. Real-time physics for all 12 players made a huge difference in how I think about movement: There's no "skating through" a defender, because you'll get bumped off course. No series made greater strides in its presentation this year than NHL 15, with full NHL on NBC graphical overlays and commentary from Mike Emrick and Eddie Olczyk.

Yet that amounts to a half measure because of how content-thin NHL 15 ended up being. Cutting so many modes (and scaling back those that remained) is difficult to swallow for players of any annualized series. It's an egregious sin for a sports franchise because those engaging modes are the reason people keep coming back. I still love NHL 15's gameplay, but the game gave me no reason to revisit it over the past three months.

A new trend for sports games: indies filling niches the big boys left open

I think we should give a shout-out to FIFA 15, the ol' reliable of the sports regulars, for another solid, if familiar, effort. The EA Canada team behind that title has a difficult task, and makes it look easy every year. And while we're talking about that studio's effort in 2014, it's worth mentioning EA Sports UFC — not for the decent game that launched in mid-June, but for the team's outstanding work delivering gameplay tweaks and new content through multiple free updates since launch. Post-release support remains spotty across the sports genre, but the EA Sports UFC developers really went above and beyond.

We also should mention a new trend for sports games in 2014: indies filling niches that the big boys left open. I think I liked the idea of HB Studios' The Golf Club more than I ended up enjoying the final product, but the fact this game supports the sharing of created golf courses across three platforms is remarkable.

Baseball fans had a lot to be excited about in 2014. Everyone was jazzed about the potential of MLB Advanced Media bringing back a fun, old-school experience with R.B.I. Baseball 14, but it didn't turn out so great. You know what did, though? Super Mega Baseball, which came out of proverbial left field yesterday to shock everybody with the best arcade-style sports game in recent memory.

Owen: I put in more than 1,000 non-simulated innings pitched in MLB 14 The Show this year. Pitching is My Thing; it's all I do after review. Super Mega Baseball's pitching system is the best I have ever used.

While it is arcade-style in its simplicity and presentation, and can take some cute liberties with the subject that league-licensed games cannot, Super Mega Baseball's appeal is sunk into the bedrock of an outstanding baseball video game. The challenge it delivers brings me back whenever I have spare time.

The only drawbacks are the fact Xbox baseball fans, again, are shut out of playing a good game, and that Super Mega Baseball lacks online multiplayer. However, I would not want to see such a clean experience ruined by lag. No modern baseball title seems to have figured out how to make a sport of timing, and disrupting timing, work online, and I won't obligate a studio with just three full-time staffers to try.

Last week I was facing a defensible if highly qualified choice for my sports video game of the year. It says as much about the year in sports as it does Metalhead Software's heroic, bottom-of-the-ninth home run that I now give that vote wholeheartedly to a game that launched yesterday. Yesterday.

Samit: As the first console game from a tiny indie team, Super Mega Baseball is an incredible achievement. You touched on the terrific pitching mechanics; how about the game's "Ego" difficulty system? It's perfectly suited to an arcade-style title with depth such as this one, and could work well in a sports sim too.

Super Mega Baseball is the Sports Video Game of the Year

It's also great that Metalhead got the basics right. Super Mega Baseball offers a rock-solid core of baseball fundamentals. It's the best kind of arcade sports game — easy for anyone to get into, engaging for sports fans and challenging for baseball die-hards. Plus, the aesthetic is genuinely charming, and the silly advertisements and ironic player names make me laugh.

We were lamenting at the outset that there weren't really any standout sports titles in 2014. That was true until yesterday. I'm ecstatic that Super Mega Baseball showed up to bring me out of that reverie, and I'm happy to name it Polygon's Sports Video Game of the Year, too.

This piece is part of Polygon's 2014 in Review series. Throughout December we'll be exploring the games, people and events that shaped gaming in the past year. You can check out more 2014 in Review stories in our StoryStream.

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