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2015 in review: The sports video game of the year

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What was 2015's best and brightest: Rocket League? Or something more traditional?

Sports were among the first video games. Pong is a sports video game. Racing video games are sports titles. But today, thanks to steep licensing and development costs, they're more of a boutique experience than ever.

There is no Major League Baseball game of simulation quality on Xbox, and no indication there ever will be another. There is one NHL video game. Konami and Electronic Arts offer nominal competition against powerhouses in soccer and professional basketball, respectively, and their commitments to both are legitimately questionable. There are no boxing or tennis titles. College sports have been wiped out entirely. That's without bringing up the infamous exclusive NFL license controlled by the Madden series since 2005.

Post-release support was the theme of 2016 in sports.

Either that distances sports further from the mainstream video games discussion, or it makes their contributions more worth recognizing. We'll go with the latter. After all, the sports we enjoy in real life are themselves well-designed and highly balanced games with playing histories lasting a century or more. And their video game analogues top sales charts year-round, with audiences as large or larger than the big-name shooters on any platform.

Still, there are fewer sports video games to choose from. They get published every year. And football is not basketball is not baseball, making their contribution harder to judge, even among their peers, than an annualized franchise like Call of Duty or Assassin's Creed. Polygon's two sports experts, Samit Sarkar and Owen Good, will do so anyway, and determine a champion for our 2015 Sports Video Game of the Year.

Owen: Of all the years I've written about sports video gaming, this one has been the least interesting. Not because their developers made no effort or the games themselves were boring, but because the landscape is so shrunken and hardened, and the territories that the major publishers control are so fortified, that we could be served anything and give it a thumbs-up so long as it has a current roster and the correct uniforms. I feel like 2015 was a year of major sports games either finally getting basic expectations right or, like NHL 16, adding back in features that went missing in the transition between console generations.

Samit: That was the big story for EA's NHL franchise this year — getting back on track after 2014's bare-bones effort. And developer EA Canada pulled it off, bringing back most of the features that were missing in NHL 15 while delivering important upgrades to the way the game is played. (Seriously, the On-Ice Trainer is my favorite innovation of 2015.) That doesn't mean NHL 16 brought the series back to its previous-generation heyday, but it was a major, reassuring step in the right direction.

EA Canada has also provided NHL 16 with a solid level of post-release support. Unlike last year, when the team scrambled to add features back in after launch, EA Canada has been able to focus on delivering new content, gameplay tweaks and bug fixes. That's expected these days, but it's worth highlighting as a comparison to the dire situation from a year ago.

In fact, post-launch support was kind of a theme this year, wasn't it?

Owen: From one angle it comes off a little cynical to me when developers know they can't deliver a game their customers reasonably expect by their deadline, and use post-release support to make up their homework later. Of course, it would be even worse if they did nothing post-release, especially as that would signal no confidence in the series from the publisher.

Rory McIlroy PGA Tour may have been compared too much to the expectations set by its Tiger Woods predecessor (including by me), but even if this game had shipped with all of the courses now available, I doubt it would be a real contender for sports video game of the year. The customization options are more befitting a game from two generations ago, which is especially unacceptable for an individual sport where most users play as themselves. The career mode did some things to obscure how few real courses it had on the schedule (eight at launch), and as such, you feel less like you're participating in a career and more like you're playing one event to the next.

Every sports game this year served high-quality gameplay.

That said, I have still powered through three seasons in my Rory McIlroy PGA Tour career where even in Tiger Woods PGA Tour 14 I was topping out late in my second. It is a very true-playing game of golf, indicative of high gameplay quality across the board this year. Where we could quibble or complain about features in modes of play or whether a broadcast package was boring or repetitive, in practically every sports video game of note the gameplay is strong, understandable and enjoyable. NBA Live 16, still regarded as a dead man walking by most, has virtue in its gameplay even if it isn't as varied or good-looking as the much more complex NBA 2K16.

One of the longest-running complaints sports gamers level against the custodians of these franchises is that they left some glaring gameplay deficiency unaddressed in favor of window dressing or gimmicks. I didn't hear much of that at all this year, and the series that has the bulk of that criticism, Madden NFL, just turned in a second straight rock-solid package that still found room to add a little pizzaz.

Samit: It's funny you mentioned the gimmick concerns — I was worried that would be the case with Draft Champions, a mode new to the franchise for Madden NFL 16. Then I tried it, and saw how engrossed I became over the course of a single round. It doesn't just capitalize on the daily fantasy zeitgeist; it's an exciting and challenging addition to the series for people who want a more confined experience than Connected Franchise, but something deeper than an exhibition game.

MLB 15 The Show doesn't get enough credit for its excellence.

Madden 16 developer EA Tiburon also deserves a lot of credit for its important changes to the passing game, and in particular, for figuring out a way to turn the act of catching a pass into an active, engaging experience. The addition of strategic catch options and the return of fine controls for the oomph you put behind a throw combined to liven up a part of playing Madden that had always been relatively automatic — you tossed it up and let the CPU handle the catch. That's the kind of meaningful gameplay change that doesn't come around very often, and Madden 16 delivered it well (except for its excessive emphasis on highlight-reel catches).

Speaking of not getting credit, Sony San Diego is off in its little PlayStation-exclusive corner perennially sidestepping the pitfalls of a lack of competition. Every spring, the studio turns in a great effort with MLB The Show, and Xbox-owning baseball fans get sad all over again because they can't play it. MLB 15 was no different, adding two small new features in directional hitting and the pitch trail that made the game a lot more fun to play. It's easily the sports game that I played the most in 2015 (although that was partly because I spent less time than usual watching the frustratingly mediocre Yankees).

Despite the hours I spent with MLB 15, no sports title was a bigger story in 2015 than Rocket Leaguethe surprise hit from indie studio Psyonix that exploded onto the scene in July and maintained its momentum through the rest of the year.

The concept — essentially, it's soccer with jet-fueled cars instead of humans — is so simple and beautiful that it's amazing no one thought of it before (except, well, Psyonix itself with Rocket League's ill-fated predecessor, 2008's Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars). The execution is astonishing: responsive controls that allow newcomers to have fun but offer impressive depth to skilled players, plus glorious little touches like the explosion of color that knocks everyone backward when a goal is scored. It's a hell of a lot of fun.

Rocket League also seems like something that hit at just the right time, neatly encapsulating the sports video game market in 2015. As an exciting and eminently watchable game, it fits well with today's culture of livestreaming. (I have little interest in watching people play Madden — I'd rather just play myself — but I watched a bunch of Rocket League this year online.) As a fiercely competitive game, it's perfectly suited for esports, a nascent field in which giants like EA are now ramping up their efforts. And I can't remember the last sports-focused (non-racing) game that had Rocket League's massive crossover appeal. You didn't need to have any interest in sports to care about Rocket League; it's a game everybody was talking about and playing.

But I don't suppose we're awarding a prize for "sports game that was the biggest story of 2015."

Owen: No, because then you get into Time Man-of-the-Year territory, where it's not exactly an honorific. Plenty of sports video games have been big stories for bad reasons. Nor should this be an award built on a body of work, which is why it pains me to eliminate, at the last minute, FIFA 16It was a breakthrough for me, but I acknowledge that I may have been late to see the light. It's still the most finely polished sports video game available. Polish is the key term, because there are a lot of good sports video games that add features but also an expanding list of instructions for triggering them.

No sports title is doing more than the NBA 2K franchise.

The NBA 2K series is a serial offender in that regard but the rest of the production makes it worth it, even when the 2K Sports team is changing the controls for the umpteenth time. Still, no sports title is doing more than the NBA 2K franchise to bring some kind of narrative structure to the experience rather than loading it onto players to make up for themselves. This is the third straight year we've been served a backstory for the single-player career mode, and all of them have been different. For this one, 2K enlisted Spike Lee — assuredly at no small cost, either in money or in development time — to write and direct the "Livin' Da Dream" centerpiece of MyCareer. In NBA 2K16 you have a best-in-class, licensed sports simulation doing something we've only seen in the likes of Fight Night Champion four years ago. Yes, the story of "Frequency Vibrations" (your player's unchangeable name) is a little too much like an after-school special, but it's vastly more than anything being attempted in sports video games right now.

Last year I said that if the NBA 2K series could get its multiplayer right, out of the box, it would be the game of the year. Lo and behold, that happened. Other games shored up their online experience too, notably MLB 15. None are as thoroughly integrated with online play as NBA 2K16 is, whether in the MyLeague online franchise mode, the new 2K Pro-Am cooperative/competitive multiplayer mode, or MyPark, the game's pickup league. Yes, NBA 2K as a series has had a long history of making back-of-the-box promises it couldn't fulfill in the weeks after launch. NBA 2K16, as an individual edition, does more in multiplayer than any other sports title and finally nails it. That, plus the bedrock excellence in the simulation serving it all, merits sports video game of the year, even as a traditional choice over a sexier topic like Rocket League.

NBA 2K16 is the sports video game of the year

Samit: As much as I love Rocket League, I'm completely on board with that. NBA 2K16 is an astounding package, both in its dizzying wealth of content and the overall quality of that content. In many respects, developer Visual Concepts is operating in a different league than every other sports game on the market. Most modern sports games offer a number of modes at varying levels of quality, but NBA 2K16 is stuffed to the gills with options for every kind of basketball fan, and each one pulls its weight.

And I hope the Spike Lee story stuff — as flat as it may ultimately have fallen — inspires other developers in the field. You and I have said repeatedly on the Press Row Podcast that we'd love to see more story baked into the career modes of sports games, and only 2K Sports is keeping those hopes alive at this point. We do these year-end roundups to look back at the past 12 months, but also to ponder what the past could mean for the future. Here's hoping that this year ends up being a turning point for our favorite genre. For now, though, let's celebrate NBA 2K16, Polygon's Sports Video Game of the Year for 2015.