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For sports, virtual reality can never be as good as the fantasy

Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

Once, I was struck out by a pitcher for the Philadelphia Athletics. The franchise left that city in 1954. This happened in 1993, not a video game.

It was at an old-timers' game my newspaper was sponsoring in Fayetteville, N.C. The promotions department had rounded up a bunch of veterans who all had legitimate big league service, but still needed a team to challenge them. Having played four years in high school, I felt like I could contribute.

A week before the game, I went to coin-op hitting cages at a local mini-golf, jamming quarters down the throat of the fast-pitch machine. I was killing 90-mph balls, blasting line drives to the gap and back up the middle. I'm gonna double off the wall against one of these Medicare recipients, I thought. I really did.

The first pitch, from a 70-year-old who had played for Connie Mack, had some real heat to it. I shortened my grip, moved back in the box, and whiffed on the second fastball. Now facing an 0-2 count, I was scared out of my mind, unable to understand I was yet again set up for a textbook strikeout.

Here came the big curveball, drifting by in slow motion. I gawked at it like I would at a naked woman hitchhiking on the side of the highway.

Virtual reality video gaming has had a great week. After years of being fed fishfood — Kickstarted developer kits; ports, demos and proofs of concept; big celebrations for venture capital funding — big names like SonyValve and HTC committed to put VR hardware in consumers' hands by the end of the year. The next era in gaming seems to be upon us.

But I'm just as capable of striking out in real life against a septaugenarian from baseball's golden age as I am with a visor strapped to my face — and the former experience is well more memorable than the latter.

The point of a sports video game is to play beyond your real-life skill

Virtual reality gaming has supposedly been the way of video gaming's future for three years now, yet the movement has never really explained how this technology will enable or enhance the superhuman things gamers already already are doing, in third-person adventure titles, in fantasy role-playing games, in mass-market first person shooters like Call of Duty, with gamepads, keyboards and mice.

And in sports, virtual reality still hasn't made any case at all.

The point of playing a sports video game is to play that sport at a level far beyond your skill or experience in real life. If not, there are basketball leagues at the YMCA or soccer leagues at your local park offering meaningful camaraderie, accomplishment and triumph. There are tennis ladders and golf tournaments at the club, not all of them members-only. Hell, when I lived in Cooperstown, N.Y., 20 years ago, I played baseball by its 1876 rules, in period uniform, so there's even that out there.

It's the fantasy of playing against high-level competition, in a high-level venue and — most importantly — with skill worthy of both, that gives sports video gaming its meaning. In virtual reality, I see a device that reminds gamers more of their limitations.

Flash back to "first-person football" in NFL 2K5. This was a gimmick mode included in the game. Lots of people talk it up as some kind of landmark gameplay mode, but nobody knew what they were doing in it. As a quarterback, it's a lot harder to make a progression read and a successful pass from a first-person view, on a (literally) level playing field, than in the standard overhead view of a current American football game.

Golf would seem to be the best test case for virtual reality in sports. The ball is sitting there on the ground, motionless, waiting for you to hit it, after all. Yet the Tiger Woods PGA Tour series introduced motion control with Kinect three years ago, and its own developers couldn't shoot better than 83 from the championship tees at the Augusta National course they themselves designed. If that's the ceiling, who wants to pay $60 for it?

There are games with codebases literally stretching back to the Dreamcast days.

More importantly, what keeps sports out of the virtual reality conversation is the size — or lack thereof — of the market. There is no current sports simulation title available on Wii U. I realize people attribute that to some dark deal Electronic Arts demanded and Nintendo refused, but the fact remains there's still no NBA 2K no WWE 2K — no Pro Evolution Soccer, for God's sake — on Wii U either.

These are iterative titles with codebases literally stretching back to the Dreamcast days. If they can't readily adapt that work to make the Wii U controller's second screen necessary, or even meaningful, it is going to take an even greater overhaul — if not a complete work from scratch — to create virtual reality edition.

And that's after all of the league licensing costs — which are a huge brake on innovation, — are figured into the discussion.

It's not that I don't want to play baseball in virtual reality. To this day I still dream of ranging back to the low right field wall at my high school, legs kicking out the bedsheets as I leap for the grab.

I just don't see how it can be meaningful. Not at age 41, and not if I'm wearing Dodger blue at Chavez Ravine. Controls on a gamepad — press Y to dive for the ball — create a useful shorthand for certain physical acts that are very difficult for the mostly unathletic audience of millions that make these games profitable. More importantly, those outcomes can be turned over to the background dice-roll of attribute ratings. And we haven't even begun to discuss how all of this would or should look on television, which is an important quality of modern sports video games.

But the bottom line why virtual reality does not work in sports video games is, because unlike saving the galaxy, or slaying dragons, or shooting down a platoon of enemies, the real thing is there, played every day, in real life, by real people.

And if you can't do it better than them in a video game, what's the point?

Roster File is Polygon's news and opinion column on the intersection of sports and video games. It appears weekends.

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