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Devin Wade in Jack Ford’s office, Longshot, Madden NFL 18
Devin Wade, the hero of Madden NFL 18’s career mode, Longshot.
EA Tiburon/Electronic Arts

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Sports Game of the Year 2017

In a safe year, a risky bet paid off

While Star Wars Battlefront 2 received the brunt of negative publicity surrounding loot boxes in 2017, it was a sports game — 2K Sports’ NBA 2K18 — that kicked the debate into high gear a couple of months before then. Microtransactions have existed in the NBA 2K series for years, but this time, for many players, they felt pervasive and unavoidable. Yet it was business as usual elsewhere, as sports games at large mostly escaped the loot box outrage.

Despite that, many of this year’s sports games suffered from a sense of staleness, with developers focusing on an overall refinement rather than major new features. Even so, we found reasons to spend time with certain games more than others because, more than anything else, they were fun in the long run.

Here’s a recap of 2017 in sports gaming from senior reporter Samit Sarkar and weekend editor Owen Good.

NBA 2K18 - Paul George dribbling
Paul George directs the play in NBA 2K18.
Visual Concepts/2K Sports

Owen: I feel like this is a year to focus on what we enjoyed the most, or what was the most memorable. On the whole, the major series played the same as they did in the preceding year. FIFA 18 had a sequel to its story mode, and Madden NFL 18 joined the trend with a strong entry, but the underlying games still felt like refinements of the ones before.

NBA 2K18’s developers created a neighborhood environment for MyCareer to further this basketball-MMO type of a mode, and the game is still the deepest and most complete package offered by a traditional, licensed, team sport video game. But MyCareer reeks of a pay-to-win enticement even beyond anything Battlefront 2 does, and the grudging reaction from NBA 2K’s own fans makes it hard to give this game the crown again, especially if the only good reason is incumbency.

In the old days, this is when an individual sports title, like Fight Night or Top Spin or the old Tiger Woods golf series, could sneak in and take the crown. But they’re all gone. So that falls to licensed motorsports video games. It makes it tough for our purposes of discussion because racing games are legitimately their own genre.

Still, F1 2017’s management obligations made that game a sports video game as much as it is a pure racer, and forced the user into the hard choices and intrigue that define that series in ways other sports titles allow them to bypass. NASCAR Heat 2 came through as a solid sequel, even if its greatest appeal is to an insular cluster of racing fans. And rally racing was the best of them all in Dirt 4, a gloriously fun and endlessly replayable game that hooked me from day one. I don’t know if any of these are the sports game of the year, but Codemasters is definitely the sports developer of the year.

Dirt 4 - three cars on dirt road
A Peugeot leads the pack in Dirt 4.
Codemasters

Samit: I think we both went into 2017 with excitement at the thought of playing more indie sports games. Unfortunately, our most anticipated title — Metalhead’s Super Mega Baseball 2 — got delayed again, this time out of 2017. And some of the games that did make it to market, including V7’s Bush Hockey League (née Old Time Hockey) and Saber’s NBA Playgrounds, ended up disappointing us.

That bummed me out particularly because people naturally look to indie developers for fresh takes on sports. With a lack of risk-taking in the traditional AAA simulation sports genre, and no true breakthrough indies, we were left with a slate of sports titles that mostly turned in a reliable but unexciting performance. (This is less true if you look toward nontraditional, sports-adjacent titles — think of Supergiant’s story-driven Pyre or Sidebar’s RPG Golf Story — but that’s not really our focus here.)

I say “reliable” because MLB The Show 17 was the sports game I spent the most time with in 2017. That’s true in most years, because baseball is my favorite sport, but it was even better to play along with a very fun-to-watch Yankees team. I didn’t get that much out of Road to the Show’s new dialogue options, but the mode continued to hold my attention anyway. In other words, it didn’t do enough to make it far in the GOTY conversation, but it did enough for me personally.

MLB The Show 17 - locker room decision
Defying your manager in MLB The Show 17.
Image: PlayStation/YouTube

Owen: The game I play the most every year is also MLB The Show, because its pitching system provides the most intellectual challenge and the most satisfying return when you “get it,” that is, set up and mow down a hitter in a realistic way. But that’s been a part of the game for years, and MLB The Show 17’s thin role-playing layer — and there’s no dialogue other than a narrator — barely immersed me in that fantasy. Parts of it also felt forced or even scripted. I still can’t explain why a losing Minnesota club traded me to contending Pittsburgh in the middle of my second season to get a player they’d non-tendered the year before.

I think, if we were talking about Sports Game of the Year in the Time magazine style — not necessarily an honorific, but the most impactful title — then we might be giving it to NBA Live 18. Yes, really.

I do not suggest that it is close to NBA 2K18 in depth of experience or overall quality. But its career mode, The One, is very good, and smartly differentiated from MyCareer in that player progression cannot be bought for real money. EA had a rough year, especially with Battlefront 2’s bungled loot boxes, but the company has generally done right by EA Sports customers — it has pulled off microtransactions in Ultimate Team without angering its core fan base, and has kept loot boxes confined to that mode.

It sounds ridiculous that this is a thing to celebrate, but for the past decade, we’ve all said that if EA Sports is to make a competitive basketball product, it needs to take on the NBA 2K franchise’s weaknesses — and it does have weaknesses. 2K’s online stability and its intimidatingly deep and complicated gameplay have long presented opportunities for a competitor. But EA Tiburon couldn’t get its ass on straight in any mode of play to address them. Now it has, with The One.

Steph Curry in NBA Live 18
NBA Live 18 took a major step forward this year with The One, its career mode.
EA Tiburon/Electronic Arts

Further, The One highlights how microtransacted its competitor is. The rest of the game is rote, and I was disappointed by the bare-bones treatment given to NBA Live 18’s franchise mode — especially the throwaway inclusion of the WNBA, which doesn’t even have the team names in the commentary. But there is, at long last, a foundation for this franchise.

Samit: Isn’t it nice to have another sport with multiple games and some actual competition between them? I forgot what that felt like, outside of soccer. Speaking of which, 2017 was another year in which both EA’s FIFA series and Konami’s Pro Evolution Soccer franchise were neck and neck.

It seems like we’ve settled into a consensus of PES offering a more realistic simulation of the sport while FIFA brings out its larger-than-life elements (along with top-tier licenses and presentation to match). Still, we’ve got to call out The Journey, FIFA’s story mode, where EA delivered a terrific sophomore effort in FIFA 18. The writers deepened Alex Hunter’s story on the pitch and off with a detour to the States. Considering the microtransaction-driven backlash to NBA 2K18, The Journey might now take the lead in the sports story mode field — a category that’s getting more crowded every year.

But I know you were a huge fan of a different effort from EA in that area.

FIFA 18 - Alex Hunter in favela
Alex Hunter surveys a favela in The Journey: Hunter Returns, FIFA 18’s story mode.
EA Vancouver/Electronic Arts

Owen: Here is where I think sports games in 2017 have to be judged by what lingered in your mind the longest, whether it was for fun or for the memories. The big standard-bearers of the genre largely resembled what had come in the previous year. But man, did Madden NFL 18’s Longshot stay with me.

It has its share of sports-movie hokum, but I’m still struck by the gumption in its approach. This is a story mode for the NFL’s video game, and it involves no NFL team, not one play in the league. It takes balls to pitch that, to write it, greenlight it and get it all approved by the league.

So many times, sports video games celebrate a result: a championship, an individual award, a career filled with greatness or a singularly thrilling moment. Longshot, more than any other sports video game I’ve played, earnestly and honestly celebrated process — and left the player valuing what they had learned about themselves. American football is a deeply troubled institution, but if the sport has any cultural virtue left, it is that journey of self-discovery for those who play it. For that reason, Madden NFL 18 is my sports video game of the year.

Samit: I can’t argue with that — Longshot was the biggest risk EA has taken in years with Madden, and it worked. Madden NFL 18 takes the crown as Polygon’s sports video game of the year for 2017!