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Can indie sports games fill the gaps that EA and 2K Sports have left open?

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And how do you reward the risks they take?

Super Mega Baseball 2 batter and catcher
Stepping up to the plate in Super Mega Baseball 2.
Metalhead Software

No video game genre has higher barriers to participation than sports. Users typically expect league-licensed work, even for arcade-style games that don’t aspire to simulation, season-long experiences. That costs a lot of money, and that money is a pure expense going up the chimney before the first line of code is put down.

To make a sports video game as an indie developer is, truly, to sail in rough waters. It is not impossible, and good ones do stand out. Super Mega Baseball is a great example, and Rocket League flat-out ignored the conventions of sports game development to make something that has become as popular as FIFA and NBA 2K.

Coming to consoles are four sports video games (Mutant Football League, Old Time Hockey, Super Mega Baseball 2 and The Golf Club 2) that suggest that the variety that sports fans enjoyed more than a decade ago — especially in the field of arcade-style games — might be returning. Yet as much as their developers may be commended for taking risks, they still raise concerns about gameplay, and about whether sports titles that forgo league licensing and the usual “it’s in the game” trappings are graded on a condescending, A-for-effort curve.

Samit Sarkar and I have played two, and as much as we love and encourage the creativity behind them, and those making them, our impressions right now would probably not result in a strong review.

Mutant Football League - Croakland Invaders
The Croakland Invaders in Mutant Football League.
Digital Dreams Entertainment

Owen Good: A commenter a while back complained that we rarely give titles lower than an 8 out of 10, and while that’s objectively disprovable, I understand the sentiment — particularly as it applies to sports. A reader would be forgiven for thinking we begin the discussion of a league-licensed sports title with the idea that it’s inherently worth people’s time and money because it’s the only thing around for that sport.

On the flip side, I feel like we encourage any competitor — whether that’s Mutant Football League or even NBA Live — just because there’s so little variety in a staple genre. And when the actual gameplay fails to impress, we’ve left readers holding a bag full of expectations. I love what Michael Mendheim is doing with MFL, and it is unquestionably a respectable labor of love. But I worry that what I played at the 2017 Game Developers Conference won’t live up to the hype when it launches.

Mutant Football League is a riot, but it’s mainly at the edges of the design, in things like the late-hit scrums, or Tim Kitzrow (Mr. NBA Jam himself) chortling over a player's death, or a report calling out how many players have died. The passing game was a weak point in that the ball was generally lobbed to a point; the action seemed suspended, and impervious to interference, as the players moved to where it would land. User-controlled defenders seemed to move faster than everyone but the ballcarrier, resulting in a lot of overrunning the play.

But why do I still love that game, and why do I want it to succeed?

Old Time Hockey - beer on the bench
The NHL wouldn’t touch Old Time Hockey with a 39.5-foot pole.
V7 Entertainment

Samit Sarkar: Well, I imagine nostalgia factors into it. But as you noted, the severe contraction in the sports gaming market over the past decade makes it unnaturally exciting to see something that isn’t an existing annual league-licensed product. The lack of real teams and players would be a turnoff for a simulation game, but it allows makers of arcade-style titles to take more liberties than, say, the No Fun League would allow.

Enter Old Time Hockey, which is made by a small Canadian studio called V7 Entertainment. The NHL is nowhere near this game (not that it would ever want to be). With teams such as the Long Island Rumrunners, storylines like a club that drinks beers during games, and mechanics that include the ability to check a referee, Old Time Hockey isn’t attempting to represent hockey as it is played in the National Hockey League.

No, the mullet-sporting bums of the Bush Hockey League are straight out of the 1970s, inspired by films like Slap Shot and the rough-and-tumble sport they portrayed. If there’s one thing that V7 got right, it’s the aesthetic of Old Time Hockey. The gameplay, unfortunately, leaves something to be desired. It’s missing some pretty basic stuff, like being able to receive a pass from your goalie, which often makes things frustrating. But I enjoy enough of the experience to make me wish it didn’t fall short the way it does.

You don’t think it makes sense to lower recommendation standards for games like these, do you — simply because players literally have no other options?

Owen: That’s a tough benefit of the doubt to give. You and I are advocates for this genre, but we have to be advocates for readers first, and we can’t recommend things that are boring or poorly executed just because they tried hard or diversified a shrinking catalog.

Going the indie route in sports would seem to place a higher priority on gameplay — maybe more than in other genres, too. These are, again, representations of well-designed exercises that have existed for decades, if not more than a century, and if the action doesn’t conform to those expectations, it’s a lot more palpable than a design quirk in a roguelike 8-bit Metroidvania.

The Golf Club 2 - golfing by a lighthouse
Golfing by a lighthouse in The Golf Club 2.
HB Studios/Maximum Games

You were disappointed by Old Time Hockey’s inability to cue up a one-timer. That’s a legitimate shortcoming, failing an act fundamental to the sport. We’d grade NHL 17 down for that, very harshly. But we don’t grade down NHL 17 for not indulging Slap Shot nostalgia. So you have to evaluate what the developer set out to do and whether they delivered, and EA Sports doesn’t set out to give you a season in the 1970s, nor any other past era. But Old Time Hockey did set out to give you a standard game of hockey.

These alternative design choices should still be respected, and perhaps we should take our cues more from the audience it’s meant to appeal to. It’s probably impossible for Mutant Football League to hit the kind of wide, mainstream audience its spiritual ancestor did 25 years ago, because a quarter century is ancient history in video games. So if the passing is functional, just not crisp, then maybe that rides back seat to the fact it gives people comically violent football — without the babied, image-manicured treatment of 2012’s NFL Blitz from EA Sports.

Consider something like women’s basketball. There’s not as much above-the-rim action and it relies more on ball movement, spacing and getting a teammate open. Most basketball fans appreciate such things, but the broader sports fan audience tunes in for dunks, rejections and isolation plays. Women’s hoops still delivered an all-time great game when Mississippi State ended Connecticut’s 111-game winning streak on a buzzer-beater at the Final Four. The men’s final between Gonzaga and North Carolina was barely watchable. We don’t grade Gonzaga and UNC’s game up for getting a bigger audience, and we don’t grade Mississippi State and Connecticut’s down for reaching a smaller one.

Samit: I’m totally with you on your answer to the question I posed. Lowering our standards makes it less meaningful when we highlight something that’s genuinely impressive, even spectacular, like the original Super Mega Baseball. And as you pointed out in the intro, it’s a condescending attitude.

In fact, we have to raise our standards, just like developers of sequels try to raise the bar. I’m expecting a lot out of Super Mega Baseball 2 and The Golf Club 2, and not just because it’s been well more than two years since their respective predecessors were released. It seems like 2017 is bringing about a moderate expansion of the sports gaming market, which is great for sports fans. But as always, more competition in the field not only means that individual games must do more to compete for our money, but that we have to think harder about whether and how they’re worth it.

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