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Sports video games finally have their Year of the Woman

Major, meaningful additions to three licensed franchises showed how including more people can make games better

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

The most appealing thing about NBA Live 19 isn’t so much who I played as; it’s who I played with. The difference that makes is a long overdue point missing from the discussion of diversity and inclusion, and one only a sports video game could make. It’s one thing to have the option of creating a woman avatar in a game dominated by men in real life. It’s quite another when you have women as teammates and competitors, regardless of who your character is.

In “The One,” NBA Live 19’s career suite and the game’s strongest feature, whether I created my player as a man or a woman, I was still going to see women — the WNBA’s best. Yes, it’s noteworthy that women were a character creation option in the career mode for the first time in this or any other NBA series. But other sports video games have ticked that box before (including EA Sports’ NHL series in 2011). A mixed-gender population in The Streets (The One’s pro-am tour) showcased diversity and inclusion as something that contributed to and improved an overall game experience, instead of simply altering its looks.

The point is continually made that including different people — ethnicities, genders, orientations — makes the experience better. Well, adding WNBA stars means the noteworthy player population is roughly twice as large, unlocking and acquiring teammates is more interesting, and the mix-and-match options for your teams of three and five are commensurately varied. And it makes the point more powerfully when I’m choosing my lineup and can see that, yeah, maybe Britney Griner is better to have here than Iman Shumpert, especially if I’m in the “Court Battles” mode going up against another user whose house rules prioritize blocks and dunks.

Career modes are a staple expectation of sports video games, so any improvement in inclusion there counts a heck of a lot more. Team sports titles have been lacking in this regard, even if the FIFA franchise introduced a dozen women’s national teams back in 2015 and NBA Live pulled in the WNBA last year. Both experiences weren’t supported much beyond one-off, play-now games. But in those two games, in 2018, we saw women included more than ever — even within the constraints of real-world participation that sports video games are uniquely obligated to reflect.

EA Sports UFC 3 delivered a career mode with full parity for women fighters and men. Last year’s UFC 2 did as well. But the improvements and enhancements UFC 3 made with G.O.A.T. Mode (as the career is now called) showed off how much female athletes get to do in a major title.

There’s a training camp to schedule and plan, sparring partners to pick and fight, an event to promote, rivalries to service, fans to engage. Things can boil over in a pre-fight news conference for women as much as they can for men. EA Vancouver also did a better job of presenting their fighters, taking to heart fan feedback about how women’s hairstyles in UFC 2 didn’t look like someone ready to fight. Now they do, and updated “Real Player Motion” technology makes differences in size and power more apparent in the matchups.

There’s no mixed-gender fighting (nor should there be; there isn’t in real life), but if you create a female combatant, you get the most immersive career experience for women in a licensed sports video game. The last time there was a sports career mode for women with this much to do was 2013’s Tiger Woods PGA Tour 14, which had an LPGA Tour instead of forcing women into men’s competitions.

EA Vancouver/Electronic Arts

FIFA 19 expanded the role of Kim Hunter for The Journey: Champions, the final chapter of the franchise’s narrative mode. In doing so, EA Sports at last brought fully branded Women’s World Cup play into the FIFA series — albeit only as games within The Journey: Champions for now.

The series has had a tournament mode since national teams were introduced in FIFA 16, yet without WWC branding. Although women’s national teams have been a nice inclusion for three years in FIFA, they’ve been mostly underserved by a lack of anything to do, other than a generic tournament and one-off games. Expanding Hunter as a playable character (she had a couple matches in chapter two last year) was a smart play; it at least gave the women’s soccer experience a longer-term mode. But if FIFA adds in a women’s World Cup mode later (as it typically does during a men’s World Cup year), it will still face the question of how to incorporate them into the career mode.

Elsewhere: NHL 19’s “World of Chel,” of course, includes women among the character creation options. World of Chel is a suite similar to The One, in that it offers both a professional career arc and less formal competitions, both single and multiplayer. We thought its blend of offerings was the biggest reason NHL 19 was an unexpected breakthrough for the series. And Super Mega Baseball 2, whose 2014 predecessor I lauded for its mixed-gender lineups, came back with the same standard teams (plus several more) and more realistic presentation, giving women one of the better baseball experiences and best arcade sports game of the year, too.

But NBA Live 19 taking the leadership role really cheers me up when I think about how sports games battle an annual sameness problem, more than any other video game genre. It’s not just because this game has shown others how to realistically and meaningfully incorporate women, against the constraints of a sport where pro competition is gender-segregated and men’s teams dominate the public’s attention span. The designers’ choice to include women also gave distinction and variety to their franchise — and helped bring it out of an eight-year wilderness, where few expected it to survive, or even cared if it did. NBA Live is again a worthy partner in sports video gaming’s conversation, and thanks to the makers, so are women.