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Sports video games: The silent shame of my backlog pile

Four huge modes to play and one year before it’s all moot

Pro Evolution Soccer 2019 - Coutinho takes a corner kick
F.C. Barcelona’s Coutinho takes a corner kick in Pro Evolution Soccer 2019.
PES Productions/Konami

Let’s speak a word of charity for one of the silent soldiers in your backlog battalion: the sports video game.

Everyone has a classic they have not finished; everyone has some conversation they’re either missing out on or, more likely, staying involved in by going to Wikipedia. But sports video games are different. It’s not that they’re open-ended — so are multiplayer staples like Overwatch and Fortnite, after all. It’s not that they have limitless replay value — look at Forza Horizon 3 or any decent racing game.

It’s that each of the big sports video games has, for about a decade now, comprised a suite of four or so modes that could each be video games unto themselves. Even if the game you’re playing is your favorite since childhood, you’re still probably going to spend most of your time in one of these modes. My favorite sport is baseball, and I rarely venture outside of MLB The Show’s Road to the Show single-player career, for example. That is a lot of game on the table — Franchise, Diamond Dynasty, ranked multiplayer — going to waste.

Furthermore, for the team sports, you get just a year to sample a game before it’s mooted by the next update to the physics engine or the presentation, or simply the current roster of the league. Madden NFL 19 launches Aug. 10. I feel like I’ve barely addressed Madden NFL 18 past its story mode, Longshot.

Ultimate Team modes are another realm where I feel like I’m just wasting value. I play it in EA Sports’ FIFA series, mostly because it’s a cool way to learn about players and clubs in other countries that I have no exposure to in my regular fandom. I don’t play Ultimate Team in Madden; I don’t play Diamond Dynasty in MLB The Show; I don’t have any time or interest for MyClub in Pro Evolution Soccer. All of these games are considered best-in-class at what they do.

It’s one thing to have Assassin’s Creed Rogue sitting in your downloadable library or on your shelf as a reminder you’re missing a chapter in that canon. It may not necessarily be a timeless game, but at least you can revisit it more than a year after launch. Yet no one is going back to play NHL 16 three years after the fact. Sure, it’s there on EA Access, but its title alone admits that it has been out of date for going on two years.

I wish I could commit to a single sports video game (or just a single video game, but that’s another story). But sports fandom is very seasonal. In early spring, sure, I get caught up in European club soccer. In May, I’m riveted by the NBA playoffs. October is for baseball. January is for the NFL playoffs. Many sports fans sample different games when their favorite sport is out of season, or when something else is leading the conversation on talk radio or 24-hour sports TV.

For video gaming, the sports fan’s shifting attention shortens the lifespan of something that’s already, arguably, two or three times as large as AAA works in other genres. March rolls around and only the hardest-core fans are still interested in Madden. Five months later, the new game is out, rendering the previous one obsolete. The biggest regrets on my pile of shame aren’t the just the great stories and adventures I haven’t yet finished — I can go back to them any day if I wish. Instead, they’re the barely played sports titles for which there is, truly, no reason to return.