By no means would I argue for FIA European Truck Racing Championship as the sports video game of the year for 2019. But as an example, if not a symbol, of the year’s hits, misses, and trends, it’s nearly perfect.
This was a year when all sorts of tertiary leagues and promotions, from FIA’s big rig racing series to the Professional Bowlers Association, found their way into simulation-type sports video games. After moaning for years that the genre was contracting thanks to licensing and production costs, I ate those words on a near-monthly basis, starting with a volleyball title (Bigben Interactive’s Spike Volleyball) in February.
The other reason the truck racer is a nice mascot for 2019 is that this was an absolute banger year for motorsports. Codemasters, the bell cow for this subgenre, dropped all three of its major franchises this year — Dirt Rally 2.0, F1 2019, and then Grid, its grand touring sim. NASCAR Heat, from 704Games, has gone from a labor of love and a license no one would touch to a solid motorsports sim in three years.
Bigben’s World Rally Championship game had a breakout year with WRC 8, delivering a career mode overhaul that nailed everything KT Racing was trying to achieve. And, hell, I will count demolition derbies as motorsports, since I wrote about them years ago for a newspaper in eastern North Carolina. So Wreckfest is the eat-it-with-a-spoon frosting on the cake.
All of these games were, if not necessarily the sports video game of the year, a breath of fresh air next to the established leagues and brands, so saturated with microtransactions and other come-ons that I felt like, even in the ones I liked, I was reviewing a business plan more than a video game.
But I’ll begin this year’s discussion, with Polygon’s front page editor, Samit Sarkar, with the big boys. If any of them are our SGOTY, Samit, I think it’s on name recognition, because while they did things well, I don’t think they did anything half as creative as Wreckfest. That said, MLB The Show 19 was a mainstay all summer and fall, and I know you always spend a lot of time with EA Sports’ NHL series.
Samit: Sounds like I’ve missed out on racing games this year — they’re a big blind spot, if you will!
As for MLB The Show and NHL, I certainly enjoyed them both in 2019. The Show has long been regarded as a terrific baseball sim, and with good reason. I was glad to see the defensive updates this year, which greatly reduced the amount of times I yelled in frustration at an infielder failing to throw out a runner. And Road to the Show remains one of my greatest pleasures in gaming, even if Sony San Diego’s attempts over the past few years to liven up the mode with dialogue options and other ancillary additions haven’t moved the needle much for me.
But at least it’s not as stagnant as my previous favorite career mode, NHL’s Be a Pro. It took years for EA Vancouver to bring the NHL franchise back up to snuff after the series’ dismal debut on current-generation consoles back in 2014. And the studio’s recent gameplay improvements have put the franchise in a position of power as we prepare for the PlayStation 5 and the Xbox Series X. (Note that it may be a while before hockey makes the jump, though — NHL 14 was not released on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One when those consoles launched in 2013.)
Honestly, I’ve been thinking more about the future than 2019 lately. I don’t think it’s fair or accurate to describe the year as a tough one for sports games. Instead, I think “workmanlike” is a better word for the performance that sports titles turned in this year. I must say that all of the ones I played felt like solid and satisfying but ultimately unexciting experiences. Do you think that some developers were taking a breath, so to speak, this year, as they ramped up their next-gen efforts?
Owen: I don’t know that the studios are taking a break, or preloading their efforts into the PS5/Series X games, any more than this is just a point of diminishing returns for the hardware and the experiences people have come to expect from it. From what I understand, the new generation’s power will mean more to things like visuals (with ray tracing, a term I guess I better get to know), loading times (always an issue facing sports games), and other quality-of-life bonuses — as opposed to enabling things in gameplay that we’ve never seen before. I mean, really, do we need new hardware to try different things with commentary, or role-playing features in the career?
The lack of change in otherwise steady and enjoyable careers is why I agree this feels like a workmanlike season for sports video games (and an apt choice of words, there). FIFA 20 and Madden NFL 20 abandoned the story-mode project, and while Volta Football and Face of the Franchise were engaging at first, I haven’t really seen either mode setting its community on fire. NBA 2K20’s MyCareer remains the greatest sports-lifestyle simulation, and this year got an unexpected boost with a career story that was actually quite touching, sensibly told, with believable and likable characters throughout.
I also don’t think Visual Concepts has gotten enough credit for the depth of its WNBA inclusion. No, the WNBA does not have representation within the single-player career suite or MyGM — but many of those features can be replicated within the MyLeague franchise mode where the WNBA is found. If you view this as a milestone effort like, say, the Apollo program, then sports video games have orbited the moon and returned. They have all the systems in place; they just need to touch down with a single-player career and women at full parity in a team sport. I thought we would get that in NBA Live this year but, you know, NBA Live gonna NBA Live.
Career also hooks back into my earlier ruminations on motorsports: The modes served up by F1 2019, WRC 8, and NASCAR Heat 4 have finally brought a big-time sports feel to a genre that used to hang its hat on visual fidelity and physics and stop there. There’s a lot of emergent-narrative role-playing to be found in these games now. In NASCAR Heat 4, for example, I’m racing in the NASCAR Cup for the Wood Brothers, and I use my winnings to fund my real guilty pleasure: my dirt track team. If we agree that career is the biggest differentiator among good and great games, then I say the one that most inspires me to make up stories is the one that did its job. And that’s why I’m strongly inclined to favor F1 2019, although I know you didn’t play it. What scratched the storytelling itch for you this year?
Samit: I definitely didn’t fall as hard for anything this year as you did for F1 2019, so I’m happy to assent to that if we want to go there.
As I hinted earlier, I didn’t get into NHL 20’s Be a Pro like I usually do, since it was barely changed from last year’s game. Instead, I once again threw myself into World of Chel for the second iteration of the series’ surprisingly great online suite. This time around, I was finally able to unlock some Rangers gear for my Samit Sarkar avatar (which I know is a silly thing to care about, but ... sue me).
I really got invested in trying to succeed in the free-for-all NHL Ones Eliminator mode with him. I kept trying to climb the ladder in NHL 20’s frustrating new battle royale-inspired take on the one-on-one-on-one tournament, but never made it past the third round. Still, I have to admit that EA Vancouver’s World of Chel design worked on me — since there are always opportunities to level up your created player and unlock new cosmetic items by playing other online modes, I had a reason to keep playing despite feeling like I was banging my head against a wall in Ones Eliminator. And even that mode was usually worth it for the thrilling games I’d occasionally have against other human players online.
As a longtime proponent of single-player games, and a skeptic of online play in sports titles — partly because I’m not skilled enough to hack it — I find it surprising that I’m actually describing my experience in World of Chel as having scratched my sports-game storytelling itch in 2019. But it’s true, even though there’s no narrative to speak of in EA Sports NHL’s online component. Maybe next year, I’ll try putting together an EA Sports Hockey League group so I can make my own stories with friends.
Owen: I’m in the same boat. I have been a hermit for most of my sports gaming career, yet I found myself playing online multiplayer more than ever this year. Even in NBA 2K20, where I found that playing within myself, knowing my limitations and not trying to work outside of them, I was able to contribute. Often I was even the best player on a (still losing) multiplayer team in The Rec or The Park, when my teammates were focused on scoring and go-it-alone play. Which is fine; I was glad to rank up my assists and rebounding attributes. The important thing is NBA 2K20 multiplayer isn’t as big or scary as casual or lesser players assume it to be.
But I suppose we should bring this to a conclusion. While I worry that F1 2019 might be seen as my personal obsession more than GOTY timber, I do think it belongs, as the most complete example of an ascendant subgenre (motorsports); as a game with a strong career mode that saw two meaningful enhancements for which we’ve praised other sports titles (the inclusion of an additional league, and the narrative wrapper for the career); and a multiplayer suite whose variety and appeal is at least equal to that of the career mode.
Codemasters got serious about the career in 2017, adding progression and other long-playing features and building steadily on them since. I feel that in F1 2019, it really has come to fruition and represents something all sports video gamers expect, thus making it something all sports video gamers should try. I know that, living in New York, you don’t drive, but is that a good enough sell for you?
Samit: I will have you know that I live in Queens, where it’s perfectly reasonable to own a car! (OK, fine, it’s my wife who drives to work every day.)
You’ve made a heck of a case for F1 2019. In a year without a standout release from the traditional big five (Madden, FIFA, NHL, NBA 2K, and MLB The Show), I’m happy to give Polygon’s 2019 Sports Game of the Year award to an underappreciated gem — and give it some time in the sun.
Roster File is Polygon’s news and opinion column on the intersection of sports and video games.