It’s In The Game

When one thinks of video games, they usually think of immersive, fantastical worlds and stories so outlandish as to only be possible within the digital world. Sports video games, however, occupy a niche for gamers hungering for a more realistic experience without sacrificing any of the immersiveness provided by other video games.

For many years the sports gaming scene has been dominated by EA (Electronic Arts) Sports. The company’s long-running franchises include FIFA Soccer, Madden NFL football, and NHL hockey. In addition, EA produces a line of basketball titles under the name NBA Live, but California-based 2K Games prevails as the overall fan favorite with its NBA 2K series. NBA 2K’s main attraction is the “MyCareer” feature which allows players to customize and play as their own professional basketball player. EA has since followed suit, implementing story modes in FIFA 17 and 18, Madden NFL 18, and even NBA Live 18.

Using modern technology, game design studios have become far more adept at creating player models for sports video games. The first and most important part of character modeling is motion capture. Developers invite the athletes being modeled to the studio at which they are asked to perform various actions while wearing a specialized suit. For instance, soccer players run, take free kicks, and even act out their signature celebrations. Developers then implement these tracked movements in the game to ensure that the players’ movements are realistic.

The next step is obtaining player faces. Using carefully placed, high tech cameras, developers scan the faces of prominent athletes. Players are instructed to express different emotions, like happiness or frustration, to suit all possible scenarios. Now, thanks to this technology, losing as one’s favorite team can be even more heartbreaking.

Another integral component of all sports video games is player statistics. Specialized teams of developers are assigned to analyze and subsequently rate players’ physical, technical, and mental attributes. Ratings are key in EA Sports’ “Ultimate Team” game mode, where players can build a dream team with every in-game player at their disposal. EA keeps its most popular online mode fresh with the “Team of the Week,” a special squad of players from across the sport who have exhibited outstanding recent performances and receive correspondingly boosted stats for a limited time. As the professional games rage, video games are constantly updating to reflect real-world results in order to create as realistic a simulation as possible.

As for the games’ impact on the fans, whichever player is chosen to appear on the cover of any given game appears to quickly achieve a spot of great significance. According to junior Alex Carnot, self-proclaimed FIFA expert and supporter of his hometown English Premier League football club Arsenal, cover athletes are “basically the image of that sport for an entire year. They have a lot of power and a lot of money and it changes the [people’s] opinion on the player.” In other words, they are literally the face of the game.     

Video games can also vastly change our engagement with and insight into sports. One case study is sophomore Ben Berman’s strengthened relationship with basketball due to the 2K series. “You see before I played 2K, I had a beginner’s [understanding of] basketball,” said Berman. In 2012, he played his first game of 2K, a moment he characterizes as a “life-changing experience because I realized what it meant to not only win a basketball game but how to win.” 2K18 allows players to step into the shoes of the coach as well, enabling players to deploy many different complex game strategies. As a result of his time spent playing the game, Berman now watches professional basketball through a tactical lens.

When asked if playing 2K has broadened his knowledge of teams and players, Berman enthusiastically concurred. “I think I get most of my knowledge from 2K,” he said. “For example, when you’re selecting your team, it’ll list all five of the starters. Playing the game also lets you interact with the second and third units.” Additionally, in-depth coach analysis allows players to enter the mind of the head coach, enabling Berman to “understand how coaching style can really affect team performance.”  

The design and development of sports games along with ongoing updates to players and teams produce a heightened in-game experience. Inclusion in these games significantly impacts the reputations of real athletes and fosters a greater interest in and understanding of the game in potential fans.

By Mihir Kesavan ’20