I’ve been playing the newest edition of EA Sports’ NCAA Football series with my usual aplomb since I received it about a week ago. I am a hardcore football fan and, although the series has its problems, I’ve enjoyed pretty much every release to some degree. I have an equally voracious appetite for EA’s Madden series, as well. Truth be told, I love these games, and sports games in general. It’s unfortunate, then that they all commit the same sin, one that should have been rectified long ago.
For all of their technological prowess, and ability to go beyond what the average person sees while watching games on TV, they all fail to teach the user anything about the sport.
It’s a weird criticism to make about “simulation” games. People who put weeks into Microsoft Flight Simulator could come pretty close to flying an airplane, and those who create entire squads in ARMA II have a far greater knowledge of military structure than those of us who just toil away at Call of Duty. However, the sports games industry has a complete blind spot when it comes to actually teaching its users anything about the sport itself.
In NCAA and Madden, for example, there’s nothing to help new users identify zone coverage. Without independent research, a user attempting to pass the ball has no clue what they’re looking at as the defense either drops into zone or matches up. Without being able to read those keys, the game is uninviting to new users, and doesn’t teach its current users anything about actual football.
Similarly, in NBA 2K, there is a fairly robust playcalling mechanic, but no teaching to go along with it. Why are certain plays good against certain looks? What is fronting the post, and when should I do it? What’s a hedge on a screen and roll? We are given tons of options, but no instruction on how to use them. What sports gaming really needs to make the next leap in popularity is to invite new users into the game. I don’t mean by that that we need ancillary modes or perks in order to bring “casuals” into the gaming space. No, what I mean is that someone who really wants to learn the game of football should be encouraged to pick up a PS3 or Xbox 360 and the newest version of Madden.
Imagine a true tutorial in Madden. Imagine if it first taught you the basics of the playing field and the positions, and gave you a chance to try out each one to learn their responsibilities and skillsets. Then, after you get a general overview of the positions, you can choose to get granular with the different aspects of the game. For example, on defense you can learn all about a Cover 3: when to deploy it, what roles each defender plays in it, and where it’s weakest. Similarly, you can then look at it from an offensive perspective. Which routes are designed to combat a Cover 3? Why are comebacks good, but streaks aren’t? How do I recognize Cover 3? What are my keys to look for? Users would then be able to actually sort their playbooks by certain criteria based on what they’ve learned in the tutorials, and it would create a much richer and more realistic experience for everybody.
Television broadcasts of sports have taken things from games. The XFL, for example, used a “behind the qb” style camera for their broadcasts, and this “wire cam” was adopted by the NFL to great response. The NFL and EA Sports work in conjunction on a lot of elements of the game, and if the NFL is not putting pressure on the team at EA Tiburon to improve the teaching of their game, then they are missing a huge segment of their audience. People want to learn more about the sports they watch. Currently, there are many books available that delve deeply into football, and there are multiple internet outlets that have a wealth of information with regards to basketball, but the most widely available teaching tools are the games.
Say what you want about physics modeling, statistical accuracy, and AI, but the biggest failure of sports games is that they don’t actually teach us anything about the sport. We learn a little bit through pure osmosis and trial and error, and if you have a working knowledge of the sport you’ll be able to succeed where others fail, but the games should be gateways into their respective sports. There should be content initiatives to allow us to replay certain games or plays, with true to life schemes that offer the ability to teach users about what they see on TV so that they may better understand the sports they love.