The Journey: How Cinematic Stories Took Over The Sports Game

Once upon a time, there was Pong.

Pong was a sports game, it was one of the world’s first sports games in fact. Based on tennis, the goal in Pong was painfully simple: hit the ball with your paddle. If the ball makes it past the opposing players paddle, you get a point. The player with the most points wins. That was it. That was Pong.

If you were to distill the art of a sports game into the most basic of fundamentals, you’d probably end up with Pong. Its simplicity was also its joy, as it didn’t need fancy graphics or deep story-telling to make it playable. It only needed two players, and away you go. But such simple pleasures would not last forever as games became more complex over time. Audiences demanded more depth from their video games which they were spending up to £50-£60 on, and the sports game was no exception.

It’s In The Game

For most of the eighties, the sports game largely remained untouched though. There was little need, or indeed the technological capability, to introduce stories into such titles. People seemed happy with fairly disposable sports games like Track and Field, Punch-Out!, and California Games. But as we headed into the nineties, and with the growth in console power, things began to change. And it was Electronic Arts that heralded this new development in story-telling.

Before we heard the fabled EA Sports “it’s in the game” intro, there was the EASN (EA Sports Network). Largely forgotten today, this was EA’s original gimmick at bundling all their sports titles under one umbrella: a fictional TV network (à la ESPN). It may seem quite unassuming now, but this was actually the earliest attempt at moving sports games into a story-driven direction. The EASN games had an underlying fictionalisation behind them, a pretend universe in which they all lived in, and they were no longer just sports games without any context.

This ethos of presentation in the developer’s sports titles would continue long after the switch from EASN to EA Sports. Their games became more and more famous in not just offering a decent sporting simulation, but also a realistic one albeit in a fictionalised world. They recogonised that sports fans wanted to create an alternate universe inside their sports games. One where they could play as the interactive element in changing the history and future of their favourite teams. And one where they could create brand new sporting stories.

Wrestling With Career Modes

The introduction of career and franchise modes in sports games was the key element in the growth of story modes. A player now had the option to spend an entire season as one team. Suddenly, the destiny was held in your hands as you shaped the future of the team you controlled. For anyone with a little imagination, they could begin to play out story-lines in their heads. For anyone who spent countless years living inside intricate football management simulations, this was nothing new. And nor was it a sign of some kind of mental delusion. Seriously, it wasn’t – no matter what the therapist might tell you.

The career modes in sports games were still not fully story-driven though (unless it was the story inside your own head). Their goals and objectives remained more statistical based, working on cold-hard facts rather than emotions. However, it was wrestling games that changed this in the early 2000’s.

THQ had brought a new era of wrestling games to market for the next generation of consoles, and with them came more nuanced stories. Naturally, as these were games based on pro-wrestling, they introduced more emotive elements than your average career mode. They required the player to make plot-driven decisions that weren’t based on stats. These were the early steps for a more cinematic-driven story mode in a sports game.

Lights, Camera, Action

Learning from wrestling career modes, more traditional sports sims began to change things up too. EA would of course get in on the action, but it was 2K Games that really promoted more filmic story modes first with their NBA 2K games.

The addition of scripted events into career modes really kicked up a notch in their NBA 2K16 release, where the story itself was creatively seen over by film director, Spike Lee. Bringing in talent from Hollywood meant that story modes were now actively emulating films more than ever before. It was no longer just a side-project, these elements were now becoming a big investment for game developers.

In FIFA 17, EA Sports debuted their first foray into a cinematic story mode with the tale of up-and-coming footballer, Alex Hunter, in The Journey. While it was hardly above the level of Dream Team in terms of story and plot, it proved popular and the mode returns this year in FIFA 18, where you continue Alex’s journey. And Madden NFL 18 will also be premiering its own cinematic story this year, with their career mode film called Longshot.

It seems today that fans want, and expect, an engrossing cinematic story mode in their sports simulations. The important thing for developers though, is that this doesn’t detract from their end product. Ultimately, a sports game lives and dies by its basic fundamentals – the ones that Pong got right so many years ago. And no matter how Oscar-worthy your story mode is, if these fundamentals are missed, no-one will be coming back to continue the journey.