Playing Ball: The Challenge of Sports Game Accessibility
The sports videogame. A staple of the industry that goes back to the very beginnings of the medium. A yearly feature in many gamers’ shopping lists and one of the highest money-spinners in gaming. But as the games themselves get closer and closer to being complete representations of elite athletes and professional competitions are sports games losing some of their inherent appeal? Are sports games becoming just too realistic for any but fans of the real-life sport to enjoy?
I am, and always have been, a big sports game player. From golf games way back on my 286 computer through to the latest NBA2K game, sports have always been a huge part of my gaming library. But as the years have progressed I have noticed something that has me a little concerned. In the 90s, sports games were such that just about anyone could pick one up and with just the slightest knowledge of the sport, have a grand old time. Now that is simply impossible and as a result, I found that my sports game collection has solidified around the sports I have a greater understanding of, the deep knowledge that these simulations expect of their players. Basketball, Cricket and Golf, therefore, are my sports games of choice. I understand them at the level that is required, I know their intricacies and rulebooks and I recognise the minute details and quirks that give the sports their identity to fans.
It is wonderful that I can get these deep recreations of sports that I care about, that I can partake in something that I will never be able to in the real world. At the same time, I feel it is also sad. Sad because I only have a surface-level knowledge of sports like Soccer and Grid Iron and that is simply not enough to enjoy the video games that recreate them. This is because, by their very nature, these sporting recreations are so focused on making each iteration more realistic, more true to life, that the developers have effectively shut the gate on new players coming into the fold, especially ones that lack the love for the real-world sport.
Up until recently, this was a sacrifice that felt necessary, something that had to happen so sports games could continue down their path of realism. I had made peace with the fact that I wasn’t going to play FIFA anymore, that I wasn’t going to have NHL multiplayer matches with mates. But I have since had a change of heart on that matter, a change of heart brought on by a sports game lowering the entry barrier and catering to newbies without ever compromising on the realism for those that have a deep love of the game. That game is MLB: The Show and it has proven beyond doubt that we can have it both ways when it comes to simulation sports titles.
A little history on my knowledge of baseball. As an Aussie, baseball was never really high on any sports list. I have never played the game in real life, nor have I ever sat an watched a match on TV. I have a surface understanding of the sport, I understand the basic concepts and I have seen the late 80s’ sports classic Major League more times than I would care to admit so I am not a complete and utter rookie. I have played a few arcade baseball titles in my day, but have never really found a baseball game to capture my interest enough to learn the sport. Essentially, I have a surface-level understanding of the sport but quickly find myself out of my comfort zone when discussions go any deeper than “Man, that was a big hit.”
With that in mind, it is no surprise that I hadn’t ever played MLB The Show before. There is hardly a big demand from our readers for baseball games reviews and I didn’t like the sport enough to lump $90 on a copy of the game to find out if it was for me. It was only through the magic of corporate backroom dealings that led to The Show ending up on Xbox Gamepass that I ever got to try this game. I could have gone on with my life, happy in my firm belief that I wouldn’t enjoy a baseball game because I just didn’t know enough about the sport. But thanks to The Show being a part of Microsoft’s killer service I now know how mistaken that belief would have been. Put it simply, MLB The Show is a fantastic game, not only in how it accurately depicts the sport of Baseball but by just how accessible it is to players of all levels.
From the moment I booted up the game, it went out of its way to comfort and guide me. It eased my apprehension by taking me through a series of practice activities that tailored the game to my skill and knowledge level. Every major component of the sport has multiple control schemes and the game allows you to try each of them out, finding what suits you best in the process. The game also features one of the most impressive dynamic difficulty systems I have ever seen, constantly making adjustments to AI, Pitching and Batting difficulty to suit my growing skill, always ensuring I felt challenged but not overwhelmed. Finally, the game never speaks down to those who don’t understand the finer points of the game. It explains things in simple ways without ever just resorting to walls of text. It has taken on the role of teaching me the sport of baseball and like all good teachers, it does so in a way that is entertaining and in no way belittling.
All of these features are seemingly absent in the other big sports titles out there. If you don’t know what a “pick n roll” is in basketball, NBA 2K isn’t going to teach you. If you struggle with the idea of a Blitz, well Madden does a really bad job of explaining when and where to use it and as for what the hell is going on with all the different plays in Ice Hockey, well I have tried to play NHL multiple times over multiple versions of the game and still have no idea. This is why MLB The Show is so impressive to me. The developers at Sony San Diego clearly have a love for the sport and have used that love to not only keep current fans happy but perhaps bring some new players into the fold and it is beautiful to see. Couple this with the inspired choice to include it in Xbox Gamepass and all of a sudden you have the real chance to win new fans of the game and even the real-world sport.
What MLB The Show has proven to me is that sports games do not need to sacrifice realism and simulation to be welcoming and accessible. It proves that just because the goal of the game is to accurately represent the excitement and coverage of a real-life event doesn’t mean that the game can’t also generate interest and foster fandom among those new to the sport. By removing barriers, explaining concepts that are foreign to those outside of the sport’s fans and making the game easy to access, MLB The Show has a real chance of being the catalyst for a spike in the attention given to baseball, especially for those like myself that live outside of traditional baseball playing countries.
The prime thing I have learnt from my time with The Show is that other sports games are missing a golden opportunity. Their focus on realism doesn’t need to exclude those without a deep knowledge of the sports they represent. They are failing a simple goal that all video game franchises should have and that is to bring in new players. These sports all have massive fan bases so the games themselves are already massive successes, but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t be even bigger by being more welcoming. Accessibility doesn’t lead to a lack of authenticity and the sooner sports game developers embrace that, the better sports gaming, in general, will be.