Jessie Owens at the 1939 Olympics, "The Catch," The Fight of the Century, sports of all kinds are filled with stories like these. While many may come to sports for "the love of the game," it's the dramatic moments, inter-personal rivalries, and years long "plots" that are often the real draw. So why is it that so many sports video games eschew traditional narratives in favor of rote career modes? While rivalries and underdog narratives can spring from just playing game after game in a season, the real drama happens both on and off the field. Players change teams, personal issues give rise to inter-teammate tensions, franchises rise and fall, and risky choices are made when both the team's and support staff's livelihoods are on the line. With such a rich pool of story beats to pull from, it's surprising just how few sports games present us with authored narratives.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/43jmbg/more-sports-games-should-have-story-modes
I really enjoyed this discussion on the pod today and I absolutely agree. It’s such an interesting and underexplored idea. There’s a story-focused sports game I particularly love that I think is worth discussing, even if it’s a bit peripheral.
Pyre is a fascinating visual novel/sports RPG made by Supergiant Games. Like an old school RPG, you explore a fantasy overworld and recruit a party from all over, facing off against different factions in an epic story, growing in power as you go. Like a visual novel, you build relationships through lots of dialogue and important decisions that affect the fates of those characters, while you are a bit of a faceless avatar. And, most importantly, the action of the game is an incredible, fantastical sort of basketball/rugby game, framed as a ritual of penance, where your wins and losses are recorded irrevocably (no retries!) and impact your position in a league and your ability to participate in the championship.
Obviously, this isn’t exactly what the crew was talking about - Pyre is not about a fictional story in a real sport, but an overtly fantastical world with a sport created just for the game. But it’s a model of story that I think sports games could borrow from: make each teammate a character with their own story and motivations. Build relationships as their coach/manager, and decide their fate through dialog and your own success or failure at the game.
Imagine an NBA game where everyone on your team is a written character, and you’re telling the story of your team’s struggle for success. The other team are also full of written characters, and those interactions drive things like trades, contracts, and free agency. It’d be fucking great.
Of course Dan’s level would sound like a Credence song.
Football Manager (which is huge here in Europe, but probably not very popular in the USA) is a pretty interesting case. It started out years ago with very basic systems, like players being unhappy when they didn’t get to play and wanting a transfer. Year on year iterative additions to that system have now turned into a sort of Dwarf Fortress about football. The interactions you can have with the play are extremely fine grained and from that stories about your team, your selection and individual players emerge.
Pyre is far and away my favorite Supergiant game, I love the characters and the world so much. The gameplay is pretty fun too, but everything else about that game is so spectacular. It kills me that it isn’t on Switch, and everytime someone asks they say they don’t have plans in that regard, which is a bummer. It’s a perfect Switch game.
I really enjoyed the NBA 2K19 China section. It’s super interesting. Like they said all the presentation is in Chinese. I really enjoyed that part of the game. After that it is just more of the same for a sports story mode. It’s a super good start followed by a normal rise from a rookie to a superstar in a span of a year type career mode. If they kept the same feeling of the first part of the story I think it could be really interesting.
First, I truly died when this episode opens with the “we had a real one” disclaimer opening the show.
Second, I fully support a Draft Day Waypoints. Sports games are really bad at giving the feel of the NFL draft. It is 7 rounds and you are hoping everything you’ve done and seen up to that point moves your franchise in the right direction. Free agency feels like the biggest means of improving your roster in the NBA (also something that 2K could probably put some extra effort behind) but for the NFL it is really the draft. The movie is corny as heck but it rules in its own way.
And I don’t really need story modes in sports games because they are the one type of game I can build my own narratives for throughout a GM mode. That seems to be a big thing that folks are interested in other games, but for something where there is a real life basis of narrative creating, we want a authored experience? Not sure I quite get it. If they can figure out ways to incorporate Magic Johnson moments into those games that’d be rad though.
A great discussion that, for me, only drives home what we view as ‘sports games.’
Unless it’s attached to a league and a brand, we tend to think of games that include sports by their other genre defining traits. Inzuma Eleven will always be a JRPG first, Lethal League (despite the title inherently defining it as a sport) is a fighting game, and so on
Japanese games in particular prominently feature sports, but a combination of inaccesibility and lack of brand attachment means we have a very singular view of what ‘sports games’ are.
I have a page in my onenote I e meant to expand on about what made Pyre stand out to me as a sports game:
It has always felt a little weird to me when we criticize professional sports teams for not having enough fun. Yes, when a team is able to enjoy themselves it usually helps the on field product, but professional sports and “fun” have a weird relationship. Above all else professional sports are a job. Pyre gets this in a way no other sports game ever really has and it’s fascinating. The Rites are not a fun event, but a somber ritual that happens to be gameified. For the actual player, it is a fun game, but for the athletes, it is a means to a greater end, and Pyre does such a good job on delivering that narrative.
I feel like there is opportunity for games, and stories in general to further explore our society’s relationship with sports, be it as a spectator, manager, coach, or athlete. Pyre’s story was not just a great fantasy story, but an interesting angle to view the relationship of a professional athletes to the sport they play. Give me more of that please!
Also a good place to note that if and when Square releases a Blitzball Manager mobile game with a story mode, my life is over.
Its funny how all of them talked about how Longshot Season 1 was neat but didn’t quite pull through and none of them played season 2. As someone who played season 2, that story is a dumpster fire. The plot of the story is basically “Give up on your dreams, move back to your small town, have a kid, take responsibility!”. It trash.
Though at its best, it did give me the idea that there is a really good High school/College sports RPG out there. Like Persona x Madden/NBA2K. Now that would be fucking neat
I love the Fifa story mode
The first one is pretty good at telling a cinematic story, and I also like the soccer parts, like you starting at the bench, but enter in the last 10 minutes with the “quest” to score a goal and come out with a win. If you complete it, you might get interviewed( you only choose if you’re going to be humble, cocky, etc.), have a higher chance of becoming a starter
But like plenty of movies/series, the second ended up expanding the story and was pretty good, but by the third game it feels like they’ve run out of ideas and had a pretty weak story
Austin’s moment of vulnerability when talking about Final Fantasy XIV really hit me hard. I’ve definitely had moments like that when looking at my giant pile of books I need to read, or all the games in my Steam library. It meant a lot hearing him say that there’s still value in “wasting time,” and that not all of your time needs to be spent productively. I’m probably gonna keep this pod saved on my phone for the times when I need to hear that
PS I REALLY gotta watch this new season of Riverdale.
the first sports game with a story mod was fifa 18
I liked that even such games have some kind of history