The best sports games aren't necessarily innovative. But they do, however, contain innovative features.
Take a look at our most recent "Greatest Sports Game Ever" poll, and it's easy to match the top finishers with a ground-breaking feature. MVP Baseball 2005: Hitter's Eye. NFL 2K5: First-Person Football. College Hoops 2K8: 6th Man Meter.
This isn't to say that all great games innovate or that all innovative games are great. There just seems to be an inherent connection between those games we view as quality titles and the ability to bring something new to the table.
Refine, not redefine
Recently, though, the trend in sports gaming has been refinement. Some of the best things about MLB 15: The Show, a game hailed as the greatest in the franchise, are small tweaks. Lighting, UI improvement, smooth online play. The thing I'm most excited about for Madden 16? The addition of working penalties.
Granted, these small changes are welcome, and certainly more appreciated than something wildly innovative that sticks for one year. I'm not sure how often I ever played First-Person Football anyway.
But in innovation lies evolution. No one had thought of a rewind button in racing games until Forza 3 tried it. Now it seems to be a standard feature of the genre.
So, in 2015, with the focus on small refinements, is innovation gone?
Innovation is gone
First, let's argue that it is no more, and hypothesize why. If you look at the list of great/innovative games, they do share at least one other element: official licensing. Not having real teams and players seems to be the death knell for unlicensed games. Remember Backbreaker? It didn't sell well enough to warrant a sequel, despite being one of the most innovative games of the past decade. Of course, it wasn't a perfect product and reviewed poorly; Still, the lack of real teams a players (without a mod) didn't help.
One might also surmise that competition helps push innovation. We are almost down to one title per sport -- if your sport of choice is still represented electronically. There's little room for Madden to try something that might be creative but awful -- there's little reason as well. You can't set yourself apart from something that doesn't exist. In the past, a crazy feature might be enough for you to try a new title. Simply put, those "new" titles just don't exist.
Or is it?
On the other hand, I think innovation is happening, just in a much more elegant and practical ways. Going back to the lighting example from MLB 15: The Show, how crazy is it that you can simulate lighting conditions from a specific calendar day? This kind of innovation is subtle, but practical. It provides a visual appeal to every single game -- it's isn't a one-off mode that sees time once in a while or a feature that will be gone next year.
We are also at the beginning of a console cycle, so graphical innovation has to be considered. Our games look better than ever, with surfaces and textures that not only look good, but react in a realistic manner.
Real innovation lies in the framework of games, not simply on the outside. Building that quality "engine" seems to be more important to developers -- and more exposed to a knowledgeable public.
So, back to the question: are games still innovating?
My personal answer is yes, though, it's innovation in much more subtle ways. We've gone from a quirky mode or feature to whole systems and technologies that defy what we once imagined. The market is less of a wild frontier now, and in many ways, has grown up.
Still, I do miss the late 90s/2000s where competition bred new and fun ideas. Every year seemed to bring something that set the sports community abuzz: from vision cones to "cribs" to motion-controlled games, things that now seem kitschy once held genuine intrigue.
What's the most innovative feature or design-element you've seen recently?