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Has Innovation Become a Thing of the Past With Sports Games?

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.

You Decide!

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?


Member Comments
# 1 Guapo516 @ 07/03/15 04:17 PM
I think we are getting to the point where it's going to be hard to innovate but we aren't there yet. NBA 2k is the game that's closest to being the game that reaches its ceiling and even that series has work to do.
 
# 2 SDwinder @ 07/03/15 04:38 PM
The hitters eye in MVP 2005 was just a gimmick to compensate for the physics engine not being able to replicate realistic pitch physics. That has been solved in The Show 15.
 
# 3 bballshawn24 @ 07/03/15 04:55 PM
Quote:
Originally Posted by Guapo516
I think we are getting to the point where it's going to be hard to innovate but we aren't there yet. NBA 2k is the game that's closest to being the game that reaches its ceiling and even that series has work to do.
I gotta say 2k has been one of the main suspects of taking things out of the game only to re introduce it as something new 2-3 years later. How you can take out summer league, d-league, draft combine, and crew is beyond me. I take note of this and when they introduce it as something new, i simply dont count it as a new feature.
 
# 4 BA2929 @ 07/03/15 05:16 PM
In my opinion, EASHL is probably the most innovative thing that has came out in recent years.
 
# 5 CM Hooe @ 07/03/15 05:31 PM
Strikes me as a bit shortsighted for this article to not mention Ultimate Team / MyTeam / Diamond Dynasty whatsoever.

Specific to Madden NFL, I would call Draft Champions an attempt at innovation. It's certainly a new way to interact with the same game. Certainly it is buoying a little bit off of Ultimate Team, but it is not the same.

Rory McElroy's PGA Tour has a feature called Night Club which challenges the user to use the traditional golf gameplay mechanics in new and non-traditional ways. I would also call that innovative.
 
# 6 snc237 @ 07/03/15 05:39 PM
I think everything above is true however these games are so big and complicated now, that adding some crazy new thing might just be way to big of a hassle when you can make small improvements
 
# 7 Kanobi @ 07/03/15 06:02 PM
Speaking specifically about the console football-gaming genre

The days of Madden vs NFL2k were the best. Madden 05 is still hailed as one of the best of the franchise if not THEE best. And of course NFL2k5 is legendary. I owned and spent equal time playing both games because they each offered a fulfilling experience in their own way.

I think that was due to competition between Visual Concepts and Tiburon which ultimately inspired innovation and risk-taking. But now...

I've been watching Madden ..and waiting for it to blow me away with something...waiting to have that "Oh man I gotta get this game!" feeling to return but it just hasn't happened.

Madden is a good game in it's own right. But with no other bar to compare it to, how accurate can that assertion really be?

When Madden is still behind games that are 8-10 years old in certain areas of gameplay, animation and presentation, one has to ask themselves "What am I paying $60-$70 for?" because clearly Tiburon no longer feels a need to aggressively push the envelope or gamble with a formula that's tried and true.

This is getting off-topic but I really wish OS (Steve and the staff) would do something about NFL/EA exclusivity.

As one of the pillars of the online sports-gaming community, OS is in prime position to utilize their influence to bring about change or least draw attention to this subject from eyes that could make something happen.

Perhaps OS could partner with the leaders of other notable sports-gaming sites and formulating a plan...a petition...anything to bring about an end to this exclusive EA/NFL partnership.

I'd even try to make the NFL understand that their agreement with EA eliminates them from seeing the league represented to its fullest and highest potential on a video-game platform due to there no longer being competition among developers to produce the best NFL game on the market.

The NFL also needs to see that their agreement with EA goes against the very principles of fair competition that they so intensely impose and promote in just about every facet of the league.

That's the only way true innovation will ever return to the NFL-Licensed football-gaming genre, in my opinion.
 
# 8 MAGboyswifT27 @ 07/03/15 06:20 PM
I made a comment on innovation recently in regards to Madden. I strongly believe Madden hasn't been innovative like it used to be. The lack of competition with the license being owned by EA, new developers/team, and a yearly game with roster updates, minor additions/subtractions etc are a few factors that play into this with others I may have missed. I'm not saying that I won't play the Madden titles or that I'm hating on it because I've played every title since these changes have occurred. And I love the game of football, I mean it's the only American Football title we have left. But games such as MLB The Show do their very best to simulate what a sports gamer would want in their game. As mentioned in this article it's the small things and attention to details that bring sports gamers back to purchasing that game. I hope that whatever game you play that you're receiving that fulfillment. MLB, NBA heads are receiving that. I'm not sure I can say the same for us NFL heads. The hope is that Madden continues to get better, Madden 15 was a start. Now continue to build on that and prove me wrong with the old school "innovative" motto, "if it's in the game, it's in the game..."
 
# 9 razorkaos @ 07/03/15 06:32 PM
The problem with sports games and innovation is the fact that you have to deal with the limitations the sport you're trying to recreate digitally imposes to you, at least in the case of realistic (or wannabe realistic games) sports games.



It's really hard at this point to add a gimmick (let's face it, most innovations in sports games were simple gimmicks or just things that needed to be in the games but the lack of tech made these things complicated to put in these games)



I gotta say, it's easier to innovate when it comes to arcade sports games, like NFL Blitz or NBA Jam. You can throw every absurd thing your creativity allows you to conceive and it's ok, but when we talk about realistic sports games... It's complicated
 
# 10 BigMacAttack22 @ 07/03/15 09:47 PM
In design, you are often one of two things: a generalist or a specialist. Generalists change the world, specialists perfect it.

It seems, in that vein, sports games have drifted toward the specialized end of things. After many years, we have a very good idea of what makes a good sports game. Franchises that deviated too much from the formula of what makes these games fun have been filtered out by the market. That means the core of most sports games, especially the ones that have been around longest, is not going to change. I think that's okay.

Think about it weight training. When a person begins the effects can initially be dramatic. Then they plateau. The work gets harder and slower, and the changes are less readily visible. Like an athlete toning his or her muscles, developers are now toning their games.

The opportunity now is to strive for perfection. In most aspects graphics, physics, realism, atmosphere, replayability the sports games we love are inching closer to that goal. Personally, I am excited to see where it all leads leads.
 
# 11 The GIGGAS @ 07/03/15 10:08 PM
Let me just pose two questions: Did Super Mega Baseball innovate at all? Did The Golf Club innovate at all?

In any genre, you're not going to find much innovation in the core games. It's always found in niche or indie games. The sports indie scene is currently not great, but there are games out there that innovate in a sports game. It's just harder to find.
 
# 12 KBLover @ 07/04/15 01:05 AM
I'm beginning to wonder. MLB15's directional hitting is "innovative" to its series, but it's very similar to MVP's hitting system. BBPro '98 had a similar idea as well.

I think innovation is going more to the "surface" things in sports games. The lightning system is an example.

The frontier that has the most room to grow is game AI - and there's been precious little innovation there. Games are getting prettier, but they aren't getting smarter at the same rate.
 
# 13 Dazraz @ 07/04/15 03:03 AM
Innovation in sports games isn't on a great decline in my opinion. Sports simulations are attempting to replicate something we watch & love everyday. Sure if you enjoy novelty aspects like Night Golf, Bobblehead Players & streaks of fire on your Basketball then that can easily be achieved (and be classed as innovative). Most people just want to see what they see for real in their game. Innovation is fine as long as it's kept within the boundaries of the sport its representing.
As a old gamer who goes back to the days of the Atari 2600 I find it pretty impressive that we see people complaining about a tattoo being in the wrong position or, perish the thought, not their at all!!! That's an indication of how far we've come.
 
# 14 mastershake88 @ 07/04/15 02:32 PM
When you have the capability to buy up licenses, the spirit of competition dies. To be said when the purchaser wants that environment it will be that way. make no mistake MLB 15 the show is an incomplete game. I can list tons, TONS of examples that would point out the lack of detail and attention given to things that are mentioned.
 
# 15 Guapo516 @ 07/04/15 03:16 PM
Quote:
Originally Posted by bballshawn24
I gotta say 2k has been one of the main suspects of taking things out of the game only to re introduce it as something new 2-3 years later. How you can take out summer league, d-league, draft combine, and crew is beyond me. I take note of this and when they introduce it as something new, i simply dont count it as a new feature.
I was thinking more gameplay wise not features, but if any company is king of taking things out just to reintroduce them as new, it's ea, by far. I've seen literally the same 3 year recycle of "new" features for like the last 9 years. Qb, trenches, wr/db interactions.
 
# 16 Guapo516 @ 07/04/15 03:23 PM
Quote:
Originally Posted by slgrant
You're wrong. The show is the best sim sports on the market.
Well I don't think either of us are right or wrong, it's all a matter of opinion, but forgive me for stating my opinion as fact originally.

What you say may be true, but 2k to me is the deepest game I've ever played. Literally, no 2 games have been the same for me. Still seeing new things. Not to take anything away from baseball but how they incorporate what's a very deep game is amazing to me. Baseball seems less complex to simulate than basketball, of course I play basketball and not baseball so my opinion is swayed.
 
# 17 aaron777 @ 07/04/15 11:59 PM
Why be inovative when there is no competition? That's the problem . Focus ur time on ultimate team mode to make the most cash is the motto .I don't deny them making money but for God's sakes make a great playing game.
 
# 18 thaSLAB @ 07/06/15 10:47 AM
I think the most under-the-radar innovation (due to it not being a gameplay feature) is the introduction of Year-to-Year saves in MLB 15 The Show. It's very significant in my opinion, as sports gamers have always wanted this, but no one could ever achieve it. The lighting and directional hitting are other, more subtle innovations that they also introduced this year. While DD (both Diamond Dynasty and Dynamic Difficulty) are not a new innovations, I think they were pretty well refined this year. I also think Super Mega Baseball innovated in a couple areas too, namely their ego (difficulty) and mojo systems.
 
# 19 jeremym480 @ 07/06/15 11:48 AM
Quote:
Originally Posted by thaSLAB
I think the most under-the-radar innovation (due to it not being a gameplay feature) is the introduction of Year-to-Year saves in MLB 15 The Show. It's very significant in my opinion, as sports gamers have always wanted this, but no one could ever achieve it. The lighting and directional hitting are other, more subtle innovations that they also introduced this year. While DD (both Diamond Dynasty and Dynamic Difficulty) are not a new innovations, I think they were pretty well refined this year. I also think Super Mega Baseball innovated in a couple areas too, namely their ego (difficulty) and mojo systems.
Y2Y Saves is the most recent major innovation that pop's in my mind, as well. 2k's MyGm mode was fairly original although I'm more of MyLeague/ Association Player so I was happy to see that return in 2k15.

One of the most innovative games of the past few years imo was NCAA Football. I believe they were the first to have a fully integrated online website. I thought Team Builder was a very innovative as well... Also I think Coaching Carousel was innovative for it's time and I believe they really could have made it into something special with another year or two of improvements.

Y2Y Saves, a fully featured online website with roster editing and a coaching carousel is something that I would like to see added in every team sports game.
 
# 20 thagrandson @ 07/06/15 07:26 PM
People want innovation, then they cry when their game isnt what it was from last year....
 

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