Game 1: Edmonton Oilers vs. Vancouver Canucks
‘Mike Eaton’ is a newly created character using NHL 2002 who has my birthday and physical dimensions. I am a 29 year-old rookie in the National Hockey League playing defense for my hometown Edmonton Oilers. My first game has me playing on the third pairing with Igor Ulanov, a hard-nosed conservative defensive player. I want to avoid making mistakes so I play safely too, until late in the third period when we are down by a goal. I carry the puck out of our zone as the Canucks were making a line change. A space opens up, so I zero in on goal and bury a shot to tie the game. We end up losing in overtime, but the coach likes my initiative and keeps me in the lineup.
Hi. My name is Mike, and I like sports. The truth is that … well, I’ve always been into sports. Oh, I love video games too and I know that I’ve kind of kept it from people here, but it’s because I just didn’t know how you’d react. Look, you don’t need to worry about me “trying to drag you to a hockey game” or anything like that. This isn’t about you, it’s about me.
Are you still reading? *phew* That actually went a lot better than I thought.
In video game enthusiast circles, saying you like sports or sports games is kind of like admitting you’re a brony in a job interview. Within the social construct of this community, there can be a lot of flexibility about personal preference but when it comes to sports games, that acceptance turns to judgement pretty quick.
Being a PC guy, I don’t actually get the chance to play many sports games anymore. Companies like EA just stick to consoles nowadays which is too bad. I’ve always found it to be really perplexing and annoying when game enthusiasts get all up on their high horse about this genre. Partly, it’s because there is a delicious irony of hearing nerds complain about ‘jocks and bros’ who play these games while at the same time expressing that very closed-mindedness they accuse others of. In spite of people drooling over plot twists in games like Bioshock, I’ve garnered more gameplay and narrative joy from NHL 2002 than just about any other game I’ve played.
Game 11: Edmonton Oilers vs. Calgary Flames
Game 11 is against our hated divisional rivals. I score three goals, have two assists, and absolutely beat the piss out of Flames star captain Jarome Iginla at center ice to finish the game. Overnight, I become a hometown hero.
The first reason why people rail against sports games is their yearly release model: “It’s just the same game every year with new rosters” — I agree that roster updates for DLC would be nice, but there is a really practical reason why companies like EA do this: People buy it. Also, why is it such a sin for Madden to be released every year when a series like Street Fighter can slap ‘Super’ on the title, add a couple of new characters, and release it as a new game, and nobody bats an eye? I’d argue that fighting games are literally the same thing as sports games. Each new installment adds small, under-the-hood tweaks that only hardcore fans will notice and adapt to. If I were looking at the different versions of Street Fighter 4 that have come out over the last few years, I honestly wouldn’t be able to tell you the difference between them. I’m sure there are people who could, and that’s fine. Sports games are the same way though, but good luck trying to convince a *ahem* ‘hardcore gamer’ of that.
Game 43: Edmonton Oilers vs. St. Louis Blues
Chasing a puck into the corner and I got slammed into the boards from behind by Chris Pronger. I fell awkwardly and immediately felt excruciating pain. I was taken off the ice by the team trainer and transported to the hospital — Broken ankle. I ended up missing 16 games, as well as the All-Star Game that I was supposed to attend. I cried while watching the game on TV.
The second reason why people tend to complain about these games is: “Why wouldn’t you just watch sports instead?” I don’t know, why don’t you go join the army instead of playing Call of Duty? Why don’t you take crystal meth and go running around in a field instead of playing DayZ? The reason I like sports games is the same reason I like sports: The drama. Sports offer an ongoing emergent narrative that cannot be spoiled or anticipated because nobody really knows how it’s going to turn out. Seeing two evenly matched opponents square off, or seeing a scrappy underdog take on a heavy favorite provides a thrill that resonates on a level beyond even the most exceptionally scripted narrative — and that’s just when you’re watching. Engaging in that narrative is a whole different level of fun; the ups and downs I had in my rookie season of NHL 2002 were mine to experience and mine to overcome, and there are moments I will never forget.
Game 60: Edmonton Oilers vs. New York Rangers
My first game back from injury, and I’m pissed. I end the game scoring no points, but make my presence felt in the defensive zone. I lead all players in hits, get into a fight with the Rangers’ biggest player, and personally intimidate anyone who approaches our team’s goal. This game is my statement that I’m not just a flashy goalscorer. 22 games later, I end the season with 63 goals, setting a record for defenseman and leading the league in total points.
Emergent narrative is all the rage these days. Games like Day Z, Skyrim, EVE Online, and Far Cry 3 are incredibly popular for the user-created drama they provide. One time in Far Cry 3, I was scoping out an enemy camp; checking angles and looking for ways to take everyone down without setting off an alarm. Just as I was about to fire my first shot, a tiger wandered out of the jungle, casually entered the camp, and killed every enemy. The camp was mine, and I didn’t need to fire a shot (well, not at people anyway). It was maybe the best gameplay sequence I saw all of last year, and it was completely unscripted. Day Z is absolutely full of these kinds of amazing moments with NPCs, other players, and the massive environment. When talk turns to sports however, it seems these kinds of stories don’t get the respect they deserve. I’ve had amazing and memorable experiences in sports games that rank up there with anything I’ve done in another title, and one of my proudest gaming moments happened in NHL 2002.
Game 6, Stanley Cup Final: Edmonton Oilers vs. New Jersey Devils
The New Jersey Devils had owned us in our two meetings during the season, but playoffs are proving to be a different story. Game 6 is at home tonight, and we have a chance to finish them off. After a scoreless first period, Ryan Smyth takes a tripping penalty. While defending the Devils’ attack, I intercept a pass in our zone, break in alone on their goalie and go top shelf on him. 1-0 Oilers. The goal stands up as the winner as we cruise to a 3-0 victory to take the cup. With 15 goals in 22 games, I am awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy as the MVP of the playoffs.
Skating a lap around the rink holding up the Stanley Cup, I realize something. In one magical season, I’ve achieved everything I ever possibly could have wanted as a hockey player. I think I’m going to retire after one year and do something else. Maybe I’ll become a librarian…
As I was working on this article, I found out that Canadian musician Stompin’ Tom Connors passed away at the age of 77. He was best known for the song The Good Old Hockey Game, a celebration of our national sport and the Saturday night ritual of watching our favorite teams. This news has nothing to do with video games really, but it got me thinking that if you can write a song, shoot a movie, or write a book about sports, then of course a game about them can be equally evocative and meaningful as an open narrative that resonates on an emotional level.
Rest In Peace, Stompin’ Tom.