Sports games are a realm of their own; closely neighbored by military shooters, they occupy the shelves of jocks and bro-dudes worldwide. Unlike shooters, however, they’re much less often found on the shelves of core gamers, instead existing as more of a niche that appeals to sports fans, and franchises such as FIFA and Madden rely on licenses to sell copies. So what happens when developers tackle the sports arena but instead of creating a simulation of real world leagues they create a core game set in a place entirely different from our own world? In the case of Pyre and Rocket League, it means bloody good games.
I’m a sports fan myself, and I lose hundreds of hours to the likes of FIFA and Football Manager every year, but I also find hundreds of hours for RPGs and action games. I mean, what is FIFA really if not an action-RPG? You assemble a team of characters, they all have stats and the potential to grow as they gain experience, and these stats affect how well your characters perform during matches – if they do well, they gain instant bonuses, as well as experience. There are also added twists that are unique to FIFA, such as older players’ stats decreasing with age, the football economy of buying and selling players as well as managing their contracts and wages, players rebelling and asking to be sold or refusing to join you from other teams.
The Football Manager series delves even deeper into the world of football economics by giving the players oversight of their club’s finances in full (ticket sales, sponsorship deals), and adding more nuanced transfer practices like sell-on clauses, yearly wage rises, performance bonuses, etc. All of these mechanics are currently unique to football simulations, but could really find a place for themselves in core gaming.
Sports often feature in core gaming as mini-games. The GTA series has featured the likes of tennis, pool, and darts, as well as bowling (also found in Tekken). A big standout among those mini-games is Final Fantasy X‘s Blitzball (and yes, being the sports nerd I am, I spent tens of hours collecting my team and beating the leagues and the cups). Pyre and Rocket League are two fantastic full-release games that braved the unsteady waters of unconventional sports games, and remained adrift.
Where Blitzball was a sci-fi version of water polo, Pyre features a fantasy version of basketball. A brutal, magical 3-on-3 basketball played with a celestial orb for a ball and pyres for baskets. Pyre dresses its “Sportsball” in an enchanting story of friendship, loyalty, freedom, and honor cast with memorable and lovable characters, but only dips its toes into the woes of management. The team is predetermined and eventually counts nine characters, some of whom may refuse to co-operate with others, and occasionally your choices may be limited due to sickness or fatigue. There’s not much to say about this added managerial angle other than the fact that it has great potential because there is so little of it. However, if we get a Pyre spin-off focused only on the rites and managing a triumvirate, I will be all over it like a rash.
Rocket League, on the other hand, does away with the faff between games and focuses purely on its sport: car football. It sacrifices fancy footwork animations for unique movement and pace. It is undoubtedly a game of skill, with the few tricks stuffed up players sleeves being a short boost, a jump, and a handbrake slide. The ball itself is the largest object on the pitch, but that doesn’t stop it from being difficult to hit. Rocket League has not only attracted football fans and racing fans to its player base, but also players with little interest in either. The game’s combination of the two sports is as unique and compelling as Pyre‘s combination of a story-driven, party-based, fantasy RPG and basketball. Players who avoid sports games like having a football blasted in your face when you’re not looking have lauded Pyre, and many have sunk hours into Rocket League. What drives them? A unique take on boring old sports.
Now, cast your mind a few years back to the days of Jagged Alliance. Jagged Alliance had team building mechanics not seen anywhere else in gaming: certain characters wouldn’t get along with others based on their political views or nationality, and would suffer stat decreases. Combine that nuance with all the economics of Football Manager, and throw that into an action-RPG entirely about Blitzball. You would be buying and selling Blitzball stars, trying to attract fans to games so you can actually afford your players wages, and your players would age and become slower, weaker, less popular. Your younger fans would grow up to be Blitzball players themselves. If their idols are on your staff then they would join you. You could develop young stars and sell them for massive profits. You could run a wealthy empire of a team, throwing money bags towards signing all the best players. You could take rejects on a bad run of form and revive their careers. You could run any organisation you would fancy.
Sports games have a wealth of mechanics and conventions to offer gaming as a whole – they just need the right people to find the pieces that together to create something as unique and awesome as Pyre, Blood Bowl, or Rocket League.