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How Sports Video Games Have Gone From Pixels to Ultra HD

Video games are big business these days. There are billions of gamers around the world and when considering the amount of sports fans as well, it is not surprising the two have combined to make a very popular genre of home entertainment.

Sports games have been around since the very beginning. It is believed by many the very first video game was called Tennis for Two and was designed to be played on an oscilloscope. This game was made way back in 1958 and bears a resemblance to Atari’s later release of Pong.

Pong would be widely accepted as the first commercially successful video game, and it was a sports game too. This started a genre that has grown and evolved as technology has advanced over the last 50 years.

How did sports games develop over the years and why are they so enduring? 

The Golden Age of Video Game Arcades

There was a time when video game arcades were a multi-billion dollar business. Nowadays, consoles, mobile devices, and desktops, make the big money. And, with an unfortunate helping hand from the pandemic, video games became bigger than movies and, ironically, sports in North America combined in 2020.

Once lockdowns came into effect, sports venues and cinemas had to close but video games can be played at home at any time so they not only endured but usage grew dramatically during the pandemic.

However, back in the mid-1970s to the mid-’80s, gamers had to visit an arcade to play video games and many of these establishments were dominated with games involving shooting. Space Invaders, Asteroids, Space Raiders, Sea Wolf, and Galaxian were everywhere, but sports games were less popular.

Sprint 2, F-1, and Indy 8-00 attempted to bring motorsports to the arcades, and Atari Football tried to do the same for the gridiron. In the 1980s, Pole Position and OutRun carried on the driving game theme while Track and Field proved popular, and Punch-Out made a bid for boxing supremacy

Then in the mid-1980s, arcades went out of fashion or had been protested against and shut down. Whatever the reasons involved were, a multi-billion dollar business had virtually disappeared. Although the golden age had ended, games were going to move into the home, becoming virtual, and even be enjoyed in a live casino as time went on.

8-bit Consoles and Home Computers

In the early 1980s many youngsters, and adults, discovered their video game fixes could be met at home. As usual, the game developers continued to include sports titles and some of the most iconic games released during this time.

It was during this decade sports games became responsible for breaking many joysticks and damaging many keyboards. Not many people would consider repeatedly banging two keys on their expensive laptop a good idea now, but back then that was how you made your on-screen athlete run the 100 meters.

The popularity of Track and Field spawned a raft of imitators with one of the best being Daley Thompson’s Decathlon. Although this was largely famous in the UK, it was so popular it not only had two sequels but the developer, Ocean Games, was able to obtain the rights to Konami games including the original Track and Field.

American sports were widely represented during the ’80s with baseball, basketball, and hockey games flooding the market. It wasn’t until the late ’80s when one title arrived that would spark a whole series that went on to sell hundreds of millions of copies. 

American Football Arrives

There had been many gridiron games on consoles and home computers by the late 1980s but one title changed everything. John Madden’s Football arrived in 1988 and was available on a wide range of platforms. The game spawned a number of sequels and sold over 250 million copies.

One of the reasons this game succeeded was that it was made simple enough for anyone to play but at the same time was more sophisticated than any other American Football game. Madden himself considered the game as a teaching tool for practicing various plays.

Football games have proved extremely popular and some other great retro NFL games are still being played today. When it comes to other sports, some did better than others, and some inspired some terrible games. 

The Quality of Sports Games Has Been Inconsistent

The problem with successful tie-ins such as John Madden is that they often gave developers ideas for making a quick buck for an inferior product. For every Daley Thompson’s Decathlon, there is a Slam City with Scottie Pippen.

However, many sports have been represented on consoles, computers, and now mobile phones. Boxing is one game that many developers have tried to make with varying success.

Frank Bruno’s Boxing was an early home computer title that replicated Super Punch-Out and was received well at the time. As consoles became more powerful, more sophisticated titles arrived such as Knockout Kings and Fight Night. One boxer who hasn’t fared well in video games is Mike Tyson.

Although Mike Tyson had plenty of wins in the casinos of Las Vegas over his career, he has appeared in a couple of the worst boxing games ever. Fortunately for fight fans, there is speculation that Mike Tyson is going to join eSports Boxing Club which looks likely to be the biggest boxing game ever. 

How Modern Consoles Changed Sports Games

There was a time when some very simple pixels on a screen seemed like the most amazing thing in the world, as far as computer games went. Nowadays, video gamers expect more from each release as consoles become more powerful with every new generation.

Collision detection, AI, controls, and graphics have all become more sophisticated and in some cases, realistic. Technology has also allowed games to be played differently.

The Nintendo Wii has allowed sports fans to actively take part in their game with realistic movements as part of the control methods. Tennis and martial arts games have used this to great effect, as have bowling, baseball, and golf. Virtual reality is also making its way into sports games, including American Football

VR and Virtual Sports

Virtual reality headsets can add another dimension to sports games. Boxing, motorsports, and baseball have all taken advantage of this technology. Virtual sports have appeared in other forms too. In the casinos of Las Vegas, virtual sports are being used as a way for individuals to gamble on MMA, football, and horse racing. Casinos are also getting involved with eSports and the Luxor in Vegas now has a purpose-built eSports Arena. 

Sports games have evolved in many ways since the days of Pong and the arcades. Nowadays, some sports games such as the FIFA series and Gran Turismo, have graphics that couldn’t have been imagined back in the 1970s and ’80s. Virtual reality and the Nintendo Wii have brought a different level of realism to sports games, and the future looks exciting for fans of the genre.

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