Talking Madden, Tiger Woods, and the Future of Sports Gaming with Kotaku’s Owen Good

Owen Good,

In terms of respect in the gaming industry, sports videogames sometimes get, for lack of a better term, “the shaft.” Despite the massive annual sales and worldwide appeal of perennial juggernauts such as EA Sports’ Madden and FIFA series, sports videogames arguably do not receive the proper attention in terms of critical analysis and recognition that they deserve from the gaming community.

One person who has made recent breakthroughs in the way sports videogames are received and covered is Kotaku’s Owen Good.  Owen is the voice behind Kotaku’s sports coverage, satiating readers’ appetites for in-depth coverage and discussion of issues within sports gaming through daily updates and his Saturday sports column, “Stick Jockey.”  To further explore the latest issues in sports gaming, Owen was able to sit down with us and share some of his thoughts.

TP:  How did you find yourself in your current role as the leading voice behind sports coverage at Kotaku?

OG:  Somewhat by happenstance, really. Brian Crecente (the site’s editor in chief) and I were both reporters at the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, starting within about a week of each other in 2001, come to think of it. We kept in touch after I left in 2004, and in April of last year, he needed a weekend editor and asked somewhat out of the blue if I’d consider it. The role was more part-time then than now. In July of this year Brian expanded my duties to make the job more of a full-time position. Shortly after, both he and the deputy editor, Stephen Totilo, saw that I was writing consistently about sports games, having a great deal of interest in the subject both as a gamer and as a former sports writer. Recognizing that it’s a potential growth topic, we three quickly agreed on creating a Saturday sports column for me. Others at Kotaku will write about sports — Luke Plunkett, especially — but since the column’s debut in August, “Stick Jockey” means I’m the de facto face of sports gaming for Kotaku.

TP:  Sports videogames seem to be frowned upon by other gaming journalists.  Do you agree that there is a certain bias against sports videogames in the journalism community and if so, why?

OG:  I wouldn’t say there’s a demonstrated, overt bias in the specialty press as much as there is a passive, albeit strong neglect. Sports games are a lower priority in general interest games publications and sites, that’s fair to point out. And, speaking for Kotaku, were we to consider only our readers’ reactions, we probably wouldn’t make much of an effort on the subject either. If you were to take these as your only measures, there’s a definite chilling effect seen both in reader comments and the pageviews for sports topics compared to other subjects, and that’s because the typical hardcore gamers who comprise our readership came to gaming for shooters, role-playing games, action/adventure titles — something other than sports. I view this as more of an opportunity; and so does Kotaku’s editorial leadership. We should present sports gaming in a useful and accessible way to all readers, but I think if you’re looking to make a hardcore gaming audience interested in sports games, you’re going to be frustrated. Instead I’m trying to grow our site’s reputation with and exposure among sports gamers, who maybe aren’t as inclined to visit general-purpose gaming blogs. But there’s no question it is an underserved readership. A game like Madden isn’t successful because 10 teenagers buy a million copies each year.

TP:  How do you combat such a bias?

OG:  I’m happy to write about sports games any day of the week. But as my column shows, there has to be buy-in from the editorial leadership of a magazine or site. They have to see the value or at least the potential in sports game coverage, and then give that copy mainstream play within the rest of their report. Kotaku’s taken a progressive stance on both counts.

TP:  In your opinion, what is the single greatest innovation in sports gaming in the last 10 years?

OG:  This probably goes back even further than 10 years, but I think it’s 3D gameplay. Seems a little basic but it completely remade our expectations of the genre. The means to create an accurate league, game, or season simulation, in the math anyway, has been around since Microleague Baseball on the PC in the 1980s. Full 3D motion-captured animation finally brought the gameplay up to TV-like realism and created what we now know as the modern sports simulation — which marries statistical accuracy with on-field verisimilitude, both under control of the player. Prior to this, even a title like the beloved NHL ’94 was more arcade than lifelike in its gameplay. Other than 3D animation, the core components of a sports title — single game, season mode, player creation and roster management, full league licensing — have been around for most of the past two decades.

TP:  Recently, microtransactions have worked their way into the sports gaming scene.  EA Sports introduced the ability to purchase stat upgrades in Madden 10.  Furthermore, EA Sports will offer Tiger Woods PGA Tour soon in a free-to-play, browser-based version, encouraging players to purchase in-game objects.  Do you see this trend continuing, and will it be healthy for sports gaming?

OG:  To directly answer the question: yes, it will continue. While I don’t think they do a whole lot to invigorate sports gaming from a consumer’s perspective, microtransactions certainly don’t harm it. In games like Madden and NCAA Football, we’re not talking about paying to access major features or expectations of a game that should be in the retail code, and the performance boosts are for singleplayer only. I bought all the upgrades for my dynasty in NCAA Football 10, and justified it as a role-playing decision — elite programs make hard-cash investments in attracting and developing their personnel, don’t they? Opening up an extra recruiting pipeline is not even the kind of core game feature where you say, well, if the game was $70 it would be included. At the same time, it’s an extra revenue stream and if that helps keep the price fixed at $60, as a gamer I can tolerate it.

TP:  You recently mention NFL 2K5 as an overlooked game of the year possibility in 2005. Through EA’s purchase of the NFL license for use in videogames, this franchise has taken on an entirely different form since. Through eliminating direct competition, do you feel that financial strategies such as EA’s acquisition of the exclusive NFL license inhibit progress and innovation for sports gaming in general?

OG:  There are two things at work here. One is that EA’s exclusive deal showed up at the same time as the Xbox 360; Madden was rushed to that console and its underperformance on the current generation correlates to that deal, and so everyone blames the deal. Which, to be honest, has its own shady history, as the retired NFLers’ lawsuit drew out in litigation. Without defending Madden 06 to 08, I think this is mostly a knee-jerk reaction, because the same people who rip EA for being lazy in that franchise turn right around and rip MLB 2K, and pine for MVP Baseball the same way they do for NFL 2K5. It has a lot to do with the hypercritical and anti-overdog sentiments native to a lot of hardcore gamers. But the truth is you can’t reasonably expect to transform a sports video game — with much more rigid gameplay boundaries —  on a one-year development cycle the way you can something like BioShock or Grand Theft Auto on a two or three-year cycle. It’s easy to say direct competition assures a better overall product for the general gaming public, but it seems to be an expectation only of sports games, and I’m not sure that its absence means someone’s holding back bona fide game-changing features. I think they’re just harder to execute in this genre once every three years, let alone every year.

TP:  Which sports games currently take up most of your time?  Do you prefer taking the battle online, or playing locally against friends?

OG:  I grew up in North Carolina before we had major sports teams, and I’m a proud alumnus of N.C. State, so the Atlantic Coast Conference is the big league of my youth, and I love both NCAA Football 10 and NCAA Basketball 10. But I’m more of a singleplayer guy. The game you play online is much more mercenary and I don’t have the skills to beat anyone other than a few friends I already know. I also strive to build accurate season simulations — with a few exceptions. In hoops, I love creating myself as a deadeye 99 shooter, automatic even from 25 feet.

TP:  What do you see as the next true step/revolution in videogame sports?

OG:  I think it’d be easy to say motion controls. But honestly, I think most sports gamers gravitate to these sims because the feats of athleticism are so difficult to replicate in real life. Performing some approximation of hitting, pitching or tossing a touchdown pass, either in Natal or with Sony’s motion control, actually holds little appeal for me as a gamer. That’s not to say sports games won’t or shouldn’t develop for that capability. But I think the next step, and the more achievable one, will be full broadcast integration. I can easily see this happening in other sports titles, and EA Sports just sent out a survey about NCAA Football 11 that indicates it’s at least considering such a thing for that title. We’re midway through the current console generation’s lifespan, roughly, so we aren’t going to get increased processing power or memory and the visuals or content that come with it. But as sports gamers increasingly expect to play the kind of game they see on the television, a way to deliver that immersion will be in the use of actual networks’ graphics and sound packages. NCAA Basketball 10 is not a perfect game but, in using two networks’ presentation assets, it is to me this year’s most visible innovator, and at least one major sports title should emulate its proof of concept in the coming year.