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Sports School: If it's in the game, it's unexplained

Xav de Matos, @Xav

Welcome to The Level Grind, a column hell-bent on asking questions about video game design from the gamer's perspective.

Around the time of the UEFA 2012 Euro Championships, a group of my friends became so enraptured by the competition that they wanted to turn to video games to continue their new found love for the sport. With EA's FIFA franchise being the premiere soccer (sorry, Europe) experience, I recommended the latest game in the series: at the time, FIFA 2012.

But few of those friends stuck by their purchases and told me that, while they enjoyed watching live games, they realized how little they understood the rules and strategies on the pitch.

I've had a similar disconnect with the NFL. As a Canadian expat, my regular sport of choice is hockey. But with the NHL (once again) threatened by a season-long lockout, I've had to adopt a new sport. Over the last few weeks I've absorbed as much football as I could, watching any game my HD antenna can capture ... and I've grown quite fond of it.

So, I grabbed a copy of Madden NFL 13 to extend that experience into another one of my passions and I realized that I don't have a clue what's going on.

Gallery: Madden NFL 13 (E3 2012) | 28 Photos

It's clear that simulation sports games are developed under the impression that the purchaser is a fan of the sport; injecting as many authentic qualities as the developer can to ensure it mimics the game with fluidity. EA's famous tagline says it all: "If it's in the game, it's in the game." If something happens within the confines of the field, pitch, course, or ice in the real world (so long as it's officially sanctioned by the leagues), EA Sports will put it in its video game adaptation.

But in developing these simulations, game developers are focused on recreating the sport though game systems. Once they feel the sport has been adapted as closely to real life as possible, their attention is shifted to teaching video game players how the created mechanics work. What ends up happening is we get video games that don't teach or simulate the sport as much as they act as tutorials for abstract gameplay concepts based on the real world.

It has become common practice in EA's sports games, in particular, to be greeted by a training scenario. While this may be a good opportunity to impart wisdom about the sport, what it is used for is to discover a player's expertise at mechanics. Just because I can throw a few touchdowns in Madden or sink a hole in one with Tiger doesn't mean I understand the regulations that make those scenarios possible.

Sports School If it's in the game, it's unexplained
I've often said of fighting game tutorials that, while they do a good job of explaining how to execute the moves, they rarely ever outline when strategies must be used. Sports games are similar; however, the major difference is that these games are built upon a foundation of league-developed rules. If I don't understand rules – like the NFL's strict management of time, for example – how can I become competitive?

The obvious answer is to go and learn. Shut up and read a book or something. That's certainly something I'll end up doing to better grasp how the NFL works, but as an experience crafted out of the love of a game, it's disappointing it doesn't do a better job of teaching gamers about the sport.

The commentary in NHL 13 is a good example of how this is can become an issue: frequently, when one team applies pressure into another squad's zone, the commentary will note that the defense is aggressively "forechecking." This term means that one team battles and wins the puck in their opponent's end, making it difficult to go on the offense. For those unfamiliar with the sport, the word may be lost in translation; thus the commentary, an aspect of making the video game authentic, is lost on them.

Football is quite a daunting sport to understand from top to bottom for a newcomer such as myself. Not only are there a laundry list of rules and regulations, there are pages upon pages of varying strategies and plays employed by every team in the league. If you've followed the gridiron game for years, you'll find my confusion to be silly at best and idiotic at worst; the confusion remains, however.

Playing Madden NFL 13 can be an enjoyable experience as a game, but I often have no idea what I'm doing; particularly when selecting defensive plays. In those instances, I feel like that meme featuring a dog at a computer. "What the Hell is all this?" I wonder, before asking Madden to help me and hope his programmed A.I. makes the right call. "Ask Madden" as a feature has been reduced over the years, from marquee component to an afterthought.

Sports School If it's in the game, it's unexplained
Some games get it right, though. In particular, THQ's UFC games did a good job of explaining the basics due primarily to the franchise's detailed tutorials. Most others, in my experience, assume too much of the player and don't invite those who want to become fans of the sport inside to enjoy the universe. It would seem to me that most sports game developers are more concerned with achieving its realism goals, making the assumption that those seeking the simulated experience have already entered with the required knowledge to make them competitive against other players.

I can't foresee this being a major factor in sales, however, nor do I think these games can stifle a sport's broader popularity. But in the case of the NHL, which is still trying to capture the adoration of U.S. fans, it would seem that the league would serve itself well by trying to draw in new fans through the billion-dollar video game medium. What if the demo for NHL 14 included a video featuring the basics, showing off classic plays, and gave players a foundation for the experience they are about to try? Could it introduce new fans? Because developers are making an officially licensed product, it's possible sports leagues could push them to include something that could provide gamers with more knowledge. The NFL is no stranger to making demands, in the example of post-whistle brawling being removed from NFL Blitz.

I'm not calling for a casual push in the market. Simulation sports games craft a very specific experience – it's in the genre's name! But what I think needs to happen, and what I think leagues need to push for, is video game experiences that teach players about the sport and not the mechanics. Sports games should be a gateway for newcomers as well as a sim for devoted fans. They should not be a barrier.

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