When sports and role-playing games collide

This is a weekly column from freelancer Rowan Kaiser, which focuses on "Western" role-playing games: their stories, their histories, their mechanics, their insanity, and their inanity.

When sports and roleplaying games collide

I'm in a tense conflict. My party of five characters faces off against another. The battle is balanced on the edge. I see a slight opening and make my move, pressing the X button and hoping that my attack succeeds. My character charges at the enemy, with his attacking stats and the enemy's defensive stats seeming to be in rough balance, which tends to favor the defender. But wait! My character has the "Finisher" perk, which gives him a 30% bonus in situations like these! That's enough for a critical hit, which gives me a massive advantage in this tense confrontation. It's a layup and foul, allowing me to take the lead in my NBA 2K13 game. But it also feels like an RPG.

That nebulous feeling of similarity to RPGs isn't one I've had with basketball games before, going back 25 years to Omni-Play Basketball. But I get that feeling here, with NBA 2K13, because, in an odd way, it aims for a realistic presentation. It wants to look and feel like real basketball. But there's a lot of difference between the intensely physical real-world sport of basketball, and the abstract form of a video game. Compromises have to be made.

When sports and roleplaying games collide

Those compromises between real sport and video game work during in NBA 2K13's animations, between actions and results. You press the shoot button while pointed at the basket, and your player will attempt to do a layup as the defense attempts to stop him. The potential results are fairly limited: basket, basket and foul, foul, block, offensive rebound, or defensive rebound. Those are all based on RPG-like dice rolls that occur when you press the button. The game measures your player's skills, opponent's skills, calculates perks, calculates distances to other players involved, and rolls those dozens of dice.

Sometimes something amazing happens, like the situation I described in the first paragraph, a critical hit where everything goes right. In Dragon Age, I press the attack button on an Ogre, but instead of just seeing my rogue swing his dagger, he'll instead jump on its back and drive his weapon into the back of the Ogre's skull, like Legolas in Lord Of The Rings. In NBA 2K13, I see my point guard step around his defender, jump toward the basket, and shoot his layup at the proper angle such that the defender can't block the shot, but does foul my guy. Even though that badass animation involves my in-game avatar taking actions I don't control, I still feel accomplished, because I understood the game, took intelligent risks, and was rewarded.

This is not to say that NBA 2K13 is a role-playing game, simply that it often appeals to me in the same way that an RPG does. However, there are a few paths that go directly from NBA 2K13 to traditional RPGs. One of those runs straight through Blood Bowl.

When sports and roleplaying games collide

Originally a board game about a football/rugby-like sport based on the Warhammer universe, Blood Bowl has received a few different video game adaptations, with the most recent coming in 2009 and receiving several different iterations and expansions. Its board game heritage is clear, with characters moving in turns along a grid.

What's most important is that each player has a set of statistics and skills, which interact with one another in transparent fashion. Blood Bowl is quite clear about how simple its rules are, and it publishes every single dice roll, up to and including a "dice roll" sound each time the game processes an event. Have your ball carrier run past an enemy, you see that she rolls a four and can keep going. On the next try, she rolls a two, gets tackled, loses the ball, and ends your turn.

There are other components of Blood Bowl that tie it directly to the RPG genre. You recruit your characters, watch them gain levels, develop their skills and stats over a career, for example. Yet it's also just as obviously a sports game. By making its mechanics transparent, Blood Bowl perhaps inadvertently sheds light on the entire sports game genre. What it accomplishes in one or two published dice rolls in a turn-based fantasy tactics game are the same things that a game like NBA 2K13 accomplishes in a high-profile, apparently realistic sports sim, using exponentially more complicated statistics and variables. The same concepts apply.

When sports and roleplaying games collide

Of course, this isn't the only way that sports games intersect with RPGs. Sports games have long had "career modes" where you take a player or team from the lowest levels of the sport to the highest levels. These modes utilize RPG-like progression. Often you play an individual, whose skills and stats improve with practice. The first thing NBA 2K13 asked me to do was create an avatar to represent myself in the game, where I could spend 20 minutes fiddling with my character's cheekbones, always a sure sign of a role-playing game. There are even games like Football Superstars, where you role-play the life of a soccer star more than simply trying to score goals.

Alternately (or simultaneously), you can play as a team, managing player improvement, contracts, etc. The latter – "Franchise mode" – has become increasingly prevalent in all sports games, although it's long been part of the genre, like in the aforementioned Omni-Play Basketball from 1989. This is closer to a strategy game than a role-playing game, but the core ideas of having a balanced party/team and ensuring proper distribution of resources are very RPG-like.

So forget old-fashioned jocks versus nerds stereotypes in the realm of video games. There are intersections and connections between even the most disparate genres. Demonstrating that opens the door for RPGs to more commonly move outside the realm of fantastical combat and into different settings.

Rowan Kaiser is a freelance writer currently living the Bay Area, who also writes for The A.V. Club, and has been published at Salon, Gamasutra, Kotaku, and more. He still occasionally finds Ultima VI Moongate maps and mantra notes when he visits his parents' house. Follow him on Twitter @rowankaiser.