The Beginner's Guide to Sports Games

The Penny Arcade Expo, the show by and for hardcore gamers, loves itself games of all kinds...except sports games. The hardcore seem to shy away from licensed sports sims, but should they reconsider? Photo by Doug Bonham Sports games: They come out yearly, they're some of the top selling video games on a yearly basis (the Madden NFL and FIFA soccer series each sold more than five million copies worldwide last year), yet they're almost entirely shunned by most "hardcore" gamers. As somebody who has gone to the Penny Arcade Expo three times, I can tell you with certainty that you're far more likely to find an obscure Japanese fighting game or pen-and-paper RPG than a copy of Madden.

Which is a bit of a shame, because from a pure gaming experience standpoint, non-sports gamers may well stand to gain a bit from trying out one of the many sports games out on the market today. Besides being one of the last bastions of single-console multiplayer out there, sports games – much like fighting games – allow for creativity in how you manage to play a game. While the great stereotype is that nerds and jocks don't get along, truthfully it doesn't matter when it comes to playing games — you don't need to be athletically gifted behind the joystick.

Rooted in desires shown by my Silicon Sasquatch comrades to give these games a try, here's an introductory guide to unlocking the joy to be found playing sports games.

1. If you have a favorite sport/team/athlete, feel free to pick that game up.

If you're not much of a sports fan but happen to randomly LOVE, say, baseball, then feel free to give that a shot. Same goes for most any sports out there right now — however, in all honesty, there's one exclusion to make...

EA Sports' Madden series is awesome, but NOT a suggested starting point for rookie sports gamers with Xbox 360s or PS3s.

2. For the love of all that's holy, don't start out with an American football game.

When it comes to either EA Sports' Madden NFL or NCAA Football games, unless you're opting for a Nintendo Wii version, do NOT start out with one of these games. Not only do football games require you to play the game, but the tactics-heavy nature of football requires you to know what plays to call on both offense and defense.

In layman's terms, it'd be like taking somebody interested in getting started with RTS games and throwing them onto a Starcraft server full of hungry South Koreans, or taking a fighting game newbie to a top Virtua Fighter arcade in Tokyo. Football is a complex sport, and football video games have incredibly complex control schemes — simply, they provide an incredibly tough learning curve to climb. Believe me, a good game of Madden is as satisfying as a tough game of chess, but it's not for the faint of heart. The Nintendo Wii versions of NCAA Football and Madden both offer an easier play style, but if you don't have a Wii, you're out of luck.

FIFA 09 and NHL 09 by EA Sports have great Be A Pro modes that are engaging and allow you to do crazy things like this (yes, that's very hard to do in real life soccer, believe me).

3. Starting out with soccer or hockey is the best idea.

Don't know much about sports? That's perfectly fine; most people in the U.S. don't know a ton about either soccer or hockey either. However, luckily for you, EA Sports' NHL 09 and FIFA 09 are two of the finest games of 2008, period, never mind within the sports genre alone.

Much of the recommendation comes because both games have incredibly good, easy to pick up control schemes. The EA Sports NHL series reinvented itself for its 08 iteration based around a new set of simple controls, and the 09 version even includes simple three-button controls that hearken back to the classic 16-bit NHL games. FIFA underwent a similar re-invigoration in the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 generation, with 09 packing lots of features in with a game that can be picked up and learned very quickly.

Plus, most importantly, both games are fast and easy to learn. Hockey might have some penalties to learn and soccer may be a bit foreign, but both are fast and active sports that keep you engaged. You don't have to learn a playbook like with football, or grapple with the tougher control schemes that basketball games can have, or memorize the intricacies of baseball. Just knocking the ball or puck around and playing a fluid game — it's a great way to learn.

4. Don't be afraid to play on easy mode.

Seriously — if you're new to sports games, learning the sport and the controls at the same time can be overwhelming. Feel free to knock it down and take it a bit easy when you're learning the game. If you were to, say, start a franchise mode in a game, you can always turn the difficulty up as you go without re-starting — unlike some story-driven games (and the hunt for their achievements or trophies), there's no penalty in increasing the difficulty as you go.

5. Don't play online with pubbies!

It's a terrible way to learn how to play the game. Much like with other video game genres, public sports game servers have done that one thing the Internet is great at: destruction. People often play sports games with only the best teams and have found the most game-y ways to play the game imaginable. The recently-released Tiger Woods 10 has good players currently sandbagging to dominate more newbie-centric online tournaments; I also found out about a bug people are using in FIFA 09 to create godly teams in quickplay modes.

If you are a forum member or otherwise have a group of friends to play these games online with, though, by all means go ahead. One of my favorite gaming experiences was playing online leagues in NCAA Football 09, and that was organized through an Internet forum. But avoid public games, unless you want the sports game equivalent of a Zerg rush.

When this happens to you in an NCAA 09 online dynasty, do you: A. Swear loudly? B. Mute the mic and swear quietly? C. Hurl the controller to the wall? or D. All of the above?

6. Do play with friends in person.

That old gaming standby of sitting down on a couch and burning hours playing a video game is now as archaic a notion as 8-bit systems, or Sega being a console manufacturer. Most every game has an online play mode, and very few games are geared towards a local multiplayer experience anymore. Hell, some games have multiplayer as online only.

However, this is where sports games shine. Much like fighting games, the trash talking, competitive nature of playing a sport against a friend just works so much better when you're in person with your opponent. Even with beginners or new players, the in-person experience is great. Also, it provides a great drinking game!

So that's where it's at. Sports games aren't just for jocks looking to recreate their favorite sports fantasies — give some Xbox Live or PlayStation Network demos a try, and take a dive into the world of sports.