Heady Fumes: Nostalgia, Sports Games and F1 2013

I bought Formula 1 2013 because of this video which I mentioned in The Backlog a few weeks ago.

Why is it so special, you might ask? Well, the hook for this year’s edition of the game is a smattering of classic cars from the 1980s and 1990s, plus tracks that were used in these eras as well. Cars from three Formula 1 teams — Williams, Lotus, and the legendary Ferrari — are included in the game, and among them are race winners, championship winners and rides that were used by some of the greatest drivers of all time.

Even cars 17 years old (like this 1996 Williams) are of an entirely different era in Formula 1. (Codemasters)
Even cars 17 years old (like this 1996 Williams) are of an entirely different era in Formula 1. (Codemasters)

I knew that. I got excited in the summer when F1 Classic mode was announced for the game. But when the above trailer dropped, I turned into a pile of mush. Why? Because of the soundtrack in the video -- a part of the Fleetwood Mac song “The Chain.” The best comparison I can draw for Americans is the old NBA on NBC theme, “Roundball Rock,” which encapsulates everything that was great about the NBA in the late 1980s and ‘90s. When I hear “Roundball Rock,” I see Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan.

When British F1 fans hear “The Chain,” they get misty-eyed and reverent for the past. That excerpt from the song “The Chain” (full song here) may come from 1977, but it was used by the BBC to introduce their coverage of Formula 1 racing between 1978 and 1996. The same squishy feelings I get for NBA basketball from “Roundball Rock,” the Brits get for "The Chain". I’m on forums for racing online with plenty of British F1 fans, and when the BBC won broadcasting rights back for F1 in 2009, the first question was, “Will they use ‘The Chain’?”

Flat brim. Outrageous mustache. Full commitment. Active suspension. Red 5. Nigel Mansell. (Codemasters)
Flat brim. Outrageous mustache. Full commitment. Active suspension. Red 5. Nigel Mansell. (Codemasters)

What does this have to do with videogames? It’s the power of nostalgia. Start humming the Super Mario Bros. theme and try not to imagine brown-and-red Mario hopping on goombas. Whistle the Legend of Zelda theme, and try to avoid memories of Link to the Past or Ocarina of Time. Nostalgia holds such power in our lives, and in gaming, but it’s only now being embraced by sports games.

The classic cars featured in Formula 1 2013 range in age from 1980 to 1999. For non-fans, it seems like a real non-issue; what’s the big difference? Questions like that make F1 fans like myself want to shake you by the shoulders and scream “THE DIFFERENCE IS HUGE!” The 1980 Williams was the last of the Ford-Cosworth-powered cars before the era of small turbocharged engines took over. That era is represented by an ex-Ayrton Senna Lotus-Renault, the bright yellow Lotus-Honda which made an appearance in NES classic Rad Racer, and the 1988 Ferrari, from the last year turbocharged engines were allowed. Then came the 1990s and the era of 3.5-liter engines, ABS, traction control, and active suspension seen in the 1992 cars. Those driver aids were then banned, engines changed size, and slick tires were banned in 1998, ushering in the aerodynamics and screaming engines of the latter rides. I first watched Formula 1 racing as a child in the early ‘90s; I’ve watched all or part of every season since 1997. Seeing these cars is a pure nostalgia trip. Dropping behind the wheel of Nigel Mansell's Williams-Renault FW14B is a marked difference from the 2013 models in the game -- Our Nige's ride has traction control, ABS, active suspension, and a burly 3.5-liter V10. It may not be as outright fast as the current 2013 models, but it's incredibly easy to drive fast. Compare that with the 1980s turbocharged cars, which are as difficult to drive as the stories from that era always said. The joy of turbo lag and incredible horsepower make for interesting bedfellows.

NBA 2K11's Jordan Challenge let you finally try to be like Mike. (Image from NBA 2K11)
NBA 2K11's Jordan Challenge let you finally try to be like Mike. (Image from NBA 2K11)

And that’s what makes F1 2013’s F1 Classic mode’s shortcomings all the sadder. Let’s go back to basketball for a moment: the NBA 2K series is possibly the best yearly sports franchise right now, and for two years those games highlighted nostalgia modes to great effect. NBA 2K11’s Jordan Challenge allows you relive classic games from Michael Jordan’s storied six-championship career, while also showcasing the other stars of His Airness’ era. NBA 2K12came a year later with the NBA's Greatest mode that opened the floor to 15 other hand-picked legends, rivalries and teams from the 1960s to the early ‘00s (Webber’s Kings were robbed!). The matches were even shown in a broadcast style more reminiscent of the era. The modes were hardly the meat of NBA 2K11 or 2K12, but they were a substantial side-area that built off the existing game in meaningful ways while also rubbing your nostalgia behind the ears.

McLaren is one of the biggest F1 teams not included in F1 2013's F1 Classics. (Codemasters)
McLaren is one of the biggest F1 teams not included in F1 2013's F1 Classics. (Codemasters)

For all its good intentions, F1 2013 just can’t reach that goal. This is partially due to licensing: Formula 1 is not the NBA. It’s much easier for an existing NBA licensee (like 2K Sports) to ask the league for older art assets and to ask retired players for their likenesses. The league has rights to team assets, and the major sports in America all have unionized Player’s Associations to negotiate such deals. However, Formula 1 is a looser collection of independent entities. While some teams like Ferrari have existed for 60 years, others were founded in the 1980s or 1990s — and many other great names have bowed out of the sport during that time as well. World championship teams like Tyrrell and Brabham, and other long-serving teams like March, Arrows, and Ligier/Prost live on only in historic races around the world. The three teams featured in F1 2013 were great choices, but incomplete. McLaren is a big glaring omission, as are current long-term groups like Sauber. As well, there are plenty of teams who have changed ownership and names down the years. The Toleman team that gave Ayrton Senna his first chance became the Benetton squad where Michael Schumacher won his first two championships, which then became the Renault where Fernando Alonso won his two titles, and is now re-named Lotus (like the original group, but no connection)...for now. No matter, as the team from Enstone in England will likely make the grid no matter their name. And their moments were not in the game, either, despite the long, fascinating, storied history.

A stronger brush of history and improved F1 Classic mode could be focused around that great tradition of Formula 1 racing: the championship duel. The recently released Ron Howard film Rush focuses on one of the best choices, the dramatic 1976 championship fight between Ferrari driver Niki Lauda and McLaren’s James Hunt. Other good choices would include 1986 between Nelson Piquet, Mansell and Alain Prost, 1997 with Schumacher and Jacques Villeneuve, 2008 with Lewis Hamilton and Felipe Massa (which went down to the last corner of the last lap of the last race of the season), or even the 2010 fight between Alonso, Mark Webber, and eventual champion Sebastien Vettel. An entire game could be built on the rivalry between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, which spanned years and teams. For context, find the brilliant documentary Senna on Netflix or via other means — it’s an excellent introduction to a legend. Such a mode could focus on particularly poignant races, or a handful of turning points during a season, too. Whether it’s to recreate history or re-write it, such a mode would be an F1 fan’s dream.

Even the pit stops are correct to the period. Ah, the 1980s, when nobody cared about safety! (Codemasters)
Even the pit stops are correct to the period. Ah, the 1980s, when nobody cared about safety! (Codemasters)

Other sports games have tried this to varying degrees in the past. The NBA 2K games provided in-game goals (like score a certain number of points or achieve certain statistics like blocks or assists) which gave gamers the ability to recreate the legendary games. Trying to reach these achievements gives insight into just how monumental they were in real life; recreating them in a videogame doesn’t make it easy. In the previous Xbox and PlayStation 2 generation, the EA Sports NCAA Football series had “Great Moments” modes that challenged you to either recreate or alter history; one in particular focused on recreating The Play from Stanford-Cal 198x, better known as the “The band is on the field!” play. EA Sports’ Madden and Tiger Woods PGA games also tried similar efforts both last generation and on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.

Clearly this is a field asking to be broken wide open in sports games. Where 2K succeeded and EA Sports at the time failed was in presentation. 2K added flavor to make it feel like you were there in that moment; the EA Sports attempts haven’t to the same degree. But presentation for even F1 2013’s Classic mode is quite good -- the garage changes depending on your era, pit crews do as well (the horror of , and there’s voice-over work by the indefatigable British commentating legend Murray Walker. Murray is the voice of British motorsport and matches enthusiasm with the occasional mistake or three.

The elements to make a great classic-focused Formula 1 game are there. F1 2013 introduces the right eras, but lacks the depth and licenses needed to really showcase what makes the sport so great. Some of the classic car choices for F1 2013 are inspired — 1986 Lotus, 1992 Williams, and 1999 Ferrari especially — but many of them are victims of being what was available from that year and from that licensor. As well, not all of the original drivers are licensed, and the era-specific races and scenarios available are fun but not true to real life. With some more licensed teams and cars, and some care taken in curating specific rivalries and moments, fans could relive some of the greatest points in Formula 1 history. But it’s not just F1 that struggles with re-living the past; in my estimation only the NBA 2K series has done a good job of making past glories come to life in our games. I hope it becomes more of a trend in sports games, because recreating those great moments helps bring them to life better than TV highlights can in many ways. And considering the rich, diverse history of Formula 1 racing, it’d be a shame to leave it out of future games.