And another thing: Sports games need better endings

NBA Live

NBA Live 10: When did winning become such an anticlimax?

Yesterday I wrapped up my second winning season on EA’s lovely (if slightly buggy) NBA Live 10 and was surprised to find that, rather than feeling a sense of victorious elation, I was immediately struck with how unrewarding the experience was. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t expect a sports video game experience to deliver the same excitement as watching the real thing. For one thing I can exert some control over the proceedings which undercuts the nail-biting suspense which can accompany watching a live game. Still, it feels strange to think that winning – at anything – can feel so anticlimactic. Especially after all the work I’d put in.

Let me explain; having clocked NBA Live 10’s Dynasty Mode on piddly difficulty with the Boston Celtics (KAY!! GEEEEEEEEE!!!) I had opted to give myself more of a challenge by upping the difficulty and trying a run for the title with a weaker team. First, I tried it with the New York Knicks. After ten straight losses (and none of them simulated) and complaints from the other half about my colourful language, I decided to start again with the Utah Jazz.

(If you don’t follow basketball, then trying to win the NBA Championship with the Utah Jazz is like trying to win the Champions League with Roma. If you don’t follow football or basketball, then it’s like trying to win the Rugby World Cup with France. If you follow none of these sports then make an analogy with the sport of your choice or move along, there’s nothing to see here).

Anyway, the Jazz aren’t exactly the slouches that the Knicks are – after all they can do things like score points – but they aren’t in the same league as teams like the Lakers or the Celtics. What this means is for someone playing a season with them is this: you can’t simulate as many matches, because if you do, you run the risk of losing every second game. You have to play every single game – at least until you clinch a play-off berth – and this can take quite a bit of time.

I sank about a month’s worth of evenings into NBA Live 10 to give myself a better challenge, and the game didn’t disappoint. The full season offered up some bitter disappointments (losing to the Cavs in triple overtime at home – NOOOOO!) a lot of satisfying plays and a couple of shock moments (winning against the Lakers through a three-point buzzer beater from Okhur? My mouth fell open). Once in the play-offs, things got harder. No more simulations could be allowed and I didn’t exactly have the easiest route to the finals – Dallas, San Antonio and then Los Angeles. The finals came down to my plucky Jazz and the beast from the East, Boston. I won the series 4 games to 2 in front of a home crowd who – thanks to the folks at EA in charge of the game’s soundtrack – sounded frenzied enough to blow the roof of the arena.  The final point I scored – which put me up 97-92 with 0.8 seconds on the clock – was a two-handed dunk from Carlos Boozer which brought the house down. The Celtics inbounded, the buzzer sounded and then…

…nothing. The once rapturous crowd began softly murmuring. The Jazz players made a couple of celebratory gestures and walked off the court and then the commentators wrapped up for the night. Other than a brief shot of the team holding a trophy, you’d never believe this game was any different from any other match fixture. And then it was back to the main screen where the game expected me to do it all over again.

Fat chance. Not if that’s all I have to look forward to. After all the time I’d sunk into the game I was at least expecting something a bit more than that. Maybe fans running onto the court? Maybe some cheers and more shots of the players enjoying themselves? Certainly more than I got – but then, this is a problem with a lot of sports games. Developers never seem to take too much notice of the fact that the end of a game or a season is a vital part of the experience of watching or playing a sport. In real life, if a team like Arsenal win the league, it’s a night of jubilation and revelry, with possibly a couple of days feeling smug tacked on for good measure. In Fifa 10 it’s a team in a huddle for about ten seconds and then an email from the club saying “Well done, here are your objectives for next season.” Seriously, would it kill the developers to at least stick in a (skippable) cinematic of the team parading through the streets of Highbury in an open-top bus? Twenty seconds of that? It’s all I ask. After developing 360 degree dribbling what I’m asking for is small potatoes.

It’s true that playing a sports game may never contain the thrill of watching the real thing. But as it stands now, there’s little incentive – beyond collecting achievements/trophies – to play more than a quick match, because sinking in loads of time in a Dynasty or Manager mode just makes one feel like a bit of a loser at the end of it all. Even if you win.

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