Sports games have a tough niche to fill in modern gaming. They have to balance both hardcore statistics number-crunchers who boot the game and immediately head for the franchise mode and the players who want to get on the field or the court and win. And overall, the major franchises representing the major sports pull off that balancing act with impressive skill. Sports games have never had more depth, never played better, never been more polished. But even by that standard, some stood above the rest in 2016. So, from great to greatest, here’s how 2016 stacked up in sports gaming.
6. FIFA 17
To be fair to the FIFA team, they switched engines this year, so they didn’t really have any time for any bold new changes on a gameplay level. They did spend a lot of time spit-polishing every aspect of the game, though, and their dedication to capturing every angle of what’s happening on the field, as it unfolds in real time, from injuries to rainbow laces, was and is fairly amazing. Now that the paperwork of switching engines is out of the way, we need to see the FIFA team put the pedal to the floor and show us what the idea of a constantly adapting, constantly updating game can really do.
5. Madden 17
Even though all sports games are vulnerable to the criticism, the Madden franchise often hears the bulk of the charges that it’s little more than a roster update every year. In their defense, though, the franchise has, in the face of an evolving NFL audience, been trying to change things up just enough to address that criticism. While its Franchise Mode introduced a bunch of intriguing ideas that didn’t quite hit the mark in some respects, especially the supposedly “simplified” interface, SuperSim mode, where you had to go for the crucial plays in the game instead of letting the computer crunch the numbers, got people actually playing the game instead of watching it play itself. Additionally, the fine-tuning and smart difficulty curves make Madden a more player-friendly game than in previous years. If something isn’t broken, you don’t fix it, and you can make that case with Madden.
4. NHL 17
NHL ’17 was really all about giving the fans what they wanted this year. ECHL teams? Sure. The World Cup of Hockey? Ask (for years) and ye shall receive. Annoying team owners serving as a roadblock in the general manager mode? Finally. OK, maybe we didn’t want that one. Really the only thing missing that fans wanted was to be able to force Gary Bettman onto the ice in a mascot costume. That said, a lot of time was also spent making it look and feel like the rest of EA’s sports games. While we can’t knock the polish, and the respect for hockey’s technical complexity is impressive, NHL also needs some more of hockey’s rowdier, scrappy side.
3. WWE 2K17
As Brandon Stroud noted in his full review, WWE 2K17 is the closest 2K has gotten so far to giving us everything we want out of a WWE game, but there’s still a ways left to go. The career mode is too repetitious, and the submission mini-game is still borderline impossible, but the creation system is as robust as you could hope for. And with the inclusion of all the vintage WCW logos, arenas, and wrestlers, you can spend hours wrestling as anyone you can possibly imagine. If No Mercy is never coming back, this is the wrestling game you can kill time with.
2. MLB 16: The Show
With MLB The Show, Sony consistently tops themselves by making the best baseball video game of all time every year.
In 2016, the addictive Road To The Show RPG mode was enhanced, adding the fun slow-mo “Showtime” effect for good measure. Hardcore fans also got some red meat thrown their way with more realistic scouting, player morale in Franchise Mode, retractable roof options, and the return of retro stadiums (though there can never be enough of those). The Show also looked better with smoother animations and personalized stances, which served to enhance the overall experience of playing a game.
Creating a good looking and fun game that breezily allows you to mirror the real life proceedings (in less than an hour) without feeling like you’re sacrificing much in the way of realism is the holy grail for video game baseball efforts and we’re finally at that point. Bottom’s up. But in comparison to, say, basketball, which long ago attained that glory, well…
1. NBA 2K17
NBA 2K17 is tantalizingly deep with protected draft pick trades, a fully realized expansion mode, and the ability to launch into a new season at the start of the off-season or in the middle of a season with real-world stat and transaction carryover. But while those things (and small bonuses like unique ball-on-court sounds for each arena) will get your attention, gameplay is the key to holding it and making a game a get-up-and-stretch-or-you’ll-die life ruiner. And that mission has been accomplished, here.
Everything is smoother and more breathtaking in NBA2K17, from the jerseys to the player hair and the custom sneakers, but the ability to do some damage in the paint with non-behemoths stands out. Whereas in past iterations, I’ve felt as though I was damned to live or die on my perimeter shooting because I couldn’t execute a well-timed crossover move to save my life, NBA2K17 seems to allow more for speed to play a factor in finding open lanes to the hoop, which results in a game that feels truer to real life. And that’s sort of the point.