Do real-life players create unrealistic expectations in sports games?

Do real-life players create
unrealistic expectations in sports games?
Zoned In
By Michael Lafferty

When rules of the game are not adhered to, frustration can set in

The ball is driven to deep left-centerfield. The centerfielder takes off in
pursuit but it is evident that the ball is going to land beyond his reach. He
was, after all, playing a little shallower for this particular batter and got
caught trying to cheat up. The ball short-hops the outfield wall and jumps to
the centerfielder’s right. From the camera angle, while it eluded him yet again,
he didn’t appear to put a glove on it.

He hesitates, and then chases the ball. Meanwhile, the baserunner is rounding
second and has a full head of steam heading for third. As he nears third, the
outfielder retrieves the ball and throws toward the cut-off man. The runner
rounds third and heads for home. The throw is too late and the runner scores. It
appears to be an inside-the-park home run. But wait … the official score records
it as an error, and not the misplay off the wall, the whole at-bat – which means
the batter/baserunner does not get credit for the hit.

Ok, suppose the ball hit the outfielder’s glove as it came off the wall. That
would be an error charged for the extra bases, but the ball hit over the
outfielder’s head in the first place is a hit, pure and simple. A real
scorekeeper may have ruled it a double, depending on whether the baserunner was
around first by the time the ball short-hopped the wall, and then a two-base
error to account for the run scored.

But then this was a videogame, and something so seemingly innocuous as that can
drive the true fan right up the wall. Why? Baseball, more so than any other
sport, is a game of statistics. Each at-bat, each batter ball is accounted for
in its statistical precision. That hit being ruled an error may mean the
difference between the batter going 2-for-5 for the game or 1-for-5. Consistent
2-for-5 batting will get a player to the Hall of Fame, where 1-for-5 average
will get a ride down through the minors to a job elsewhere.

It would be one thing if this kind of occurrence was an anomaly in the world of
sports videogames, but unfortunately it is not. Often there are little
inconsistencies, little departures that remind us we are playing a game, not
involved in the realistic counterpart to sports games we may be passionate
about.

Why is it seemingly so hard to get the facts and nuances of a game right? For
several decades, fans of role-playing games have been dealing with variants of
the D&D ruleset, which has changed, but has been somewhat consistently handled
in videogames. Sure, there have been games that vary in the treatment of the
ruleset, but for the most part gamers know what to expect if a game is based on
it.

Perhaps what separates sports games from fantasy RPGs are the fact that they
include real-life players, for the most part. True, some games do step away from
that (think of NCAA titles) because of the changing nature of the rosters on a
year-to-year basis (and there is that whole licensing issue as well). But when
you talk about pro sports, players are treated to lineups featuring recognizable
players and legends.

And that is where we begin to slip into the frustrated madness of expectations
not met.

Baseball is an obvious target because of the statistical nature of the sport. As
baseball fans, we know that the last man to hit .400 or above was Ted Williams
in 1941 (he had a .406 average). Rarely do we take time to stop gazing in wonder
at the magical number to realize the opposite side of the coin – he was only
successful at the plate roughly four out of 10 times, which means he failed to
hit the ball safely six out of 10 times. We chortle with delight when we unlock
Mickey Mantle from the legends, then scowl when he fails to dole out mighty
clouts each time he steps into the batter’s box. We don’t remember that he was a
.298 lifetime hitter and that his best-ever year at the plate was in 1957 when
he hit .365.

Would it be any different if we played an NBA game and unlocked Wilt
Chamberlain? The most-dominate center of his time scored 100 points in a game in
1962 (Philadelphia versus New York), but he only averages 30.1 points per game
for his career, his career field goal percentage was only .540 and his free
throw percentage (career) was .511. Translation: he won’t put the ball in the
hole each time he touches it. (The stats came from
www.nba.com.)

Sports games blur the line between
fantasy and reality by introducing real-life players with real-life stats into a
venue where what happens in the cyber arena may be at odds with how it would be
treated in real life. And the fault, it would seem, is not so much with the game
makers as with the expectations of the game players.

Yes, more attention needs to be paid
to translating the rules into the cyber realm, but gamers have to also back up a
bit and accept the shortcomings, in some small measure. With the next generation
of console platforms on the horizon, with the videocards in PCs capable of
giving us graphics that will amaze, there has to come a time when developers
realize that they cannot squeeze any more realism, graphically, out of a sports
title and will have to concentrate on making it a much more realistic gameplay
experience in all areas, not just a few high-profile ones.

Sports is about passion, and when passion is riding high and what we expect is
not met, then that enthusiasm can sour into frustration.