You’re allowed to not like sports. Don’t sweat it. But also don’t shoot any guff towards those of us who do. “Sportsball” jokes just make you look petty. And although sports videogames are regularly some of the best-selling and most popular games of the year, they rarely get the respect afforded to games that daringly ask you to kill every last resident of floating, turn-of-the-century sundown towns. Our list might play a little fast and loose with the concept of sports, but it’s important to acknowledge the fine work and tremendous effort that goes into this overlooked corner of the industry.
Much like the NHL itself, which only now feels fully recovered from the disastrous lockout that killed the entire 2004-2005 season (and that’s despite a lockout that saw almost half the 2012-2013 season wiped out), NHL 17 is finally starting to recover the momentum that was lost from the ill-fated NHL 15. Beyond a strong recreation of the game’s lightning-fast action, NHL 17 adds a deeper GM mode, a number of minor league teams that haven’t been in the game before, and a tournament based on the World Cup of Hockey, which Canada won in the real world back in September. It’s still playing catch-up with some of the other big names in team sports videogames, but for the first time in years hockey fans have a videogame to get excited about.
As always, this was a big year for fans of soccer (or, as the civilized call it, football). It’s the only major team sport that has three different prominent videogames devoted to it every year. Football Manager 2017 isn’t for everybody, of course—it’s a complex simulation that focuses on, well, management, letting you handle almost every aspect of the game other than actually playing the match. It’s fallen prey to the same pitfalls as most annualized sports games—familiar bugs and problems continue to reappear, and it might not feel like a substantial enough update for annual players. Still, if you’re looking for a numbers-focused sports sim this year, Football Manager is once again the best you’ll find.
Konami’s soccer game might always live in FIFA’s shadow, but many fans insist it’s the better of the two. It’s definitely better at recreating the look and feel of an actual game of soccer, so if you’re only interested in playing against the computer or locally against friends it might be the one to pick. It doesn’t come close to matching FIFA’s roster, and playing online doesn’t work as well, but the game itself is perfectly fine.
FIFA 17 gets the nod over Pro Evo this year because it’s narrowed the gap in play while adding to its already significant lead in almost every other aspect of sports games. For the first time during the PlayStation 4 / Xbox One era, FIFA uses a new engine that eliminates some of the persistent problems that have plagued it the last few years. It also introduces a career mode that works better than expected. Add in the regular advantages in terms of rosters and online play, and it’s hard not to call this the soccer game of the year. (Well, if you don’t count the soccer-ish game that comes in at number three on this list…)
Unless Australia’s gotten a lot weirder since I was last there, the Australian-developed Push Me Pull You isn’t focused on a real sport. That should be immediately apparent: its “teams” are giant worms with human faces and arms on either end who twist around each other while trying to force a ball out of the court. It’s inspired by a variety of real-life sports, though, and outside of the absurdity of the character design visually scans as a traditional sport. And since it’s focused entirely on competition, encouraging you to play with your friends in person, it feels as much like a sport while you’re playing it as any EA or 2K game. It’s one of the weirdest but most elegantly designed games I’ve played this year.
The RPG-like Road to the Show is as strong as ever, and Sony’s exhaustively detailed baseball game continues to be an almost overwhelmingly deep recreation of America’s pastime. What elevates this year’s installment above the last few is the new Conquest Mode, which is like baseball Risk, where you play other teams to take over the fans based in different parts of America. In a head to head match-up, a stand-alone mobile version of Conquest Mode could probably take traditional fantasy baseball to extra innings.
The best annual series in sports games might be showing its age a bit, but it’s still the most exciting, realistic and detailed traditional team sports game almost every year. This year’s MyCareer mode was a notable achievement, with a storyline from the writer of Creed, and deeper MyGM and MyLeague modes expanded the game’s fantasy aspects, but most importantly it continues to capture the thrill of actual basketball to a surprising degree.
The absurd soccer-adjacent game Headmaster is the only PlayStation VR launch title that really seems to focus on the hardware’s headtracking abilities. Other games might let you gaze around 360 degree environments, but Headmaster is played entirely with your head—as soccer balls are shot at you from various angles, you have to lean forward and head them into the goal, sometimes while avoiding obstacles or trying to hit special targets. It’s actually a legitimately funny game—its dry sense of humor and the clinical nature of the rounds reminded me of the great British show Look Around You, and videogame fans will recognize some of Portal’s spirit here, too.
Videoball adds a charge button to a local co-op sports game that combines elements of soccer, football, hockey and almost any team sport where the point is to knock a ball into a thing that the other side doesn’t want you to knock it into. You and your teammate do that by shooting the ball like you’re Mega Man fighting a robot in a hard hat. The longer you hold the button down the more powerful that shot will be. There’s a wave to the charge button, though—if you hold it down too long you will create a defensive block instead of a shot. Find the sweet spot and let go to rocket that ball across the screen, juggling offense and defense along the way. If you are the type to get angry and passionate about competition, Videoball will make you angry and passionate and thoroughly obsessed and satisfied and eventually depleted of high-fives.
Forza Horizon 3 has one of the most organic senses of progression I’ve ever seen in a racing game. You, as the player, constantly keep moving to explore and find the next cool thing to do. Much like discovering cars in old barns was an element in the original, this game is designed to provoke a sense of wonder and curiosity through exploration.—Jason D’Aprile