In the world of sports gaming, titles like Madden, FIFA, and NBA 2K have been reigning supreme for years now.
As a testament to its dominance, the latest installment of Madden was able to reach 1M units sold in its first week in 2013. However, that number was still sub-par for the franchise, coming in at 650,000 less units than the series' previous release, Madden 13. Similarly, in the UK markets, FIFA 14 saw a 24 percent decrease in its launch week sales totals from 2012 to 2013 despite coming in as the no. 1 highest-selling video game in the country. Needless to say, these titles have set a standard in the industry that has been difficult to top year-in and year-out.
However, the worst-kept secret of sports gaming is this: the titles are also dreadfully repetitive. These games are known commodities at this point, so close to the reality of their actual sports that most innovation from one year to the next has been neutralized. Changes arrive in the technical aspects of the game, manifesting only after years of pointless tinkering. Hit Sticks, Truck Sticks, Real Ball Physics: it's all the same after awhile. And most disappointing of all is that the goal of these games is to reach an experience that is as close to the real thing as possible.
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But why? Isn't the point of gaming to create alternate realities? Isn't the point of gaming to give us an escape from what we already know? There's something to be said for being able to control your favorite players and teams and to decide an outcome for yourself, but the aspirations of these titles seem woefully underdeveloped for their medium.
For the opposite reason, action sports games like WWE 2K14 have the opportunity to distinguish themselves from the pack, offering gaming experiences that thrive on unbelievable spectacles and bold, larger-than-life characters. In the case of a pro-wrestling simulation, its real-world counterpart is spectacular source material. Professional wrestling has long been known to be staged entertainment, among one of the greatest lies in professional sports.
But WWE's pre-determined theatrics are different from insidious frauds like match-fixing or steroids though. Those types of deceit infringe on the rules of sports like football, basketball, baseball and soccer. With WWE, an entire world has been created from fakery, filled with colorful costumes, hysterical personalities, and awe-inspiring maneuvers.
As Kevin Wong pointed out last Thursday, WWE has given us ridiculous heroes and villains like Mantaur, Bam Bam Bigelow, Bastion Booger, and even Duke the Dumpster, a trash collector-turned-wrestler. Indeed, pro wrestling can even make garbage glamorous. But more importantly, they could turn your menial day job into something worth rooting for. It's a sport that reaches out to its audience instead of putting them at a distance. You'll never be a professional athlete like LeBron James, but WWE made it seem like anyone could don some spandex and step into the ring.
Thus, with all of these personalities, allegiances were born. For instance, consider last night, when the Undertaker lost his first ever Wrestlemania, dropping his record to 21-1. Fans were aghast, tears were shed, Twitter reacted.
Undertaker loses at WrestleMania?! This guys sums it up. pic.twitter.com/o812YJXZXR— Chris Forsberg (@ESPNForsberg) April 7, 2014
Of course, these emotions were spilled for someone and something that don't really exist, which is the distinguishing feature between WWE and professional sports. What does the Undertaker's so-called record really mean when its outcome was scripted from the start? Yes, a lot less than a Super Bowl title. However, the worth of an arbitrary event like Wrestlemania makes us ask the same type of question we have to consider when we create an emotional bond with a movie or novel.
In this way, WWE has given us the type of entertainment we only thought possible in a fantastic universe. Its video game accompaniment, WWE 2K14, offers an opportunity to expand on that fantasy, and to push it even farther. You want EXTREME? They've got EXTREME. You want a Royal Rumble and cheesy entrance music and shiny capes? You've come to the right place. Even the game's trailer is enough to unleash your inner-Hulk Hogan.
However, it should be noted that this progression is also natural. There's nothing forced about trying to make wrestling as wild and outrageous as any other video game we've seen. There's a reason the XFL didn't succeed for Vince McMahon: he tried to force flamboyance on a sport that has been built on ideals of humility and teamwork and prestige. Conversely, WWE thrives on fireworks and ambitious displays, and always has. It's top-notch entertainment because of its ability to make actors out of athletes. Video games complement and strengthen this mission. It should be no surprise that the organization is reportedly looking to expand its reach in the video game industry, and that Take Two Entertainment has already begun developing WWE 2K15.
There are other sports that would be wise to co-opt this business plan. Pro boxing, a sport that has been steadily declining in popularity for years now, has long been devoid of charisma or palatable stars to lead its competition. The pure brutality and primal bloodsport of boxing has long satiated the hunger of spectators, but now, more than ever, the sport needs a fearless face to lead the way. Floyd Mayweather's braggadocio falls flat when he can't get in a fight with Manny Pacquiao. Adrien Broner's antics are less forgivable after a recent loss to Marcos Maidana.
As a sports fan, it can be frustrating to hear basketball or hockey pundits beg for updated models of irreplaceable talents like Michael Jordan or Wayne Gretzky, but boxing is in desperate need of a new Muhammad Ali. Even a Mike Tyson would suffice. Boxing needs a big talker whose might can match his mouth. Boxing needs a character whose personality is in competition with his performance. With Tyson and Ali, their actions outside of the ring (shit-talking, draft evasion, pigeon-keeping) made it difficult to separate the man from the myth, both for better and for worse.
Or maybe it's smarter to say that boxing is need of a new Little Mac. Because of boxing's lack of marketability, an unfortunate dearth has been created in the gaming industry for boxing-related content. The last Fight Night title was released back in 2011, while the latest Ready 2 Rumble game, which suffered from lukewarm and negative reviews, hit stores for the Wii in 2009. To their credit, Nintendo delivered a superb re-up of Punch-Out!! in that same year, showing how successful the title could still be 15 years after its initial release. It's unsurprising. Much like WWE, Punch-Out!! offers a hypnotic blend of interaction and entertainment that is difficult to come by in conventional sports titles.
Football, basketball, and soccer video games try to imitate the fluidity and spontaneity of the actual competition by allowing hyper-detailed control for the player. Certainly, boxing and wrestling can be brutal, less technical sports, but they're not without their nuance. However, WWE 2K14, Punch-Out!! and even Fight Night (keep in mind, Fight Night Round 3 allowed you to use the Burger King as one of your trainers) has never made as much of a fuss over control schemes.
With these titles, the developers know what they're trying to sell you: a world, a lifestyle, a grand spectacle. It's about Pay-Per-View, Don King, and the bright lights of the MGM Grand Arena. They're not attempting to bring you closer to the real thing. Instead, boxing and wrestling titles try to push the boundaries even farther, taking the fiction from fact and blowing it up in HD. In doing so, these games are able to remind us all of the cardinal rule that Madden, FIFA, and other self-serious sports titles seem to forget: it's only entertainment.