Picking one sports game to come out as a relative “winner” when they all release at pretty much the same point in the year is always a hard task. Not only do we have so little time to play so many games, but ones that release earlier in the year (aka MLB 15: The Show), usually get lost in the shuffle when it comes to end-of-year awards.
Nonetheless, the moment has arrived to pick such a winner, and just like any other year, this season’s crop of games has improved pretty dramatically over the course of one iteration. I think what makes this year’s selection so difficult, is the fact that every title saw a pretty big jump in my opinion, and 2015 might go down as one of the better years for sports game releases.
NHL 16 rebounded very nicely after a poor showing a year ago, with a heavy emphasis on gameplay improvements on the ice and a return of the beloved EASHL mode. NBA LIVE 16 also made strides with a much wider scope on game modes, including Live Run and Summer Circuit. We also saw the return of EA SPORTS golf, more updates to The Golf Club and some spectacular racing games with Forza Motorsport 6 leading the charge.
Personally, I think this was a down year for soccer/euro football titles. For the past five years, I’ve had a soccer game in my top three, and FIFA got my award for best sports game of the year 3 years in a row. This year, I just don’t think I can forgive Konami and PES 2016 for their awful handling of the roster issues that plagued the game even months after launch, even though the on-the-pitch gameplay is fantastic. When it comes to FIFA 16, while the overall scope of the product is still fantastic and top notch, I think it’s taken a step back over the past few seasons on the pitch. Simply put, the game doesn’t do a good job of replicating what you actually see on a Saturday morning, nor does it make teams feel drastically different. If I’m Manchester United, and I go to play at Stoke on a cold, rainy night, I expect to play a defensive team looking for a counter-attack, not a team that holds 70% possession and attacks me endlessly. Ultimately, I just couldn’t justify giving either title a spot in my top three with these issues in consideration.
The surprise of the year for many, Rocket League, while fantastic in its own right, just didn’t have the depth to crack my top three. If you’re a casual fan however, this might be your pick. No game was as easy to pick up and play, and almost nothing was as fun to play with friends as Rocket League was. I still play this on a weekly occasion, and while I commend it for what it is, I want my award to go to something with a lot more depth in terms of modes and experiences.
3. MLB 15: The Show
MLB 15: The Show gets my third spot this year based on the fact that it’s the best baseball simulation of all-time. MLB 14: The Show was a huge letdown for me last year, in fact, I think it was probably my most disappointing release last year, even more so than NHL 15. It was buggy, had spotty connection issues and just didn’t have that same pull that The Show normally gives me every spring.
This year was radically different. A smooth experience, less buggy, more polished – a defined experience. That’s how I’d portray Sony San Diego’s effort in 2015. MLB: The Show still handles presentation better than almost anyone on the market, and their gameplay experience, especially that between the pitcher and hitter (the most important aspect), is almost perfect. They’re also still backed by one of the most addicting modes in all of sports games: Road to the Show.
With all of that said, the reason it isn’t higher on my list is due to the fact that as amazing as this experience is, I just don’t see how they really moved the needle this year. Sure, this is an incredibly refined experience, but I just don’t see anything entirely new. In fact, I don’t know where Sony can even take this title moving forward. I don’t mean this badly, but it’s baseball, and this product is so good on the field, how does it get dramatically better? That is at no fault of the developers, but I guess I just want to see some new modes, or new changes to what we see every year in order for it to get higher on my list. Still great in its own right.
What MLB 16: The Show needs in 2016 to win:
- Streamlined base-running controls
- More of a narrative story element in Road to the Show
- New game modes/gameplay experiences we haven’t seen yet
2. Madden NFL 16
This is the year where Madden NFL finally hit the big leagues in my view. For the past decade, I’ve always felt as if Madden NFL was behind FIFA and NBA 2K in terms of overall production value and gameplay. 2015 brought a Madden title that could easily be compared to Madden NFL 05 as one of the best ever.
I’ve never thought the Madden team at EA Tiburon got the credit it deserves for having such a deeply-layered online experience – one that is unrivalled in the sports gaming industry. Pound-for-pound, Madden NFL 16 still has one of the very best online career modes available with Connected Franchise Mode, and while not perfect, still offers the ability to play with friends over multiple seasons with very few issues. This year also saw huge improvements with two-man interactions, and defensive back play that was actually fun and challenging. To top it off, Draft Champions was a new and addictive take on Madden Ultimate Team – one that came with no microtransactions and saw numerous patches post-release, led by the most recent addition that allows you to play head-to-head against friends – a highly sought after community request that is normally saved for another iteration.
On top of all of this, Madden NFL still features one of the deepest tutorial modes available – even offering advice and education on real-life strategy, something we need more of from our sports games.
Overall, Madden NFL 16 is a very strong product, one that can finally stand on its own as a giant in the industry, both off the field and on it, but it’s not perfect. With all of the good the Madden franchise was able to do this season, I still feel as if it’s missing key components keeping it from the top spot. For one, the game still lacks authentic personality, both on an individual level, and in its presentation. In keeping it short, players still feel too similar. We need different animations for different sized players, we needs teams to feel different from each other, we need home field advantage to matter in places like Seattle, we need weather to matter more…we need personality. We also could use some better presentation in terms of celebrations and commentary. Why is my team just strolling off of the field leisurely after kicking a game-winning field goal to send me to the playoffs? This issues stand out like a sore thumb when playing Madden NFL 16, because so many other games pull this off so much more efficiently. If these issues are fixed, we have a real battle on our hands in 2016.
What Madden NFL 17 needs in 2016 to win:
- A Connected Franchise refresh
- Improved player individuality in animations and move sets
- Better commentary and presentation for situational awareness
- A playoff mode
1. NBA 2K16
Like the great Omar Little said in HBO’s The Wire: “If you come at the King, you best not miss.”
This defines the kind of year 2K Sports has had with NBA 2K16. I think most people had NBA 2K15 as their overall favourite sports title last year, and as much as other titles did to improve themselves to try and take that crown, no one improved as much as NBA 2K did in 2015, and it was already situated as one of the best out there. Just like the Golden State Warriors in real life, many thought the 2K Sports team would rest on their laurels this year and cruise along, but instead they came out and went 29-1 and dominated the entire league on their way to a back-to-back title (yes, I’m a Warriors fan).
What amazes me year-in and year-out with the team over at 2K Sports is their fascination on improving every facet of their title. While most teams focus on improving one mode, or bringing in one new feature, NBA 2K16 brought improvements to every single aspect of the title. They even went as far as to improve the Classic Team selection – something that hasn’t been touched in years. We saw drastic additions and improvements to MyLEAGUE, MyGM, MyPARK, MyCAREER, the addition of MyLEAGUE online, relocations, more options…more of everything.
Damn near everything about NBA 2K16 is stunning in scope and impressive. Daily roster updates and gear additions, weekly shows you can watch IN A GAME, the sheer amount of customization in their MyLEAGUE setup, and the fact I can play with Michael Jordan. Without question, there is not one game in the sports market that can come close to matching the depth of content made available to you in NBA 2K16.
The other impressive thing to add here is the fact that I don’t think this team gets enough credit for taking the risks it takes every single year. Let’s be honest, this game could afford to take it easy for a few years and they wouldn’t be faulted. Why take massive risks when you’re pushing the number of copies NBA 2K does every year? But regardless of whether you think Spike Lee’s MyCAREER story is good or not, name one game that is taking that type of creative risk in today’s market? Name me one…
You can’t, and that’s why this title impresses me to the level that in a few years, I wouldn’t be surprised if I looked back and said this is the best sports game I’ve ever played. While these risks may not always pay off, I respect the hell out of them for trying to push the bar higher, for trying to incorporate a narrative story in a basketball game when nobody else is even attempting it in current fashion. Success does not mean caution with this title, and because of that, it is by far my Sports Game of the Year.
I’ve gotten this far and I haven’t even mentioned gameplay or presentation, both of which took huge strides forward. Personally, I feel as if no other game can match true-to-life authenticity to the product it represents quite like NBA 2K16. Teams feel real. They’ll attempt to beat you in different ways. They adjust. They strategize. Individuals feel different. Steph Curry feels, and looks exactly like Steph Curry. If you play with the Memphis Grizzlies, you can be successful with Marc Gasol. You can feed the ball down low, you can bang the boards, you can block shots. This is all coupled by the fact that the game feels more fluid this year and you tend to get stuck in less animations – something NBA 2K has struggled with for years, and for the first time in years, defense matters in a basketball game.
I still haven’t mentioned the fact that the game has a new mode, Pro-Am, which offers even more customization and fun things to do, or the little details I continue to find in its presentation, including individual mannerisms, team specific celebrations and the sheer amount of player-voiced audio in the game.
There really isn’t enough good I can say about NBA 2K16. It’s that good in my view. Sure, it’s not the most accessible of titles for casual users, its control scheme is still a bit messy for my liking (especially play-calling), and I’m a bit bummed by the disappearance of a “Playoff Mode,” but this title is nothing short of spectacular. As a hardcore basketball enthusiast, I am simply amazed at what 2K Sports has created this season, and this is easily the best basketball game I have ever played. As they say in combat fighting – to be the champ, you have to take the fight to the champ, and every title will have a damn hard time finding a weakness in NBA 2K’s armour if they keep going with this pace. A generational stand-out.
What NBA 2K17 needs in 2016 to win:
- Return of Playoff Mode
- More accessible play-calling system
- Keep innovating the narrative in MyCAREER