It’s a well-known fact that playing video games is now one of the world’s most popular ways to stay entertained. In fact, for a couple of years at the beginning of this decade, playing video games, whether on a PC, console, or gaming on the go, was actually more popular than traditional sports events. This is what got us thinking about what the greatest sports video games of all time could be.
Now, the sports/sports simulation genre is massive and has been part of the gaming industry since day one. Of course, over the years, developers have really pushed the boundaries of technology and realism to deliver a raft of iconic sports titles that appeal to dedicated fans and the wider gaming community alike. Could those early iterations of the late 20th century really hold up against the tech-laden digital games of today? Well, we certainly think so!
Join us as we take a trip through modern history to rank the most unforgettable sports video games of all time.
The Analog Years – Tecmo Bowl and NBA Jam
The 1980s laid the foundation for so much, from music to movies, and it also played a critical role in the development of gaming. The game that set the standard for this decade (in our humble opinion) was the 1987 arcade smash, Tecmo Bowl. It may have possessed a simple enough gameplay, but its compelling format and memorable music made it an instant hit.
What’s more, the success of the 1987 original sparked a Nintendo reinvention, with Tecmo Super Bowl launching on the platform four years later. You can even still play this classic today via NES online on the Switch.
As the 90s rolled in, so did the era of immersive video games, and there wasn’t a sports title released that decade that had the hope of toppling NBA Jam from its throne. Midway’s 1993 console release was available on all major platforms, including SEGA Genesis, Super NES, and even the PlayStation, such was its popularity. With over-the-top dunks, corny catchphrases, and exaggerated gameplay, the game soon became a cultural phenomenon.
Gaming Goes Online – FIFA Soccer and NBA 2K
The dawn of the internet saw a paradigm shift in gaming, with titles becoming more realistic than ever before. The cream of the sports gaming crop during the 00s and the 2010s saw league sports take center stage.
FIFA Soccer 2002 (a precursor to the now legendary FIFA series) kicked things up a notch by including licensed teams and players in the virtual action. Finally, soccer fans could play video games in which players actually looked human, as opposed to the pixelated blobs of previous decades.
Then, as the 2010s got underway, it truly became a golden era for sports gaming. Visual Concepts/2K Games NBA 2K series, in particular, redefined the sports simulation genre with its stunning graphics and in-depth career mode.
The Digital Age – FIFA (now EA Sports FC)
Here in the digital age, sports games have evolved into highly immersive online experiences. There are sports simulation games, sports management titles, and even digital editions of mindsports. The mindsports genre has expanded in the 21st century and now includes chess, draughts and even the classic card game of poker — which has also undergone its own digital evolution as evidenced by the real money poker games offered by online operators. These versions of the mindsports are helping to drive the popularity of these cerebral, strategic games and, as well as poker, there’s online chess, mahjong and even digitized board games to enjoy (yes, they’re officially mindsports, too!).
However, one gaming franchise is really taking sports video games to the next level, and that’s EA Sports FIFA.
EA Sports FC 24 may well be the latest title in the series, but we’ve selected FIFA 22 as the most groundbreaking installment. Although it was released two years ago now, in 2021, this was the first game in the series to fully embrace the possibilities of advanced technology like artificial intelligence. FIFA 22 brought with it the introduction of HyperMotion technology, which created a much more realistic on-pitch experience thanks to improved ball physics and enhanced player animations.
We couldn’t rightly end an article about the most impactful sporting video games of all time without at least giving special mention to the following titles:
- Wii Sports: In 2006, Nintendo’s Wii Sports was all the rage in motion-controlled gaming. This digital sports simulation experience brought tennis, baseball, and bowling to life right in people’s living rooms.
Rocket League: Launched in 2015, Psyonix’s Rocket League is a crazy combination of soccer and rocket-powered racing — with gameplay just as madcap as you’d expect. Noted as being “easy to learn but difficult to master” in the gaming community, Rocket League is a verified modern classic.