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By: Matthew Kohl
Email: virtualsportsman@gmail.com
Twitter: @virtuallymatt

The baseball off-season can be fraught with peril for some. Especially if you don’t care for many,
or any, of the winter sports. Baseball fans who aren’t content to follow the free agent game or the trade rumors have a few options to scratch the baseball itch. For example, I like to take a trip through my childhood baseball card collection. My card binder is one of very few things I have left from my youth and it’s the oldest thing I own that I purchased with my own money. It’s interesting to see who I thought was worth putting in the book versus who got clipped into the bike spokes since I only collected cards from players and teams I liked. I didn’t care if they were stars, though many were, and I didn’t care if they played for a rival team. Sometimes a card would get promoted from the box to the binder and sometimes they would get demoted, a practice which accounts for entire pages with only a single card on them in some instances. I don’t change it these days even though the order of cards and grouping of players is ramshackle at best and absolutely maddening when I’m looking for something specific.

Whenever I go through the book, I’m reminded of cards I had that would be worth having today or in the future had I kept them. I didn’t care enough about the players at the time to do so. Allusions of monetary gain be damned as I firmly stand by those edicts that decided what or whom was worth keeping, mysterious as they were. Mariano Rivera’s 1992 Bowman rookie card may disagree with me tossing it aside, but what kid keeps a baseball card featuring some twit standing in khakis and a polo shirt in his collection? Besides, he played for the evil empire. Sometimes though, I get confused as to why I kept something in the book.

WHO THE HELL?

“Who in the hell is Mariano Duncan?” That’s usually the first question I ask myself whenever I peruse the book. He’s on the first page. He was a 2B/SS and career .267 hitter who is currently the hitting coach for the Chicago Cubs AA affiliate Tennessee Smokies by the way. I learned that from Wikipedia just today! Even though his career may have been a bit underwhelming, I don’t dare take the card out. For one reason or another an eight year old me thought it belonged in the book and I don’t doubt that reason was a good one. Its placement on the bottom right corner leads me to believe it’s one of the first nine cards I ever put in there. It’s possible it could even be from my very first pack of cards.

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I probably kept him because he had good fundamentals.

Another player who I have several cards from that also has a Cubs connection is Pat Listach, though I know why I kept his cards. He was second place to only Kenny Lofton in stolen bases and won Rookie of the Year honors in 1992. All but one of the cards I have from him are from that season. Coincidentally, he didn’t do much else the rest of his playing career. He’s currently the Cubs third base coach and was voted Pacific Coast League Manager of the Year in 2008 for leading the Iowa Cubs to the postseason. So he has that.

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These are great looking cards though.

THE WEIRDNESS

There are also some strange phenomena that permeate my card binder. One of which I call the “Doc Strawberry Page.” It’s weird that two players who got famous in two different decades that both practically ruined their respective careers through drug use ended up grouped together. I knew about the drug problems they had even as a kid. Maybe I thought if I kept them together, but segregated from the other cards, the other players couldn’t do drugs with them. I really loved Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden. I was disappointed to see their careers go downhill for such stupid reasons when they both had such great natural talent. I never really gave up on either of them though. That’s probably why I’m so unforgiving of players today.

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Another bit of weirdness is what I like to call the Eric Karros Quartet. I’ve grown to dislike him even more as an adult due to his lackluster commentary but I absolutely hated Karros as a kid. Why I kept any of his crap let alone four of the same card is completely unexplainable. In hindsight though, he looks a lot like my cousin Gary. Maybe I thought he was just moonlighting as a police officer.

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Fuck you Eric!

I don’t have a name for this one but probably the strangest thing that appears in my collection is the random presence of a Damon Berryhill card every other page or so. It begins on the tenth page mysteriously adjacent to Mike Scioscia. Then he appears again on the very next sheet next to Gary Gaeti, another player whose inclusion I have no explanation for. This continues on for another 15 pages until the second to last one where a wall dedicated to Ryne Sandberg ends the curse. I don’t really think I liked him as a player and I can’t imagine I would have liked anything about him other than the fact that he was a catcher, but even that’s a sketchy theory. I didn’t even really care for the Cubs too much until later in 1998 or 1999 so it’s weird that I would have so many of his cards let alone put them in my binder. I can’t figure out why they’re so scattered either. Unless somebody else can come up with a reason, I’ll just have to leave this mystery to future generations.

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A selection of Berryhills. Maybe I liked his name?

THE HEROES

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One of the heroes of my youth.

Still, there are some cards that really do deserve to be in my collection. In fact, one of my favorite pages in the book is the Bo Jackson page. I loved everything about Bo Jackson when I was young. I loved him so much I even picked up a Raiders hat when I had no connection whatsoever with football. In fact, Bo Jackson was the reason I began watching football. If it wasn’t for Bo, I would have entirely missed the final years of Joe Montana’s amazing career (another player I idolized as a child) and the best days of Steve Young’s. I was excited as all hell when he came to the White Sox, and now that I really think about it, he was the reason I started paying any attention at all to my local sports teams. Well, he and Mark Grace, who I was never lucky enough to get a card of…

…but whatever.

One of the stranger memories of Bo Jackson was the cartoon with him, Wayne Gretzky, and Michael Jordan. It was called Pro Stars and it was ridiculous.

Of the stranger memories regarding Bo Jackson was the cartoon with him, Wayne Gretzky, and Michael Jordan. It was called Pro Stars and it was ridiculous.

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One of prized possessions.

By: Matthew Kohl
Email: virtualsportsman@gmail.com
Twitter: @virtuallymatt

Baseball will sorely miss Chipper Jones. In one player you had one of the ten best third basemen in history, arguably one of the top three switch hitters in history, an MVP, a World Series Champion, an eight time all-star, a batting title winner, a surefire Hall of Famer, and one of the few players who had no problem taking a lower paying contract to stay and help his team. The Braves really had a top tier guy with Jones and they were lucky to have him and keep him for 19 seasons. Just ask Todd Van Poppel.

The MLB was lucky to have him as well. With all the performance enhancing what-have-yous and ugly ugly UGLY things going on in baseball and professional sports in general in the last 20 years, players of Chipper’s ilk are a heavenly shining light of hope for a game slowly losing public interest to other less classy endeavors. Jones’ retirement makes professional baseball a little less comfortable and a lot less polished. I’m not saying that baseball needs spotless players who keep a Clark Kent lifestyle and share his sense of truth, justice, and yada yada yada, but I cannot stress enough that it’s becoming harder to find those types in the sea of douchebaggery that seems to have invaded professional sports. When a juiced up ass like Alex Rodriguez is paid more than a consistently productive stand up player like Chipper Jones, it means that there are many misplaced priorities in the sport.

I had said in a previous article that my first baseball team love was the Atlanta Braves. I literally began following baseball in a serious way in 1990. It may be just a coincidence that Chipper Jones was the first overall pick in the 1990 draft, but baseball is a superstitious beast. Who am I to say it wasn’t fate that the beginning of my interest in baseball wasn’t destined to parallel the start of such an auspicious career? I’m pretty sure at this point that I’m coming off like a Chipper Jones super fan, but to an extent I am. Jones started playing for the Braves organization at the time when my baseball senses were at their highest. This, like many, was when I was a child with  rookie cards and all and it didn’t hurt that TBS broadcasted every single Braves game into my living room. How else does a kid from Illinois get to name Tom Glavine as his favorite pitcher of all time? It sure as hell wasn’t from watching him play with the Mets. I’m a huge fan of what I can see and I saw more of the Atlanta Braves between 1990 and 1999 than any other team in baseball. I felt the sting of loss in 1992 and the immense joy of victory 1995. I still consider myself lucky to have been able to see a decent amount of Chipper’s MVP season in 1999. After that cable got a bit too expensive.

After that I was forced to watch the Cubs.

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I continued to follow as best as I could, but to be perfectly honest I lost track of the man for a while. I was surprised to find him still there when I heard he won the NL batting title in 2008. Then when I came back to baseball for good a few years ago I found he was still waiting for me. He was still in the same uniform and he was still great. It’s hard to imagine another player doing the same thing in this era of big dollar free agents and inflated egos. I assumed a solid consistent player like ol’ Chipper would seep through the cracks and decline as his career went on but he hadn’t.

Chipper Jones IS a Hall of Fame player. In the truest sense of it. When his name hits the ballot in five years, there won’t be any doubt about his chances. There won’t be any questions about his character. No one will be saying “he’s just getting in because there’s nobody worth voting for this time.” They won’t wait until he dies to say yes.

There will be no asterisk mentioned.

I’m hoping he won’t be the last player we can say those things about. Let’s face it. If there’s a question about a player, then the Hall of Fame shouldn’t be the answer. I hope sports writers will think of Chipper Jones just a little bit when they vote for the 2013 inductees. It’s a high bar to set, but it’s worth raising our standards if it means we get to keep the integrity of the game of baseball intact.

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We can call this new standard “The Chipper Line.”

I can’t remember the specific game, I never thought I would have to commit it to memory, but I was watching a Bears game with two of my brothers last season. It was before Cutler went down but that’s all I remember about the game. All except one thing. Every time Forte was given the ball, no matter how well he did, one of my brothers would jump up from his seat and yell, “PAY THAT MAN!” I didn’t realize at the time that the phrase would become the DE-facto mantra of uninformed Bears fans.

Speaking of stupid custom jerseys...

I don’t like thinking about football when the baseball season has just begun. I’m also not a big fan of long, dragged out, over dramatic crap. It should then come as no surprise that talking about Matt Forte and his continued cry-ass-ery with the Chicago Bears wasn’t on my list of shit-that-needs-a-doin. But the fact that I can’t go a day without hearing some Cro Magnon spouting off, “pay that man,” has forced my hand. It’s easy to see how he has contributed to the team since he was drafted in 2008. He is clearly one of the top ten running backs in the NFL right now. Forte has consistently produced, season after season, and proven he is a valuable asset that is well worth a dramatic increase from his rookie pay. He’s also a selfish dolt that doesn’t know when to shut his mouth and be a professional. In any other career, the chances of him getting a raise acting the way he does would be well within the zero range, but since he happens to be good at football people think he deserves more money.

There’s a problem with that idea. Football may be a sport, (That is a fact. You can look it up. I did!) but the NFL is a business. It’s a big business. It’s a fucking colossal business. Why does that matter? It makes Matt Forte an employee. Matt Forte doesn’t play for the Chicago Bears, he works for them. He has a supervisor and coworkers. He gets a regular paycheck and benefits. He gets vacation time. (Tons of it!) His job is to show up and play fucking football a few months out of the year. Somewhere along the way Forte, and many Bears fans, lost sight of this.

I know that professional football is still pretty damn far removed from your run of the mill career. There is a definite skill set needed to compete. The players don’t last as long. In fact, they get the shit kicked right out of them so they get compensated accordingly. Since most rookies don’t make much money when it comes to sports salaries, and many players don’t have anything to fall back on if their football career doesn’t pan out, they are anxious to grab that guaranteed contract money as soon as they’re eligible. I understand and I would more than likely have the same mindset if I was in their shoes. The problem is, Matt Forte turned down that money last season. Most reports estimated the contract extension he was offered in 2011 to include at least $14 million in guaranteed pay. I’m no genius, but Forte, wasn’t that the contract you were supposed to sign? Especially knowing that the Bears had the option to franchise tag you FOR LESS MONEY if you turned it down? C’mon! Who’s really getting screwed here? Forte or the Bears’ PR department? The Bears gave Forte an offer that, while not generous, was pretty fair considering the market value of a running back in a sport that is fast moving away from the running game. Forte turned it down. End of story?

Unfortunately no.

Forte went into the off-season thinking that his performance would earn him a better contract. I’ll be the first to admit he had a great season, but if it was up to me, I’d have slapped him with the franchise tag too. Especially after he turned down a decent deal. I don’t know if it’s Forte’s overblown sense of pride or his agent’s overblown sense of greed but one of them needs to have the shit slapped out of them. Everyone else saw the franchise tag coming. Forte just refused to look. So now he’s all disappointed with the organization and feels betrayed because they signed a back up running back. Face it Matt, you play a position that is decreasing in value as we speak, for a team that is trying to build a passing game that doesn’t include much of you, in a league that has a salary cap. How much are you really worth?

The chances of this happening again are pretty high.

None of that is even mentioning the lifespan of a running back in the current NFL. How many seasons does he really have to be an impact player? Five, six, maybe seven? This upcoming season will be his fifth year in the league and he’s already sprained his MCL. Would you offer a five year contract to a player who might only last one more year? Would you then guarantee that player $14 million? I very much doubt it. I hear you union guys in the back yelling, “But that’s wrong! He’s already earned the money by playing so good!” Well he’s also been a grade “A” ass-hat about the whole thing. Nobody wants to work next to, let alone pay, somebody who bitches about everything. The fact that he has played well during his four years with the team means nothing when you get down to the business of it. There’s a whole team to support and fans to appease. If paying Forte less money was better for the team, which is definitely the case, shouldn’t fans be happy that the Bears are trying to get a good deal? If the money they saved by slapping the franchise tag on him got used to fix that Swiss cheese of an offensive line, shouldn’t the fans be ecstatic? Oh yeah, that’s happening. If that money got used to bring in a high caliber wide receiver for Cutler, shouldn’t fans be praising the man-gods that decided to franchise tag Matt Forte? Oh wait, that happened too. So why are fans so quick to defend Forte and down the team that made a proper business decision in the interest of building a better franchise? I forgot. This is Chicago. An emotional attachment to our players is more important than having a winning team. By the way, Forte got paid a bit under $700,000 for the 2011 season. Should he choose to play with the franchise tag, he will be guaranteed around $8 million. For a single season. That’s almost twelve times what he was being paid last season. It’s a raise of over 1000%. Think about that the next time you see your extra 2.3% yearly increase.

Recently, Forte went to the twitter-verse with this. “There’s only so many times a man that has done everything he’s been asked to do can be disrespected!” There’s one thing he hasn’t done that many fans, sports media types, and I’m sure the Bears have asked him to do. Matt Forte needs to grow up and learn to play ball in the NFL.

Email: virtualsportsman@gmail.com

Twitter @virtuallymatt

I used to be a Cubs fan. That is to say, I used to care if they won or lost. I’m pretty sure that constitutes some part of fandom. Honestly, I liked the Braves more as a kid. I begged my dad for one of those awesome red and blue hats with a curved “A” on the front for two years. I had pretty much picked them at random though, and they happened to be a great team at the time. So there was that. But there was never a reason for liking the Cubs other than them being from my neck of the woods. I never felt a connection with the team until I reached my late teens and early 20’s. Perhaps it was the fact that as a teenager I felt like I was in a rut. There wasn’t much going on to make me feel like I had a future. Sound like any baseball team we know? Sure there were some star players, Mark Grace being one of my favorite first basemen of all time (Can we get a hall of fame recount?), but there was never a real feeling that victory could be ours. It was all just for show, and maybe some ticket sales.

 There was always hope.

Baseball’s currency is doled out in hopes and dreams. At the end of the day, the Cubs are pretty much always the biggest spenders with the least to show for it. The phrase, “next season” may have started with the Brooklyn Dodgers or the Red Sox, but the Cubs wear it like a “dunce” cap. “This is the year” is an equally comical codpiece. Even now, in a season that every sensible baseball fan knows is a throwaway rebuilding year, there are people preaching about a possible playoff appearance. What the fuck are they thinking? That’s why people laugh at Cubs fans. In 2003 when the Cubs basically shot themselves in every foot they could during the playoffs, and blamed some poor fan, I had pretty much had it with being one of their fans. I didn’t even want to be associated with those people. It just got so ugly and hateful. I felt like Cubs fans were a crew of Goonies if they had all been Chunk. It was fucking awful, half a city screaming and crying as if their chubby fingers were inches from some rusty blender blades.

But still, I watched. I kept on being a “fan” and hated every minute of it. I actually found myself smiling (sometimes giggling) every time Sosa struck out, as if his every whiff was proof that the natural order of things remained perfectly in line. Then on Saturday October 6th 2007, though I conveniently had another, I threw my favorite Cubs hat into the warehouse trash compactor at the hospital I worked at towards the end of my shift. The Cubs had just lost the division series against the Diamondbacks, three games to zero. I came to the conclusion that it wasn’t the team that was cursed, it was the fans and the only way to break that curse was to stop watching them. If the 1994 strike had forever ruined my inner baseball child, being a Cubs fan in the time since crammed it into a coffin, slapped a White Sox “2005 World Series Champions” bumper sticker on it, and lowered it into the cold dark earth.


So I did the unthinkable. After nearly 20 years of being a fan of all things baseball, I quit. I stopped paying attention. It didn’t matter anymore. The team I chose to follow was a horrible heart eating monster that wouldn’t stop until I had given it everything. Then it would walk away with my pride in its roided out gorilla hand and finish another season under .500. Fuck that shit.

 It lives…

But I couldn’t ever really let it go. I still loved the game, even if I hated some things that were happening in it. I played All Star Baseball 2003 obsessively for seven years after it came out, as the expansion sensation Indiana Outlaws, building up a team that would rival the great champions of yesterday. I had Ricky Henderson’s ancient ass leading off at the age of 45 and he played 5 seasons with my team, batting .345 with around 40 stolen bases a season until 2008. Fred McGriff, Greg Maddux, and Craig Counsel made up the rest of this come-from-nowhere unstoppable force that I wished the Cubs could be. (Counsel coincidentally lead my league in on base percentage every season until retiring in 2006. Perhaps he should have been given more at-bats in real life?) For all my trying I couldn’t stay away, and I knew baseball was waiting for me, if I ever wanted to hang out again.

Then I met Mo. That jerk loves baseball. He loves it in the way I used to as a child and he’s a grown ass man. He made me feel icky. His love of the game reminded me how much I had enjoyed it and how much fun we had together. It made me feel like I had abandoned a good friend. I just threw baseball in the trash compactor at work and crushed it. So I started paying attention again. I found a changed game. One that, free from any players I knew, wasn’t so bad. It was hard at first. I still had hurt feelings. I was still pretty butt hurt about all the cheating it did. Especially Bonds and McGwire. Fuck Those guys. Eventually, and most recently because of fantasy baseball, I began to like it again. Baseball and I were on good terms. Being civil and all that.

I’m not quite ready to be a Cubs fan yet.

So here I am, all excited for a new baseball season, but there’s a catch. I don’t really have a team to root for. Sure I could join Raul and be a Sox fan, but that wouldn’t feel right. Don’t get me wrong, I like watching the White Sox. I get happy when they win. I get disappointed when they lose, but they don’t feel like they are my team. If you have to try to like something, it’s not meant to be. I could jump on the Marlins’ ship and support the possible one hit wonder they have going on there, but even that feels cheep. Atlanta doesn’t feel the same anymore either, so what’s an estranged baseball fan to do?

As I said before, the Cubs have always been free and easy when it comes to dealing out hopes and dreams. Even now with Theo, I’m skeptical. I don’t know the deal with all these prospects they have. I don’t know if Garza is going to be any good in a year or two. I don’t know if Rizzo or Jackson are going to be worth a nickle, ever. Neither does anybody else honestly, so don’t hate me for being initially unimpressed. I’ve been out of the Cubs loop. I like Theo. He says and does good things. There’s a track record to justify any optimism someone may be inclined to feel. I just don’t want to get hurt again.

 The guys have talked about the bandwagon fan before on the podcast and I agree with their collective opinion that bandwagon fans don’t really exist. But I would be a liar if I didn’t say for all my hatred and anger, baseball angst and regret, for all my idiocy and wasted time, I’ll be the first true bandwagon fan if that bastard Epstein can pull it off. I’ll buy a rude custom jersey, a new hat, and jump for joy in the streets of Wrigleyville if the Cubs even make the playoffs in the next five years. Until then, I’ll be watching other teams. I’ll be playing MLB The Show. I’ll be pretending I know what I’m doing in fantasy baseball, stacking up catchers and talking shit the whole time. But only until they prove that those hopes and dreams they’ve been squandering all these years were worth it. Maybe then, and only then, can I truly be a Cubs fan again. Some people may think that’s shallow, that I’m a fair weather fan, but all relationships are give and take. Cubs fans have been doing all the giving for a century. It’s about time they got something in return.

Email me @ virtualsportsman@gmail.com

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I’ve spent a lot of time writing about baseball games these last couple of months. It’s only natural. Baseball is my favorite sport after all. I don’t feel like I’m doing anyone a disservice by writing solely about baseball, but a little variety now and then can’t hurt.

Basketball is not my game. I tried playing it when I was a kid and found that my two main skills, free throw shooting and fouling other players, weren’t a recipe for a star hoopster. Subsequently, I only enjoyed it when winning or losing didn’t matter to anyone involved. I loved playing 21 and horse during PE in both elementary and high school and to this day still love the idea of just shooting a ball around, not that I ever do. At the end of the day basketball is just a fun game that I can’t take seriously. At least I can’t take it seriously enough to watch others play.

That’s why I love NBA Jam.

It’s a basketball game that doesn’t take the sport seriously. While winning and losing may be a personal matter within the game, there’s no season riding on it. There are no teammates to ridicule or be ridiculed in the locker room after a blowout loss. There isn’t a shred of remorse or hurt feelings when a game is over. Just another couple of coins dumped into the slot. There have been several games released with the NBA Jam name, and many more similar games of varying quality under different titles. All hipster douchebaggary aside, the original arcade cabinet is still the best version available if you can find a place that has one. It had balanced teams and it just sounds and feels right. Plus it had Shaq and Barkley so there.

When you play NBA Jam on the original arcade cabinet, you are playing a caricature of one of the most exciting and storied times in basketball history. It was a time when old greats faced off against young new stars, new dynasties were being formed as old standbys crumbled, the NBA was taking chances by drafting new talent from Europe and for the first time sent its top stars up against the increasingly tough talent in the Olympic games. That’s not even mentioning that Micheal Jordan had just forced his name into the world’s collective consciousness, whether they liked it or not, by winning his third consecutive championship ring and five MVP awards in the process. (Two regular season, three finals.)

So why is NBA Jam still such a popular game? How has it endeared itself to so many fans? What’s the magic? What’s the trick? The gimmick? What’s the secret?

For one, it’s fast. The 3 minute quarters blink past without a care. It’s really a testament to how great a game is when people don’t even realize they are being duped into dumping extra coins in a game due to a fast counting clock. Then there’s the gameplay. Through all the shoving, turbo passes, flaming dunks, and shattered glass you don’t even realize how much time really goes by or how many games you’ve played. You put in your first quarter, you play, you look up and your pockets no longer jingle and its been three hours. What the hell?

Another reason people like NBA Jam is the flamboyantly comical art style and presentation. Between the static player photographs put on what seems to be a single body that is repeatedly pallet swapped and re-sized, and commentary provided by Tim Kitzrow it’s hard not to smile while you watch and listen to the game. Everything is so over the top that there’s no room for rational basketball rules. I mean, how do you call a foul in a game where you can set the net on fire with a dunk? How could you allow the game to stop just because the ball goes out of bounds when any given player jumps higher than the rim? You just can’t. It’s an arcade sports game at its core and NBA Jam does it so right, there’s no way to really improve it. Even the newest version on the Wii, PSN, and Xbox Live is just the same game with updated rosters and visuals.

There is, however, an underlying theory as to why people love NBA Jam. One that is buried within the confines of sports history and the evaluation of what was happening in basketball between 1991 and 1993. The 1980’s were a period of rising popularity for professional basketball. Starting in 1979 when Larry Bird and Magic Johnson entered the league, star player after star player emerged culminating in a virtual renaissance in the NBA. The 80’s saw the retirement of some of the game’s most storied players including Bill Walton, Kareem Abdul Jabar, Julius Irving, and Walt Frazier. But while these greats were taking a seat players like James Worthy, Isiah Thomas, John Stockton, Scottie Pippen, David Robinson, Patrick Ewing, Clyde Drexler, Chris Mullen, Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, and Micheal Jordan were easily making names for themselves in a sport that was fast becoming a contender for the worlds most popular sport. Basketball was clearly evolving and it would take a loss on the world’s stage for America to understand just how far the sport had come.

In 1988 the US men’s basketball team finished third in the Olympics. Third. They lost to Russia and Yugoslavia. What was happening? All the time the US was sending college kids to play in the Olympics in basketball the rest of the world was sending its best players to compete and they were getting better every year. The best players from the United States were in the NBA and weren’t allowed to play in the games due to their professional status. In effect, that gave the US a huge disadvantage. Sure nine of the players on the Russian and Yugoslavian teams that beat the American team ended up playing for the NBA at some point and with varying success, you may remember Vlade Divac, Toni Kukoc, and Drazen Petrovic, but that was no excuse. So in 1989 when the worlds governing body over international basketball, the FIBA, decided it was cool to allow professional players to compete the stage was set for something crazy to happen.

The 1992 US men’s basketball team featured eleven NBA players and one guy from Duke (pfft they couldn’t get one more?). Not only did they tear up the world qualifying tournaments, beating the six teams they played by an average of 52 points, but they flew through the Olympics with ease. They averaged 117 points per game and beat the opposition by an average of 44 points per game to win the gold medal that year. It was a great moment in sports history and The Dream Team is one of only eight complete teams to be elected to the basketball hall of fame. Combine that with basketball’s general rising popularity and you have a country ready to eat up anything basketball related. NBA Jam couldn’t possibly fail in at atmosphere like that.

NBA Jam represents a time in sports history where everything was on an upswing and a time in video game history when new avenues of game development were being explored. These two elements combined to bring about a classic game that painted a bombastic and flashy picture of American culture. One that I dearly miss and has yet to be matched.

Stay tuned for part two, The ghosts of Reggie Lewis and Drazen Petrovic.

Boomshakalaka.

MLB 12 The Show is once again the best sports game available. Period. It’s better than every other game for every other sport again. Period. I don’t know how they keep doing this. It’s almost supernatural how great this series is. The play mechanics are flawless. Ball physics are as realistic as they come and you won’t see a 30 foot leap to rob a home-run anywhere. You can learn from this, MLB 2kwhatever. Though you probably won’t. Most likely, when your cross platform contract with the MLB runs out after this year, EA will get it next and we won’t have to see you sitting there being mediocre anymore, wishing you could play in the big leagues.

I can’t say enough about how well the game plays. It’s just as good, if not better than it ever was. If I were to give a review score on gameplay alone, it would be a super high 9. Like a 9.9999999999. I don’t think there are enough extra credit points available to give it an accurate letter grade and the northern hemisphere would be pretty devoid of stars if I gave MLB 12 The Show as many as it deserves. A tad bit over-dramatic I know, but it’s just that good. I couldn’t come up with anything related to thumbs up, but you get the picture.

So what do you do when your review score is a forgone conclusion? When it’s almost impossible to quantify the level of smile inducement? When all you can say is, “Duuuuuuuuuuuuuude, you have to fucking play this game!” there is only one course of action. You tell people how you personally feel about the game instead. You relate your emotions and impressions. Your experiences and thoughts. You don’t review it. You merely express it.

It was a little nerve wracking. Throwing for my first time in a professional team’s uniform, even if it was just a AA club. I couldn’t hit my spots in practice, but my arm felt as good as it ever has. I couldn’t quite locate my fastball, though it was quick and lively. My sinker was dropping like a bomb, but mostly in the dirt in front of the plate. I don’t even want to get into what my slider was trying to do. My first start as a professional ball player was looking to be a terrible day.

You always see yourself succeeding if you just get the chance to prove yourself. Even though you may be thinking about the possibility of failure, you see a win in your head. You know what never even crosses your mind? You never once think about just doing OK and walking away without a loss or a win. I pitched well enough, but I allowed 3 runs over 4 and a third and got yanked. Luckily the guys gave us some runs after I left and we pulled out the win, but the “W” isn’t attached to my name. It’s not what I wanted as my first professional start, but I’ll take what I can get.

My second game? My God that was a different story. I started out slow. I couldn’t hit my locations again. I got a little wild, but made it through the first two innings without letting a run by, something I couldn’t even do through the first inning of my last start. When I came into the third, something clicked. I don’t know how to explain it, but I felt like I couldn’t lose all of a sudden. I struck out the side and just kept going from there. It started getting hectic around the sixth, I really just had no steam left, but I was throwing a gem and I was getting no sign that they were gonna pull me out. So I just kept throwing. I kept the ball low and outside, throwing at their hands every once in a while to keep the batters honest. I kept throwing different pitches and, miraculously, when a hitter made contact with one of my meatballs it stayed on the ground. I finally thought I would be sitting down when our closer started warming up in the eighth, but no dice there. I got sent back in to finish. Complete game shutout is the most beautiful phrase to a new pitcher, probably to any pitcher. To have it spoken about my last start is one of the best feelings I’ve ever had.

Honestly though, I’m not sure what possessed me to take on a contract right out of high school. Though what’s done is done and I’m here now. With two starts under my belt and a third coming on only three days rest after a full nine, barring some form of lineup change, I’m worried about how I’ll perform. I just had two drastically different games. I still don’t know what I’m capable of, or incapable of for that matter, but I’m going to throw at everyone. That’s always been my style. Throw strikes and pray.

Exactly what baseball’s supposed to be.

My first two games as a starting pitcher in Road To The Show mode in MLB 12 The Show are pretty indicative of the series as a whole. The game, while being the best sports simulation available for any sport, is often erratic, random, unpredictable…

I picked up a no decision in my first start, allowing 3 runs and 5 hits over 4 and a third innings with 2 strikeouts. Then 4 days later I threw a complete game shutout, allowing 7 hits with no walks and 7 strikeouts in my second start. That is the essence of baseball. It’s erratic. It’s random. It’s unpredictable.

Sure it’s a video game, and there are ways to win or do decent pretty much all the time. Though The Show has always done well to minimize this by throwing in that bit of chance. Even if you have perfect timing on the meter, or the new “Pulse Pitching,” there’s a chance that curve ball will, well, not curve. Even whether a batter capitalizes on that bad curve is totally up in the air. That’s what baseball is all about. It’s tension and release. Every pitch. Every at bat. Every game. All season long.

It feels good to scrape away two seasons worth of pine tar.

I had a rocky seven year relationship with Allstar Baseball 2003. It was the only reason I kept my Xbox connected to my television for a long time. As soon as I played a game in MLB 10 The Show, I felt comfortable throwing the Xbox in the closet. I knew it was my new sports series for good. I tend to skip seasons on sports games, picking the new version up every other year (Madden’s, and EA’s, lack of true updates every year caused this habit to form.) so I’ve never played The Show 11. So much has changed in these two years that it feels like a totally new game to me. It still has the same overall feel and flow, still has the same sounds and visuals (though it’s the prettiest it’s ever been) but still feels new and fresh. The modes, features, and UI all have a fresh coat of paint but there’s enough new included to justify a new game.

This season marks the debut of two new mechanics. For pitching you have the option to use Pulse Pitching. It’s an innovative approach to pitching that I do like, though I feel the meter during the windup from 2010 is still more immersive, since the meter moves during the windup and delivery, synced with the animation. Pulse pitching allows you to select your pitch, then location, and then your release point by using a pulsing circle. The circle gets smaller and larger, rather quickly, and you have to press the pitch button when the circle is smallest to hit your location. The ball can end up anywhere within the circle and anywhere along its outline so timing is far more important than using the old pitching meter, and obviously takes some adjustment. Don’t expect to just start painting the plate corners your first time.

The second new mechanic is complete analog batting. The idea is that you use the left analog stick to locate your swing, and the right stick to time it. Since you have to pull the right stick down to set your front foot and then push forward to swing at the right moment, as well as locate the ball at the same time with the left stick, there is a HUGE learning curve. Even though I admittedly haven’t used it much yet, I’m going to come right out and say that I don’t really like it. It feels cumbersome and slow. The target that shows where your bat will make contact is obtrusive, often obscuring the ball as it comes in at you. It also has a spring return. Meaning that if you let go of the stick, it bounces back to center so you have to hold the left stick steady as you move the right to swing. It’s all just too much too soon.

That’s not to say it won’t feel much better with more practice, but as a new feature it has the feel of something meant for only very skilled players. Some people just want to play baseball.

For those people not interested in being the best at moving analog sticks, you have the option of using the older batting methods from previous versions of the game so you aren’t forced to even look at the new stuff if you just want to play the way you are used to.

Forced into retirement.

I’m a little disappointed that I can’t carry over my RTTS player from 2010. I know it’s a bit much to ask, and maybe you can do it if you have the 2011 game, but there’s still a feeling of loss there. I’m five seasons into my career on that game and in the middle of my first season at the MLB level and I just have to start over. It’s a shame, but I’ll get over it.

Want to hear something else that could fit the above tagline? Muting Eric Karros is almost a requirement. That guy has all the personality of a lobotomized brick in a coma, not to mention he says things that the guy he replaced last season used to say in the 2010 version of the game. What the fuck? Luckily, as I stated, you can mute any of the three commentators if you so choose. Crisis averted.

What do you mean I don’t have to work the bullpen?

I’m pretty sure (maybe 80%) this was included in the 2011 game, but I’m not enamored with the idea that you pitch your first game in AA as a starter. I liked how you had to earn a start in RTTS 2010. Being a starter right out of the gate has the advantage of speeding up your time in the minors, but it also has the disadvantage of taking away the feeling of accomplishment when you’re awarded with a spot in the starting rotation, even if it is just to keep it warm for an injured player. I’ll miss that feeling to be sure, but in the grand scheme of things it makes little difference to the game.

What it allows you to do is build up stats faster since you are seeing more batters and earning more points per game than you would otherwise. Some people don’t attach themselves to their virtual counterparts like I do. I’m sure other people with even less time than I have are big fans of not being stuck in a relief role for half a season before they are given a start.

Still, this is the only area of real contention I have with the game and it’s only because there’s no option to change it.

What it all comes down to is this.

Our resident stat nerd and baseball superfan, Mauricio Rubio, took a shot at the game while a plumber was fixing my kitchen sink. (NOT a euphemism for sex) It’s important to note that ol’ Rube is a fucking savant, I think he may actually be autistic. The man knows every player in baseball, past or present, and perhaps even future. Within moments of picking a team and starting a game, he was able to compete simply based on his knowledge of baseball. He knew where the pitch was going. Every time. Without ever playing any game in The Show series.

Who cares right?

Fucking wrong. That just goes to show you the amount of detail thrown into this game. Mauricio knows how a pitcher is going to throw at Alfonso Soriano, at what count, what number of outs, with runners at whatever bases and so does the game’s AI. That amount of detail wasn’t put together by no slouch. That takes constant and painstaking research from a team that absolutely loves the game of baseball. That’s why The Show is the best sports simulation in existence. You don’t create a game like this with code and QA testing. You give birth to it. It’s the love child of baseball fans and video game fans coming together in an explosion of statistics and gameplay polish. It wasn’t made for me. It was made for the game of baseball itself.

This has been making the rounds a little, but it’s still great. It really fits the feeling of the game as a whole.

I’m going to be entirely honest here. I don’t think of the iAnything as a gaming device in any serious sense. Having games on your phone is neat, but I never really expect them to be of any real quality. Though, I’m generally more forgiving of them since they are usually free or 99 cents. That being said, there are some folks out there who’s only link to video games is their iWhatever and this article is really for them. Let’s face it, it’s hard work trying to decide what to spend our 99 cents (or nothing) on, and those of us who have the capacity challenged versions of our respective devices have even more to worry about in the realm of music, video, app, book, and photo priority. So here are the best and worst iThing sports games, in no order and written about totally at random!

Lies. Utter lies.

I wrote that paragraph before I actually looked into what was available in the realm of app store sports games. What has my research taught me?

Every sports game in the app store is garbage.

Seriously. There is so much trash in there you can almost iSmell it. And No, before you even say it, I haven’t played them all. I’m not going to pay 99 cents for every game and try them out. That’s crazy, and if I had a budget for these things I wouldn’t spend it on iOS games. I’d spend it on important things, or some grillz.

I’m not a very good journalist, so I actually just picked two games to write about out of all the crap I tried. I’m such a bad journalist that they were both baseball games. I’m such a terrible journalist that, in fact, they were both different versions of the same game. I could go on, but at some point your going to figure out I’m only going to write about one game. That one game is really great though. So good in fact, that I don’t think you need to play any other game on your iJiggamawhatzit.

 Just play Baseball Superstars II

Baseball Superstars II is pretty neat. It has everything you would expect a big name baseball game to have. It has the exhibition, home run derby, tournament, and season modes that all baseball games have. It also has “My League” modes, which allow you to manage a single team, single pitcher, or single position player through multiple seasons. In the My Pitcher and My Batter modes, you take control of a user made player and develop him into a star from the ground up, much like “Road to the Show” mode in MLB The Show. For a free iPhone app (the price has since gone up to not free) this mode is surprisingly robust and fun.

Overall, the actual gameplay in Baseball Superstars II is a fantastic mix of fast arcade style play and simulation. On the arcade side of things, it’s very easy to have a .400 or above batting average or an on base percentage of .600 or more. As a pitcher, look for 14 or 15 strikeout games all the time and wild curving fastballs that top 100 mph on a regular basis. The games are fast and it’s possible to play two or three games in ten minutes or less in some modes. You can fill out your batter or pitcher with super swings and super pitches, respectively, and choose two super players in the team mode. The super players are generally strange and entirely out of place, but they are still a fun addition to the game.

Some footage for all of you to see.

On the flip side, you have the different My League options that offer up a more realistic-in-quotes type of play. These modes are where the game both shines and shows it’s ugly side. The great gameplay is still very present, but there are nagging issues with how the My Pitcher and My Batter modes progress. While all three of the My League options are spectacularly engrossing and fun, they show the true nature of Gamevil’s business model in all its money grubbing glory. Sure building up your superstar pitcher is fun, but it happens so damn slowly and there are so many restrictions on you that some of that fun is ruined, all in an attempt to coerce you into spending real money on pretend shit. It’s an ingenious, although evil, tactic and I will never fully understand the hideous hate engine that is working behind the scenes.

At the heart of it, the My [Player] mode is a story based baseball RPG. After choosing whether you want to create a pitcher or position player, you alternate between training, resting, going on short dates with several virtual baseball girls (not kidding), and playing baseball. Overall, the story parts are overshadowed by the development of your player and actually playing baseball, but they are written well enough and are mostly humorous. At times they do feel out of place, but since they often give your player bonuses for watching them, they can be worthwhile.

Training your player is little more than deciding which stat you want to increase and watching a little animated exercise, but, as with the entire game, the presentation and style are great. Unfortunately though, this is where the game’s ugly side makes its appearance.

The training system is incredibly flawed and seems to be built entirely around funneling you into spending actual money in game. Since all of the actions you can take between games require “active” points, you are severely limited in how fast you can improve your player and experience the story. On top of that, you also have a moral rating that affects your ability to play at 100% and also if you get hurt or sick. Training reduces your moral far more than it increases your skills and winning games increases your morale far less that training reduces it. So you have to rest a lot to regain morale rather than train or hang with the ladies. You fall into a loop where if you don’t train, your player is slapped with skill debuffs. If you don’t rest, you get hurt or sick from low morale. If you’re always training and resting, you never see any of the story segments. It really is a vicious trap where the only solution is spending real money for boosts to in game cash so you can buy items that heal your player or give him more active points, or paying to turn off sickness and injuries.

The micro transaction business model has the ability to work and be profitable without sticking it to the player, but it’s a flaming pickled pitch-fucking-fork in the ass in this case. I find that sad because the game is so good, Gamevil could easily have priced it higher, made it a little less of a jerk, and kept those micro transactions out entirely. Why they chose to be assholes I will never know. It not only decreases their relevance and credibility as game developers, but also tarnishes iOS devices as gaming platforms in general. This is an argument for a dedicated video game site however. Cad T. Wasp is too good for that kind of talk.

 /soapbox

My ranting aside, this game is absolutely great. The pitching mechanics are intuitive and easy. There’s a good selection of pitch types to choose from and they generally function realistically. Batting requires skill and timing, but isn’t so difficult to be a detriment, though the “swing” button could be a bit larger. Other than that the touch controls work flawlessly. Creating your pitcher’s Super Pitch is one of the more fun and well thought out parts of the game, and making your own Bugs Bunny pitch is well worth the trouble. If you have the patience to stick with the game, eventually all the stuff in the last two paragraphs won’t matter since you will accumulate enough money and G-points (the game’s currency) to never have to worry about your morale or limits on the actions you can take between games. It’s all fun from there on out.

If I was a reviewer, instead of just some guy, I’d grade it or give it some arbitrary number. But I am just some guy so I’ll just tell you Baseball Superstars II is the best sports game in the app store. There are actually several games in the series, many of them free and all of them great, but I find the visual style of this version to sync the best with the mechanics and overall feel of the game. Though some people may be put off by the anime style, the art is charming and the overall presentation is top notch.

So get it. Get it now and reduce the game speed in the options menu to give it a real leisurely baseball pace. Otherwise it plays way too fast.

If you want to know just how Asian this game is, check out the trailer.

Oh yeah, it’s also on Android stuff now. YOU HAVE NO EXCUSE!

HOMELUN!

Video games and sports have been close partners since their inception. Throughout the turbulent 80′s and the death of the arcade, the grand times and great triumphs of the game industry, sports games have been there. They entertain the wishes of would be NBA stars who can’t play at a professional level. They fill the void for baseball fans during the off-season who itch for the first pitch thrown in April. Most importantly, they offer hours of entertainment for gamers and casual players alike, and every so often change the nature of the industry. There has not been one single home video game console released that did not have at least one sports title in it’s library of games, if not in it’s launch lineup. Sports games have proven time after time that they can both sell systems and destroy them, introduce new heroes to gamers and bring new markets to the gaming industry, and if not for one specific sports title and the man who created it, video games as we know them may never have existed at all…

…but you’ve read all that twice before.

#1 Tennis For Two

All my life, I’ve had and played video games. I’ve “wasted” a good third of my life playing them and I don’t regret a minute of it. I’ll take a great game over the useless sleep I get any day of the week. I think I feel about video games, the way Mauricio, this site’s fine host, feels about baseball. I’m just lucky enough that there is no gaming season and I can have them all year long. So when I write a list of ten games that I feel are the most important sports games in the history of the gaming industry, understand that each entry in the list has a special place in my heart. This is due to the fact that they have improved my hobby of choice and I am thankful for their respective contributions. That’s why “Tennis For Two” is my number one game on the list.

Tennis For Two has the grand distinction of not only being the very first sports related video game ever, but the very first video game ever, by definition. This being (and no it ain’t Webster’s), a game played entirely within the confines of the display screen purely for amusement. There were electronic computer games before Tennis For Two, but most of them were just glorified performance tests for the computers at the time and few of them used any real or purely visual output. TFT (see what I did there?) is the first and there’s no question about it.

William Higinbotham, the game’s inventor, was a physicist who developed electronic components that were used on the first atomic bomb. Although he spent the rest of his life doing the work he wanted to be remembered for, which was speaking about nuclear arms control, he may well be remembered more for his contributions to the video game industry. He had expressed regret before his death that his memory lives on more in Pong than in a peaceful, nuclear free world, but perhaps he can take solace in the fact that his game led to countless millions’ enjoyment and happiness. That is no small feat.

So sure, it’s pretty much the first video game ever. If that’s the only reason it’s number one, video game elitists would probably have me lynched. There is another reason why I’m rating it so high. Higinbothom never bothered to patent the damn thing. He never made any money from it and even went so far as to testify against Magnavox when they went and sued everyone in the late 70’s and early 80’s for patent infringement when they made better game systems than the stupid Odyssey. (Seriously, read about that thing. It’s dumb as all hell.) Since Higinbothom never patented Tennis For Two, stating that he didn’t think it was a big deal and the US government would have owned the patent anyway, it opened to door for anyone to make similar games. Think about that. Just a second. Think of your favorite video game. Think of all the fun you have or had playing it. Now think of its chances of ever existing if the United States government held sway over the patent it was based on.

Are you getting it yet?

Even though Magnavox won all of their lawsuits, except the one against Atari when they settled out of court, it was too late. Video games had already become such big business that companies could afford the miniscule royalties they were ordered to pay Magnavox. So everyone continued to make games and the industry as we know it survived and flourished, then fell apart, then Nintendo came and saved everyone’s ass but you get my point.

Mr. William Higinbotham

it might liven up the place to have a game that people could play, and which would convey the message that our scientific endeavors have relevance for society.” -William Higinbothom

William Higinbothom is probably the first true video game developer as well, creating his game solely for the amusement of others. Tennis For Two was meant to be an interactive display at the 1958 Visitors Day at the Brookhaven National Laboratory. Higinbothom realized that some people just aren’t satisfied by looking at stuff. So he grabbed an oscilloscope and an analog computer they had laying around and drew up plans for his game. He said it took about two hours to design and a couple weeks for lab technician Bob Dvorak to put it all together with parts that were available. I was, unfortunately, unable to find any specific pricing for the parts used back in 1958, but considering how popular the game was at the time, it has to be a record for the cheapest successful video game ever made even with the high cost of computers in the 50’s.

It was a simple game. Two players held controllers that consisted of a metal box with a knob to control the angle of the ball and a button that allowed you to hit it. Unlike Pong, which was a top view of ping pong, Tennis For Two was viewed from the side of the tennis court with the net upright in the middle of the screen. Check the video.

So there you have it. This simple little game, created solely to amuse visitors at an otherwise static and uneventful display of scientific gadgetry, that the creator didn’t think was any big deal and never bothered to patent is the most important sports video game ever.

Are you surprised?

Higinbothom sure was.

Next week I promise to have some reviews up. In fact, look for a quick overview of the state of sports gaming on your iPhone.

Video games and sports have been close partners since their inception. Throughout the turbulent 80′s and the death of the arcade, the grand times and great triumphs of the game industry, sports games have been there. They entertain the wishes of would be NBA stars who can’t play at a professional level. They fill the void for baseball fans during the off-season who itch for the first pitch thrown in April. Most importantly, they offer hours of entertainment for gamers and casual players alike, and every so often change the nature of the industry. There has not been one single home video game console released that did not have at least one sports title in it’s library of games, if not in it’s launch lineup. Sports games have proven time after time that they can both sell systems and destroy them, introduce new heroes to gamers and bring new markets to the gaming industry, and if not for one specific sports title and the man who created it, video games as we know them may never have existed at all.

These are the next five in my list of ten sports games that have made a huge impact on the video game world.

# 6 Madden NFL ’94 

From it’s roots, Madden NFL was created to be a realistic sports simulation. Since most sports titles at the time of its first release were of the arcade variety, Madden made an impact for being a true simulation. Once gamers got a taste of that level of detail, every company making sports games had to take notice and compete. Yeah NBA Jam was a break out hit, and NFL Blitz made a splash a few years later, but who plays those games now? Sports gamers want realism these days and there’s no room for an arcade football game in the eyes of the industry thanks to Madden NFL Football.

I know. Madden NFL ’94 is a simple little child’s toy compared to the complexity of current entries in the series but ’94 was the first in the series to bear its current nomenclature as well as several other features that made it stand out from other arcade style football games of the day (I’m talking about you Tecmo Super Bowl!). It was the first in the series to have the NFL teams license. ’94 was the first in the series to include Flip Plays, which let you to mirror your selected play to throw off your opponent, making multi-player games more fun, and the first entry to allow full season play, albeit, through means of a password system. Upwards of 80 teams (including all NFL teams that existed at the time, 30 years of Super Bowl teams, and several all star versions of various teams) gave the title great replay value and even though the players on those teams weren’t included in the game, their stats were accurately recreated. Even with the accidental switching of the entire Jets and Giants rosters (Hey! They’re both New York teams so who cares right?) it shined as a modern example of what a great sports simulation could be. We all know the rest of this story and are more than likely playing Madden NFL 12 right now, but this was the one that paved the way for the extensive simulation we now know and love. Oh yeah, this was also the first EA sports game to have the, now iconic, “It’s in the game” voice at the beginning. Neat huh?

# 5 Gran Turismo

I’m a huge fan of arcade racing games. I would give my nuts and future life savings for a Rad Mobile arcade machine, but there is a place in my heart for games like Gran Turismo. It took a lot of guts for Sony to release this title. At the time, people like me were either drifting through whole tracks in Ridge Racer or pretending that Cruisin’ USA was a good game. There was no place in video games for a true racing simulation. License tests? Who do they think they are? Braking, gear ratios, and proper cornering? What the hell are they talking about? Who are they to tell me how to play my racing game? Fortunately the visual presentation hooked a lot of early adopters and many more fell into the groove of actually driving well in a video game not to mention racking up wins and cash to upgrade their 92 Mitsubishi GTO Twin Turbo. This is another case of one title changing the industry. Before Gran Tourismo, the racing simulation was the oddity. Now, it’s pretty difficult to find a true arcade racing game that isn’t some Mario Kart clone or doesn’t include crashing to score points. Every developer that wanted to get into the video game racing business suddenly had to compete with a deep, engrossing, visual powerhouse that presented a challenge and feeling of victory no other racing title could provide. Without the original Gran Turismo, there would be no Project Gotham Racing, no Need for Speed in it’s current iterations, and probably no Drag Racing on your iPhone. Respect.

#4 NHL ’94

Damn 1993 was a good year for EA sports! (Both Madden NFL ’94 and NHL ’94 were actually released in 1993.) While this entry in the series has been made famous for basically allowing its players to kill Wayne Gretzky (and who wouldn’t have wanted to back then?)there is another reason the ’94 iteration was the one that made hockey games popular. What could EA have added to such a great series to make it better and take it head and shoulders above every other hockey game that existed at that point? The answer is devastatingly simple.

One Timers.

NHL ’94 was the first hockey title to include one timers. Sure, it didn’t have fights, but now you could actually execute plays in a hockey game! Sure, the sprites skated around like crap but now you could actually execute plays in a hockey game! 1993 was, and will remain the year that the simulated hockey experience got real and it never looked back. EA was the first company to take hockey seriously and try to make their game as realistic as possible and  NHL ’94 was their first real success as far as I’m concerned. Hockey fans, be grateful.

Oh Chelios...

#3 MLB ’09: The Show

The Show franchise has been top notch since its early days in ought-6 but 2009 was the year they really got it right. The series’ “Road to the Show” mode is still the best career mode in all of video game history in the eyes of this writer and much of what the past 3 years’ entries have built upon first took shape in ’09. It introduced “Road to the Show 2.0” to the series which included better base running and stealing mechanics as well as more in-depth coach and management interaction with your created star. Fielding mechanics were improved, catcher AI was beefed up to react to each pitcher and hitter’s strengths, and so many other tweaks were implemented that strengthened overall game play that it felt like a new game over 2008’s entry.

I’ve heard people say that year over year improvement in the series since is too minimal for their tastes, and I tend to agree, but the lack of change begs a question. Is there a need to improve such a fine system?

If it ain’t broke…

Seriously, The Show has been the best baseball game available for 7 years running and it shows no sign of breaking that streak. If you haven’t played any of the entries in the series, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend grabbing the ’09 entry simply for the fact that the rosters are old old old and, as far as I know, you can no longer update them. It is, however, important to know where the greatness began and 2009 was the year baseball video games finally got the champion they deserved.

#2 NFL 2K1

This is going to seem like the “game nerd/fanboy” entry on the list but trust me, NFL 2K1 is number 2 for a reason. Allow me to give some detail.

Madden NFL 2001 did not appear on the Dreamcast. This was due to EA’s decision to not support the system, for better or worse. This move ended up being great for EA but absolutely devastating to SEGA as many developers followed suit, siting the Playstation 2 as the better option for monetary gain. So what do you do when one of the largest game publishers in existence pulls support of your console, thus depriving your user base of some of the most robust sports franchises that tend to sell systems? You hire the guys who made Madden NFL ’94 to make some completely new games, that’s what! With its superb football mechanics and a polished presentation, NFL 2K1 was the first real competition the Madden franchise had seen since NFL Gameday ’98. 2K1 took a great step forward from the previous year’s version by tweaking the gameplay and really stuck it to EA. Check out this video comparison of NFL 2K1 and Madden NFL 2001 if you want proof of how close they were in quality.

That’s all fine and good, but the icing on the cake was the inclusion of a feature that changed the nature of console sports forever.

Online Multi-player

That’s right NFL 2K1 was the first console sports game to feature online multi-player capabilities. Can you imagine playing Madden today without the option to school some jerk from New England and hate on Tom Brady while sitting on your couch in Pilsen? Be honest. No! You can’t! It’s become such a huge part of sports games, and so many people have never even played the game that started it all. The wildly successful NBA 2K series being the exception, all of the meaningful 2K Sports titles are either gone or on their way to their respective graves.  At least this one will live on in spirit, even if it’s just because of a brave new feature implemented by a desperate company that was on its way out of the console market.

That wraps up part 2. You know you want to check back next week to see which game is number one. It’s going to be a huge surprise!

Video games and sports have been close partners since their inception. Throughout the turbulent 80’s and the death of the arcade, the grand times and great triumphs of the game industry, sports games have been there. They entertain the wishes of would be NBA stars who can’t play at a professional level. They fill the void for baseball fans during the off-season who itch for the first pitch thrown in April. Most importantly, they offer hours of entertainment for gamers and casual players alike, and every so often change the nature of the industry. There has not been one single home video game console released that did not have at least one sports title in it’s library of games, if not in it’s launch lineup. Sports games have proven time after time that they can both sell systems and destroy them, introduce new heroes to gamers and bring new markets to the gaming industry, and if not for one specific sports title and the man who created it, video games as we know them may never have existed at all.

These are ten sports games that have made a huge impact on the video game world.

#10: NBA 2K11

Finally! Michael Jordan in a game worth playing.

Micheal Jordan. You see that period at the end of “Jordan?” That makes his name a sentence. That’s how important he is as an American icon. It may not seem like a big deal to some people, but ol’ MJ is almost certainly the greatest player the NBA has ever seen. NBA 2K11, while being a great game even without Jordan, goes all out in it’s attempt to place you in his shoes. The Jordan Challenge mode is by far the most accurate and engrossing mode in any video game I’ve played in the last few years and tells a great story even without using any real narrative. In the ten challenges you are tasked to match or beat Jordan’s statistics for a specific game or series. Should you complete them, you are given the opportunity to see how a rookie MJ would stack up against today’s players by taking him into a new career mode. No sports title before has ever placed so much emphasis on the emotion and stories behind the game it is emulating and I doubt a better attempt will come along any time soon. Unless you count NBA 2K12…

#9: Wii Sports

My dad loves this game. He's 63. That makes me happier than I can adequately explain.

What? Wii Sports? Yeah. For serious. Wii Sports sold millions of Wii consoles alone and proved that a small, if gimmicky, innovation like functioning motion controls can bring a whole new perspective to the video game industry. Sure the games included were very simplified versions of their real life counterparts, but they were fun and accessible to pretty much anyone who can move their wrist. If you want a testament to how groundbreaking and important Wii Sports is, just ask anyone who owns a Wii. I bet you they will say they still play it from time to time if not that they play it regularly. For a game going on 6 years old, that’s pretty impressive. Not to mention my Dad loves it. Any video game that gets his endorsement is a winner in my book.

#8: Mike Tyson’s Punch Out!

This was so god damn hard. I've never done it without using the code to get straight to him.

It’s here. On the list. And I’m never going to just call it Punch Out! I like it better with Tyson’s gap toothed grin on the splash screen. Boxing will probably never again be as popular with non-gambling white America as it was when this little arcade gem was released, but 2 million copies were sold, mostly due to Tyson’s name. It was my first experience with boxing at all, and my first time ever seeing Iron Mike in any medium. That’s right. I knew who Mike Tyson was and that he was the “baddest man on the planet” before I ever even knew he was a real professional boxer. I’m sure I’m not alone in this and that’s why this game is on the list. As one of the first quality, mainstream, licensed games, it shows the power that a well developed game can have on a property and the power of a good property to sell a game. This is a mixture and lesson that most game developers still have not learned.

#7: Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2

Most likely the best level in the entire series. The school.

Skate boarding and board sports in general are sports in the same sense that gymnastics and figure skating are sports. They are a venue for their respective athletes to show off talent and physical skill while, hopefully, looking awesome at the same time. If making video games was a sport in the same sense, THPS2 would be pulling high 9’s all day. The first game in the series set the bar and created a genre of game that had basically never existed before. It’s sequel smashed that bar and made the extreme sports game a major player in not just the sports video game world, but also the gaming world in general. It was the first in the series to have a career mode, which is still a solid and deep attempt by today’s standards. It had a soundtrack that was both accessible and fun to just listen to, a feat that the series pioneered and many other games have tried to emulate since. It made Tony Hawk a household name among those who would never have known him, and much like the previous entry in this list, had an air of credibility with his fans just because his name was on the disk. Still, it’s largest contribution may have been making Activision, the game’s publisher, a very very rich company and Tony Hawk is arguably the reason they are such a large player in the industry today.

With that, I leave you. Check back next week, or sooner if I get off my ass (then back on it in front of my computer), for part two where I’ll rattle off the next 5 games in the list. I know that’s only 9. I got something special planned for number 1.

CLICK ME TO GO TO PART 2. DO IT!