Learning a new sports game is like learning a new language
It’s that time of year again. That time, not only when studios load the launch roster with titles in preparation for the holiday season, but also when developers lucky enough to own the rights to a major sports game release the latest annual installment of anything that could be and rake in money. Madden NFL 22 is already on the market, NBA 2K22 has just launched and on October 1, FIFA 22 will be joining the fun.
As a FIFA player for over 20 years, I will faithfully pick up a copy of FIFA 22 as soon as it becomes available. If you play FIFA as much as I do, which millions of people around the world do, then there’s a good chance you’ll grab a new copy every year – millions of people do too. Even though the changes are minimal beyond updated teams, you are still going to buy it. You can also dive into it since you’ve been playing it for years.
FIFA is the only sports game I have this relationship with. However, this year I decided to branch out. I was offered the chance to give NBA 2K22 a whirl, and at the behest of my backlog whose muffled cries I could hear at the time, I grabbed it. I have loved FIFA for years, and even though 2K burned me and the rest of us wrestling fans through WWE 2K20, I was willing to give it a second chance because it was about ‘a completely different series. I mean really, how hard can it be to learn how to play a sports game when I’ve never tried the series before?
Very, as it turns out. I was not a fool. I knew diving straight into a game would be a mistake. I went straight to NBA 2K22 training and learned the basics. How to shoot, sprint, pass, defend, block, all that. I even stayed and taught myself some cool tricks. After going through most of the workout exercises, I thought I was ready.
I was not. Shifting from practice drills to actually using them in a game was akin to trying to slowly speak a foreign language in a classroom to have a theoretical physics-themed conversation in that language. It’s the equivalent of feeling proud of yourself because the Owl Duolingo taught you to say apples in Spanish and then sit there with a blank stare on your face as you try to order food while on vacation in Barcelona. because apples are not on the menu.
Nothing that I had learned during the training exercises had stuck. My passes went awry, shots bounced off the rim and into my opponents’ open arms, and didn’t even make me try to stop them from scoring once that happened. It quickly became clear that if NBA 2K was to become an annual tradition for me as FIFA, I was going to have to devote a lot more time to learning how to play. Unlike a platform game or RPG, going through the tutorial at the start of the game wasn’t going to be enough.
I thought back to when I first started playing FIFA. There must have been a time when I was as incompetent as I am now at NBA 2K. The difference is, when I first got a controller and the chance to play FIFA, I was a kid. I had a few things back then that I don’t have as much now. A brain like a sponge, a lot more patience and, above all, time. Again, three things you need to learn a new language and ultimately learn to play and get along in a series of sports games you’ve never played before.
When I fell in love with FIFA, I learned its mechanics and learned how it works much faster as a kid than I could have as an adult. I also had no job, more responsibilities than a red card, and a child of my own who demanded most of my time. Yes, I could persevere and devote some time to NBA 2K, but the benefits of doing so for me no longer outweigh the costs like they would 20 years ago. Sports games aren’t necessarily closed to everyone except those who are already familiar with them, but it will take more time and effort than your average game to learn how to play, let alone how to play well.
Don’t get me wrong, while I wanted to fit my DualSense into the wall as I got soaked over and over again, the complexity of learning a new sports game isn’t a bad thing. To be good at the sports that these games simulate is difficult. There is an endless amount of complexities that developers will continue to try to replicate and include in these games until the end of time. These games must be difficult to master to create a hierarchy of difficulty to keep players coming back. They will always sell well and always have a loyal following that buys new copies every year. In addition, as long as these sports remain popular, the young players who play them will continue to devote time to them and to increase their audience. However, at 31, the NBA 2K boat may have passed me.
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