The unpredictability of sport is lost in translation

EASportsLogoI watch a lot of sport.  I’ve played a lot of sport.  And I’ve played a lot of sporting based video games.  In short I know my sport.  If you know anything about sport you’ll know that it is often won on split second decisions by players, or player error on the part of the opponent.  Every player out on the field is playing their part according to their own play style and their own judgement.  As a result being a spectator or player of any sport can be an unpredictable and joyous experience.  Particularly if your team wins.

It’s Spring Tour time for Rugby Union at the moment and I’ll see many a late night watching the Australian Wallabies take on the best of European Rugby.  For those that don’t know Rugby it’s a physical game where for a strength and agility can mean the difference between a turnover and breaking a tackle and running through for a try.  Similarly strength, technique and quick decisive actions in the scrum or during a breakdown phase can determine whether your team retains possession. Basically its a game of many variables like many, if not all, team sports.  Watch the decisiveness and unpredictability of the players in the highlight of the Wallabies vs the Lions from earlier this year below, which aside from a cracking piece of rugby shows how players think on their feet:

The strides that video games have made to simulate these variables are admirable.  Having a degree of control over AI controlled team-mates allows you the strategic freedom to think beyond your player’s possession, and thus think to the play ahead.  Similarly more intelligent AI in addition to a greater emphasis on physics engines rather than animations leads to a greater sense of unpredictability and dynamism that you’d expect to see from sport being played at the top level.  Just as impressive is the opponent responding to the player’s actions, meaning that you can effectively ‘fake’ or draw players away from your attacking players and open up scoring opportunities.  This balanced approach to both attacking and defence from developers means that sports games are no longer about following a routine and exploiting it, but rather about playing to the strengths of your team and exploiting the weaknesses of the opposition.  That is a great step in the right direction and one that really has made a big difference in the world of sports sims, not just because it does balance the game a bit, but it feels more like the sports we know and love, and the very ones they are attempting to simulate.  EA’s  2013 entry in its annual sports franchise,  NHL 13, made a significant change to the way the Goaltender tracked attacking players that really made the game feel more realistic and less exploitable.  Rather than tracking only the player with the puck he would have an awareness of others flanking and therefore leave it less open to quick wrist shots to exploit the AI’s awareness.  A small change but one that really opened up the game for the better.

But its still not perfect.  Take Union or Football (soccer) for example where much of the opportunities are opened up by the way the ball is played in the hand or on the foot respectively, or the footwork of the player with the ball.  I’ll continue with my Union example and use the specific example of the play directly following a tackle as the attacking player attempts to form a ruck.  The way the ball is played by the player, or the tackle is held will go on to decide the following passages of play.   If the tackler and opposing players can hold the player up, or force the attacking player to not release ball, the ball is effectively turned over which can drastically change the course of the game.  In this instance the attacking player with the ball want to keep control over the ball and use their bodies to their advantage and allow them to release the ball once tackled.  It is a similar proposition for when players enter the ruck once it’s formed.  In short its all about how the player manages his body, not just the physics coming into play.

These are all split second decisions, under pressure, made often with very limited view as to how the game is playing out beyond what they can directly see.  Video games do not replicate this feeling, this situation, or the players actions in these situations.  Watching a player cleverly maneuver the ball underneath is all part of the game of rugby.  Similarly with the ‘beautiful game’, watching a soccer player using his centre of gravity to give himself greater control on his feet is key when you’re talking about the passage of play.  While this is reflected in-game by way of player stats the player, or shown in the way a player animates, it isn’t a decision that is consciously being made by the player and instead is left to back-end calculations and numbers.  In reality it’s more about the cognitive process of a player and his style of play or approach to any one given situation based on his perception of the game at that time than any one physical attribute.


And it all comes down to the fact that when you’re playing a sports simulation you’re managing a team rather than playing the role of a player.  Even in situations whereby you are playing one role on a team of many, you’re managing the   passage of play for the team rather than managing how a player actually goes about his game.  On a more micro level while you are controlling a player, that control is guidance, a representation of how a player plays rather.  Behind every movement is an animation, a physical reaction and series of stats that determine how they will react to any exogenous factor.  While an ‘intelligence’ or ‘vision’ stat is often used to give all of this some semblance of random, dynamic, unpredictability it is nothing more than a calculation that dictates a random outcome.  So to put it simply – you are telling your player to dribble, rather than telling him how.  Anything more than that would be almost impossible to manage not only because of limits on input, but also because the brain isn’t capable of interpreting what is happening on screen in the same way as it would in a real life sport.  Not to mention that random reactions to situations that our brains automatically put into play.  Simply put any more than what we have and it would be a more complicated, near impossible, game of QWOP.

We can have all the animation trickery, a brilliantly realistic physics engine and enhanced AI, but until the player thinks like someone on the pitch it is unlikely we’ll ever see a ‘true’ sports simulation.  Because unlike other forms of simulation based on rigid behaviour sports people live and die by their judgement on the pitch.  I accept video games can only go so far in their pursuit of simulating what it is actually like for a player to be on the pitch.  I just wish that simulation was less rigid and allowed for those flashes of inspiration and brilliance that make us stand on our feet in front of our couch or on the sideline.  It’s not a criticism by any stretch of the imagination, rather an observation that even at the best of times, a simulation of sport is nothing more than a crude interpretation of the flow of a game rather than anything that anywhere near replicates the feeling of having the ball in your hand or at your feet.  And that is something that is never likely to change.

Any rant is a good rant.  And it follows that any opinions are good opinions.  Think any one game does it better than another?  Tell us in the comments below.