Sports have always been one of the most popular forms of entertainment. They were both played and followed with passion by veritable masses – and by today, they’ve become a truly global phenomenon. No branch of the massive entertainment industry has as many followers as certain sports. Association football, for example, is covered on every level, from massive media companies like Disney’s ESPN to up-and-coming sites like VwinSportsVN. So, it shouldn’t be a surprise that sports video games also have a huge following.
Few people know that the history of video games started with a sports simulator, though, paving the way for a massive industry.
From tennis to (ping) pong
Arcade games were mostly built around lights, boxes, and mechanics – this until 1958 when physicist William Higinbotham presented Tennis for Two. It was a competitive tennis simulator using an oscilloscope as a display. Until that time, the vast majority of computer games were puzzle games running on computer mainframes – Tennis for Two was proof that on-screen action was also possible.
While the game was largely forgotten, it did serve as a precursor for some of the legendary games that kickstarted the arcade era, especially Pong (1972). In the mid-1970s, there was a veritable Pong-mania going on, with pretty much every game manufacturer launching its own take on the format. Around this time, Taito launched the first association football game called “Soccer” (how easy it must have been to name games in these early years) that was basically a game of Pong on a green background, with two goals. Another Taito title, “Pro Hockey”, used the same format – although the colours and the size of the goals would differ.
Going beyond the ball
Ball-and-paddle games were fun for a while – but not for long. After the market became flooded with Pong clones, the time was ripe for innovation. The market for sports video games settled down for a few years, even if early attempts at adapting combat sports (Sega’s “Heavyweight Champ”, the first fighting game) and other ball games to the screen were made at the time. But these were overshadowed by Space Invaders, the first successful shoot-em-up in history.
In 1980, something interesting happened. Mattel – yes, the Barbie one – released the first sports game that had the blessing of a true-to-life sports league. The game was called “NBA Basketball” and was released in 1980 for the Intellivision console as an exclusive. It was a multiplayer game with two three-man teams, with no single-player option available. Later, Intellivision became the biggest promoter of sports video games (as opposed to Atari’s focus on arcade games) using its superior graphics as a weapon in history’s first console wars.
It’s to be noted that Football Manager, the first sports management simulator, for ZX Spectrum. Note that this is not the Football Manager available on PC today – the brand was revived by Sports Interactive in 2005 and is alive and kicking to this day.
The Golden Age
We have the Golden Age of the arcade to thank for several franchises that are popular to this day: Ms Pac-Man, Donkey Kong Jr., Mario Bros., and many others. At the same time, sports video games lived an early renaissance, with titles like Sega’s Champion Baseball or Konami’s Track & Field. Their success prompted renewed interest in sports arcade games not seen since the age of Pong. Until the mid-1980s, a series of popular sports games were released, from Nintendo’s Punch-Out to Irem’s 10-Yard Fight that took players from high school sports to the Super Bowl.
During the golden age, developers released games covering every sport from racing (GP World) to roller skating (Roller Aces), wrestling (Tag Team Wrestling) and even bullfighting (Bull Fight).
And in the early 1990s, EA released its first FIFA game, quickly claiming a dominant position in the world of association football games.
Getting in shape
The next evolutionary step in the history of sports games came in the 1990s when the first 3D polygons were introduced. Sega’s “Virtua Striker”, released in 1995, was the first sports video game to use 3D graphics and texture mapping.
It was around this time when International Superstar Soccer Pro (ISS Pro) was released by Konami on the PlayStation. Unlike FIFA, it focused on tactics and improvisation. Later, ISS Pro transformed into the Pro Evolution Soccer franchise, renamed eFootball PES in 2020.
The mid to late 1990s brought forth a new breed of sports simulators, focusing on extreme sports. Alpine Surfer (Namco, arcade) and Cool Boarders (UEP Systems, PlayStation) were released in 1996, followed by Sega’s first skateboarding game, Top Skater in 1997. It was successful enough to be followed by Street Sk8er (EA) in 1998, and the first in a row of Tony Hawk Pro Skater titles in 1999.
Becoming sports themselves
The rest, as they say, is history. Sports video games have become truly a big business in the early 2000s, and continue to grow ever since. The emergence of competitive video gaming has turned them into spectator sports: today, pretty much every major sports video game franchise has its own World Championship, with thousands, sometimes millions following their online streams.