Seeing as NBA2K14 is now free on Playstation Plus allow me to explain why North American sports games are just thee best. Aside from the actual sports themselves being bloody brilliant (and shut up if you don’t agree), it’s their commitment to delivering an authentic sports experience which really elevates them as an institution. Free from the scale and licensing issues that plague our own British export, FIFA, the likes of NBA2K, Madden NFL and NHL leave no stone unturned when it comes to the attention to detail that delivers a sports experience which looks and feels grounded in realism.

Forgive me for sounding like an EA Sports PR rep but it’s true. Aforementioned NBA2K14 is a case in point. Like most Playstation Plus subscribers, I’ve recently taken advantage of the fact that the game is free and I’ve been bowled over by the way it handles the presentation of a single NBA game. On an aesthetic level, it’s all about recreation. The 26 official NBA basketball arenas being lovingly realised in excruciating detail and the enlisting of CBS’s colour commentary team, Kevin Harlan, Clark Kellogg and Steve Kerr to provide their voices for the games commentary is just the start. From sponsor mentions, player vignettes and mock match advertisements to real-time and historical infographics, everything that is a part of a televised NBA game is included. In fact the games’ slightly outdated graphics being the only thing that forces it out of its real world grounding.

Screenshot of PS4 version of NBA2K14
Not just a pretty face though, these games are also true to life when it comes to their complexity. What you get is fully fledged, leaving nothing stripped out. Every drill, play, dunk, formation and shot is captured and readily at your finger tips. These are games very much catered to die hard fans of the sport. That’s not to say anyone with even a mild interest will be completely overwhelmed. These more in depth features are often implemented in such a way that they have little effect on the core gameplay instead they act as enhancements for those that seek a richer, more credible experience. The best of both worlds. Take the Madden NFL series for example. At its core the series very much plays as a throw, run and catch simulator. However, those brave enough to delve into its playbook open up endless possibilities. All of a sudden ‘slip screens’, ‘drives’, ‘pinches’ and ‘covers’ are at your disposal and before you know it your strutting around, barking plays like Bill Belichick himself.

With complexity comes intelligence and as strange as it sounds North American sports games by their nature are extremely intelligent beings. Full of random facts and statistics that are often being brought up throughout games, these nuggets of information are what commentary teams live and breathe on. Who scored the highest free throw average of last season? Who currently has the highest past to completion rate? Who has the most Stanley Cup victories? These neat calling cards are part of the makeup and play a surprisingly crucial part in adding to the realism.

NHL 14 Stanley Cup celebration screenshot
What’s even more incredible is that these facts and statistics are actually part of the game. Logging all of these bits of information is no mean feat when they comprise of historical and, most impressively, real-time stats. I can only assume that there’s some crazy, sophisticated system in place which logs everything a player does at every point of each game but the effects are astounding. Being able to tell you about the action unfolding right before your very eyes, or even at half time what is happening in games elsewhere is extremely powerful. You could be, let’s say, the ‘Pittsburgh Penguins’ with only one game of the season to go and having to rely on results from other games to cement your place in the cup play-offs. Having that feedback at half-time, knowing how results are playing out elsewhere, adds to the drama, the tension and ultimately the immersion. Backed by quality commentary (something which I’ve been crying out for in FIFA for years) and what seems like a small addition swiftly becomes a huge one. All of a sudden you feel like you are a part of this wider sporting universe; something far larger than yourself.

This is strangely at odds with the way the games cater for an intimate, far more personal experience. Host to hugely customizable options, they allow players to create their own team members or, through their complex draft systems, edit existing teams and their rosters. ‘Franchise’ and ‘Association’ mode from the Madden and NBA2K series respectively are a prime distillation of this. From picking a team, to the initial draft (complete with all their mind boggling rules) to training and playing the actual games themselves. Players can own and make their mark on their chosen team in every single aspect for seasons upon seasons to come, and remarkably they are annual sports games which retain some sort of longevity outside of a year. Who thought these franchises were ran into the ground by cash cow craving, money swindlers, hey?

All seriousness and all preconceived negativity aside, North American sports games are sports games done right. Their commitment to the cause of authenticity is nothing short of astounding without it ever getting boring. With unwavering fan service time after time, it’s equal parts exciting and baffling as to where they can take the franchises in the future. What next? Realistic grass/ice/polished floor physics?

Written By Kieran Roycroft, 17th Jun ’14