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Think of a sports video game and your mind probably goes to the hyper-realistic graphics and gameplay of the latest FIFA or Madden NFL. These days, playing one of these console games is almost the same as the real thing. So much so, in fact, that many sports fans have turned to video gaming to fill the gap left by the temporary halting of all major sports leagues in 2020.

It has not always been this way, of course. Older gamers well remember the more primitive graphics and limited functionality of the sports games of yesteryear. Here we take a look back over the evolution of sports video games, starting with where it all began.

The Birth of Video Games

It may not technically be the earliest video game, but Atari’s iconic table tennis simulator Pong was the first to be widely played. The height of cutting-edge sophistication at the time, the game captured the imaginations of young and old alike. Starting life as a training exercise for designer Allan Acorn, nobody could have predicted how popular it would become. First released as an arcade game in 1972, the home computer counterpart brought it to a wider audience three years later.

Inspired by the success of Pong, the rest of the 1970s saw several other sports-themed titles hit the market. In competition with Atari were Sega and Taito, which both produced games attempting to simulate tennis, football, hockey, and various other sports. Few of these were actually recognizable as such, but the fans enjoyed them. A new innovation of the time was racing games, notably Taito’s Speed Race which employed a scrolling graphical screen for the first time.

Consoles Take Over

During the 1980s, video games moved from the arcades into our homes. Many studios vied for pole position in the home console market, including Atari and later Mattel’s Intellivision. Mattel liked to focus on improving the visuals on sports games and released many popular games including versions of baseball, hockey, basketball, and both kinds of football.

Around this time, AI started to be used in video games, improving the experience considerably. Sports themes continued to prove marketable, and everything from wrestling to rock climbing had a game to its name. AI came into its own in 1987 when Electronic Arts released Earl Weaver Baseball, the most realistic sports game to date. This was closely followed by the first of the Madden series, which started to hit its stride at the start of the 1990s. Now the name EA is associated with some of the finest titles in the genre.

Slot Games Enter the Ring

It seems incredible, but the first virtual casinos actually came about in the mid-1990s. While the early casino games were table classics like roulette and blackjack, it wasn’t long before the software developers started creating virtual versions of the favorite slot machines.

Soon enough sports themes started to find their way into online slots, and another type of sports simulator game was born. These days, players are spoilt for choice when it comes to slot games with a sports focus. Many of these are created by some of the biggest games studios in the slots world, including Playtech, Microgaming, and NetEnt.

Players can find some of the most in-demand sporting slot machines at PayPal slots sites, meaning those that accept the popular online payment method. These include horse racing with Frankie Dettori, football Top Trumps featuring some legends of the British game, and a whole series from Microgaming that covers tennis, basketball, cricket, rugby, and hockey.

Prime Era for Sports Video Games

Around the same time that these online casinos started to proliferate, sports video games were also multiplying and diversifying. Many of the titles from this time are still recognizable and beloved to gamers to this day. The new generation of consoles arrived, first PlayStation and Nintendo 64 followed by Sega Dreamcast and finally Xbox in 2001.

Along with the new systems came a flood of sports games, now vastly improved by the inclusion of advanced motion capture. The athletes on the screen could move realistically, which opened the door for pro skating and snowboarding games to come to the market. The SSX series from EA was an early-2000s staple.

In the middle of the decade, gaming companies started to claim their exclusive rights to produce official games for major sports leagues. EA signed a deal with the NFL in 2004, cementing Madden as the only NFL video game in production. Similarly, 2K Sports secured baseball for themselves.

Nintendo Perfect Motion Activated Controls

Another game-changing moment came in 2006 when Nintendo released the flagship Wii console. Previous attempts had been made to produce a motion-activated control, but until that point, nothing had succeeded. With the Wii, players could now immerse themselves in games like tennis, golf, and bowling in a realistic simulation of the real thing.

Early players encountered some expensive mishaps with the new gear, with many inadvertently hurling the control directly at their screens. Despite this, the console was a resounding success and added a hitherto unimaginable dimension to sports video games.

Looking to the Future

Many gamers opine that the golden age of sports games was during those mid-2000s years. Modern iterations, it is suggested, have failed to add much of substance and some of the newer features are less than desirable. Fans point to in-game advertising, technical glitches, and microtransactions as some of the aspects that are frustrating about the newer generations of games.

However, it’s not all bad. Most new releases do in fact provide significant improvements in graphics and game simulation. EA releases a new FIFA, Madden, and NHL every season, and the continued popularity of the games proves that they must be doing something right. Many games have embraced career mode and online multiplayer functionality to great effect. Critics agree that the 2018 version of NBA 2K is the best so far.

The exclusivity deals have not always been to the benefit of the games, since a lack of competition allows developers to rest on their laurels and often results in a lackluster title. This seems set to change, with 2K striking a deal with the NFL to rival EA. How this deal will affect Madden remains to be seen, but opening up the market for other contenders is sure to be good for gamers in the long run.