Since the COVID-19 pandemic has me staying inside and playing some of the old sports games I have, I’ve decided to make a list (or three) on what sports games I think are the best in their sport. The list in this article includes only games from what I consider the first generation of sports games: the Dreamcast, PS2, Xbox Original era. I will be releasing separate articles for what I consider the second generation and third generation of consoles, the “PS3 and Xbox 360 Era” and the “PS4 and Xbox One Era” respectively.
Before I rank the best sports games in the first generation of consoles, let’s explore the history of sports games.
Sports games have been around since 1958, when “Tennis for Two”was invented by a physicist named William Higinbotham. Since 1958, companies such as Atari and Nintendo paved the way for sports gaming bringing massive titles to the industry such as John Madden Football. Other titles popular in the primes of Atari and Nintendo’s NES include the classic fan-favorite “Tecmo Bowl,” a 1978 game called Basketball, and a 1983 game Baseball. Yes, Basketball and Baseball really are the names of those two games, always important to know which sport you’re playing when you buy the game.
As the Atari and NES era faded away into becoming “old generation” consoles, Nintendo’s Dreamcast, Sony’s Playstation, and Microsoft’s Xbox took the reigns. These consoles saw the first games of now critically acclaimed sports game franchises like “NBA2K,” “NBA Live,” “MLB the Show,” “EA Sports’ Fifa,” “EA Sports’ NHL,” “EA Sports’ Madden,” and the now dissolved “NHL2K,” “NFL2K,” and “MLB2K.”
As the Dreamcast, Playstation, and Xbox took began to play second fiddle to Sony’s PS2-3 and Microsoft’s Xbox 360, sports games arguably hit their prime. However, once the next generation of consoles came out years later—Xbox One and Playstation 4—fans have become discontent with the companies making popular games like Madden and NBA2K. The complaints have surfaced because of the most popular modes in each game becoming “pay to win,” such as Madden’s Ultimate Team where the player must either spend hours of their life working for better players for his or her team or simply plug in the credit card digits and buy virtual football cards to improve. The Ultimate Team concept stretches across all major sports titles like NBA2K, EA Sports NHL and Fifa, and MLB the Show. The concept is referred to as gambling by many players who play it: it’s addictive and it’s a game of chance.
While sports video games may be taking a fall from grace, let’s look back and reminisce over the days when sports games were arguably in their prime.
The criteria for greatest sports video games will work as follows: consoles included will be original Dreamcast/Xbox/Playstation era (first generation), Xbox 360/Playstation 2-3 era (second generation), and Xbox One/Playstation 4 era (current generation); there will be one game per sport for each era; the factors that will score the games are gameplay, gamemodes/features, soundtrack, and graphics (adjusted for era). Each factor will be scored 1-10.
When deciding the best football game in the first generation, the answer was clear: “Madden NFL 05.”
“Madden NFL 05,” in terms of gameplay, was revolutionary. For the first time in football game history, the “hit-stick” was in a game. The hit-stick was and still is a feature that allows the player to deliver massive hits on offensive players. If the hit-stick is timed properly, the offensive player is likely to fumble, if timed poorly, the defensive player will stumble and lose balance. The introduction of the hit-stick made defense in Madden fun for the first time for many people. The hit-stick is also a staple of Madden and has stayed in the game ever since making it one of the most successful gameplay mechanic additions in the game’s history. The gameplay gets a 8/10 and the gamemodes/features gets a 10/10.
The gameplay changes alone make “Madden NFL 05” the best game on the 1st Xbox/Playstation generation, but the soundtrack is also one of the better 1st generation soundtracks. The track follows the EA Sports classic punk rock formula that many fans loved despite its death in the mid 2010’s including songs like American Idiot by Green Day. The soundtrack gets a 6/10: This soundtrack is good, but there are plenty of better ones out there.
The graphics of “Madden NFL 05” are no different than those of ‘04, however this was the first Madden released on one of the second generation of consoles: PS2, where the graphics were vastly improved. The Graphics category scores a 4/10 for lack of improvement since this is only focusing on 1st generation consoles.
“Madden NFL 05:” 20/30
The best NBA game of the first generation is “NBA Street Volume 2.” While I usually prefer games that focus on 5-on-5 basketball, there is no denying that the “NBA Street Series” is fantastic. “NBA Street Vol. 2” consists of pick up 3-on-3 arcade style basketball. The graphics fit the arcade action and the game includes all time greats like Michael Jordan, Julius Erving, and Larry Bird. For the gamemodes/features, “NBA Street Vol. 2” earns an 8/10. This game has some of the most unique modes in basketball game history. One mode called “Be A Legend” mode has the player create his or her own player and a team. The team the player creates has to work its way up from being a group of no ones to the best street team in the game. The mode leads the player through a path of better and better teams as the player’s team earns more and more reputation through winning, the teams the player will face get more and more formidable.
The gameplay of NBA Street Vol. 2 focuses on having more of an arcade feel than a realistic one. In almost all cases I side with realism in sports video games, but in a game that is supposed to be arcadey I love the way the developers went about gameplay. In a street basketball game, one would much rather have their own player absolutely posterizing Shaquille O’Neal rather than drawing a shooting foul and shooting two free throws. In a game that one expects more realism, the player would be ecstatic if his or her player dunked on Shaq, but it wouldn’t be expected. For these reasons “NBA Street Vol. 2” earns a 9/10 for gameplay.
The soundtrack gets a 8/10. This is pretty simple, the track fits the feel of the game and includes perennial sports game bops such as “They Reminisce Over You” by C.L. Smooth and Pete Rock and “Live on Stage” by Dilated Peoples.
As stated earlier, the graphics fit the style of the game and are pretty good for 2003: 7/10.
“NBA Street Vol. 2:” 25/30
The best NHL game of the generation is “NHL 04”. While I strongly considered NHL 03 for this spot just because of the soundtrack—especially “Sweetness” by Jimmy Eat World—NHL 04 has better features and is an overall improvement from “NHL 03.”
The gameplay gets a 7/10 for the improvements EA Sports’ “NHL 04” made to its checking system. This game also included a Stanley Cup team celebration for the first time in the NHL series, a nice reward for the player after winning the Stanley Cup in dynasty mode.
Dynasty mode is another reason that “NHL 04” gets this spot. Dynasty mode expanded on the already existing franchise mode in NHL. The mode added an RPG feel to the game mode where a player evolves his/her role among skills he/she considers fit rather than one set path as a team’s general manager. The player would be faced with decisions on how to increase team revenue and how to juggle team morale while practicing to improve his or her team. The way the player handled general manager tasks were evident in games, sometimes if a player were unhappy, the commentators would mention it. If the team struggled to bring in revenue the arena would be more empty than an economically successful team. For these innovations, the gamemodes/features get a 10/10; there hasn’t been anything like this mode since.
The soundtrack of “NHL 04” is once again the classic EA Sports punk rock, a style I like to see in NHL games. “Radio #2” by The Ataris is my personal favorite on the track. The track as a whole gets a 7/10.
The graphics of “NHL 04” stand up as some of the best among sports games at the time, for that, graphics earn a 8/10.
“NHL 04:” 24/30
“MVP Baseball 05.” Not a question when it comes to MLB games. This is the best first generation baseball game and perhaps the best MLB game out there.
As a Red Sox fan, I need to start with the soundtrack. “Tessie” by the Dropkick Murphys is an automatic 10/10 for the soundtrack just for Joe Castiglione announcing the Red Sox first world championship in 86 years at the beginning of the song. The rest of the soundtrack is very solid: there isn’t a song that’s bad on the soundtrack and it fits the nostalgic punk rock feel of the early 2000’s. “You Owe Me An IOU” by Hot Hot Heat is an underdog for best song on the soundtrack, but as said previously, “Tessie” is what makes this soundtrack among the best of all time among sports games.
As for the gamemodes/features, “MVP Baseball 05” features game modes such as “Dynasty Mode.” Similar to NHL’s “Dynasty Mode” the player takes control of a team and works on building the team into a champion. One of the most astonishing facts about this game’s “Dynasty Mode” is that it encompasses 120 seasons of playability, even the current Madden doesn’t allow the player to play for more than 30 seasons. This game also has “Owner Mode” which is basically “Dynasty Mode” plus ownership responsibilities such as finances. Perhaps the best part of “owner mode” is the ballpark editor which allows the player to edit the walls of the stadium to the amount of seats in the stands. The gameplay feature in “MVP Baseball 2005” that separates it from the previous MVP Baseball games is the “Hitter’s Eye” mechanic. The mechanic changes the color of the ball trail based on which pitch is thrown. The “Hitter’s Eye” mechanic was not only unique to MVP Baseball but it also made hitting easier after fans of the game complained about the difficulty the year prior. Because of the advanced “Dynasty Mode/Owner Mode” and the gameplay improvements made from 2004 to 2005, gameplay/features earn a 9/10.
Lastly, the graphics of “MVP Baseball 2005” earn a 9/10. The graphics of this game are ahead of its time. While the graphics are somewhat fuzzy, they are some of the best you will find among games from 2005: the faces of players are much more detailed than any other sports title of the time.
“MVP Baseball 2005:” 28/30
To cap the list off, “Fifa 06” takes the spot for best soccer game of the first generation.
In terms of gamemodes/features, “Fifa 06” had made significant improvements to its “Career Mode.” There are some added features such as a budget the player now has to meet as a manager of a team in “Career Mode,” a game mode similar to other sport games’ franchise/dynasty modes. The player must decide how to allocate funds between player salaries, team staff, and budget for transfers. “Fifa 06” also added a morale system to “Career Mode” that made the player juggle ownership tasks, player morale, team chemistry, and fan happiness. If any one of the morales becomes too low, the player risks getting sacked. These features make the games “Career Mode” more realistic than ever in terms of management. Since “Fifa 06” paved the way for the future of “Career Mode” with its realistic additions, “Fifa 06” earns a 7/10 on gameplay/features.
The soundtrack for “Fifa 06” is by far the largest and most diverse soundtrack of the first generation sports games on this list. There’s a little bit of everything here: punk rock, punk pop, reggae, reggaeton, international rock, etc. My favorite song on the soundtrack is probably “Helicopter” by Bloc Party, call me biased to punk-rock in the early-mid 2000’s but there is a certain nostalgia to songs like “Helicopter” when it comes to sports games. “Fifa 06” earns a 8/10 for the diversity of the soundtrack genre and overall good music.
The graphics of “Fifa 06” earns a 6/10 for graphics. Since there wasn’t much of an improvement between “Fifa 05” and “Fifa 06” in terms of graphics and the players look fairly generic besides a few recognizable superstars such as Thierry Henry and Ronaldhino, graphics can’t earn anything above a 6/10.
“Fifa 06:” 21/30
The final results reveal “MVP Baseball 05” as the best first generation sports game overall as its total score equals a 28/30. The greatness of these four games reveal that most fans of sports games generally enjoy a game that improves its gameplay/features from its prior games. These four games aren’t just the best to me, they’re widely accepted by most as some of the best games from their respective franchises. The revolutionizing features such as the unique “NHL 04” dynasty mode, the robust 150 seasons of “MVP Baseball 05” “Owner/Dynasty Mode,” the action-packed hit stick of “Madden NFL 05,” and the realistic “Fifa 06” manager career mode are what make these games so great. At the end of the day, gameplay changes and new features will always trump a good soundtrack and graphics.