The history of sports video games started some 50 years ago with the release of the mock-table tennis title Pong in 1972. About a decade later, things got more interesting, with then-advanced games like One on One: Dr. J vs. Larry Bird in 1983 and Tecmo Bowl in 1987. Since then, the sports video game landscape has grown exponentially. Today, there are tennis games with which you can work up a sweat through the use of wireless controllers, golf games featuring legendary athletes like Tiger Woods, and football, soccer, baseball and basketball games that feel like real life.
Here, we will dive into the best of the past two-plus decades, highlighting the top titles and what makes them special, from growth in graphics to the enjoyment of playing … and winning. All these gaming choices offer engaging sporting experiences with the ebb and flow of competition, and the details in their soundtracks can be equally important for generating emotion, from the crowd noises to the acoustics of the arena itself, particularly if you add the immersive envelopment of surround sound.
Generally considered to be the gold standard in video sports games, the Madden series (named after the late football coach and broadcaster John Madden) is a perennial best-seller. The most recent edition is Madden NFL 23. But the best reviewed version, by a hair anyway, is Madden NFL 2003 — the 14th installment of the series and the first to have Mini Camp mode and Al Michaels serving as the play-by-play announcer. Originally released for Game Boy Advance, GameCube, Microsoft Windows, PlayStation® and Xbox™, this was an early entry to life-like digital gameplay. No live game on TV? Put this on and immerse yourself. Preview it here.
Two words: Michael Jordan. The GOAT (aka Greatest Of All Time) basketball player graced the cover of this release because this is likely the best incarnation of the popular NBA 2k series, with options to play single games or via Association mode, during which a player can control an entire (digital) NBA organization. New modes with Michael Jordan were also introduced (longtime gamers know how rare it is to have His Airness appear in games), and classic NBA teams were brought in here, as well. For contemporary rosters, including cover star Luka Doncic, check out NBA 2k22. Preview it here.
People who have played Little League baseball often wonder what it would be like to face a professional curveball. For the 99% of us who never will, check out MLB 10: The Show. Though released back in 2010, many feel that this title is still the best in the series. It was the first in the line to introduce Catcher Mode, in which you can see the game from behind the plate, and Home Run Derby, where players can hit baseballs out of the park in competition. Watching real baseball on TV can feel slow, but this video game provides a completely different experience since it allows you to control all aspects, from base runners to hitters to fielders and even management decisions — all with realistic graphics and lifelike ballparks. Preview it here.
There’s something majestic about the large, rolling green fields. The roar of the (digital) spectators. The rivalry of country versus country, the stakes of it all. While there have been dozens of FIFA soccer games throughout the years, this title, which launched in September 2012, notably offered “First Touch Control” for the first time, which affects how a player controls the ball upon receiving a tough pass. Play as legends in their prime, from Lionel Messi to Cristiano Ronaldo — but watch out, this game has been known to cause tension in even the closest of friendships (just like the real sport)! Preview it here.
In 2006, Nintendo released the multi-game package Wii Sports. It included baseball, bowling, boxing and golf, but it was tennis that was the focal point, and it remains one of the best even today, more than 15 years later. While the graphics are a bit more cartoonish and rudimentary compared to titles like Top Spin 4 (2011), the game play is fluid, fun and frenzied, thanks in large part to wireless Wii Remotes, which allow players to stand and swing at the oncoming ball like Venus or Serena Williams might. Preview it here.
Not only does this title have the most beloved intro, featuring rapper DMX, but this early incarnation of the universally beloved golf video game series also features 20 courses based on real life options, plus six fantasy courses. It’s a particular favorite on PlayStation because of the analog stick, which allows you to calibrate shots with unusual precision. PGA Tour 2004 was the first in the series to allow players to create their “Game Face,” meaning you could create the likeness of your golfer from scratch. And while graphics may have improved over the years, the gameplay of this series didn’t need to. Preview it here.
Released in 2019, this title is a fairly recent addition to the sports game landscape. While volleyball doesn’t have the e-sports legacy of, say, basketball and football, there are dozens of titles that date back to the 1990s and earlier (Venice Beach Volleyball is a fun NES offering from 1991). With full commentary and 50 teams from all over the world, players can dive realistically into the contest for indoor matches that offer booming serves, masterful teammate setups and, of course, plenty of spiking! (Replays are lifelike, too.) Spike Volleyball does, however, require a fair amount of coordination between players so there may be a slight learning curve. Preview it here.
Debuting in 2013, this popular game is faster than previous titles in the series and showcases more realistic hits amongst the on-ice digital combatants. The game also offers more violent fighting between foes, if you’re into that — some have even described it as “brutal.” But such is the life of a hockey player. In addition, NHL 14 offers a “Be A Pro” career mode where players can improve the status of their legacies even off the ice. Gameplay and broadcast commentary is so real here that casual onlookers might think an actual game is onscreen! Preview it here.
Professional wrestling video games have a long, illustrious history, dating back to the Nintendo 64 days pre-millennium. But improvements have been made in the past two decades. Case in point: WWE 2K14, first released in 2013. Not only can you battle big names in the ring, but it offers different modes like “The 30 Years of WrestleMania,” which recreates three decades of wrestling lore and includes classic WWE footage. Players can take on opponents like The Undertaker, The Rock, Andre the Giant and Hulk Hogan. Indeed, this game doubles as a history lesson and looks the part too, with stunning graphics. Preview it here.
Ready for some bloody combat between muscular foes? This modern Mixed Martial Arts title, released in 2020, is not for the faint of heart. UFC 4 offers 229 unique fighters and various modes, including Career mode in which players fight to become the Greatest. As you progress, you can choose to take on or dismiss certain fight offers or you can play online battling opponents in the intimidating Octagon. There are also backyard battles and literal underground forums. It’s like you’re an actual member of the Ultimate Fighting Championship! Preview it here.
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