Posted: March 21, 2008
Choosing Just One
As Dwight Howard mercilessly continues his unofficial campaign to make dunks an official NBA stat by slamming on East Conference defenders at will, it should be clear that D12 is connoisseur of the slam dunk both as an art and as business.
Like most folks I can't tell the difference between a 6-foot 11-inch basketball player and a legit 7-footer at a glance so I'll just say that it was damn impressive that super tall guy like Howard won the slam dunk contest at All Star Weekend. It's even more impressive when you consider that Dwight Howard had to win it. He had to convert that unprecedented Tip Drill dunk. He had to pull of a move that had been described as physically impossible.
He had to live up to his rep as a video game character.
Howard's dunk that had him tipping the ball off the backboard to his opposite hand is featured in NBA Ballers Chosen One. In the world of video games, adding a move like this takes weeks and that's only once you've got the basics of the game up and running successfully. So the night Howard took to the air in New Orleans, that move was already in the game waiting for the man himself to give it life. He couldn't miss it or even take two chances to get it right. That dunk had to jump out of TV screens and make everybody hit a quick rewind on their cerebral DVRs to make sure real life just happened.
It did. He did. Life imitated art, but nobody knows that just yet.
Most pro athletes don't burden themselves with such lofty goals. Giving to the community? Sure. Guest appearance on a late night talk show? Of course. Dating an "IT" girl/actress/singer/celebutard? Done. What about watching an eccentric video game designer dream up and animate an amazing dunk and then saying "Yes, I'll do that on one of the biggest stages in sports" and then doing it? Uh, chumps need not apply.
A few years back at the 2002 All Star Weekend, dunk contests participants had to recreate specific dunks from history; like a game of H-O-R-S-E but your opponent threw his move 15 years ago. Now Dwight didn't have that type of pressure of learning the expected dunk the night of the contest, like Jason Richardson and Desmond Mason had to do back in '02, but his was already immortalized in a video game and you know the kids are on the sticks and not in front of the TV these days.
We're used to signature dunks being included in popular video games. Vince Carter's elbow-through-the-rim hanger has been featured over the years. The dunk contests in NBA 2K8 and NBA Live have included all sorts of between-the-legs and windmilling elements made popular by guys like Richardson and Isaiah Rider. Hell, anybody that remembers Lakers vs Celtics on SEGA Genesis will remember the signature moves of every player in the game. There were only eight teams but you knew Barkley's Gorilla Dunk was good from anywhere around the free throw line; Jordan's up-and-under reverse layup (trivia: LvC was one of the few games where you'd find MJ in a Bulls jersey) worked from the baseline; and of course Tom Chambers' high-rising, anatomically risky dunk (OVER Mark Jackson, in real life) was the highest form of insult to anybody on the receiving end.
So we're not talking about anything new, these signature dunks. It's just that usually, real life inspires game creators to put something in the video game; not the other way around.
Posted: March 3, 2008
The Art of Creativity: Inside GDC
One of the best parts of the annual Game Developers Conference, which just wrapped up last week, is that it kicks off the anticipation-o-meter for all the hot games coming out later in the year. Gaming related technology and business announcements are all fine and good, but really it's the stuff I'm excited to play and dominate and compete in that captures all of my attention.
The GDC doesn't do much in the way of sports games from year to year. So NCAA College Football 09, FIFA 09, NBA 2K9, Smackdown vs Raw and the next Fight Night (hopefully in early 09) top the list of titles I'm most excited about in the coming 12 months. But GDC is the place where innovation, development tools and the cutting edge of video games lives; it's more about the art of creativity than the science of meeting expectations of realism in sports games.
Nintendo revealed plans that the Wii's online functionality is expanding this year through the WiiWare service for small independently created games. Anything that adds new stuff to the pipeline is good news especially when you consider how many potential game-makers have been chomping at the bit to bring their ideas to Nintendo systems. Lots of potential there. It's just that Wii Fit is around the corner and I'm convinced that the Balance Board that comes with it could be a key piece of hardware for video games in the future and thus overshadows everything else I heard out of Nintendo at GDC. All the wild ideas consumers come up with when you ask them about the future of games usually involve the words "immersive," "being in the game" and "virtual." What if the combination of the Wii controller and a board that senses your body's weight shifts is the missing link towards that reality? What if you can finally have a baseball game that forces you to be patient, use hand-eye coordination and use your hips to hit a pitched baseball as opposed to hitting an X button? Or how about a golf game that has you flinging sod or skulling the ball because you're unbalanced on your address? The potential is really within reach if somebody decides to take the Wii in that direction. May 19 marks the arrival of Wii Fit. We'll see if it's the beginning of a new era.
The Force Unleashed gets props from me because lightsabers and choking people with your mind will never play out. In fact, it's more of a lightsaber-choking people game than a true Star Wars game since we're so far removed from the glory of Luke, Chewbacca and Lando tearing up the galaxy. The most recent trilogy of movies did away with much of the magic, so now all we have left are our imaginations and video games that let us feel The Force the way we did in 1977. The game casts you as an as-yet-unheard-of apprentice to Darth Vader -- which is ridiculous since it goes against the whole "always two there are, no more no less" rule given to us by Yoda but violated almost daily -- but none of that matters once you start wielding Force powers. Put it this way, using The Force and slinging TIE Fighters around a giant space dock is one of the superhero powers I didn't know I wanted until I saw it in TFU. It's like a spaceship demolition derby ... indoors.
Microsoft revealed that Fable II, Ninja Gaiden II, Too Human and Gears of War II will carry the Xbox 360 through 2008. Those are some major stars, but I don't think they'll stack up to the powerhouses we saw in 2007. Of that group, I think Ninja Gaiden II will be the one to satisfy. If there's anything cooler than lightsabers it's ninjas and this franchise has nailed the speed, violence and action of ninja movies and myths better than most games. Ryu is becoming more and more popular as he crosses back and forth between his Ninja Gaiden games and Dead or Alive fighting titles and into Halo ... at least his armor crosses over to Halo 3.
If those games aren't enticing then maybe something we don't even know about yet will be the biggest game of 2008. The Xbox Live Arcade experiment has been a huge success, with millions of Xbox Live users checking out classic arcade titles from the 80s and 90s and original games. But soon there will be even more new game concepts and ideas on there as the community of "home brew" game-makers will have the tools and the ability to make and upload their ideas directly to Xbox Live for everybody to try. There was a trial run right after GDC and then again later in the spring. You never know what these creative types can come up with when they don't have big budgets and endless resources. They also don't have to worry about licenses, focus-groups and clueless executives getting in the way of their vision; so I'd call it a push.
The next big showcase of games should be the new, new-and-improved E3 this summer. The reality is there will be a lot of unveiling and announcements and surprises in the weeks and months leading up to the 2008 Electronic Entertainment Expo. Keep it locked on espnvideogames.com and Game Up.
Posted: February 12, 2008
New releases and the MLG Pro Circuit schedule
FIFA Street 3
It isn't always obvious, but the intent behind a game like FIFA Street 3 is to make an easily accessible soccer game that focuses on the most thrilling parts of the sport ... just like we've seen in NBA and NFL Streets. Those games are all dunks and crossovers or touchdowns and laterals. FIFA Street is all flip flop moves, diving headers and bicycle kicks.When it comes to sports titles, EA has tried to separate the realistic sports simulators from the loose and free arcade experience. This is why FIFA Street has national teams instead of club teams like Real Madrid or AC Milan. The focus is on doing amazing things the whole time instead of mimicking the essence of the sport.
SEGA Superstar Tennis
SEGA Superstar Tennis is as accessible as it gets. Very simple control system and your basic knowledge of tennis will get you through. What might be distracting is that you're playing tennis with monkeys and dancing space fairies. It can be tough to take a game like this seriously. You get characters from the SEGA universe like Sonic the Hedgehog but after him, there's a steep drop-off in recognizable names even if you're a big fan of videogames. Nintendo does the same thing with Mario Tennis but you're talking about a much deeper "bench" of characters. The tennis is simple but games like this are meant to be played with friends so all of the multiplayer elements are topnotch. The minigames are especially fun including the one that has you knocking out zombies with tennis balls. A game like this can go wherever it wants in terms of content once you get over the idea that this isn't the ATP Tour ... that game is coming out later.
Devil May Cry 4
Devil May Cry completes our tour of games that get by on their unique visual styles yet offer an unsual type of gameplay. This is a type of game where the rmain character is the justification of the whole game. That is, somebody wanted to have a guy in a long coat with a giant sword and two pistols with unlimited ammo just obliterating wave after wave of soulless bad guys. That's the basic premise but they gamemakers have built a lot of high-brow concepts and sophisticated gameplay systems around it. So you can power up your sword and do things with it that you couldn't do initially.
Both SEGA Superstar Tennis and Devil May Cry come from Japanese game companies. One has a weird art style, the other has a "cool" art style but they both rely heavily on the player's imagination and fantasy ... we're a long way from Madden with this stuff now.
Major League Gaming's 08 lineup
I interviewed a group of Olympic athletes last week and every single one of them in our unofficial survey agreed that pro gaming is a sport, so that's the ultimate endorsement. But today, I'm happy to announce the 2008 MLG Pro Circuit schedule, hopefully coming to a town near you.
The 2008 MLG Pro Circuit schedule includes the following stops:
April 11-13 in Meadowlands, NJ
June 13-15 in San Diego, CA
July 11-13 in Orlando, FL
August 22-24 in Toronto, Ontario (Canada)
October 3-5 in Dallas, TX
The season will conclude with an Invitational Championship Tournament, with timing and location to be announced on www.mlgpro.com in the coming weeks.
These are the dates and locations where you can check out the very best players as they do battle in Halo 3, Gears of War and, when it comes out, Rainbow Six Vegas 2. Very exciting stuff. As gaming goes forward, the MLG players have to learn new games, adapt their skills and strategy from one game to the next so you may see some fresh faces or the same dominant teams running things in MLG this year. Gilbert Arenas' team, Final Boss is the reigning champ. You can go to espnvideogames.com to get all of the details on the pro circuit events and to check out some of the pro tips and strategies so that you can enter and win a spot on a professional Major League Gaming team. There's also a chat today (Feb 12) with some of the folks from MLG on ESPN's SportsNation at 3PM Eastern, so check that out.
Posted: February 6, 2008
That's a wrap on Madden 08
The Madden Bowl wraps up the "season" for EA's powerhouse football franchise. Now that NFL players and assorted celebrities and hangers-on have celebrated the magic that is Madden NFL 08 for the last time our focus might finally turn to Madden NFL 09 or even MLB 2K8, Sony's MLB the Show or even a neglected college basketball-themed video game. But before we do that Madden must be sent off with a few final thoughts:
Willis McGahee's victory in Madden Bowl 14 was a product of legitimate gamer skill and what we'll call "party attrition." See the Ravens running back had command of the playbook and converted on lots of turnovers in dismantling Buffalo's Marshawn Lynch in the finals, but the 43-7 thrashing wasn't as emotional and dramatic as you'd expect. The bright lights and bass-heavy beats flooding the Madden Bowl venue in Scottsdale, Ariz. had all the competitors itching to get out and get into something more festive.
By knocking off big talkers like Chad Johnson and earnest students of the game like Patrick Willis , Lynch and McGahee ended up playing all three games of the eight man tournament. "Losers" like Kellen Winslow and Laurence Maroney lost and disappeared into the nightlife at Martini Ranch and beyond. By the time McGahee and his replacement in Buffalo's backfield squared off, half of ESPN's on-air and production folks were dominating the party, a pack of stargazing party girls had planted their ample rears on the main gaming stage and the whole place was buzzing off of every kind of hooch, rotgut and cocktail imaginable.
After scoring early Lynch was under pressure to close the 22-7 deficit in the third quarter just to have a chance at a comeback victory in the fourth quarter. Instead three quick McGahee touchdowns, fueled by incompletions and turnovers blew the game wide open. Lynch shook his dreads and jetted immediately while McGahee worked his way through every post-victory interview like he had just become a victim of his success. And soon he too was gone with that giant trophy in his hands.
With the pesky tournament complete the remaining Madden Bowl party-goers got to rub elbows and toast to the good life with Donovan McNabb, Mario Williams, Reggie Wayne, Tony Gonzalez, Alex Smith, Dennis Rodman (Dennis Rodman!?!?) Joe Thomas, Dwayne Bowe, Matt Leinart and a whole bunch of other players that I didn't get a chance to see with my own eyes because they were camped out in dark corners of the party or surrounded by hero-worshippers and/or skirts. I'm going to include Joe Montana in the latter group because word is he was there and I don't see how I could miss somebody carrying four Super Bowl rings.
The Madden Bowl brings out an element that could care less about video games but in many ways it serves as the event that comes closest to making gaming cool. Pro gaming leagues, console makers like Microsoft and Sony and even other publishers like 2K Sports have got in the habit of trying to make their game-playing events as cool as Madden Bowl ... and have failed miserably. This is partly because Madden Bowl has been around for years and has built itself into the main Thursday night party of Super Bowl week and partly because of the power of the Madden brand itself. You're just not going to get the same star power from a Nintendo Wii Sports event because it doesn't transcend the world of video games to bring out giggling girls in miniskirts ... a crucial part of any complete nutritious party.
If the Super Bowl is my signal to start paying attention to the pro and college basketball seasons then Madden Bowl is my reminder to get excited about the spring lineup of games. In years past, this time of year was dry for quality titles since every gamemaker likes to focus on the last three months of the year for their big guns. But the baseball games are on the way, NBA Ballers: The Chosen One is coming and the irresistible sport of boxing is hitting consoles with Don King's Prizefighter and Facebreaker from EA are arriving some time before the end of the summer….we hope. Or we'll just start cranking up the Madden hype machine this spring.
Look for coverage on all of those games on ESPN2's First Take, ESPNEWS' The Hot List and ESPN.com's Game Up. If you can't wait, then email us at email@example.com or text message us at 79710 and tell us why you're so impatient, how you think the New York Giants are going to do next year or anything else that pops into your head.