I don’t like to boast but, in my time, I’ve scored a goal in the World Cup Final, got a hole-in-one at St Andrews and beat Roger Federer on a grass court. That’s because, in the virtual world, it doesn’t matter if you have two left feet, so long as your thumbs are in tip-top condition.
Sports computer games have been around pretty much since the beginning of the medium and even though real-world sport completely passes me by, I’ve played a surprising amount of it from my sofa.
The first video game I ever played was a cricket simulator, its code lovingly typed from a computer magazine into my older brother’s ZX Spectrum.
The gameplay was not thrilling: after spending what seemed like an age debating where to put your fielders — what if I went crazy and just played everyone in the slips? — you got to the match.
The bowler did his run-up, the ball-pixel whistled across the green-and-white screen and then the moment of truth came . . . “Run (Y/N)?” Edge-of-the-seat stuff.
In the early days of home computing, developers had a crack at making titles around some unlikely sports. World Games on the Commodore 64 allowed you to prove yourself at log-rolling and sumo wrestling (sadly not at the same time), while an entire generation ruined their wrists through the frantic waggling of the joystick required to triumph in Daley Thompson’s Decathalon. (To this day, my house mate James claims to have invented a new and better way of playing this. He is unwilling to reveal his secret, save that it involved a sock.)
Daley’s success kicked off a lucrative trend for popular sportsmen — and, occasionally, women — to lend their names to games. There was Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! (yes, with two exclamation marks) on the Nintendo, from the pre-ear-chomp era; it featured some pretty brisk racial stereotyping, although at least the Russian boxer called “Vodka Drunkenski” earlier in the Punch Out!! series had been changed to “Soda Popinski”. He still did a Cossack dance, though. And sparred alongside a Spaniard called Don Flamenco and a German called Von Kaiser.
There was more innocent fun to be had in Graham Gooch’s Cricket, which was followed by Brian Lara Cricket; while the modern era has Tiger Woods PGA Tour, released every year since 1998 with the grim inevitability of a tax return. You might ask if golf changes drastically enough in 12 months to justify EA trying to charge you £49.99 for an updated version. But that’s why you’ll never succeed as a games publisher — because they sell extremely well, even since Tiger’s unfortunate stumble in the rough. The latest version boasts a “sumptuous and flexible” control scheme, so there’s that.
Champing at the bit
The most popular sport in video-game land, unsurprisingly, is football. And what is the best football game? The popular vote right now would go to Fifa, another EA mega-brand, which has overtaken Pro Evolution Soccer to sit on top of the charts like . . . well, Arsenal? (Or was it the other lot?)
Most gamers over 25, meanwhile, will have a special place in their heart for 1994’s Sensible Soccer — “Sensi” — which was so good that it was placed in a canon of ten games worth preserving for posterity at Stanford University.
I’ve dabbled in both of these but they were a bit too footbally for my liking. My choice would be the magnificently epic Championship Manager series.
If you love statistics, you’ll love “Champ Man”, which puts you in charge of a team of low-grade layabouts and challenges you to skilfully navigate the transfer market to craft them into a world-beating force.
I discovered it during my final year at university, and — given that the alternative to guiding Ibrahima Bakayoko and team-mates to European glory was translating Piers Plowman — it might be that I can’t make an objective assessment. But I have to tell you, in the closing seconds of the final, when the screen flashed “GOAL!”, there was a moment when I thought: oh, this sport thing. This is what everyone sees in it.