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The 10 Groundbreaking Sports Video Games Of All Time

In 2007 ESPN birthed it’s 30 for 30 documentary series celebrating the network’s “30th birthday.” As much as a 30 for 30-inspired nostalgia trip for the best sports video games would be fitting, it’s doubtful you have enough time for that, so a more conventional approach is necessary.

What makes the best sports video games stand out?

There are so many ways to approach an “all-time” list for sports video games, as much as it’s hard to define what makes a game great. Is it sales, longevity, technical specs? Do you just conduct a popularity poll?

As games age, what once made them great may not translate well into the technological standards of today, so the best way to measure greatness will be to take them within the context of their time, with the added benefit of being able to measure their future influence.

Just as records are broken in real sports, certain benchmarks will be surpassed, but that doesn’t take away from the impact.

So here’s a take on the best sports video games of all time, in no particular order:

NBA JAM

NBA Jam somersault-dunked its way onto the Genesis and SNES consoles in ’93 as one of the first NBA licensed basketball games.

Known for it’s fast-paced yet accessible 2-on-2 action, the arcade-port will always be fondly remembered for gravity-defying dunks and unforgettable phrases – “He’s on fire!” – that would be referenced in future basketball titles.

The later NBA Street game franchise would take heavy influence from this successful formula and arguably perfect it, and so deserves mention here as well.

The fact that players got to engage in this ridiculously fun action as all the real-life NBA stars at the time helped cement its all-time best status.

Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2

It was hard not to put THPS 1 in this spot, but the sequel was such an incredible improvement on the original, that it arguably still stands to this day as the definitive game of the series.

While the first game introduced one of the most intuitive control schemes to the genre, it also gave increased exposure to the top skaters of the time, and set it all to well-curated soundtrack.

With THPS 2, fans of the series got overhauled graphics, more tricks, and a great create-a-skater and park editor systems, again set to a killer soundtrack. It’s no wonder all subsequent sequels would struggle to have the impact this one did.

NHL 94

Just like Madden is to football, it’s hard to pick a title out of the definitive hockey video game series. Unlike Madden there wasn’t as much competition/predecessors to look at for influence.

So why put ’94 on the list? Besides being possibly the most well received and reviewed installment, it was also the year they introduced shooting one timers, record saving, and overhauled the controls to something much closer to what gamers enjoy today.

MLB 09: The Show

It’s hard to make a baseball game stand out from the others. With how the sport is played, there isn’t too much variety you can do with pitching and batting mechanics.

What you can do though is refine the staples of the genre into near-perfection.

It also doesn’t hurt that the “Road to the Show” is one of the best career/superstar modes in any sports game. Period.

NFL 2k1

The football series that never was, and the reason Madden is ubiquitous when it comes to the best sports video games.

Rather than take on the difficult task of deciding which year of Madden goes on this list, it might be better to highlight the football games it eventually beat out, but not without learning a few key lessons.

So while Madden 2001 may have been graphically impressive for its time, 2k1 boasted better gameplay and was a pioneer of a now-essential feature in most games: online play.

NFL Blitz

Moving on to other football games that would eventually get lost in Madden’s shadow, you have NFL Blitz.

Sure, the arcade port was probably better known for its simplistic controls, creative liberties with realism, and ostentatious player celebrations more than being a top-notch football sim, but think about it for a second.

Madden couldn’t be where it is today if it didn’t have this ridiculously fun arcade game constantly reminding competitors that the backbone of any successful game is it being fun to play.

Tecmo Super Bowl

Ah yes, the football game that started it all.

Offensive and defensive play calling. Real-life players. Bo Jackson.

Bo. Jackson. The man was unbeatable. The subject of many house-rules in the day, picking the Raiders would almost always raise the ire of your friends…

…but running from one end of the field to the other untouched is such a good feeling. Perhaps this single-player domination is what inspired Madden to pick a player each year to grace the cover of the game?

FIFA 10

If your friends don’t play Madden, the probably play FIFA. The soccer series has slowly made its way into the best sports video games pantheon, but the tenth installation deserves special attention.

Not only are the AI and gameplay improvements considered the best in the franchise, but FIFA 10 pioneered online team and Ultimate Team game modes, a feature that was adopted by Madden and still influences sports games to this day.

Wii Sports

What does it take to become a great athlete?

In the real world, it might involve attending a sports academy and devoting a lot of time to honing the craft. Just look at this site to get an idea.

Conversely, to become a great virtual athlete, it involves spending a lot of time playing in order to master the game.

Wii Sports simply combined both ideas into a relatively short experience that is engaging, competitive, and involves something more than just sitting in front of a screen controller in hand.

Even ten years down the road, Wii Sports still holds up well, a testament to how groundbreaking it was.

Punch-Out!!!

We said that this would be in no particular order, but it would only be fitting to conclude the list with the title that tops so many other best sports video game lists, and even all-time lists.

Little Mac’s rise to boxing legend is a timeless arcade experience that is punctuated by intuitive controls and an unforgettable 8-bit score.

While it may not be a true sports sim, it fully embodies a complete picture of what any sports-inspired video game should be, and with millions of copies sold here should be no arguing its legacy.

The Bottom Line

Greatness is truly in the eye of the beholder, but true gaming greatness? Well, according to the people at Leviathyn, you might have to call up some of your friends to find out!



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