The landscape of sports gaming has changed dramatically over the last decade, with a reduction in the number of games produced, evolution of distribution and a shift in newly prioritized features to maximize the revenue they generate.
While there is legitimate reason to be frustrated by the evolution of the genre, there is no question the games that do remain are generally of high quality: Expansive feature sets that allow them to be played in a number of different ways, partnerships with leagues that provide incredible authenticity and technological advancements have taken gameplay and graphics to a whole new level.
With the decade coming to a close, the best of the best in the sports gaming genre deserved to be recognized. Some games that fall just outside of the top five include “NBA 2K11,” which would have made the cut if the list included multiple titles from a single franchise. It was the release that launched 2K to a stratosphere previously unimaginable.
“Madden NFL 17” was easily the best Madden of the decade in a series has been aggressively mediocre. “Super Mega Baseball 2” stands out as the best arcade-style game, and yet many elements were more realistic than its sim counterparts. Any number of entries from the “Out of the Park Baseball” series could also have made it as the best of the sim-management games as well.
With that, a look at the top five sports video games from the 2010s:
5: ‘MLB 13: The Show’
Almost any iteration of “MLB: The Show” from the decade could be considered among the best sports video games of the decade. The series has been the most consistent in the genre for both its strengths and its weaknesses.
‘MLB 13’ and its release late in the PS3 run gets the nod because it was the first one to pull everything together as a complete product by finally achieving a decent online play experience. Ironically, online regressed in ‘MLB 14’ before recovering in following years. The only real areas of disappointment with ‘MLB 13’ related to its dated commentary, along with a Diamond Dynasty team-building mode that hadn’t evolved yet to what would soon become the best of its kind in the genre.
With a complete and fully functional feature set and a gameplay adjustment that opened up the timing window at the plate — making hitting more realistic and enjoyable — “MLB 13: The Show” earns a spot in the best of the decade as a representative for the reliable franchise.
4: ‘NCAA Football 14’
With at least a few more years before its possible return, the “NCAA Football” franchise still remains on the minds of many because of how great the final entry in the series was.
Anyone who revisits “NCAA Football 14” is struck by how well it has held up, six years after it first published and landed in the previous generation of consoles. The level of detail and authenticity put into gameplay and the surrounding college-specific experience is striking.
The game wasn’t perfect, however, and nostalgia has caused some of its flaws to have been forgotten. The Road to Glory career mode went untouched from the previous year, the commentary was stale, a number of uniforms and stadium upgrades were missing and seemingly only one penalty (clipping) was ever called.
Despite that, it remains fondly remembered for its rich Dynasty Mode, a surprisingly good Ultimate Team — its first attempt at it — exceedingly fun gameplay and a long overdue fix to sluggish menu navigation and slow loading times. That removed a level of frustration that had built up over the years.
Many will cite “NCAA Football 14” as the best sports game of the decade, though that’s due in part to the fact it was the last licensed college sports game to release. And while it’s certainly a great game, it’s unlikely it would be quite as revered today had it been followed up by “NCAA Football 15.”
3: ‘2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa’
Until recently, EA Sports would release standalone games for the World Cup. The release every four years would come in between the annual FIFA game releases. They benefited from improvements for that coming FIFA game and were more approachable for those who weren’t as dedicated to soccer fandom.
Right around 2010 is when the FIFA series exploded to become a global phenomenon. It would not only consistently become the highest-selling video game in the world, but also take its place among the top 10 in North America. Some of the credit has to be given to “2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa” — a game so fun that it turned many into soccer gaming fans who would later transition to the mainline FIFA franchise.
“World Cup” was a lot more appealing for those with even just a fleeting interest in the sport or the worldwide event. The games were more free-flowing, the characters on the pitch more skilled, making it easier to have fun while learning as a novice. Beyond that, it was the atmosphere and emotion that elevated every moment. Even the vuvuzelas — love them or hate them — were there.
Still, the game unfortunately lacked Online Team Play and experienced some framerate issues during cutscenes. Very little else could be cited as problematic. A new online mode called World League Ladder was introduced, which influenced similar online modes in other sports games in the years that followed.
“2010 FIFA World Cup” is one of the select few sports video games from the decade that was fun and rewarding to play, even while on the losing end. That helped turn many into soccer gaming fans for life.
2: ‘Rocket League’
“Rocket League” came out of nowhere in 2015, and is as relevant now — if not more — than it was upon release. The hybrid racing/soccer game was incredibly well designed and has received unprecedented support in the years since its release.
“Rocket League” initially was given away as a free download to PlayStation Plus subscribers, a brilliant move that got the game in the hands of consumers who might not have given it a chance otherwise. Since then, it has grown to more than 60 million players, making it by far the most played sports game of the decade. It also has the biggest presence in the world of esports.
Rocket League is easy to just pick up and play, but has remarkable depth that allowed for a natural skill gap to emerge. Several different variants can completely change players’ approach to the game, from the standard 3v3 to more challenging 1v1 or 2v2. The online experience is excellent, even when teamed up with — and facing off against — random players.
The post-release support has been unmatched in the genre as well, with DLCs being limited to cosmetic items rather than pay-for-play advantages. New cars (including licensed tie-ins like Fast and Furious and Back to the Future) and other variants, like basketball and hockey modes, have kept the game feeling fresh.
Credit should also be given to “Rocket League” for helping cross-platform play become possible late in the current generation. The push to allow online players from all consoles and PC to play together led to Microsoft and Sony opening up to crossplay as well.
The fusion of soccer and cars wasn’t one many thought would be a hit when it was initially released in 2015. Yet here, as the decade comes to a close, Rocket League will be looked back on as one of the best and most influential video games of the decade.
1: ‘NBA 2K16’
The most impressive sports video game ever assembled, “NBA 2K16” is remarkable for the sheer amount of content provided alongside excellent gameplay and presentation. It is the best the genre had to offer this decade.
In a time when most sports franchises began to neglect Franchise Mode, “2K16” featured two of them with their own unique spins in MyLeague (which also went online for the first time) and MyGM. The story mode included games from high school games through college, with 10 licensed teams. Team relocation was added along with an impressive uniform and arena creation features.
This was a year in which the developers faced a challenge of how to represent Steph Curry, who was doing things in real life that had never been possible in the games — and could have potentially broken them. Casually knocking down nearly half-court shots and a high rate of success on heavily contested attempts was something they needed to account for when it became the norm for Curry. In the game, he saw his range extended and his Overall Rating reach a height that trailed only peak Michael Jordan.
Indeed, this was the year with the awful story for what amounted to a “movie” from Spike Lee — but the production values were phenomenal. While microtransactions were a factor, they didn’t have quite the same detrimental presence as they do now. Online servers were relatively stable, which was an improvement for the series.
“NBA 2K11,” “2K12” and “2K19” could also have found themselves in this spot, but they had more glaring flaws in the form of unstable online or harmful monetization tactics than “2K16,” which not only refined its best-in-class gameplay and presentation but also added a number of big additions that actually worked right out of the gate.
The ambition and effort that went into the product was, and still is, unmatched within the sports video game. “NBA 2K16” is an all-time great sports game, and nothing since its release has come even close to matching it.
Bryan Wiedey posts sports gaming news and analysis daily at Pastapadre.com, is co-founder of the sports gaming site HitThePass.com, hosts the “Press Row Podcast” and can be reached on Twitter @Pastapadre.