Sports games have long been the dominion of triple-A developers.  Big name sports sims like NBA 2K, Madden, and MLB The Show churn out new iterations of their franchise each year, raking in big money for their respective publishers while delivering refined products which generally replicate the familiar controls of the franchise.  While indie studios have proven they’re capable of making many different games, the world of sports has largely been ignored.  But there are undiscovered gems in the world of indie game sports titles, both in sports which already exist and games which offer something outside of the traditional experience.  Here are the best of the best and some honorable mentions.

 

Blood Bowl

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Blood Bowl is often compared to American football. Even the developers – Cyanide Studios – make the comparison in their own description of the game.  There are plenty of reasons this comparison holds true: both games force offenses to choose between an aggressive, blocking-based running game or a deep-ball passing game; blitz and blocking schemes are employed by their respective sides of the ball; both are games which require a mix of players who dominate through strength and other who specialize in speed and agility.  Blood Bowl is most similar to college football or the old days of the NFL when passing attacks were less complex and the running game was far more important.

However, the differences between Blood Bowl and football are equally essential in making the game special.  Blood Bowl is a faster game, usually ending with lower scores and fewer touchdowns.  These low scores aren’t because it’s more difficult to reach the endzone, but because there are fewer possessions, making each chance you touch the ball that much more important.  The tackling of an opposing player means they must give up the ball, leading to exciting changes of possession.  Blood Bowl is made up of the most thrilling moments in American football, the break away running play. the deep ball touchdown, or the defensive take away returned for a touchdown.  On top of this, the game also reduces the twenty game season to a handful of tournaments that can be completed in six games.  The NFL has become successful by being a game of high intensity, putting a premium on every game and every play.  Blood Bowl takes this one step further.

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Then you add the fantasy elements of Blood Bowl.  As a made up sport, Blood Bowl is capable of giving players something they have never seen before.  It returns us to that childhood mentality of trying to learn a game.  Not only are we trying to comprehend the Xs and Os, but we’re also learning about the different kinds of people who play the game.  From elves to Orcs to the undead, Blood Bowl has a sense of internationality and history that American football doesn’t, and may never have.  Even though the game doesn’t come with a digital compendium, you feel like somewhere out there exists a dusty tome filled with a rich history which dates back thousands of years chronicling championship teams and legendary players.  It takes the history of games like baseball or European football and lends it to a sport (American football) which so often lacks a sense of lore.

 

Super Mega Baseball

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It might not be fair to say the arcade sports game was dead before Super Mega Baseball came around last year, but the genre was certainly in a bad way.  The sim had come to dominate the sports world and with that domination came license deals and authenticity, which took the fun out of sports.  The games became more about replication than creativity.  There’s a train of thought that capturing the true essence of baseball is the same as capturing the true essence of the MLB, but that isn’t true.

From the cozy minor league stadiums in mid-sized American cities, to the dusty little-league diamonds sprinkled through even the smallest of towns, baseball is played without front office management, performance enhancing drugs, and the other elements which plague the biggest stage of the American pastime. Super Mega Baseball feels like one of these places.

Super Mega Baseball doesn’t just try to emulate the major league game with big stadiums and flashy player upgrades, it also seeks to find the little ways baseball is special.  Its stadiums represent the different locales the game is played, from sunny parks with palm trees to Japanese influenced stadiums with cherry blossoms.  It doesn’t discriminate  based on gender; it allows players to put the women right next to the men on the baseball diamond.  It gives players wonderfully eccentric names for their teams like the Platypi or the Sirloins.

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Super Mega Baseball isn’t all about customizing your league and players, it also boasts an amazing in-game experience.  Super Mega Baseball controls very similarly to other baseball video games. Pitching is all about matching your target and hitting is all about timing.  Other factors of course come into play, like attributes assigned during creation and players’ mojo meters which manages whether they are on a hot or cold streak.

Where the game differs from others is in its fielding and running animations.  Large, top-heavy players waddle around the field and the base paths, making routine major league plays more difficult.  Even on a hit-and-run, it might still be possible to throw a player out at second base.  Trying to get to a ball hit into the gap is quite difficult.

Luckily, Super Mega Baseball moves itself along quickly.  You can speed through a game in less than a half hour since Super Mega Baseball is uninterested in creating the illusion of television presentation.  The game also has smaller rosters and forces you to spend less time in the managerial interface.  For those less concerned with the franchises of the MLB and more excited about the idea of baseball, this game is for you.

 

Freestyle 2: Street Ball

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Street basketball is the lifeblood of the sport.  While millions may tune in to watch the NBA playoffs every year, the game truly lives on the slabs of concrete in cities throughout the world.  In these caged courts there are no fouls, there’s no substitutions, there’s no price for admission.  At New York City’s Rucker Park, the greatest stage for street basketball, NBA players like Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant come to prove their skills and live in blacktop infamy.  Street ball is a world where hip hop artists like Fat Joe and Jay-Z fueled a rivalry as they attempted to put together the greatest all-star game never seen.

Developed by the Korean Studio Joy City, it’s hard to know how much the team knew about street basketball and it’s importance in urban America.  Whether they shot in the dark or did their research, Freestyle 2: Street Basketball is a fascinating exploration of the street basketball culture brought to life through the lens of a foreign creator.

There is a single-player version of Freestyle 2, but in these online 3-on-3 matches you are only ever able to control a single character for the duration of the game.  Players can choose whatever role they want, deck themselves out in the most glamorous or ridiculous items they can find, then hit the court to take each other on.

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It’s probably smart to start off playing with two AI teammates while you get a handle on Freestyle 2, because it’s a game all about teamwork and when you don’t play as a team it’s difficult to win.  Players must know their role in the offense.  Point guards must pass the ball and try to set up scoring opportunities, shooting guards must be able to create their own shots, big guys better get some rebounds and blocked shots.

The importance of playing as a team in Street Basketball means communication is key.  If a team isn’t  on the same page, it’s bound to yield poor results.  If you want to learn about the importance of playing basketball as a team and feel the reward of solid cooperative play, nothing is better than Freestyle 2.

 

Honorable Mentions

OlliOlli

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OlliOlli and it’s sequel OlliOlli 2: Welcome to Olliwood have quickly cultivated a fanbase of people who love the game’s difficult 2D skateboarding.  While the Tony Hawk series (for better or worse) attempts to resurrect itself this year, OlliOlli is providing a different kind of arcade skateboard experience, pushing players to try its insane courses over and over again until you can come away with that perfect run.

 

Tennis Elbow 2013

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Believe it or not, the most in-depth tennis simulation is actually an indie game from Mana Games.  Tennis Elbow 2013 has players create their own tennis legend and start them out in the rookie tournaments, working their way up through the ranks until they can compete in the Grand Slams.  The game features many ATP tennis professionals and boasts hundreds of tournaments with their official entry qualifications and championship purses.  For those who feel like the sport of tennis has been neglected, Tennis Elbow is the simulation game you’ve been dreaming of.

Snow

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It’s been awhile since we’ve seen a winter extreme sports game take itself seriously, but the developers at Poppermost Productions are hard at work on a game that should make 1080 Snowboarding fans pretty excited.  With multiple open maps for players to explore, Snow is less about the intensity of the single run and more about the quiet solitude of a lonely mountain filled with jumps and rails for your enjoyment.  Currently the game is in Early Access and only features single-player skiing exploration.  However, snowboarding and multiplayer are planned future features.

 

Total Extreme Wrestling 2010

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The spectacle of wrestling may be what captures fans of the sport in the moment, but any wrestling fan will tell you that they know the violence of the sport is largely faked for their enjoyment.  The real reason wrestling fans tune into the weekly shows and the monthly pay-per-views isn’t for the physical competition, but for the story lines which transpire between the over-the-top characters.  Total Extreme Wrestling 2010 puts you in the driver’s seat of those storylines.  You can create your own league, roster, stables, events, and storylines. Create a heel who steals the title from a fan favorite only to lose it to your big up-and-coming star, and build a legacy that keeps fans tuning in year after year as you take your business from a local attraction to national news.

 

Sports are more than professional stars and big business.  They are about larger-than-life personalities and super-human feats, they are goofy logos and childhood memories, they are about coming together as a team and succeeding for others as much as yourself.  The games on this list reminded me of that.  It’s what makes them – and sports – special.