Back in March, whilst staring down the barrel of the state-sanctioned lockdown with no sport, I purchased a Nintendo Switch. Bearing in mind that I hadn’t owned a new games console in almost 20 years – switching on the Switch was somewhat of a sensory overload, in terms of how much the gameplay has advanced. But something else had advanced, too… THERE. WERE. WOMEN!
I remember vividly the first time I played my cousin’s Nintendo GameBoy, in the early 90s. I’d never experienced anything like it – it seemed so technologically advanced at the time, in all its 8-bit monotone glory. Another cousin unveiled a sleek Sega Mega Drive soon after, and I got to play that too. It was so exciting – 16-bit, full colour, plugged into the TV, with an actual controller to hold in your hand. Sonic the Hedgehog and Altered Beast were the games on offer. Around that same time, a neighbour of mine had gotten a Super Nintendo, which I also got to play with regularly -another new 16-bit world opened up with Super Mario and Donkey Kong, to name but a few.
I was very lucky that soon afterwards, Santa brought me a games console to call my own as a very special treat for Christmas in 1994. A Sega Mega Drive II, with two controllers so I could play with my sister or a friend, and a compilation cartridge called Mega Games 2 which featured Golden Axe, Streets of Rage and Shinobi. I loved it so much. I completed all three of those games. Memory cards didn’t exist at that time to save your progress – you quite simply played it until you were called for your dinner, or sent to bed. The ol’ trick of leaving the console running with the game on ‘pause’ with the TV turned off was a firm favourite – although not such a winner with the bill-payers.
The next Christmas, I asked Santa for some sports games to play on my Sega Mega Drive. I was 10 years old at the time, and had started to get very into football, playing daily with the three lads on my road that I was best pals with. All of my pocket-money went on football magazines and stickers, Match of the Day was taped on VHS and re-watched religiously, and I had gotten my first Manchester United jersey for my birthday. I had also developed a strong interest in Formula One racing – thanks to it being readily available to watch in full on free-to-air TV with RTÉ Sport at the time, something which seems incomprehensible now. So, the next step was to bring these two passions onto the games console – with FIFA International Soccer ‘95, and Super Monaco GP. In spite of the terrible graphics, clunky gameplay, and lack of official licensing rights meaning fake names were used – I was enthralled, and the non-sport cartridges were left to gather dust. You never forget your first “EA SPORTS… IT’S IN THE GAME.”
Sometimes, myself & my neighbour would trade games consoles for a weekend – his Super Nintendo for my Sega Mega Drive. Whilst he took over my beloved football and racing games, it meant that I got my hands on his ice-hockey and basketball ones – NHL ‘94, and NBA Jam. This was my first ever exposure to American sports – and I was hooked immediately.
Gaming magazines were all the rage for a pocket money treat at the time, too – and we read rumblings of a futuristic new console in the works, the Sony Playstation. I’ll never forget the first time I played one, in my friend’s bedroom. CDs instead of antiquated cartridges; 32-bit graphics that seemed so real; and the super-slick design of the console and controllers. FIFA ‘97 was our inaugural game, with Newcastle’s David Ginola on the cover of the box – and it featured real teams & players from leagues around the world.
When I got my own Sony Playstation, I had FIFA ‘99 to play on it. Denis Bergkamp was on the cover, all summer transfers and new season jersey updates were incorporated into the game, and matches had proper commentary from John Motson – which for a l’il sports-nerd teenager like me was very important. F1 2000 was another firm favourite, as were the NBA Live games – and I had a handy temporary trade system in place with a pal, exchanging those basketball games for his NFL Madden ones on occasion. Cool Boarders opened my eyes to the world of winter sports, and Tony Hawks Pro-Skater turned me into a skateboarding nut.
Myself and gaming parted ways in secondary school. The consoles were packed away with studies to do, sports to play, and new friends to get up to mischief with. Gaming evolved through different consoles and eras, and it all completely passed me by… until recently.
Back in March, whilst staring down the barrel of the state-sanctioned lockdown, myself & my wife decided to purchase a Nintendo Switch. Clearly, a lot of households had the same bright idea as it was actually April by the time we got our hands on one – a rare commodity of Covid times, it seemed. When it came to picking games, Mario Kart was the common consensus for craic, and then we went our separate ways – her with Super Mario and Animal Crossing; me with FIFA20 and NBA 2K20. I figured with there being zero live action ongoing and nothing but downtime on my hands, playing some sports games would be a welcome distraction.
Bearing in mind that I hadn’t owned a new games console in almost 20 years – switching on the Switch was somewhat of a sensory overload, in terms of how much the gameplay has advanced. But something else had advanced, too… THERE. WERE. WOMEN!
FIFA20 was first up to try for me, an exhibition match with reigning World Champions USA – my favourite players Tobin Heath, Crystal Dunn and Julie Ertz running riot around the virtual pitch, looking like their real-life selves. It was almost too easy to play as the best team in the game, though – so I set about winning a major title with perennial underachievers, France. I was disappointed to find that there are no ‘official’ international tournaments for the women’s side of the game, just a single standard un-named tournament structure. There are no club teams or leagues, either. Considering women’s football has been included by EA Sports in FIFA games since 2016, this was disappointing. The in-game match commentary also leaves a lot to be desired – some rather questionable lines crop up throughout. Nevertheless – it was still such a thrill to be able to play with women’s teams. I led France to the promised land, defeating top-ranked USA in the final – and Amandine Henry lifted the Unlicensed World Trophy.
Onto NBA2K20, with my expectations suitably managed by its footballing counterpart. Women made their first appearance in basketball video game form back in 2017, on the rival NBA Live 2018 from EA Sports – but only with a WNBA exhibition match mode. 2K Sports took the plunge in 2019 with the release of NBA2K20. Going far beyond the tokenism of an exhibition match feature – the MyLeague mode allows you to play out an entire WNBA season with your team of choice. The gameplay is slick, with accurate play-by-play commentary; and the in-game management around team selection and tactics is a lot of fun. Currently, my Seattle Storm squad are blazing a trail through the regular season – and I’m hopeful that IF I can keep Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird fit, we can go all the way.
From once again owning a games console, I’ve come to a realisation – SO much of my sporting knowledge base comes from playing video games as a kid. From player names, to kit colours, to home stadiums; from rules of sports, to tactical approaches, to technical terms. I knew intricate details about basketball, ice-hockey, American football, snowboarding and skateboarding in spite of never having actually seen any of them live on TV at the time. Yet, throughout all of that exposure to sports in my game-playing youth, the only female athlete I ever saw in video game form was Elissa Steamer, as part of the Tony Hawks Pro Skater roster on my Playstation. Interestingly, Steamer has stated that her biggest pay-checks during her pro skateboarding career came via video game royalties… there’s not many female athletes who could claim that.
Whilst it’s an important advancement to now have women’s teams featured in high-profile sports video games, it’s not enough just to have them there to make up the numbers – the devil is in the detail, a point on which Lindsay Gibbs expertly took the NBA to task on in a recent edition of her brilliant Power Plays newsletter. I’m far from what you’d call a “gamer” – yet even with my basic knowledge, I can see how big the gap is even from minimal exposure to these 2020 editions of the major football and basketball games.
I have frequently made the point that I find it mind-numbingly stupid to compare women’s sports with men’s sports – it’s a truly pointless exercise which goes against the very nature of competition, considering how much of an astronomical head-start that one has had over the other. This topic, yet again, serves to prove that very point. Think of all of those years that male athletes have had the monopoly on sports fans with games consoles. Once again, there is no contest. Even now, as the 12 WNBA teams prepare to descend upon Florida for their centralised 2020 season in the coming weeks – I’m more familiar than ever with the key players and positions, solely through playing occasional basketball matches on the Nintendo Switch. Visibility matters, across all mediums.
Of course, running around outside and playing actual sport is the priority for young people, as their worlds become increasingly dominated by screens. But – isn’t it exciting to think that there’s 10 year old girls who are passionate about combining their love of sport with their hobby of gaming, just like I was, who are now seeing the athletes that they could grow up to be through the realm of video games…