Sports games have been a staple of the video game industry since the birth of the home console. From Tecmo Bowl to Madden, the scale of sports games has undergone a massive change and requires very large teams to develop each iteration year after year. Gamers have come to expect their favorite sports stars and teams to look and behave exactly like their real life counterparts thanks to the power of the current generation consoles. This level of detail takes tons of resources and time, but one thing that never changes is the year time frame the game needs to be completed in. By the start of each sports season, developers need to wrap up their changes and get the game on store shelves to meet important deadlines and cash in on the excitement. Because of the unique timeframe constraints, sports game studios usually run a bit differently when compared with your average console developers that get 2 to 3 years to finish a game.
Sports developers on established franchises like Madden and the NBA 2K series usually have the luxury of reusing a good percentage of the previous game which is a big time saver. Imagine if all 400+ players in the NBA needed a new model, animations, sounds, and AI. Within a year timeframe that’s practically impossible to pull off at a high polished level. It’s also the reason we do not see a lot of competition as established franchises keep building on top of what they’ve already have. Any competition would need to put in a significant investment to just catch up to the quality of these AAA franchises.
Each component of the game takes lots of manpower to complete within a year. Studios usually average upwards of 150+ developers who can range from artists, producers, programmers, animators, etc. Developers are broken up into smaller teams that concentrate on each component through most of the development cycle. A producer is usually in charge of each team to keep them on track to finish each component. The producer will usually manage the team’s schedule, set up meetings, and create the design documentation. When talking about the game designers on a sports game, the producer usually covers that role.
Gameplay producers will focus on the controls and artificial intelligence of the game. Gamers come to expect a noticeable upgrade in every aspect of the gameplay that is not already at a high level of polish to the real life sport. Gameplay producers must figure out what is the best bang for the buck within the year timeframe and implement them without breaking the already solid aspects of gameplay. In a game like NBA 2K, gamers will complain about more systems than the developer can usually handle in a year. Aspects like having little control over the post game, not having inbound plays, or poorly run fast breaks can be major issues the designer must prioritize and figure out a game plan to fix.
The AI is a must update as the attributes of the real life athletes change year to year. Sports games can have quite a handful of attributes for each player ranging from speed, jumping, and offensive/defensive attributes so they act just as they do in real life. Physical stats and abilities can also change. In recent years each player’s signature moves have become an important component of the realism, but one of the most time consuming to get right. No studio currently can get every player in a motion capture suit to capture all their signature moves so lots of shortcuts are made to get in as much as possible.
Most animations are motion captured for obvious reasons. Since sports games have only human characters, motion capture offers the most realistic representation of each player. Because of this, sports developers usually have a fully staffed on-site motion capture studio and a small team of animators, while other developers outsource their motion capture needs. One of the big pros to sports game development is the superstar athletes come in to capture their own moves. Being able to direct and interact with players you admire is priceless.
Franchise Mode Producer
One of the most popular modes in any sports game is its franchise mode. Franchise mode gives the player the ability to play over multiple seasons, draft rookies, control free agency, and control just about everything a real sports General Manager would in real life. It's similar to the job of a role-playing game designer in that it’s heavily weighted on statistic management and progression. Hardcore sports fans will expect every aspect of the mode to mimic real life. Salaries, player attribute progression over their career, injuries, retirement, etc. It’s a must for the designer and team working on franchise mode to love the statistics of the given sport or it will show.
Its mandatory in this day and age for sports games to have a multiplayer component because sports are competitive by nature. The multiplayer designer’s job is to manage rankings, upgrades, and multiplayer modes. In recent years sports multiplayer modes have branched out beyond the usual player versus player match. Sports gamers have come to expect cooperative modes where each player is controlled by a human, as well as online franchise mode where multiple players can play in the same franchise. Testing sports multiplayer modes can be a nightmare since there is practically no time to beta test new features within a year schedule. This explains why the current state of sports multiplayer modes are not on par with the highly popular fps multiplayer modes found on games like Call of Duty and Halo.
Sports TV presentations usually include a broadcast team that commentate on the action throughout the game. Sports games have traditionally had quite a hard time mimicking broadcasts because not one game is ever the same. It takes a massive amount of voice over lines to keep games from not sounding repetitive. Gamers can usually tear through hundreds of games until the next version of the game is out so making sure commentary does not become irritating is a big job in itself.
Script producers come up with the thousands of lines the commentators say during a game. This can be split up between what is called color commentary, play-by-play commentary, and the sideline commentary. The script producer’s job can be tedious as they will have to make sure every situation that could happen in a game has proper commentary, the triggers for the commentary are setup properly, and in the end it's entertaining to the player.
With the massive amount of modes and statistics a sports game can contain, it’s usually a producer’s job to concentrate solely on the presentation of the game for the entire development cycle. Sports games have hundreds of players, thousands of statistical values over multiple seasons that need to be easily accessible to the player at all times. In game pop-up menus, cut-scenes, pre and post game statistics need to mimic TV presentations sports fans are use to.