Gamers are the new athletes: Sports in video games from Pong to VR

Jack Caulfield
June 27th 2018

Sports have always had an important place in human societies, providing entertainment, exercise, and a demonstration of the exceptional things the human body can achieve. But in a world of increasingly blurred lines between physical and virtual activities, what new forms of athletics are coming into existence? Let's look at the games turning sports digital.

Sports as Games

Games have been trying to recreate athletic activities in one form or another ever since Pong. Early attempts were hamstrung by the limited graphical fidelity attainable at the time, and by the simplicity of the controls. In early games, controls were too imprecise, and visuals too basic, to make a very convincing representation of real sport.

Fast-forward a few decades, and we're in an era where sport simulation games like Fifa and NBA 2K are as popular as their real-world counterparts. Obviously, graphics have improved massively as technology has advanced over the years, and we've gone from abstract shapes to character models which approach photorealism.

Just as important to the rise of sports games is the wide array of new control schemes available. The preponderance of increasingly sensitive analog joysticks, which allow for much more precise control than older devices, certainly helps.

Feeling the action

But more radical changes have also taken place to make video game controls feel more like the actions they're meant to simulate. Take the rise of motion controls, which were popularized largely by the appearance of the Nintendo Wii in 2006. Suddenly, gamers were not merely pressing a button to make their player swing the bat, but actually swinging the remote themselves to make it happen – though they had to be careful.

A few years later, Microsoft launched the Kinect, a camera attachment for the Xbox which allowed for tracking players' movements visually rather than kinetically. Kinect-enabled sports games had players mimicking the actions of athletes to make their on-screen avatars move.

In recent years, the big trend in immersive gaming technology is of course virtual reality. While VR's priciness has so far limited its popularity, it's already fascinating to see what games like VR Sports are doing with the technology. Where previous technologies increased immersion by making players really perform the actions of their virtual avatars, the draw of VR is its ability to make gamers feel like they are really there.

It might not be too long before we see all these different elements combined into a completely convincing sports simulation. It's not hard to imagine a future in which the Olympics feature virtual competitions athletes can compete in from across the globe. Will the sports of the future take place in the realm of the virtual just as much as the physical? See you in 2020!

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