Of the fandoms smothered by the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, sports suffered at least as much as the movies, if not more. Since sports depend on live performance before thousands of spectators, social distancing and quarantine measures decimated the sports experience. And particularly in the U.S., the games are still being played to mostly empty arenas and artificial crowd noise.
Unfortunate as it is, it has also been a unique opportunity for the video games supporting these leagues to shine. Everything went indoors this past spring, and sports fans could be found nesting with their favorite games on their couches, along with cinephiles bingeing Netflix, and gamers immersing themselves in their open worlds.
This year, Polygon’s Samit Sarkar and Owen Good opted out of nominating and determining a sports video game of the year, which, in the last year of a console generation, would be drawn from largely incremental updates to established titles. Instead, we’ve written essays about the four titles where we spent the most of our playing time — and the service those games provided to sports fans deprived of something that is taken for granted, if not ubiquitous, in popular culture: the human drama of athletic competition.
MLB The Show 20 and NHL 21
At the start of June, I wrote about the baseball-shaped hole in my life that the coronavirus pandemic had created, and how I had attempted to fill it with MLB The Show 20. Back then, the possibility of there being any real-life baseball season in 2020 was still an open question. It wasn’t until later in June that MLB owners forced the players into a 60-game season that would run from late July to the end of October.
I have to admit: I didn’t think all of the sports leagues would be able to pull it off, but they did — albeit with some scattered COVID-19 outbreaks and a few bonehead moves. And despite all the unique conditions under which this season’s MLB games were played, here’s the thing: It felt like real baseball. I spent a lot of time watching my Yankees over the summer and into the fall, which meant that, well, I no longer needed MLB The Show as a coping mechanism.
That’s not to speak ill of one of my longtime favorite video game franchises, and of course, MLB The Show games and MLB games are not mutually exclusive — I derive different kinds of joy from them. But when you’re using the video game as a substitute for the real thing, as opposed to an accompaniment, you realize that it doesn’t really hold up.
Interestingly enough, I picked up MLB 20 again after the real-life baseball season ended. It turned out to be a great showcase for the PlayStation 4 backward compatibility built into the PlayStation 5: It runs at a smooth 60 frames per second in native 4K resolution on the new console. MLB 20 was, in fact, the first PS4 game I played on my PS5 — it’s never far from my heart.
I feel the same fondness for EA Sports’ NHL franchise, which I’ve been playing since the mid-’90s. Once my beloved Rangers were swept out of the qualifying round of the NHL playoffs in early August, I turned my attention to EA.
The most promising element of NHL 21 was a long-awaited refresh of the career mode, Be a Pro, which is my favorite thing in pretty much every sports game. I jumped into Be a Pro a few days after the real-life NHL draft, in which the Rangers had selected Alexis Lafrenière with the No. 1 pick, and in the game, I managed to get drafted by the Rangers myself!
I ended up feeling disappointed with NHL 21’s Be a Pro — you can read my full review for more details — but I will say that playing it gave me a new appreciation for what professional athletes have been going through, in terms of playing sports amid pandemic restrictions.
This year, developer EA Vancouver jazzed up the Be a Pro experience with cutscenes in which your created player interacts with their head coach, agent, or teammates, as well as the media. In many of them, a teammate invites you to a group outing of some kind, like going to the beach or seeing a Broadway show. It was impossible to see this stuff in NHL 21 — even as mere dialogue choices in text boxes — and not think of all the activities that the pandemic has forced us to cancel.
Professional athletes’ lives are fairly circumscribed, especially during the season, but they do have plenty of opportunities to let loose during downtime. Being isolated in the “bubbles” in Edmonton, Alberta, and Toronto, with no ability to escape the confines of their hotels, must’ve been incredibly hard on the players and their mental health. I’m not sure any amount of access to video games would’ve alleviated all the monotony. —Samit Sarkar
F1 2020 and NBA 2K21
The reality of the global pandemic finally landed with me on March 12. That day, the NBA suspended its season, and Formula One announced the postponement of two more races, wiping the first four events off its 2020 calendar. When I read the news on my phone that the brand-new Vietnam Grand Prix was canceled, my first thought was, “The only place we’ll see that course is in F1 2020.”
That’s still the case; the Hanoi race isn’t on the 2021 calendar, either. (A government official key to the race’s promotion was arrested in an unrelated matter, and the Vietnamese government chose not to continue the project.) When F1 2020 launched on July 6, I spent as much time getting to know the Hanoi Street Circuit as I did the game’s new career mode, which puts you in charge of your own racing team, with all its delightful bell-and-whistle details.
Hanoi has a 1.5-kilometer straight connecting a double-apex roundabout at turns 8 and 9 to the hairpin of turn 11. Even if you splurge on a Ferrari engine for your new team, you’ll die halfway down that straight with the backmarker chassis and off-the-rack aerodynamics the game starts you with. No setup gave me the straight-line speed to fend off McLaren or Renault, much less Racing Point. Everything I tried, I would be passed on that straight like I was running in low-fuel mode.
Hanoi’s challenge surprised me. Even with the AI difficulty set in the upper 90s, my team finished fifth in the 2020 season that should have been, even taking podiums at Bahrain and Hungary. But our best race, by far, was finishing 10th in a purely fictional Vietnam Grand Prix.
After getting thrashed on the straight and dropping to 14th on my first set of tires, I opted for heavier, medium treads with my first pit stop. This let me stay out longer than the guys who chose softs, and gave me some room to breathe even if I was running 13th. It also let me switch back to soft tires for the end of the race, when the others would be on mediums.
I was five seconds out of 10th place with 11 laps to go, and on the final lap I caught both Sergio Perez and Daniil Kvyat (on heavier tires) with a double pass around the outside of the turn 11 hairpin. It may end up being the only time I’ll ever get to watch the Vietnam Grand Prix. But it was the greatest single point I’ve ever earned in a virtual racing career stretching four years and hundreds of hours.
F1 2020 was one of the two best examples of video games stepping in with uninterrupted excitement when real leagues had to shut down. NBA 2K20 and 2K21 provided the other. We didn’t hear as much this year about what the pandemic did to recreational athletics. But a lost season of basketball includes thousands of disappeared YMCA, church league, and street court games, too. Basketball fans migrated online for that experience as well as the NBA’s when the pandemic shut down both.
I played more pickup basketball in NBA 2K20 and 2K21 than I ever have before, in other video games or in real life. I’ve often complained that Visual Concepts’ NBA 2K series is so complex and technically demanding that it requires working on your game, piece by piece, the way you would in real life. Well, with a summer off thanks to a furlough, I finally had the time. Moreover, I reinvented myself as a big man.
Remembering my own church league experience when, at age 12, I hit my growth spurt before everyone else and discovered how much easier the game gets the closer you get to the rim, I created a true back-to-the-basket pivot man — a Paint Beast, in NBA 2K’s parlance. And then I set to working on my low post game, in The Rec and The Park, the game’s cooperative/competitive modes. I developed the muscle memory for driving to the baseline; then driving to the lane; now the drop step. I’m still a little too panicky for a good post shimmy, but I’m getting there.
It made sense to go big, rather than hang out on the wing and hoist bricks. I have no ball-handling moves to speak of; I’m more useful setting a pick (and then rolling off it) than I am calling a teammate over and squirting past my man. Bit by bit, I synthesized a low-post game that was actually helpful to all the Sharpshooting Playmakers and Playmaking Sharpshooters of NBA 2K20’s Park (and now, The City, in NBA 2K21 on PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X).
Was it always a success? No. I got plenty of C+ teammate ratings, not only in the early going, but also when I thought I’d figured everything out. “Yea, go back to MyCareer,” one teammate messaged me after a particularly hideous, turnover-filled game. But on the whole, I found that NBA 2K20 and 2K21 embody the best of sports video gaming. Not because of their presentation, signature animations, or NBA 2K21’s next-gen sweat droplets. It’s the best because, like MLB The Show 20, it will reveal your real strengths as a player, and then challenge and inspire you to make them even better. —Owen Good