The 10 Best Sports Videogames of 2014

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Arguing what “counts” as a sports game is as dull and pointless as the “are games art?” debate. It doesn’t need to be based on a sport you watch on TV, with licenses for real team names and players, and weird generic character models for the superstar athletes who refuse to lend their likeness. It doesn’t need photorealistic graphics and repetitive commentary and a soundtrack of rap and EDM. Sportsfriends features four entirely fictional activities, but each one has the defined rules and internal logic of a “real” sport. You can define almost any videogame as a sport, which turns the entire concept of the “sports game” into an arbitrary distinction. But for our purposes today we’ll look at games built entirely around competition, and preferably against others, although we’ll accept a game like Desert Golfing where your only competition is your own past and patience. And we’ll limit it to games that don’t easily fit into other recognized genres, so no MOBAs or real-time strategy games or whatever all the esports kids are wrapped up in. If it looks or feels like a sport, it’s in, even if in real life it’s less competition than choreography, as with the first game on our list.

10. WWE 2K15

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This might be a step back from last year’s WWE game, but the new My Career mode can be as addictive as any sports game. It translates the best parts of the NBA 2K My Career mode and MLB The Show’s Road to the Show to the world of wrestling, with your create-a-character starting off in training before graduating to the NXT developmental league and, eventually, the WWE itself. The matchmaking eventually grows repetitive and incoherent, but for several hours the My Career mode makes 2K15 worth playing for any wrestling fan.—Garrett Martin

9. Mario Golf: World Tour

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As an on-the-go sports title, World Tour does its job: It collects a series of relatively short, themed courses that will test your long and short game. [It] delivers a simple and easy-to-play golf experience: Choose your club, line up your shot and swing. Mario Golf: World Tour is like the Disneyland of golf games, offering plenty to look at and do, but wearing you out with quirks in its navigation and design.—Charles Webb

8. Pro Evolution Soccer 2015

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While clearly not going into Football Manager territory, PES allows for much more robust control over the tactical aspects of the game. The main tactics creation/tweaking screen allows for finite control of player positioning. FIFA tried to get on this in this year’s offering but PES simply does it better, not least because the position a player is in changes dynamically based on where he is on the pitch. This tactical sensitivity extends to the actual gameplay, where new tactics can be implemented on the fly. This offers a deeper approach to FIFA’s simple (yet, admittedly, effective) commands of “press higher” or “offside trap”. It’s an approach rewarding of work put in to understanding the system, but there is a learning curve with all of this that FIFA, with its jump in and play readiness, doesn’t have.—Ian Williams

7. Rusty’s Real Deal Baseball

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Rusty Slugger is probably the best original Nintendo character in decades. While a quirky talking dog might seem familiar to Animal Crossing fans, they’ve never encountered one quite like the star of Rusty’s Real Deal Baseball. What makes this washed-up, middle-aged, former baseball player so compelling is that beneath his comic mishaps and jovial self-deprecation there’s a shockingly frank sense of tragedy to his tales of domestic woe. As he peddles his baseball wares, there’s a real chance players might become more invested in a cartoon dog’s failing marriage than in practicing their batting or calling balls and strikes.—Jordan Minor

6. Desert Golfing

I can go on about how Desert Golfing is a knowing deconstruction of the mobile game, how its series of simple and repetitive swipes boils the entire form down to its most basic parts, with barely any embellishment at all. I mean it looks like an Atari game, just a two-tone background with a white dot for a ball, blocky white numbers and a small yellow flag. I could talk about how it locks us into our failures, preventing us from restarting and replaying levels. About how it pretty much never ends. But in that time I could add like another thirty strokes to my total on hole 2000 and something, so I’ll just go do that instead.—Garrett Martin

5. MLB 14 The Show

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The Show kept chugging along in 2014, a reliably excellent baseball game with a staggering variety of ways to play. It’s almost off-puttingly deep. It feels a little stagnant, a little too similar to the last few years worth of games, but the fundamental experience remains as blissfully difficult as ever. And Road to the Show, where you only play your create-a-character’s at-bats and defensive plays in hopes of leveling up with experience points, remains a brilliant baseball role-playing game, and the best career mode in the industry.—GM

4. Sportsfriends

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The four individual titles in Sportsfriends might resemble certain real-life sports, but these multiplayer games offer new takes on classic competitive concepts. They’re minimalist in design but offer massive amounts of fun, cutting through the dense rules and complex graphics of most modern sports games to find the underlying foundation of athletic competition.—GM

3. Nidhogg

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Fencing is a sport. It’s in like every Olympics. Nidhogg might not be an especially faithful fencing simulator, focusing more on a back and forth battle for turf as you try to lunge and parry your opponent ever backwards. It captures the essence of sport, though, and in a context clearly based upon an actual real-life sport. It’s also great.—GM

2. NBA 2K15

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2K Sports’ reputation basically rests on its NBA games now, and once again they did not disappoint. NBA 2K15 is as powerful and exciting as ever, a deep and realistic recreation of both watching basketball on TV and playing desktop GM with a basketball fantasy team. It even provided some excellent comedy with the well-publicized face scan glitch, which tends to turn your beautiful face into a nightmarish monstrosity.—GM

1. FIFA 15

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It’s dedication to a craft: recreating the fan experience of watching big time pro soccer, particularly the television viewing experience. EA’s gone above and beyond in this regard. In three decades of playing sports games, I don’t know that I’ve witnessed a game nail that aspect so hard. It is a gorgeous simulacrum of watching the game.—IW