The sport of youth and fashion of the age
In the twenty-four years I’ve been playing video games, I think I’ve become pretty well rounded. Platformers, RPGs, shooters, puzzlers, text-only, you name it — I’ve tried it. There is one chink in my armor, though, and it’s sports games.
My cousin was the only one in the family with a Super Nintendo growing up. I skipped that particular Nintendo console since I was embroiled in an ill-fated affair with the Sega CD, so I was always interested in playing it whenever I went to my aunt’s house. The only games my cousin had were Madden and NHL ’96. I had no idea what I was doing, and my cousin was having too much fun pummeling the noob to stop and give me tips. Thus began my hatred of sports games. I haven’t touched one since.
In the interest of bettering myself, I decided to seek out a sports gamer and get his or her perspective on the genre. Maybe then I could begin strengthening my gaming weakness. Fortunately, my friend Brandon Kelley was just the guy I was looking for, and sat down with me to discuss his gaming history and the finer points of the FIFA franchise.
BK: Do you need me to spell my name for the record?
SC: You’re not on trial here, sir.
BK: We’ll see!
SC: So, something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is how I have certain holes in my gaming experience, and as a games writer I feel like I shouldn’t have any. But I just can’t get into sports games! You’re the only person I know who plays sports games regularly.
BK: Right, right, and with the first-person shooters you at least try to play them but you’re just not any good.
SC: Well, I’m getting better because of Mass Effect, which is third-person, but I’ve found I’ve been able to translate skills. I’ll never be good enough for multiplayer, but then a lot of people aren’t. But first let me ask you a couple questions about your gaming experience in general: how long have you been playing video games?
BK: I vaguely remember when I was a small boy, for Christmas, my family got the Atari — I can’t remember if it was the 2600 or the 5200 — it was whichever one they stopped making games for maybe two years after it came out. And my dad was really into it and he would play it with my brother and me. My brother’s three years older than me. We’d play Breakout, which you know is very similar to that game everybody plays on their Blackberry. And we also played this game called Bounty Bob or Miner 2049er, and it was kind of a rip off of King Kong where you played this little miner who had a mustache. Or at least it looked like he had a mustache.
SC: Wait, King Kong or Donkey Kong?
BK: Uh, Donkey Kong.
BK: I’m a real gamer.
SC: (laughs) Hey, there could be a game that’s licensed to King Kong that I don’t know about.
BK: Uh, no, definitely not. But the object of the game with Bounty Bob was that there was a course with various platforms and ladders like Donkey Kong, and as your guy walked over the platform it filled in with color. You just basically had to traverse all of the platforms, and then you’d move on to the next level.
So, post-Atari we got our first personal computer as a family. I was about ten so this would have been the late eighties, and there was a game that sort of lit me up called Freddy’s Rescue Roundup. Did you ever play this game?
BK: It was similar to Bounty Bob where you were this little guy Freddy and you’d just make him jump with the spacebar, and you’d have to collect all these pigeons throughout the course. I remember always stealing away to the basement where the computer was to play Freddy’s Rescue Roundup and listen to the radio for hours at a time.
Then there was the Super Nintendo, and that was when I would say you could really call me a “gamer.” The Super Nintendo was bought for both my brother and me for Christmas, but he never played it. I played it all the time. Street Fighter II, Super Mario World, with the cape. I remember the day I got 100% completion on Super Mario World. That was huge.
Leading into sports games, I can remember having two sports games that I played on the SNES: NBA Jam — “He’s heating up! He’s on fire!” — and then there was a game called Super Soccer Champ. Super Soccer Champ was a sports arcade game, as opposed to a sports simulator, which is a distinction that will be important when we’re talking about FIFA. But I’d play that game with my buddy Kevin cooperatively, as opposed to facing off, which was pretty novel at the time.
SC: Did you play sports in real life at all?
BK: Yeah. I played soccer when a little kid in the local township leagues, and I continued to play through high school. I was a letterman.
SC: Nice. So you were good at soccer in real life, then.
BK: Well, I was good enough to play in high school. (laughs) I was passionate about soccer, but I wasn’t good enough to explore that passion through my own athleticism. What’s exciting about getting into the simulation aspect of FIFA is that games like that allow you as a fan and former player to exercise your brain — your tactical sports brain — and see the fruits of that tactical awareness on the screen, when you physically can’t achieve that.
SC: Would you say that the primary reason you play video games in general is to achieve that kind of immersion?
BK: I don’t know. I think with my most memorable gaming experiences, that would not be true. Through high school, the game I played most was a puzzle game called Bust-A-Move 2 for the PlayStation. My favorite thing to do would be to come home from school, fire up the PlayStation and Bust-A-Move, and put on my favorite music CD at the time. I guess it was immersion in that I got to let everything else go away, and I wouldn’t have to think of anything but that activity. I would of course do that thing that you do when playing any game — be it jump rope, hopscotch, or shooting basketballs — I would think, if I don’t get the high score on this level then I’m going to hell.
SC: Then the floor is lava.
BK: Then the floor is lava. Or you imagine that you’re competing for a gold medal in the Olympic event that is Bust-A-Move 2. So I think that maybe that’s me trying to insert myself into the game. But in FIFA you’re able to…
SC: And FIFA is currently your game of choice, right?
BK: Yeah, FIFA is my game of choice. I play the online pro portion of the game where you take a player from a very amateur skill level and compete online with other real-life players, or with your team with other real-life players, in order to improve your guy. As he scores goals, completes passes, runs a certain distance, he becomes a better player.
You can mold this player to physically look the way you want. His height, his weight, his face, his hair, and a lot guys try to make theirs look really cool like World of Warcraft style. But I always try to make my guy look exactly like me so when I’m playing I can imagine it’s me up there.
SC: So then FIFA is totally about immersing yourself in the game you love.
SC: So you play online with real people. Tell me a little bit about your. . . club?
BK: Yes, it’s “club.” Right now there are about fifteen players on the team, and of those fifteen probably five would be considered inactive because they never play with us. Of the remaining ten people it’s a constant rotation of four or five that are online at any given time. We usually only play together as a club if we have at least three people online. You play with less than three, and you’re putting yourselves at a disadvantage.
SC: Because AI populates the rest of your team?
BK: Exactly. You have much less control.
So our club, Half Baked FC, called such because the creators of the club are really big into the movie Half Baked starring Dave Chappelle and Jim Breuer, we play in a stadium that is called Mile High Stadium. When I first started playing, our team “kit,” or uniform, was the LA Galaxy uniform because their sponsor is Herbalife. Now I don’t think this is particularly interesting, but if you’re an online gamer you run into a lot of stoners.
SC: Hm. I see.
BK: Most of the guys on my team are stoners. They’ll have to take thirty second breaks to “roll a doobie.” Their words, not mine.
SC: You seem as though you are, perhaps, not a stoner?
BK: I am not, and I’ll have interesting conversations with the guys on the team where they say, “so uh, you don’t smoke weed, do you?”
SC: Wow, they can tell just from your voice?
BK: (laughs) Well no, they ask directly. But their follow up question is always, “so, what DO you do?” Look, I’m the oldest person on this club, so far as I know.
SC: Do you have any long-standing rivals? Every team needs a long-standing rival.
BK: That’s true, but there are just too many teams. There are teams that we come up against frequently, but you know this from playing online, most rivalries stem from various racial epithets being thrown around the headset.
SC: Or in my case, some classic sexual harassment.
BK: Right, and I don’t condone any of it at all! Though I’m not above trash talking.
SC: There’s a difference between trash talking and harassment, though. What would be a choice trash talk from Brandon Kelley?
BK: I like a good “yeah, bitch.” (laughs) It depends on the situation. If I’m trash talking in the instance where I got the better of the other team, then I’ll deploy the “yeah, bitch.” If I have to get involved in trash talking when I have been on the losing end, I’ll only do it if they did, in fact, best me. There will be situations where the other team won either through computer error, or they just got lucky. Then I will have to tell them.
SC: (laughs) You will have to inform them of this.
BK: “I’m sorry, but there was a CPU error. The artificial intelligence really needs to be improved in this aspect of the game, since it was the only reason why you were able to score a goal.”
SC: And you do it in this calm, reasonable manner, I’m assuming. That’s really helpful of you.
BK: My actual favorite trash talk right now is when I do something that’s really great, I’ll do the McDonald’s theme song: (sings) “Boo do boo boo boo, I’m lovin’ it!” I especially like that one because my Polish teammate is also really into it, so he’ll do it too. Then of course there’s the old standby: “You mad?” The one I’ve been trying to work in that I don’t think is going to work is, “Google me.”
What’s interesting about my team, is that we have been playing together for about two years, but I don’t know anybody’s real name. So, Hairy_Bud: everyone calls him “Hairy.” Maybe his real name is Harold, I don’t know. There’s a Marine, and his PlayStation screen name is USMC and then some four-digit number that has some significance to him. So we call him “US.” I think his name is Ryan? They call me Kelley, because I chose my screen name without fully understanding the world I was getting into and used my gmail address. (Sara laughs) Yeah, I’m pretty close to just having my social security number be my handle. But then somebody calls me “NYC” because they know I live in New York City.
It’s sort of like being in the military, where everyone goes by a nickname like “Tex.” And I absolutely feel camaraderie with these guys. Particularly when new people come into the team. They are expected to defer to the founding members of the club and to those who have been around for longer. It’s very comfortable when I log on with these guys. There’s no awkward interaction. There’s a rapport that’s already been established.
SC: So it’s like playing on a real-life sports team.
BK: Yeah. These are guys who you would be comfortable enough around to say, “Man, I had a shitty day.” And you can sort of let off some of that tension.
SC: That’s awesome. So what was the last non-sports game you played that you really enjoyed? Just to prove you have breadth in your experience.
BK: I really enjoyed Journey.
SC: Perfect game. I hesitate to call any game perfect, but perfect game. That and Portal.
BK: I definitely wouldn’t dispute that.
SC: Thanks for chatting with me. Maybe sports games don’t actually “suck hard” as twelve-year-old me would say while suffering through Madden. Any parting words?
BK: Google me.
Sara Clemens is an ad copywriter for a book publisher, so every single day she pretends she’s in an episode of Mad Men. You can follow her on twitter at @TheSaraClemens, and find all the things she’s ever written for the internet at saraclemens.com.