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The Evolution of Sports Video Game Graphics

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Before you hop on the sticks and pick your opponent for another four quarters of Madden or a total-ninety in FIFA with those surreal visuals that often enable you to inject yourself onto the turf, you can date back to nearly 60 years when someone your age was battling a moving line to avoid being scored on.

The original video game graphics weren’t so much different than the language and imagery we’ve become accustomed to seeing while scrolling through our favorite blogs and apps. At most, you’d have the option to do four things on a console when playing: turn on the system; load the game; play against someone; and finally, turn it off.

And that was what you would call mind blown.

With the Ataris, ColecoVisions, and Commodores of the gaming landscape, to the Nintendos, Segas, Xboxes, and PlayStations that evolved graphics into what they are today, colors and shapes steadily formed through games like Tecmo Bowl and Jordan vs. Larry Bird One on One. Now, the details trickle down to MJ’s flailing tongue and Anthony Davis’s tuned unibrow.

Many gamers aren’t too familiar with the ancestors that came before the current titleholders, but the old folks paved the way for the youngsters to thrive. Yes, these aren’t your jagged lines generously described as “groundbreaking,” but it’s important to know your history. So read on as we discuss the evolution of graphics in sports video games from the ’80s to today.


evolution-of-sports-video-game-graphics-02The graceful Julius “Dr. J” Irving found himself as the cover boy alongside Celtic’s legend Larry Bird in One on One: Dr. J vs. Larry Bird (1983). On the Atari 7800 platform, graphics began to take a more rounded aesthetic to mimic arms and legs in reality. Even Dr. J’s immaculate afro was replicated.

evolution-of-sports-video-game-graphics-13Six years later, the originator of freak athletes led the release of the first licensed and commercial NFL game, Tecmo Bowl (1989), for the NES. Adding bright colors and introducing crowds into the fold, sports games began to mirror their real-life counterparts.


evolution-of-sports-video-game-graphics-04The console roster began to grow substantially with Sega, Sony and Nintendo leading the industry as Atari and Colecovision started to fossilize. Measuring system output in the form of bits, Sega Genesis and Super Nintedo ruled the earlier part of the ’90s with their 16-bit offerings of Bulls vs. Lakers and the NBA Playoffs (1991). Physical features also started to evolve as graphics began to move much more fluidly.

evolution-of-sports-video-game-graphics-10When Sony debuted the PlayStation in 1994 and Nintendo released the Nintendo 64 in 1996, graphics reached a point far beyond that of its Pong-like predecessors. You were able, for the first time ever, to vaguely recognize players without the numbers or names on their shirt. The added depth of three-dimensional gameplay made games like Madden NFL 97 (1996) and NBA games far more compelling.


evolution-of-sports-video-game-graphics-12Sega and Sony caused a paradigm shift in the capabilities of gaming with the Dreamcast and PlayStation 2 when introduced in 1998 and 2000, respectively. But it was right when the new millennium began that each system etched riveting graphics with gameplay. Pushing hardware specs to pump out 128-bits to project games on par with detailed computer-generated imagery, games like NBA 2K1 (2001) made the world notice the true capabilities of next-generation consoles. Colors, body movements and an unprecedented attention to detail brought graphics closer to real life than ever before.

evolution-of-sports-video-game-graphics-11Sega soon dropped out and Microsoft, although late to the game, decided to join in and play alongside Sony and Nintendo with the Xbox in 2001. By 2007, all three companies released their next-gen installments with the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Wii. The graphic playing field was meant for two as the latter opted for a more casual, family-friendly appeal instead of sweet eye-candy. Sony and Microsoft’s system’s questioned whether or not visuals could get any better in games like NBA Live 06 (2005) as players dropped 40 points with Kobe or cocked back for a nasty dunk with LeBron.


evolution-of-sports-video-game-graphics-08Sony recently put the world on notice with their PlayStation 4 system while Xbox stirred up the tech industry with the Xbox One. There’s a sense there has to be a plateau for graphics, especially in sports games, but that doesn’t seem to be the case with the option of customizing a full Nike basketball roster of kicks with LeBron’s, Kobe’s and Durant’s. In games like FIFA 14 (2013), the logo on the footwear is as clear as the player’s face rocking them, making you wonder what will come after these eighth-generation consoles reach their final cycle. Next time around, Sony and Microsoft might turn your living room into a virtual basketball court.

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