I need no impetus to write about sports and video games. None whatsoever.
Both have, at various times, been major food groups in my life that have sustained me spiritually if not mentally, and yesterday’s release of MLB The Show 17 is more than enough reason for me to revisit my pantheon of sports gaming and establish just which all-time titles of the genre sit where within the hierarchy.
This the definitive power chart, guys—the 25 best sports video games, in order, from "classic and tolerable" to life-ruiningly good. I will allow some dissent to my choices, but remember: this order has already been established as law of the land.
Honorable Mention: Madden Football 2001
Developer: Electronic Arts (2000)
The biggest secret of the Madden Football franchise is that MaddenFootball is, for the most part, real actual garbage. I’m sorry. I know that hurt for some of you.
But by and large, it’s true: Madden games still tend to make for clunky, unforgiving gaming. It’s almost miraculous how Madden can take the fastest sport on grass and somehow make it feel like trench warfare fought with throw pillows.
That being said, the franchise has had its moments, and I have to give a tip of the cap to Madden 2001, whose next-gen graphics blew the mind of every child who walked into Target in the early aughts and saw the demo set up on a brand new PlayStation 2. The first time I saw digital Eddie George and his to-scale soap-bar mouthguard, I left the store figuring he would elected president very soon.
Best Part: Football players that didn’t look like they were harvested in Minecraft.
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Honorable Mention: Pong
Developer: Atari (1972)
The GOAT original game that pioneered the stay-at-home, Netflix-and-chill environment for parents of millennials to come.
Best Part: Hitting the white dot so damn good.
NBA Street Vol. 2
Developer: EA Sports BIG (2003)
The natural product of the AND1 Mixtape Tour’s explosion in the early aughts.
I don’t remember if NBA Street was fun from a gameplay standpoint, but I do remember you could unlock Stretch and his magnificent afro, and that was all that really mattered.
Best Part: Trying the characters’ dribbling moves in your driveway and walking away bloody.
Wave Race 64
Developer: Nintendo (1996)
The game that taught a generation you aren't really flexing until you pull up to the function on a dolphin.
Best Part: Sitting sideways, bottlenose in the days.
Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit
Developer: EA Black Box (2002)
The first racing game I can remember that tapped into man’s deep desire to down-shift and make Officer Polanski earn this one when being pulled over.
Best Part: Breaking the law.
NCAA March Madness [Some 2000s-y year]
Developer: EA Sports
A great basketball game with poorly rendered, no-named college ballplayers who just happened to have the same skin tones, jersey numbers and skill sets of real college basketball players playing at the time in the NCAA.
Best Part: Realizing now that game developers tried to argue that No. 4 on Duke in the game with the gelled hair, porcelain jaw and unstoppable three-point shot was in no way inspired by that J.J. Redick fellow.
Tiger Woods PGA Tour [Also some 2000s-y year]
Developer: EA Sports
A lot of people like this series and sure.
Best Part: Angling your flight path for five minutes and then ruining the shot with poor execution.
Fight Night 2004
If you picked Roy Jones Jr. in Fight Night you were:
A jackass about to win this fight.
Best Part: Bullet-time saliva cuts.
Developer: Midway Games (1994)
A classic racing game that required all players pick red and yellow cars before mowing down 2-D cactuses like a real pro.
Best Part: Watching your buddy blow his start off the line.
Developers: EA Sports BIG (2001)
A good snowboard game that inspired a decade of compoundingly stupid snow beanies in real life.
Best Part: Flying squirrel backflips.
MLB The Show 17
Developer: Sony Interactive Entertainment (2017)
I honestly have never played this series, because my baseball gaming career began and ended with Pablo Sanchez’s in the early aughts.
But! MLB The Show 17 debuted on Monday night, and people I know and trust on these sorts of things swear by it.
I might try it. OK, I’ll try it.
Best Part: Digital bat flips that upset the digital purists.
Developer: Incredible Technologies (1989)
The surest way to turn a group of grown men into the loudest people in this bar.
Best Part: Winding up and blasting one straight through the trees like the force of nature you are.
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Madden NFL 96
Developer: EA Tiburon (1995)
This was the first Madden that had Create A Player mode, which made Madden Football 96 feel like a big step forward for sports gaming.
Unfortunately, this step was almost backtracked by Madden Football 64 and its logo-less, non-NFL branded teams.
Best Part: Better controls, even more realistic box people.
Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!
Developer: Nintendo (1987)
Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! was slightly before my time, but I can tell you this: it is easily one of the most beloved racist video games on the NES console.
Best Part: Beating the Indian whose coach is a tiger because they have those over there.
Developer: Tecmo (1987)
The holy grail of sports video gaming according to your dad and his friends mom doesn’t like.
Best Part: Bo Jackson running circles in perpetuity around another Bo Jackson within the cornea of the great digital Bo Jackson in the sky.
NHL Hitz 2002
Developer: Midway Games (2001)
The GameCube launch version of NHL Hitz 2002 is rightfully hailed as "godlike" by digital hockey tastemakers.
Best Part: The hitz. All of them.
WWF No Mercy
Developer: Asmik Ace Entertainment (2000)
It doesn't matter if you like it.
Best Part: It still being real to you.
Developer: Nintendo (1998)
1080 Snowboarding was the jump-off for SSX and a gaming revelation for a generation of Brink kids who wanted the social cache of a hip snowboarder but didn’t have snow or coordination to board on it.
1080 was also the first game I can remember where the characters just hung out in the selection screen like badasses shooting pool and playing Russian roulette.*
Best Part: Finally pulling off a 1080 and the game somehow not exploding.
Developer: Midway Games (1997)
Midway designed the perfect football game by removing all the boring parts like kicking extra points and sportsmanship and replacing them with violence.
And thus they made NFL Blitz: a hailstorm of torrential ass-stomping football fans wish in their heart of hearts could be the reality of the National Football League on a weekly basis. But alas, society frowns on after-the-whistle flying anus drops.
Best Part: "Da Bomb" every single time.
NCAA Football ‘07
eveloper: EA Sports (2006)
When I was a senior in high school I'd bring my XBOX to school and host marathon NCAA 2007 tourneys in one of the (cool) teacher’s class rooms during free periods and lunch. I was pretty good, and it got to the point that I would play with godawful Indiana as my team just to humiliate my opponent and really rub in the own.
I was not voted Prom King, somehow.
Best Part: Pulling off the Reggie Bush stop-and-go with freakin’ Reggie Bush.
Developer: Nintendo (2000)
Until Serena plays Waluigi we’ll never really know who the best tennis player of all time is.
Best Part: Ruining people’s lives with Boo.
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Developer: Midway Games (1993)
The preferred choice of drunk beercade patrons everywhere.
Rule: Basic bros chose Stockton/Malone. Real ones chose Patrick Ewing and Charles Oakley.
Best Part: Shoving John Stockton 40-feet across the screen right before he lets off a three.
Developer: EA Sports (2006)
Pick your year, but in my personal opinion is that FIFA peaked with '07—a game that saw a nice jump in graphic fidelity as well as a much-needed tightening of on-ball controls.
In FIFA '07, you suddenly felt like a skilled operator with the ball, as opposed to early editions where even the superstar cover player controlled the ball like he had spoons for feet.
Best Part: Going under the wall on a free kick because you just watched Ronaldinho highlights.
Developer: 2K Sports (2017)
The NBA 2K franchise has gained a massive following over the years thanks to its ridiculously responsive algorithms and slavish attention to detail.
The players are becoming creepily realistic, a quality driven home by the fact people in other rooms will ask if you’re watching live basketball after you fire up the game.
Best Part: Canning a game-winning three and Hitting Dem Folks.
AP Images for 2K
Developer: Humongous Entertainment (1997)
I can confidently say I’ve stressed more over picking members for my squad in Backyard Baseball than over any selection in any fantasy football draft I’ve ever participated in.
Best Part: Drafting Pablo Sanchez and keeping his secret close.
Mario Kart 64
Developer: Nintendo (1996)
Go-cart racing is a sport.
Best Part: Blue-shell comeuppance.
Tony Hawk's Pro Skater
Developer: Neversoft (1999)
One of the most addictive video games ever created, and quite possibly just an elaborate way to get an entire generation of gamers addicted to “Superman” by Goldfinger.
I can’t count the hours I spent on this game designing parks and grinding every single surface provided. It was a novel experience that opened up sports gaming’s generally linear gameplay and rewarded players handsomely for just dilling around and seeing what you can break or jump over. I’ve had relationships that didn’t last a long as some frontside manuals I pulled off in this game.
Best Part: Looking older all the time, but feeling younger in your mind.