The Momentous Rise of Sports Management Games

Text-based sports simulators aren’t just stroking our armchair GM egos. They’re also forcing the hands of AAA developers.

Look. We all do it.

Everyone tries to concoct the perfect snarky tweet. We fire off our coveted thoughts on the latest blockbuster transaction in our respective league of choice. It has to be timely, it has to use at least one trendy buzzword, and it has to be sensational. Keyboards around the world brace themselves for their impending doom, as hot take artists high and low punch some iteration of “They got fleeced you moron!” into them with rapturous glee. We are the not so few, certainly not mighty, armchair General Managers.

This need to prove our understanding of the sports we love through trying to manage them from the outside has changed what we expect from our sports video games — but developers have been behind the curve in accommodating our front-office ambitions.

With the increased ease of access to unlimited analytic data, salary cap breakdowns, and even the inner-workings of players’ minds, as glimpsed through their social media accounts, things have gotten a bit… out of hand on the end of the armchair GMs. We need a place to channel our pent-up angst so we can pump the brakes on the never-ending hot takes about this Kawhi trade and leave it up to the qualified NBA front offices to handle this stuff, all five of them. I kid… kind of.

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If you search Twitter for “Kawhi trade”, the latest relevant example, you can find the armchair GM in their natural habitat displaying ascending levels of aggressiveness. There are even a few tweets from the original armchair GM himself, Bill Simmons.

The fact of the matter is, there will always be internal rationales and conversation about who gets dealt, drafted, or dumped that we’ll never get the details on. There seems to at least be that baseline level decorum from NBA front-offices and players, even amongst all of the blatant tampering they’ve been busying themselves with lately.

But, for all of you bonafide Danny Ainges of the world that will never have a front office of your own, there’s a new(ish) breed of sports games pandering to your aspirations.

While AAA sports franchises like NBA 2k, FIFA, and MLB The Show (whose games are developed on premium budgets), revolutionized the shooting, hitting, passing type aspects of their games, they’ve typically failed to provide a realistic managerial experience. They often have flawed trade/free agency logic allowing players to put together a dynasty too easily, unpredictable simulation patterns that spit out unrealistic results over time, and a general lack of in-depth scouting and player development systems as a result of playing second fiddle to the gameplay aspects in the eyes of the developers.

Text-based sports games, on the other hand, are both a symptom and enabler of our wannabe GM mentalities.

These games, like Out of the Park Baseball (OOTPB) and Football Manager, seek to cut the gameplay aspect out of the fold entirely in favor of focusing their efforts on offering a more authentic managerial experience. Instead of controlling the players through every minute action on the field, you become the decision-maker, controlling every aspect of running a team and then some, as they also have beefed-up options at their disposal to mastermind the entire league in your own image. To a more casual player, these processes of contract negotiation, drafting, scouting, and player development may seem like a burden, but as the gaming industry continues to try to accommodate the maturing portion of their demographic, they’ve needed to expand the idea of what a sports video game can be. It is truly a “different strokes for different folks” situation.

The home page of Football Manager 18 for the Nintendo Switch

Knowing that the sales numbers for franchises like Madden and NBA 2K aren’t poised to decline anytime soon despite the continued bad reviews, text-based games are thriving where their Goliath counterparts fail. And it doesn’t hurt that they’re often available for a fraction of the $60 standard price for a new AAA title.

If you want to jack up the attributes on your favorite American League pitcher and watch them crank dingers during interleague play and spit in the face of the DH rule, then MLB The Show is for you, and I highly recommend you go for it. But if you want to truly Moneyball your way to the top in any sports game, a AAA title isn’t your best bet right now.

You may need additional software to run it, but the original OOTP Baseball 99 is now available for free.

As a product of steady growth and improvement since its first release in 1999, OOTP Baseball and other slower-developing text-based games have carved out a niche fanbase that is growing at a rate that might actually give pause to AAA sports developers for the first time in over a decade.

The MLB has also taken notice. For their 2016 version of OOTPB, Out of the Park Developments was able to receive MLB licensing, allowing them to use real team names and logos for all MLB and MiLB teams for the first time. They’d always been able to use real player names, but the ability to add real teams into the mix and the extra marketing push from the MLB made this move an important one. So far, the only other text-based simulator that has been able to receive similar licensing from their respective league is Hockey Franchise Manager, ironically. Football Manager, a soccer simulator, also has licensing from some pro leagues, but not all.

The relatively easy process of programming a text-based game has resulted in the market being saturated with hundreds of other text-based sports sims. Of those competitors, one that sticks out is Basketball GM. The MO for Basketball GM is simple. It offers a clean UI, quick simulation, and the unique ability to play from a web browser without having to pay or download anything.

If you get caught playing at work I’m not responsible, but here’s the no-nonsense layout of Basketball GM.

When I talked to Jeremy Scheff, developer of Basketball GM, he shared a familiar story of wanting to develop a simple, yet in-depth basketball simulator in the face of disappointment in what popular titles had to offer. Basketball GM boasts a more modest player base, Scheff estimates it to be somewhere in the two to five thousand active players range. But one thing he noted in tracking the game’s usage was the distinct drop off in people playing the game on the weekends, something he attributes to players being able to, and enjoying, playing the game in an office/school setting. So next time you think you’re on the up and up for having Woj Twitter alerts on, just remember there are two thousand people out there running hundred-year basketball sims in one tab, and Excel in the other.

As a player myself, I shared my playstyle and the fact I like to play Basketball GM with the default rosters made up of balanced, but completely random players as opposed to importing realistic rosters developed by someone else. The way I see it, this allows me to go into the most challenging experience possible because it eliminates all of the preconceived notions I may have of certain players. Scheff echoed that sentiment, saying simply,

“No matter how much effort you put into designing a roster based on real players, it’s still not the real thing.”

And that’s important to note. On the outside, it’s easy to for us to make bold claims about front office decisions, and it’s socially profitable in the internet world because it brings the most attention to us, which in the end, is what we want. But for every move made, there were fifty that weren’t. Some would have been good, and some would have been bad. But, let’s suspend just the smallest amount of disbelief that front office types know what they’re doing, recognize they are working with intel we might not have, and triple-check our hot takes.

Parker Goss
Parker Goss
Parker Goss is a former collegiate bowler at the University of Illinois, where he dedicated himself to Recreational Sports Programming and officiating for the past four years. He’s a Senior Writer for Grandstand Central, where he writes on gambling, esports, and fan culture.


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