A Brief History of Sports Games


Image courtesy of Elite Sports NY.

Nicholas Paragano, Co-editor, Arts & Entertainment

Since the dawn of gaming, sports have been intertwined with the medium. In fact, one of the very first video games ever created was a sports game. In 1958, a nuclear physicist named William Hignobotham created Tennis for Two, a simple electronic game that debuted at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York, during their annual visitor’s days. Two players would control the game with controllers hooked up to an analog computer. Visitors were eagerly waiting in line to try this new interactive experience. Hignobotham wrote that, “It might liven up the place to have a game that people could play, and which would convey our message that our scientific endeavours have relevance for society.”  It wasn’t until the 1970s, however, when gaming (and thus sports games) would truly take off. 

Image courtesy of Lumen Learning.

In 1972, a new company based in Sunnyvale, California named Atari created Pong, an arcade game simulating table tennis created by designer Al Alcorn. Atari co-founder, Nolan Bushnell, told Alcorn that he wanted him to make a game that “any drunk could play in a bar. Simple. Simple enough for a drunk to play.” This was the first successful video game, popularizing the medium and leading to the creation of arcades. The very first commercial game console, the Magnavox Odyssey, also released in 1972 and had a very similar ping-pong game. Many companies would create ping-pong like games similar to Pong in the years to come. Atari would release a home version of Pong through Sears in 1975. In 1977, Atari released their Atari 2600 console, which would become massively successful. It was home to several sports games, including Basketball, Bowling, Football, and Track and Field. In the late 70s and early 80s, sports games would be found in arcades around the world, and some of those games would be ported to the Atari 2600, such as Track and Field

Tennis on the Atari 2600. Image courtesy of Woodgrain Wonderland.

In 1983, Nintendo released the Famicom (Family Computer) console in Japan. This system would be released in 1985 in North America as the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). The NES would help make home video games popular again, as the industry suffered a crash in 1983 due to several poor-quality games. The NES would see many sports games, including versions of baseball, tennis, football, and basketball, to name a few. Popular sports games on the system included Punch Out! (a boxing game) Tecmo Bowl, and World Class Track Meet (which was bundled with Super Mario Bros.) As game consoles and computers become more advanced, so too did the quality of sports games. In 1988, a series that is practically synonymous with sports gaming began: John Madden Football. The first game in the long-running Madden series released on Apple II, Commodore 64, and MS-DOS computer systems.

Image courtesy of Polygon.

As the 1990s began, the two most popular consoles on the market were the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) and the Sega Genesis. Both consoles received their fair share of sports titles. For example, the Genesis received a port of John Madden Football, which was wildly popular. The 90s was also the era when 3D graphics became prevalent in gaming. Sega created the first soccer arcade game with 3D graphics, Virtua Striker, in 1994. By the end of the decade, you could find games officially licensed by the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB, on all of the major consoles. Nintendo would also start making less-serious sports games based on their Super Mario franchise, such as Mario Tennis, Mario Golf, and Mario Strikers.


In the 2000s, sports games were as popular as ever. Electronic Arts essentially created a monopoly for various sports franchises throughout the decade, by purchasing the exclusive rights to make NFL, AFL, and ESPN games. This was, in part, due to the success of Sega’s NFL 2K series. ESPN NFL 2K5 was $30 cheaper than Madden NFL 05, and received universal praise from critics. According to an EA developer, this “scared the hell” out of the company. They purchased the rights for NFL exclusivity in late 2004. Since then, the only simulation football games released have all been yearly Madden titles. Later in the decade, Nintendo released their Wii console, to massive success. To this date, the Wii is still the best selling console of all time. A launch title of the system was Wii Sports, a game that utilized the system’s motion-control features to play tennis, baseball, golf, and bowling. Wii Sports was a cultural phenomenon, and is the fourth best selling game of all time. The game would receive a sequel, Wii Sports Resort, in 2009.

Image courtesy of Engadget.

In the modern era, many sports games are yearly releases. Stapes of the genre include Madden, Fifa, and NBA 2K. Outside of simulation games, Nintendo still produces Mario sports titles for the Nintendo Switch. Every Olympic year, Nintendo and Sega collaborate to create a Mario and Sonic At The Olympic Games title. As gaming technology advances and the medium grows in popularity, one thing remains clear: sports games aren’t going anywhere.

Image courtesy of Nintendo Life.