The Olympics might refuse to include gamers, but the monumental sports event is no stranger to video game adaptations.
Mario and Sonic compete against each other every two years in officially licensed video games. And this year, Sega released a more realistic adaptation of the historic sporting event with Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 - The Official Video Game.
This isn’t a new trend either. Video games based on the Olympics have been around since the 1990s. There’s just one problem: none of these video games are very good.
Sports games are some of the most popular titles on the market, so it makes sense that developers would see the Olympics as a huge opportunity. But the lack of a decent Olympic video game suggests studios are content to pump out forgettable minigame collections. These games often take the continental breakfast approach — there’s something everyone can stomach, but nothing outstanding.
With a bit of effort, we could get a video game that represents the best of the Olympics by highlighting underrepresented sports and bringing people around the world. Currently, the only highlight is when Mario and Sonic share the court.
I'm Tomas Franzese, and this is The Hotfix, a column about ideas that could improve video games and the culture around them. Each week or so I'll explore a problem in gaming and how it could be solved. I'll talk to experts, offer my own analysis, and solicit you, the people I'm writing for, to sound off with your ideas. Send any and all feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org. 🎮
The problem with Olympics video games
Series like Madden, FIFA, and NBA 2K are popular for a very simple reason: they figured out what makes those sports exciting and fun to play. Infrequently televised events like gymnastics and rowing have these exhilarating moments too, like sticking a clean landing on vault, or watching eight oars skitter across the water in perfect harmony.
No Olympics video game comes close to those titles. Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 - The Official Video Game from Sega, in particular, feels undercooked and bland. With no extra modes, you’ll see everything the game has to offer in an hour or less.
Minigames aren’t inherently terrible, as series like WarioWare and Yakuza prove. But most Olympic video games don’t have enough depth to be interesting after playing them once — a critical flaw for a sports title that is designed to be played repeatedly.
Because they’re trying to represent and appeal to such a wide variety of sports and fans, licensed Olympic video games can’t focus on making each event enjoyable to play. It exposes the biggest weakness of video games based on the Olympics: they are a jack of all trades, masters of none.
How to fix it
Olympic video games need to go deeper. The best minigames in Sega’s collection, like Rugby and Judo, actually have some depth, making players want to go back for more. A compelling story or career mode would go a long way toward enhancing the experience.
Annual releases like FIFA and Madden have figured out how to craft engaging narratives in this way, and the Olympics are an excellent backdrop for a compelling sports drama about an underdog attempting to win.
Even an RPG approach could be interesting. Imagine a Yuri!! On Ice-inspired figure-skating game for the Winter Olympics, where you have to balance your social life and training regime alongside a steady slate of regional and international competitions, clawing your way into the global spotlight bit by bit.
The Olympics are an event where people from around the world come together. An Olympics game should do the same. An online social hub where fans can meet and mingle would enhance future games, and exploring the Olympics and interacting with other player-athletes would be just as novel as playing individual sports minigames.
It would also serve as a time capsule for what the event was like long after it was over. Titles like Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 shouldn’t belong in the trash by the time the closing ceremonies are finished. They should be relevant sports titles for the months and years afterward.
Olympic video game developers should go for the gold, not settle for a participation trophy.