History’s 30 Greatest Sports Video Games Ever Created
For the greatest athletes in the world, there are sports. For the rest of us, there are sports video games. We’re counting down the biggest games that have consumed our lives in the best of ways. These sports video games have not only beat out their competition, they’ve set the bar for the future of gaming.
This is it, the one that started it all. Atari’s legendary arcade game, Pong, doesn’t just have a special place in the hearts of sports gamers, but video gamers from all walks of life bend the knee in the presence of this arcade royalty.
Sure, we probably wouldn’t even know this was supposed to be ping-pong if the name wasn’t literally in the title. But before you go trashing Pong, just remember that this relic came out back in 1972. Though it wasn’t the very first video game ever, this ancient artifact was the first to be so popular and successful it arguably launched the video game industry.
You know a video game is important when it’s in the Smithsonian’s permanent collection.
Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! (1987)
The first rendition of the classic boxing game, Punch Out!!, dropped in 1983 at the arcade, spawning a bunch of hit spin-offs like those weird arm wrestling machines. What really launched this game into fame was when Nintendo released Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! in 1987.
It should be noted that Nintendo’s founder, Minoru Arakawa, saw Tyson fight before he won the heavyweight championship in 1986. The man obviously had some incredible vision, because an already epic game teaming up with what would soon become the world’s biggest boxing star made for one insanely popular video game. Here’s to you, Little Mac.
R.B.I. Baseball (1987)
For whatever reason, there’s something really satisfying about the minimalist layouts of early baseball games and R.B.I. Baseball is as simple as it gets.
What’s so remarkable about R.B.I.’s game play is how true to its old school 2-D predecessor other baseball games have remained.
When batting, the game’s design was so intuitive, splitting first and third base line views on the right and left side of the screen while displaying the batter in the middle. After contact, the little baseball diamond that pops up on the bottom of the screen to show the base runners is another feature that has continued.
In other words, it may look old, but this game was years ahead of its time.
Tecmo Bowl (1987)
The “Bo Knows” slogan featured Bo Jackson being a dominant multi-spot athlete, dominating any and every sport he tries. Well, just like everything else he tries his hand at, Bo knows video games, because his character in Tecmo Bowl is hands down one of the most ridiculously dominant characters ever created.
Tecmo Bowl was so simple, which is what made it so iconic. There were only two teams in the original arcade version: the Wildcats and the Bulldogs. When the Nintendo version came out a couple years later, there a total of 12 teams—just cities, since team names weren’t approved—with four plays each. Classic.
Golden Tee Golf (1989)
When Golden Tee Golf was first introduced in 1989, it swept the nation in a unique way that no other arcade game could quite match.
Rather than a joystick, its gameplay requires players to slide their hand over a trackball to “swing” at the golf ball. Now combine this game of technical skill… with a bunch of people in a bar.
Boom. We got a golden idea, golden setting, Golden Tee – this idea is straight cash. The addition of a Golden Tee to a local bar was guaranteed to keep a crowd huddled around the monitor for hours.
Over the years, competitions have reeled in national attention, and it’s no wonder, just think about how intense a simple game of darts gets even when for those of us who have no place even holding them.
NHL ’94 (1993)
NHL ‘94 wasn’t the first hockey game EA Sports released, but this bad boy was the one that set the bar higher than any game out there. No joke, NHL ’94 is so legendary, it’s still considered to be not only one of the greatest sports games of all time, but best video games in general.
A huge part of what made this game so epic was its intuitive game play, with controls that were simple enough to pick up fast and tons of upgraded features compared to older games with things like the introduction of the one timer.
From the unrivaled game play to awesome throwbacks like hearing the Hartford Whalers’ famous “Brass Bonanza” horns or playing with Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr’s Penguins and Wayne Gretzky’s Kings, NHL ’94 transcended pop culture, becoming key scene stealers in ’90s hit films like Swingers and Mall Rats.
NBA Jam (1993)
These video games are heating up! BOOMSHAKALAKA! These throwbacks are on fire!
Has there ever been a more iconic video game to become synonymous with the sport itself? Absolutely not. NBA Jam is a 2-on-2 basketball game with completely over-the-top play that makes the game so much fun.
Dunking the ball means a player jumping OVER the hoop and windmilling his arm about 40 times before throwing it down. To get a steal, there’s the equivalent of a literal “hit” button to shove the opponent down for a steal.
From the secret unlockable characters to epic retro rosters, this game does way more than just hold up over time. Most impressive of all is that this game left its mark without being able to use the likeness of the sports biggest star, Michael Jordan.
Ken Griffey Jr. Presents Major League Baseball (1994)
Super Nintendo was busting out classics at an ungodly rate and Ken Griffey Jr. Presents Major League Baseball was yet another example of that.
Part of what made this game so special was that, though the only real player name used is Ken Griffey Jr., a number of the iconic baseball stadiums rather than going with one stock field.
We’ll skim right by some of the iffy elements like when the game would randomly decide not to save and focus on the good times, like literally only playing the Home Run Derby feature or only buying the game in the first place for the collectible Ken Griffey Jr. trading card. Yeah, that’s the good stuff.
Cruis’n USA (1994)
The ‘90s delivered us so many epic sports video games – it’s not even fair. Here’s an arcade game we’ve all played at some point or another. Even if we didn’t really want to, it was such a staple at every venue with arcade games, dropping some quarters in was an inevitability at some point.
It was actually impressive how brutal the controls were in its arcade format, jerking the steering wheel back and forth while flooring the gas and praying for the best (which always went unheard.) The N64 version allowed us to actually somewhat control the cars, which was a big win.
How Cruis’n USA was actually the best racing game out their for its time is a mystery, but it was, and we have to respect the pioneers that blazed a trail for us.
Mario Kart 64 (1996)
This is it, the racing game to end all racing games – Mario Kart 64. There’s no ifs, ands or buts about the insane popularity surrounding the Mario Kart franchise, though it wasn’t easy picking between this and the original Super Mario Kart.
For ultimate fun extraction on either version, inviting three friends over for four-player is an absolute must (at least a one-friend minimum).
As frustrating as it is being in first place for the entire time, then the computer players suddenly become extremely competitive in the final leg of the race, we’ll take the easy controls any day. The main issue with the Super Nintendo version was, well, you had to actually have hand-eye coordination. We don’t have time for “trying” or “talent.”
Backyard Baseball (1997)
Having a friend whose family owned a legit desktop computer in the ‘90s was always clutch, but if that kid had Backyard Baseball… Oh man, game over. That kid could kiss his free time goodbye, because they’d have playdates lined up for months to get some games in.
Everyone knows the go-to guy is Pablo Sanchez. He doesn’t speak any English (the game’s words, not ours), but that just means less need to worry about him slacking off with friends when he should be playing. This squat little fella taught us youngsters early on that we don’t have to be the biggest to be the baddest.
NFL Blitz (1997)
Bring. The. Boom.
NFL Blitz brought everything we love about the game of football to the table and left all of the extra fat in the trash. No need for silly “rules” or “regulations” to play a game of football. Not a virtual one, at least.
What NBA Jam was for basketball, NFL Blitz is to football. There are minimal rules with a heavy emphasis on (what should be) illegal hits whenever possible, scoring in impossible fashion is a regular occurrence, mind-boggling athleticism is the standard and game play is what we all wish the sport looked like in real life.
Gran Turismo (1997/98)
Pretty much any video game that manages to get a spin-off or sequel made means it enjoyed its fair share of success. Based on the Fast and Furious looking list that Gran Turismo has built since its inception, we’ll assume it was quite popular. Nearly 11 million sales is a solid indicator too.
It took roughly five years to create Gran Turismo and the time spent obviously paid dividends, as critics were overwhelmingly positive upon its release. The game’s graphics were way ahead of its time, the gameplay was intuitive, and it was just plain fun. Though the creative process very may well have driven Gran Turismo’s creators to insanity, it was totally worth it to set the bar for all racing games.
1080 Snowboarding (1998)
A few snowboarding games had been released over the years before 1080 Snowboarding came out in 1998, but this N64 masterpiece set the standard for top tier shredding.
There are two major components about the game that made it so true to the entire N64 experience: Computer players that suddenly master the game in the final leg of the race (ahem, Mario Kart) and gravity-defying acrobatics.
As much air as you could catch in this game, what was actually just as impressive was how realistic the play was. That sounds contradictory, but this is more in the sense that busting out a 1080 isn’t just going to happen every time you hit a jump. It balanced massive potential for insane tricks with technical controls that actual lend to real snowboarding knowledge. Beautiful.
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater (1999)
Skateboarding changed forever when Tony Hawk entered the professional circuit. That goes double for when Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater was released in ’99.
Every single thing about this game crushed. This game became synonymous with the word addicted, which was evident in any addict humming “Superman,” “New Girl” or one of the other 10 tracks.
That, of course, was also the game’s biggest downfall, as playing on mute almost became a necessity when rolling into hour six of playing, those same pop-punk jams really started pounding on the temples.
All in all, advanced levels and tricks could be as challenging as the early levels and basic controls were easy to learn.
We needed more (and got it).
Big Buck Hunter (2000)
Big Buck Hunter capitalized on a concept that had already garnered a rabid fanbase – light gun shooters.
Arcade games like Virtua Cop, Time Crisis, Area 51 and The House of the Dead were a few of the biggest names that all had unique hooks, but Buck Hunter found an untapped market.
What made this game so popular is that it awards points in a way that actually encourages game play that mirrors hunting (loosely, of course). Not being able to shoot a doe.
It may not feel like going out in the wilderness, but it was a preferable option to a hunting/outdoor community that wasn’t down with holding off a zombie apocalypse.
Mario Tennis (2000)
Everything with the name “Mario” in it turns to gold immediately upon its release and Mario Tennis was no exception to this rule.
Like Mario Kart, Mario Tennis took a game filled with complex controls and simplified to the nth degree.
The result was a super easy game that was so easy to learn, anyone could pick it up and hold their own within a few rounds of play. Toss in a bunch of new characters and we have yet another Mario classic.
There really isn’t, and probably won’t ever be, a series that brings family and friends together like Mario’s world of multiplayer games.
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 (2000)
Who knew that even heaven could use some improvements?
Neversoft stepped up its game when dropping Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 a year after the first game’s debut. Everything that needed to be upgraded was, and it was pure magic.
Better graphics, improved game play, more skaters, bigger maps, crazier tricks, even new songs! With all of the added multiplayer options—Graffiti, Trick Attack, Tag, HORSE, Free Skate—available, the stage was set to never grow tired of wasting away nights playing friends.
All the shredding with none of the “No Skateboards Allowed” warnings. Can’t ask much more than a carefree skate sesh.
WWF No Mercy (2000)
WWF No Mercy continued to build off of all its wrestling video game predecessors, regarding hits and grapples. Despite so many similarities throughout the game to its contemporary, WWF Wrestlemania 2000, it was the superior controls that made this so lovable. It is regarded as one of the best wrestling video games ever made.
Prior to No Mercy, controls were always a bit glitchy. Finally, pulling off moves didn’t have to feel like button mashing. On top of that, a ton of customizable settings for customizing characters were made available, and isn’t the glitz and glam really what it’s all about?
NHL Hitz 2002 (2001)
It took a long time for hockey to finally get another epic video game after NHL ‘94, but the wait was totally worth it when NHL Hitz 2002 hit stores.
Taking a page out of NFL Blitz, NHL Hitz was all about jacking up the score and jacking up opponents.
Using a 3-on-3 format (not including goalies) opens up the rink for way more scoring opportunities, fights are inevitable, and players even have an “on fire” mode after scoring three goals like NBA Jam.
Tons of hits, points and fights. It’s the holy trinity we all seek in a sports video game.
SSX Tricky (2001)
Leave it to EA Sports to take an awesome idea and trick it out with upgraded features. Leave it to EA Canada that does that for a snowboarding game.
SSX Tricky is an improved version of its original SSX title that came out a year prior, but it was really a step up for all boarding games.
The fast pace of the game’s play matched the high octane sport. No worries about realistic moves, as this was all about the absurd. Pulling off a 1260 is barely noteworthy while characters hit jumps that would need a parachute to survive.
Set reality aside and ditch gravity for this.
NBA Street Vol. 2 (2003)
The early 2000s ushered in the rise of streetball. When the AND1 Mixtape Tour came out in ’98, basketball fans were opened up to a previously underground form of the game that was like candy to even the most casual fans.
Turn a sport that emphasizes all the fun and flashy parts into a video game and the success is guaranteed.
NBA Street Vol. 2 built on its already wildly popular first release, using the 3-on-3 format to focus more on individual stunts than team play.
The soundtrack is absolute fire. Game play is intuitive. Dunks, tricks and moves were exaggerated versions of their reality. Once again, giving our virtual athletes superhuman abilities proved to be a recipe for success.
NCAA Football 2004 (2003)
Right off the bat, the NCAA Football 2004 rendition of the college football franchise is unforgettable for the man repping the cover, former USC quarterback Carson Palmer. An opportunity to play with the indomitable Trojans—a team made up of nearly 50 future NFL players—is all the reason college fans needed to get a copy.
One of the coolest new features this edition has is the collection of school spirited intros. Players get hyped up and come running out of the tunnels with flag bearers and school mascots are dancing around, going wild. There are even a bunch of touchdown celebrations that’ll draw unsportsmanlike conduct penalties. What’s more college football than that?!
Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2004 (2003)
There are a whole bunch to choose from, but Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2004 tops the rest this list for game play that is simply outstanding.
No doubt, actually trying to get good is way more time consuming that 99 percent of the other games on this list, but its creators really made an effort to make the learning curve smooth sailing.
By far the biggest mark this game left was the analog swing stick function, which remains a cornerstone to golf games that have followed.
For the golf enthusiasts willing to put more time into learning the controls than Mario Tennis, the number of competitive and tutorial outlets available made getting down the controls much easier.
Def Jam: Fight for NY (2004)
Let’s just get this out of the way: Yeah, we’re counting this as wrestling/MMA. Deal with it.
Def Jam: Fight for NY was the second game in the Def Jam fight series. Everything from the graphics to character creation and interactions to actual gameplay was a giant upgrade from the original.
What sets the Def Jam series apart from other fighting games is that this one is for the culture. The cast of characters is stacked with some of the toughest rappers and biggest names in the biz: Snoop Dogg, Ludacris, Method Man, Red Man and Lil’ Kim to name a few.
Fun game, dope beats, recognizable celebrities. Add a pinch of violence and we got us a game.
Madden NFL 2005 (2004)
The only thing more killer than Madden NFL 2005 is the man gracing its cover, Ray Lewis… allegedly.
It’s no coincidence that Lewis is on the cover of this one, as Madden 2005 did what we was previously thought impossible – it made defense matter, and it did that in a very fun way.
Introducing… The Hit Stick!
The sweet, angelic sound of players flicking the right trigger stick is music to our ears. “Defense” was just another way of saying “wait to get back on offense” before this. Unstoppable offenses finally had a formidable foe in the Hit Stick, which lowers the boom to force fumbles.
Just like that, defense became the new offense.
FIFA 07 (2006)
Literally everything than can be “improved,” in terms of video game development, has been improved in the FIFA series since FIFA 07, but this edition remains a fan favorite for good reason.
FIFA 07 remains so popular for its simplicity as much as its advanced game play.
Ball control became more lifelike than ever, but the number of tricks and moves make this edition feel like a two-button Nintendo game the ones of today… and that is a very nice thing for the casual gamers.
It’s also all about the little things. No more waiting around in silence, as the mini 1-on-1 game trying to score on a goalie gave us something to do to pass the time.
NCAA Basketball 10 (2009)
NCAA Basketball 10 tops out all of its preceding editions, but it’s a bittersweet victory, as this beautiful piece of art never had another edition succeed it.
The Blake Griffin covered game sports all but about 20 of the then-347 Division I schools were included with a Dick Vitale-led announcing crew that even hits all the bases.
Honestly, the only thing that really did suck about this game was that NCAA games were discontinued after this. It’s hard to argue the whole “using players’ likenesses without paying them is not okay” thing, but come onnnn, we love and need all things college hoops.
NBA 2K11 (2010)
No video game publishers outdo themselves quite like 2K Sports team does with their NBA 2K series. Asking, “What’s the best NBA 2K?” is the equivalent of asking, “What year is it?” (minus one). That being said, NBA 2K11 has good reason for beating out the others.
This one’s got MJ. Not only does it feature Michael Jordan, a major part selling point for this game—apart from the usual play—is the “Jordan Challenge” mode. Finally, gamers could get their MJ fix, trying to emulate the most iconic moments His Airness delivered throughout his career.
A chance to be like Mike? Sign us up.
UFC Undisputed 3 (2012)
We had to give a little love to some real MMA video game action with UFC Undisputed 3.
Undisputed 3 is leaps and bounds ahead of its predecessor with way more realistic fighter movements and the grappling is no longer just button mashing with closed eyes. Best of all is Pride Mode.
Pride Mode allows fighters to fight like by Pride, rather than UFC, rules. Head kicks to a grounded opponent all day, baby.
Making a legit MMA game is still in its early stages with few to have been released over the years, so this—like any other of its peers—is filled with more than its fair share of problems too, unfortunately.