I adore the aspects of simulation and the immersion created by a high level of effort to create realism in a good sports game. Sports games in this humble bloggers opinion, should be an imitation of the sport, not an exaggerated caricature-like game. When I play sports video games I want to be immersed in a sense of realism, with game-play that is slower, that feels more natural to the sport. Basically I want to play these games as if I was a professional athlete competing in my sport. I care not for the faster, less realistic game-play of sports games that have the license of sporting organizations. However I always feel there are sometimes moments whenever I play sports video games, that I have to pause the game. The game is paused because I am shocked. Shocked at the gross ineptidue of the AI in sports video games, in particular the Artificial Intelligence (AI) on the player’s side. Suffice to say I am no longer immersed.

It doesn’t even matter what type of sports game I choose to play I am faced with incompetence and failure.  It’s not as if these games are made by inexperienced independent developers but these sports games are made from established developers such as “2K Sports” and “EA Sports” who make yearly renditions of these games. Yet the AI in these games sometimes makes me want to slam my head into the table.

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A small example of “simulation” sports games genre I am mentioning.

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The first example of bad AI I want to talk about is from 2K Sports’ “NBA 2K” basketball series. I suspect my teammates have taken bribes from the opposing team to lose the match. A pick and roll (Link here for less knowledgeable sports fans) is an offensive play in basketball that is meant to be a simple, efficient way of scoring but at times in the NBA 2K video game series it feels like a game of Russian roulette. Whenever I set a pick and roll on offense, I expect my teammate to get open after the pick, so he can either drive to the basket, or take the open shot. Most of the time that doesn’t happen. Rather my teammate will either run straight towards a defender and take a pull-up jump shot right in the defender’s face, which will either result in a miss or a blocked shot, or my teammate will instead of moving into the open space available to him,  will instead run straight into another defender. That means when I pass the ball, the defender can simply catch the ball, resulting in a turnover. What tactical advantage do my AI teammates think we achieve with their lack of basic basketball knowledge? I could understand if it was the defenders making defensive stops but they are not the reason I am not scoring as much as I should. It’s my own teammates incompetence. As someone who tries to play the Point Guard position similarly to the Hall of Famer John Stockton, it gets pretty frustrating watching the pick and roll offense disintegrate most of the time.

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In NBA 2K17 I do feel like box art player Kobe Bryant. I need to take every shot because everyone on my team is useless.

The defence utilized by the friendly AI in the NBA 2K games in recent years can be mind-mindbogglingly stupid, in their over eagerness to use help defence. For those unaware “help defence” is an important defensive scheme where a defensive player adjusts his defence to help his teammate defend the ball handler. This is usually done by having the closest defensive player leaving his “zone” or assignment to help his teammate who is guarding the ball handler. Yet the AI seems a bit too trigger happy to help the player when on defence. While it might be useful for beginners for anyone with even a hint of basketball knowledge, the AI makes an offensive one trick pony like Rajon Rondo look like an offensive powerhouse like Stephen Curry. The AI’s inability to use this type of defence effectively can cost player’s games and allow opponents to score far too many points than they should.

In NBA 2K16 and 2K17 especially, whenever the AI teammate who leaves his assignment to help  you or another AI on defence, the assisting teammate is usually someone who should not be leaving his assignment. For example a centre leaves the paint defenceless to help on the perimeter or in a different scenario; a defender on the perimeter prematurely heads to the paint even if the ball handler isn’t driving to the paint. These defensive breakdowns that could have easily been avoided, will always leave a member of the opposing team wide open who can score an easy basket, because he has no one to defend him. I must stress that I am not calling for help or asking for aid, the AI is doing this automatically. The AI thinks it is helping me, but instead it is hindering me.

In the worst case scenario of an AI defenders mistake not only will the opponent score, but the AI will send another player to try and rectify its mistake, who promptly fouls the shooter, granting the opponent free throws, or should the original shot be made, an “and-one”. What makes this defensive ineptitude really get under my skin is that the opposing team are usually not an immediate threat to score when the help defence arrives. The opponents could set a simple pick-and-roll to start the offence, not even intend to score on the pick and roll, yet the help clumsily arrives and then a quick pass by the offense leads to and quick and easy score. While I understand the occasional breakdown on defence to simulate the defensive mistakes that occur in the real life game, the consistency of failure on defence in this regard, makes me feel like I am playing with a group of school boys, not paid professionals whose career it is to play basketball.

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Ever since NBA 2K16, I have wished I could have a defensive anchor like Scottie Pippen that Michael Jordan had on his Chicago Bulls team….

Recently popular NBA2K YouTuber “Chris Smoove” released a video highlighting the issues with the help defence AI that I have mentioned which can be view on his YouTube channel here.

American Football games can have disturbingly poor friendly AI as well. Whether it is Madden or the collegiate football equivalent; NCAA Football, I always have issues. In particular I have two big issues with the AI present in these games, but the first one I wish to talk about is the inconsistent nature of blocking. Blocking is pretty important for offense in football. It allows the running back or wide receiver to run unimpeded and the quarterback more time to throw before being hit. I understand particularly in the game of American Football that no play is perfect, and mistakes will be made, but blocking mistakes happen far too frequently.

On some offensive snaps if I am lucky, and the blockers will do their job and block the right people and hold the line for the quarterback, or create space for the running back. However most of the time that simply doesn’t happen. Usually I will have blockers either miss their assigned blocks completely and make absolutely no attempt to fix the error made. Instead the blocker runs straight forward, towards the end zone. Presumably the blocker runs towards the end-zone in embarrassment and shame for his failure. Completely ignoring the fact that the blocker could have tried to fix his mistake and block the defender he missed, or at least be a hindrance to the defender to give me, the player, more time, which his real-life counterpart would most likely have done. Sometimes I have even seen a blocker ignore a block directly in front of him, which if blocked successfully would allow me to score a touchdown, but instead chooses to help his teammate block, who does not require help blocking in any shape or form. What really grates me in this scenario is that the defence is running a “Cover 4” defensive play. This means there are four defensive linemen to immediately block versus five offensive linemen, and because Cover 4 is a zone defence, there will be no blitz coming, meaning no additional defenders rushing the quarterback. In theory my team has a numerical advantage when blocking of four to five. I fail to understand why he would ignore the defender directly in his vision, and instead help his teammate who has shown no signs of struggling to block the defender. It sometimes feels like the offensive linemen are being bribed by the other team. I’m not allowed an easy score!

What I find truly frustrating is that in case of bad blocking, is that the AI affects not only the statistically lower offensive lineman and blockers, but to the higher statistically rated linemen and blockers too. A player’s statistics are based on their real life performances, so a blocker who blocks poorly in real life should not be a reliable component in a video game. This would make sense to me, if not for the fact that it appears ratings do not matter.  It doesn’t matter if you are playing with a team that prides itself on its great offensive line and blockers like the Dallas Cowboys, or a team like the Seattle Seahawks who would have better blocking by putting a cardboard cut-out of the team’s players on the pitch.

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This is an attempt at a running play in “Madden 17”. The red arrow indicates where the running back is meant to run.
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The ball has just been snapped. The offensive lineman are all either blocking, or moving towards the man they are meant to block. Apart from the lineman next to the question mark. He shouldn’t double teaming a man, he should be moving to block his man.
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The Quarterback is almost about to give the running back the ball. The blocker on the left with the cross, is the only blocker not doing his job. He needs to quickly get off that double team he shouldn’t be on, and block the linebacker who could end this running play.
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The running back has the ball and is on the run. However he has to deal with a linebacker who is rapidly approaching. The offensive lineman who caused this mess can still block linebacker and make this play work. It won’t be pretty, but we can pull this off.
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We didn’t pull it off, and it wasn’t pretty. The linebacker was able to get through untouched and tackle the running back. The other defenders soon after broke their blocks and promptly swarmed the downed running back. Instead of blocking the linebacker he was supposed to originally, or doing something to save the situation, the offensive lineman who caused this mess is for some reason, running away from the mess he caused. Hopefully he is running away in shame.

Recently in Madden 17, I have noticed how horrendous the path of finding of the receivers are. Many times have I snapped the ball on offense, only to watch as receivers get stuck behind defenders, and what do these players do when they are stuck behind a defender? No attempt is made by the receivers to get in front of the defender, they actually run slower because they are stuck behind the defender. If I attempt to throw to a receiver like this, I am usually intercepted. From what I can tell, this isn’t a case of the receiver running their route well or good coverage from the defender, rather the AI of the receivers being horribly basic. The AI receivers make no attempt at getting open, instead relying on running their route to perfection, even if the receiver is not known for being a good route runner in real life. It has struck me that maybe the receivers are acting this way to to emulate what happens when the defence runs a perfect coverage. However I question why even a receiver route such as a “slant”, which is effectively a diagonal route, causes the receiver to get stuck behind a defender. This issue happens too frequently for me to write this issue off as a game mechanic.

All this talk of underwhelming AI leads me to question, why do these game developers market their games as “sports simulations”?  Some of the stupidity I’ve seen from the AI would never be seen in a real life sporting event, so I find it odd that the game developers and publishers use the word “simulation”. A simulation game would imply an imitation of the real thing, which as I have given examples of, these games certainty aren’t imitations.  Some of these AI issues I mentioned, have never been fixed in patches and some issues such as the NBA 2K help defence, which continues to persist in sequels to these games today. Am I expecting far too much though? I briefly mentioned how I like sports games to be true simulations, almost as if I am playing the game for real, but maybe that is impossible. There are limitations for coding game AI after all, and the physical and mental strengths of these athletes can’t truly be captured in a video game. Nevertheless whenever a player is struggling in a sports video game I see them blame various factors. Some blame the intelligence of the AI itself, others blame the animations of the AI; I could go on with the excuses people come up with, but are they wrong?

Theoretically if I did decide to make someone or something responsible someone for the underwhelming AI in sports games, who would that be?

Do you think I’m overacting about the AI in sports games, or do you agree with me? I’m interested to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

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