Why COVID-19 has made me want to play sports games more than ever

I’ve done little but sit on my behind for the last six months. In an alternate reality, I’m the greatest sportsman of my generation.

Can I tell you about a game I’m obsessed with at the moment? I can? Great. It’s called Descenders. It’s an extreme mountain biking game, made by the excellently named Dutch studio RageSquid. I’ll be honest, it totally passed me by when it was released on the Xbox One early last year, but its recent release on the PS4 (and the Nintendo Switch) piqued my interest.

It’s a pretty novel little game. It’s also tonnes of fun. I’d even say, tentatively, it ticks the boxes the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater games did for a previous generation. The courses are procedurally generated, meaning you’ll never play the same course twice. The music is great too, featuring a ton of mellow drum’n’bass cuts I was happy to be introduced to. I’m surprised I’ve fallen for a rogue-like mountain biking simulator, but then, to paraphrase Selena Gomez, the heart wants what it wants.

Descenders
Descenders. Credit: RageSquid

I was playing it late last night, munching on a bag of crisps and supping a can of soda. The more tricks you pull off in the game, the more skill you accrue. The more skill you accrue, the more goodies – outfit changes, new helmets, peripheries, bat wings – are unlocked. Standard sport game fare, but I found myself taking things extremely seriously.

We all live vicariously through the games we play. Being a Witcher or an assassin, a hedgehog or a plumber, it’s all part of the appeal. An escape from reality. But there, at 3am, pulling off a backwards no-hander, I wasn’t James McMahon, fat slob, but James McMahon mountain-bike pro. And then it struck me. I cannot remember the last time I sat my arse on an actual bike.

I can just about remember the last time I played football. In Hackney, the day before lockdown began. I’ve played FIFA 20 almost every day since, often for long periods of time. I take playing that game pretty seriously too. The other day I got thrashed by someone with the name ‘Pu55y FC’ and I felt like I’d let progressive men down for the rest of the day.

FIFA 20
FIFA 20. Credit: EA Sports

I’ve found myself gravitating to sports games during this bizarre juncture of history. The other day my wife came into our living room to see me playing Fishing Sim World: Pro Tour and I couldn’t have been more ashamed of myself if she’d caught me watching porn. In reality, I’ve been fishing once, with some boys at school. They threw maggots at me and I went home upset, never to return again.

So what’s going on here, in my head? A terrifying question, but it has to have something to do with how much the COVID era has kept us all cooped up and away from sport. It’s not just physical activity I’ve been craving. The other day I found myself on YouTube watching kabaddi, the Indian sport which fuses playground classic British Bulldog with Gregorian chanting, something those of a certain age who watched a lot of Channel 4 programming in the mid-’90s would be familiar with.

I’m a rudimentary sports guy. I played rugby at school in a pathetic attempt to make my dad like me. I honestly believe that if I’d never discovered biscuits I would now be planning my testimonial, after a long and storied football career. But I always lose at tennis. I hate running. I can’t fight. Or jump very far. Or very high. And I refuse to play cricket because I’m not an idiot. Do sports games allow me to feel good about myself within an area I’ve often felt bad? Maybe. But I’m not even very good at sports games, so maybe not.

Fishing Sim World Pro Tour
Fishing Sim World: Pro Tour. Credit: Dovetail Games

I’m not sure I would have come to love Descenders if I had stumbled upon it in another year. Maybe there was a reason I missed it when it emerged in 2019. It’s not like I don’t scour the Xbox Store like some kind of overweight eagle.

I think maybe there’s something inside me, an internal monologue that is telling me to “get up and get outside. Run wild and be free, get your knees up, let’s get some of that fat off around your waist”. And in fairness, said monologue talks a lot of sense. There’s something in what they’re saying. I’m going to put some shorts on and get active. But first? I’ll probably have another bag of crisps and play Descenders for another hour.

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