Beyond visceral realism, sports simulations aren’t really judged based on their artistic merit. There are titles that break the mold of clinical accuracy in favor of stylized silliness—Mario Tennis, Level-5’s Inazuma Eleven, Konami’s Power Pros—though they’re generally considered outliers in their genre. Most games are designed with the hope that the consumer will forget that they have godlike control over the on-field action. If the motion capture and virtual sweat looks good enough, your roommate might mistake your exhibition game for an ESPN broadcast from a distance.
Once you peel back the hyperreal surface of these sporting simulacra, though, there’s a soul to be discovered: a ghost in the machine. If your Maddens and FIFAs are merely increasingly realistic means of mirroring reality, why is it that I and many others look back on, say, MVP Baseball 2005 with such fondness? You can point to the heightened focus on online multiplayer over season modes we’ve seen in recent years, but I don’t think the real answer is as complex.
Looking back at the countless hours I’ve spent playing sports games over the years, what I remember most about each of them is the licensed music that played as I tinkered with rosters or adjusted difficulty sliders. When you’re studying spreadsheets of stats for extended periods of time, their accompanying soundtracks gradually become ingrained in your psyche. Occasionally, I’ll be sitting at my desk at work only to find the guitar riff from Spoon’s “Don’t You Evah” stuck in my head—a holdover from my days playing MLB The Show 09. There are some things you just can’t forget.
Thanks to their soundtracks, old sports games act as time capsules as they take up space in our bedrooms or on GameStop shelves. They become fodder for memes, samples for underground rappers, or the subject of heated debate. They can teach us about the subcultures they emerged from and the fans that grew up on them. Join me as I reminisce on some of the most memorable tunes I discovered thanks to sports video games.
MVP Baseball 2005: …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead – “Let It Dive”
I mentioned it earlier, but it bears repeating that MVP Baseball 2005 is widely considered one the most innovative and influential sports titles of all time, boasting a cult following and inspiring plenty of adoring video essays to this day. It helps that its eclectic garage rock soundtrack was loaded back to front with unshakably catchy cuts, most memorably The High Speed Scene’s “The IROC-Z Song,” which will always be the reason I associate Taco Bell with professional baseball. The best of the bunch, though, is “Let It Dive” by Texan alt-rock group …And You Will Know Us By the Trail Of Dead. Cloyingly anthemic and dusted with psychedelic sound effects, it’s the perfect accompaniment to the hero’s journey that is a 162 game Major League Baseball season.
March Madness 2005: Jimmy Eat World – “The Middle”
Back when EA was still putting out yearly installments of college sports games, soundtracks were usually an afterthought for the developers—upload a nice variety of university fight songs played by marching bands, slap on the metadata, and move on. That, however, wasn’t the case in March Madness 2005, which featured hilariously somber marching band covers of early 2000s hits. If Papa Roach’s “Last Resort” wasn’t already the epitome of nu-metal melodrama, wait until you hear it played with the bombast only a school band can muster. It’s actually kind of amazing. Jimmy Eat World’s pop-punk classic “The Middle” benefits most from the collegiate treatment, emotionally charged by reverb-laden horns and pounding percussion. I’m not kidding when I say it’s on par with the original; just give it a listen to hear for yourself.
FIFA 08: Digitalism – “Pogo”
Choosing just one song from this iteration of FIFA was tough. For its time, 08’s soundtrack was absolutely massive, spanning 50 tracks from across the globe. The traditional indie-adjacent sound prevailed, but the game also helped expand my primary school horizons to Colombian rock, Algerian electronica, and this bonkers Japanese hip-hop track.
If there’s one song I associate with the game, though, it has to be “Pogo,” the lead single from German electro-house duo Digitalism’s 2007 record Idealism. It’s very much a product of its time, all aboard the late aughts’ dance-punk wave led by Bloc Party and Yeah Yeah Yeahs, but here the formula is executed to perfection. From its stuttering synth intro to the twangy post-punk guitar riffs scattered throughout, there’s a good reason I’d often mute every other song in the game, looping “Pogo” while playing manager mode. It’s strangely addictive.
MLB 2K8: Battles – “Atlas”
2007 was a weird time, an era when social media had just begun to make its mark on society and the once-opaque lines between the internet and real life began to blur. A collaboration between 2K Sports and arbiters of sub-mainstream music taste Pitchfork Media may not seem all that inconceivable today, but in the heyday of hipsterdom, it was pretty novel. MLB 2K8’s Pitchfork-curated soundtrack featured alt-rock veterans Dinosaur Jr. and once-buzzing indie act The Hold Steady, but its coolest inclusion was Battles’ “Atlas,” a bustling math rock epic laden with alien vocals, clattering drums, and densely-knotted guitaristry. When you’re young, you can’t help but imagine some sort of musical Rube Goldberg machine cranking out tunes like this—even today, it sounds inhuman in the best way.
Madden 08: From Autumn to Ashes – “Daylight Slaving”
Madden soundtracks were my least favorite offerings from the EA Sports family growing, favoring a mix of post-grunge and crunk that hasn’t aged all that well in retrospect. Looking back on 08, I do have a fondness for just how angsty this melodic slice of post-hardcore song is. There’s nothing like scrolling through your playbook while From Autumn to Ashes frontman Francis Mark screams about seasonal depression over dissonant breakdowns.
NBA 2K10: MGMT – “Electric Feel”
“Electric Feel” is more than a flawless pop song. Hearing it for the first time was a genuine cultural moment many millennials and older zoomers yearn to return to. For me, a member of the latter category, that moment took place in front of the TV while grinding through Franchise mode. Whenever I hear that funky flute intro, the memories instantly flood back.
NBA 2K19: Emoney One11 & Skippa Da Flippa – “Swervin”
Before the signature McDonald’s burger or the Cacti seltzer, one of rapper-turned-mogul Travis Scott’s first steps toward becoming a human brand was acting as “executive producer” on NBA 2K19’s official soundtrack. My cynicism aside, the game’s music selection was pretty memorable, focusing mainly on atmospheric trap and EDM while peppering in some questionable hard rock outliers for some reason. What I remember most about playing way too much MyPark in 2018 was realizing that nearly every song included in the game had some sort of oddly-specific basketball reference shoehorned in, making the whole experience feel totally meta. Do I really want to listen to music about “cooking ankles for breakfast” or “balling like Kyrie Irving” while my in-game avatar does just that? Yes.
The latter quote is taken from “Swervin,” a collaboration between virtually unknown Florida emcee Emoney One11 and Migos affiliate Skippa Da Flippa, one of the game’s more under-the-radar selections, but it’s the track I enjoyed hearing the most. The beat’s ethereal, the flows are nimble, and the music’s unobtrusive enough to focus on timing jump shots.
Can’t ask for much more.