Superstars: A Potted History Of Video Games Fronted By British Sports Stars
Britain is known as a sports mad country. The fact that a population of 66 million people is able to support the existence of 92 football league clubs, dozens of professional rugby clubs (union and league), cricket teams, a British motorsport industry, Team GB, British riders in the Tour De France and still have time to watch the darts at Alexandra Palace shows we’re keen on our sports.
So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that plenty of British athletes have been used to sell video games based on sports. But which games have featured superstars in their names? How have they stacked up against rivals of the day? And is this form of personal branding still happening today?
Let’s take a look at six games to feature British sporting stars to find out the answers to those questions.
Daley Thompson’s Decathlon (1984)
The archetypal British video game with a British sports star is Daley Thompson’s Decathlon.
Released in 1984, published by Ocean Interactive and available on the Spectrum, Commodore 64 and Amstrad CPC, the game introduced players to the glorious world of athletics based button bashing.
Building on the formula of Konami’s Track and Field, Daley Thompson’s Decathlon challenged players to hammer buttons as quickly as possible to clear score thresholds in disciplines such as the 100 metres, long jump and pole vault.
And if players got through all ten events without using up their three lives, they’d be deposited back at the first event but with a more challenging score to beat.
Daley Thompson’s Decathlon was well received and well reviewed. As well as receiving an 8/10 in Sinclair User, the game went on to become one of the best sellers of 1984. It was even named one of the 10 games that defined the ZX Spectrum by Eurogamer back in April 2017.
And while its possible that Daley might rate his Olympic Golds or CBE over his video game, we still think it deserves its rightful place on the podium.
Emlyn Hughes’ International Soccer (1988)
Well before the FIFA and Pro Evolution Soccer (PES) wars of the early 2000s, there was a completely different battle for supremacy amongst football video games.
The late 1980s and very early 1990s was defined by a running battle between games like Microprose Soccer, Match Day, Kick Off and Sensible Soccer. But for the footballing purists, Emlyn Hughes’ International Soccer was top of the pile.
Based on the 1983 game International Soccer and carrying the name of a legendary Liverpool footballer, the game looked a little outdated for the time. Featuring a side on view at a time when other football games had shifted to a top down approach, it ran the risk of feeling a little long in the tooth.
However, it offered a deeper experience than most football games at the time. As well as offering a “five direction” control option to give greater control over passing and shooting, it also featured a wide range of supplementary options such as sidestepping, barging, heading and lobs that weren’t in other games.
As a result, the game earned a reputation for footballing richness that captivated players looking for a deeper experience. And despite fierce competition, it proved popular enough that Emlyn Hughes himself was promoting the game on TV in 1992 – four years after its release.
Jimmy White’s Whirlwind Snooker (1991)
What was, perhaps surprisingly, once considered the 37thgreatest video game of all time and the focus of a competitive gaming tournament in the early 1990s? The answer was Jimmy White’s Whirlwind Snooker.
The 1991 Commodore 64, Amstrad, Spectrum, Atari and Amiga release was a long time in the making. Developed by Archer Maclean over the course of nearly three years, it sought to be both the most realistic recreation of Snooker around and maintain a British sense of humour through incidental background jokes and sounds.
Weirdly, it worked. The critics praised it for how easy it was to pick up and play, but also for the fact that its recreation of the baize based ball game was the most realistic at the time.
It’s why PC Gamer briefly put it in the top 50 computer games of all time. And the quality of its virtual snooker helped it to become the focus of a competitive gaming competition held in Virgin Megastores across the UK, with the winner appearing on 1994 TV show Gamesmaster alongside Jimmy White himself.
The 1990s were weird, I know.
Nigel Mansell’s World Championship Racing (1992)
Unfortunately, not every video game that bears the name of a leading sports star is good. Nigel Mansell’s World Championship Racing – which released in 1992 – is one such game that didn’t reach the heights of the person who branded it.
On paper, it sounded so promising. Published by legendary publisher Gremlin Graphics – known for the well regarded Lotus series – Nigel Mansell’s World Championship Racing challenged you to repeat his F1 championship winning feat from 1992.
Pitting you against 11 accurately named F1 drivers – including Gerhard Burger and Michael Schumacher – and letting you race classic F1 tracks, everything about the game sounded right.
But Computer Gaming World summed up the negative critical reception to it. Giving it 1.5 out of 5, their review said it was a “mediocre attempt at a racing simulator” and said that players would be better spent investing in one of the Lotus games instead.
Gremlin had the last laugh though. Despite sketchy reviews, the SNES version still hit number 9 in 1993’s Christmas Best Seller charts in the UK. This shows neatly why brands (even personal ones) prove so useful to development companies.
Colin McCrae’s Rally (1998)
One racing game featuring a British sports star that did prove to be a match for its namesake was Colin McRae’s Rally.
Launched in Europe and North America in 1998 and 1999, the Codemasters published rally game featured licensed vehicles, seven homages to official World Rally Championship tracks and Colin McCrae’s actual voice, the game did gangbusters across the world.
Generating over 30 million Euros in revenue and selling four million copies globally, Colin McRae’s Rally spawned a number of successful sequels across the early 2000s.
However, tragedy changed the course for the series. In 2007, McRae was killed in a helicopter accident. Within two years, the McRae series was over – with Codemasters dropping his name from the title of their games.
But its legacy lives on. The DIRT series initially spun out of the series, but it continues to the present day as its own standalone franchise.
Rory McIlroy PGA Tour – 2015
By the early 2000s, British sports stars began to appear in the names of viewer video games. As the global industry grew in influence – especially with the rise of digital distribution – transnational publishers increasingly required international sports stars to sell their games.
In 2015 though, a British sport star managed to once again get onto the name card of a leading video game.
Rory McIlroy PGA Tour launched in 2015 for PS4. Following a short term hiatus for the series - after previous cover star Tiger Woods was embroiled in controversy – it returned with the globally famous Northern Irish golfer on the front of the box.
However, the golf game never really got off the ground. Although the PGA Tour series had generally had a strong reputation, Rory McIlroy’s PGA Tour was seen by IGN and GameSpot as feature light in comparison to is early gen predecessor.
The 2015 release proved to be the only release to bear McIlroy’s name. And since then, British sports stars haven’t been considered high profile enough to shift units in the quantity globally published games need.
The idea of putting a British sports star on the front of a video game as a way to sell video games was much more viable in the early days of the industry. With the scale of the sector smaller, national industries more important due to a lack of digital distribution and fewer games to compete with, putting a UK superstar in the name of a game used to shift the needle.
Nowadays though, British superstars will only appear in the name of a game (or on the front of its box) if they’re considered to be a global name. As major sports games have a fanbase and culture of their own - and which also cuts across national barriers - only the absolute biggest names in sport can be used to sell video games.
So the age when a decent British athlete or sportsperson could appear easily in the name of a game is over. But with global stars like Harry Kane making an impact across the world of sport, we wouldn’t rule out a big British name from being used to shift video games in the future.