Museum of the Moving Image: ‘A Whole Different Ball Game: Playing Through 60 Years of Sports Video Games’

By Rachel M.

Now open through March 10, 2019, at Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria is “A Whole Different Ball Game: Playing Through 60 Years of Sports Video Games”, an exhibition featuring more than 40 playable video games to examine the complex relationships between game, sport, media, and culture. The wide-ranging, interactive exhibit provides both a history of sport video games and an opportunity for visitors to experience many games they could never play at home in 2018.

The world’s first video game, Tennis for Two, debuted at the Brookhaven National Laboratory’s public exhibition in 1958. Though rudimentary, the ball and net depicted on an oscilloscope were enough to suggest a game of tennis—and marked the start of a long relationship between sports and video games. This game launches the exhibit. Housed in a large exhibit space, 44 games are on view. They represent sports including tennis, football, track and field, basketball, baseball, and soccer, plus esports—multiplayer games that have developed their own professional leagues. Among the titles are Tennis for Two (1958, presented as a replica); video arcade games Pong (1972), Track and Field (1983), NBA Jam (1993), and Atari Football (1978); popular console games such as FIFA 16, Wii Sports (2006), and NHL ‘94; esports games Fortnite: Battle Royale (2017), Killer Queen (2013), Rocket League (2015), and Super Smash Bros Melee (2002).

The exhibit is organized in seven sections: after Early Adaptations, is “From Sport to Video Game” which contains attempts by designers to transpose the sport experience into video games. In the “Represent” section the curators raise the question of who is and who is not represented in sports video games. Footage from MLB games are paired with contemporary video games in “Playing Sports on TVs.” “Playing with Data” demonstrates how computers can help calculate, simulate and predict, even in the world of sports. Esports require just as much training and skill as regular sports and as “The Era of Esports” shows, they can command as much attention. Some sports video games create cartoon-like play experiences and some use science fiction to create futuristic games, as the final section, “Sports Speculated” demonstrates.

The exhibit also includes a mini-stadium screening area with a selection of ads, short documentaries and news about the field. There’s also a series of video clips of iconic sports moments and a puzzle which asks “Is it a game or a sport?”

Visitors of all ages will enjoy getting a chance to see and play the variety of games included in the exhibition. The rooms are all dark and there are a many large screens, making it easy to play. There are seats or tables as needed to properly each type of sport.

A Whole Different Ball Game is organized by Curator of Digital Media Jason Eppink (MoMI) and guest curator John Sharp. The exhibition’s Presenting Sponsor is Psyonix, developer of the sports-action hit, Rocket League. “Sports video games account for nearly half of best-selling video game titles, with 17 million regular players in the United States alone,” said Eppink. “Surprisingly, they’re regularly left out of contemporary histories of video games. This is the first exhibition to explore how important, unique, and groundbreaking these games really are.” “Sports play an important role in American life, something notable even in the kinds of video games we make and play,” added Sharp. “By looking closely at sports video games, we can see the ways sports integrate into our lives, and the values we place upon sports.”

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“A Whole Different Ball Game: Playing Through 60 Years of Sports Video Game” on view at Museum of the Moving Image, Sep 14, 2018–Mar 10, 2019. Photo: Sachyn Mital, for Museum of the Moving Image.

Advisory for parents: Most content is appropriate for children ages 8 and older. Some video content may contain mature language and scenes of cartoon violence, particularly in the esports section. Among playable games, parents are advised to review ESRB ratings (www.ESRB.org/ratings), e.g. Fortnite is rated T for “teens” and Super Smash Bros. is 10+.

More information at www.movingimage.us.

While you are there, be sure to check out the museum’s excellent permanent exhibits, “Behind the Screen” and “ The Jim Henson Exhibition.”

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