The best sports video games you've never played

It can be tempting to think of the sports genre in video games as "solved." Most professional sports have their respective giants when it comes to video game franchises, with American football's Madden series dwarfing any newcomers while FIFA continues to maintain a stranglehold on not-American football games despite some tight, technically-sound competition in the form of Pro Evolution Soccer. Fans of a particular athletic endeavor can simply rest easy knowing that, like clockwork, a new marginally-improved title will be released every year on whichever platforms are most current.

Sports video games have a lot more depth to them if you're willing to do the research, however. Some of the best games in the genre highlight lesser-known sports like table tennis, or offer a unique twist to subvert our expectations. While the giants continue to dominate sales figures, there's no reason not to dig a little bit deeper and uncover some of the hidden gems of a genre that has been producing quality entertainment for decades. With that in mind, we've compiled a collection of games you may have never heard of that were way better than their popularity at the time might have suggested.

Blitz: The League (Xbox 360, Xbox, PS2, Wii, PSP)

Blitz: The League is a bizarre take on American football that sees players actively rewarded for attempting to headhunt opposing players. Bonuses are awarded for causing a player to tear their ACL or by handing out bone fractures to the best players on opposing teams, so things get pretty violent. Players are also encouraged to give their team steroids to make them perform better in upcoming games, a feature that saw the game banned in Australia.

Blitz: The League also had something interesting to say about its online gameplay, which featured an STD system that infected players and could then be spread to others online as they made their way through multiplayer.

So why is a game with just a good-not-great take on American football mechanics on this list? Because there aren't a lot of games that so viscerally target a sports industry in America, and fewer still that actually manage to come out of the gate with some playable modes. Blitz: The League satirizes many of the worst elements of the NFL, and some of the points it makes are relevant even today. Sure, some of its humor might miss the mark, but the fact that someone was willing to take a shot at a league that has been perceived as too big to fail is certainly worth a look.

100ft Robot Golf (PS4/PS VR)

It was something of a surprise that 100ft Robot Golf ever came to be. Developer No Goblin had just come off of the surprise success of Roundabout, a game about a revolving limousine in the framework of an FMV adventure. While that game was bizarre, it seemed like No Goblin had found a weird niche it could continue exploring.

Nope. Instead, we got 100ft Robot Golf, a game that is about giant mechs inexplicably choosing to pursue a rousing game of golf rather than saving the universe.

The thing about 100ft Robot Golf that saw it release to middling reception is that too many people wanted it to be a golf game that featured mechs. Instead, 100ft Robot Golf is a speed-golfing adventure with destructible environments, where players who are all golfing at the same time need to race toward the hole to become the first person to finish.

Understandably, that approach turned off some golf enthusiasts, meaning that 100ft Robot Golf alienated one of the few guaranteed demographics it could have appealed to. That, and the love story involving corgi mecha pilots. 100ft Robot Golf needs to be experienced to be appreciated, and it is one of the true hidden gems in the sports video game genre since it basically reinvented a whole sport in an effort to make it more anime.

Inazuma Eleven (Nintendo DS)

Speaking of anime, Inazuma Eleven is a beautiful take on soccer that overperformed in nearly every aspect of its gameplay. Developer Level-5 is well known for its ability to produce compelling RPGs, and there were certainly elements of that genre at play in Inazuma Eleven. Somehow, though, those RPG elements made the dip into anime-style soccer an absolute blast to play.

Want to know how you're playing a truly special sports title? It's when, during Inazuma Eleven, you're randomly challenged to a four-on-four soccer battle while wandering around in an outside area, and it feels natural and fun rather than ridiculous and annoying. The characters are fun, the story is interesting, and all of the trappings of over-the-top anime representations of sports are present: players can even summon an imaginary dragon during specific "moves" like kicking the ball particularly hard.

Inazuma Eleven also has the kind of depth that one would expect of a dedicated soccer manager sim. There are 1,000 characters in the game to refine into miniature soccer phenoms, and there's something very satisfying about doing so. While Inazuma Eleven isn't the kind of action sports game one might expect of soccer, it's also one-of-a-kind and well worth a look as a result — something many people are doing late in the lifespan of one of the game's successors.

Rockstar Games Presents Table Tennis (Xbox 360, Wii)

Rockstar Games Presents Table Tennis might go down as one of the most surprising curveballs in the history of gaming. Developer Rockstar was pretty well known at the time as the creator of Grand Theft Auto, and despite all the controversy surrounding video game violence at the time, it didn't seem to make a lot of sense to stray too far from an extremely successful franchise.

Defying all conventional wisdom, however, Rockstar released a game about table tennis, which was not exactly a popular sport in North America at the time. Those expecting a more extreme take on the sport can't be blamed for doing so, but Table Tennis is a no-frills sports gaming experience that aims to accurately capture the feel of playing a game of competitive table tennis.

Somehow, someway, that resulted in one of the most addictive online multiplayer games of the mid-2000s. The gameplay was strong, the multiplayer matchmaking was simple and relatively easy, and the sheer depth of strategizing available made the game a cult classic. The game even became a staple of Penny Arcade events after the creators of the webcomic got hooked on it, appearing over a decade after its release as part of a charity competition.

Mario Tennis (Game Boy Color)

A lot of people have been playing some Mario Tennis now that it has returned to modern gaming on the Nintendo Switch. The newest iteration of the series has been well-received thanks to going a bit deeper on its content, providing some storyline gameplay that makes it just a little bit more interesting than a bare bones tennis approach.

The progenitor of that design was Mario Tennis for the Game Boy Color, the oft-overlooked entry into the franchise that completely changed the way Mario titles approached sports. Rather than front-loading the title with a bunch of recognizable characters, the game let players meet them over the course of a story mode taking place at a tennis academy.

Mario Tennis featured RPG elements like character-building and questing, which took the form of helping various Mario character or other students with whatever problems they might have had. Sure, the graphics are noticeably worse than any of the console versions, but once you get passed the dated aesthetics, this is one of the best tennis games ever made and, in our opinion, the gold standard of the Mario Tennis series.

Def Jam: Fight For NY (PS2, GameCube, Xbox, PSP)

Def Jam: Fight for NY is a follow-up to Def Jam: Vendetta, a game that featured a number of iconic rappers fighting each other in WWE-style settings for hip hop supremacy. It follows the story of The Hero, the game's protagonist, and spirals out of an underground fighting ring into some serious grapples with crime, gang culture, and death.

That Def Jam: Fight for NY even has a story mode at all puts it in the top tier of pro-wrestling games, but the fact is, the game also has some of the most enjoyable gameplay the genre has ever produced, even winning the 2004 E3 Game Critics Award for Best Fighting Game. Fight for NY upped the ante of its predecessor with the ability to choose between distinct fighting styles, each of them offering skill trees and progression so that The Hero would end up feeling like a better warrior by the end of their journey. That journey, by the way, begins with The Hero being trained by Henry Rollins of Black Flag fame so that they can eventually take down Snoop Dogg and his gang of cronies.

An amazing story, coupled with environmental interactions that were ahead of their time and some really cool weapons, gave Def Jam: Fight for NY some serious staying power in the genre, despite looking at first glance that like it was just trying to cash in on the star power of its roster.

FIFA Street (PS3, Xbox 360)

FIFA Street might be the most underappreciated classic of any of the games discussed so far. Sullied by the reputation of its predecessors, which near-universally featured some good ideas and some much worse execution, FIFA Street provided a breath of fresh air and a reboot to a series that desperately needed it.

FIFA Street dropped the cartoony visuals that had defined its previous iterations in favor of more realistic representations of soccer players, helping make it more palatable to those who enjoy the game's real world equivalent. It also included a World Tour mode that let players grind experience points, create their own team, and develop their own character, something that helped tie together an offering that had in previous versions seemed somewhat scattered.

Ultimately, though, FIFA Street is so good because it manages to preserve much of what makes traditional soccer so fascinating while speeding it up to a faster pace. The result is a game that is easy to pick up and play without needing to dedicate too much time to it, and with a style that feels distinct and more casual than traditional FIFA offerings. Had it not been grappling with some lingering disappointment regarding the original FIFA Street trilogy, the rebooted FIFA Street probably would be regarded as one of the best alternative soccer titles ever produced.

Kelly Slater's Pro Surfer (PS2, GameCube, Xbox, PC, Game Boy Advance)

There was a time, back in the early 2000s, that it felt like Tony Hawk's Pro Skater might be the future of video games — or, at the very least, of sports titles that didn't have a major globally recognized sport. Taking a sport that was somewhat niche and attaching the endorsement of its biggest star worked wonders for the Tony Hawk series, and developer Treyarch tried to mimic that success with Kelly Slater's Pro Surfer.

The funny thing is, Pro Surfer is arguably the better of the two titles, despite Pro Skater getting a bunch more iterations while Pro Surfer never even got a sequel. Kelly Slater's Pro Surfer is a sublime take on the sport, featuring a full roster of professionals for those familiar with the scene and some beautiful landscapes and oceans for those who weren't. Departing the garage and industrial feel of skateboarding titles made Pro Surfer feel fresh.

Kelly Slater's Pro Surfer was also a smooth ride in terms of gameplay, adeptly mimicking the nuances of professional surfing and complimenting that with cool tricks and flashy moments. Unfortunately, the game kind of got lost in the shuffle of the skateboard craze, and a poor second release on the Game Boy Advance sealed the deal, making Pro Surfer one of the best sports games very few people have ever played.

Backyard Baseball (PC)

In 1997, one of the greatest sports titles ever was released. It wasn't endorsed by any professional athletes, and it wasn't developed by a major company like EA. That game was Humongous Entertainment's Backyard Baseball, which attempted to capture the experience of playing baseball as a child with friends.

Players would draft their teams from a roster of 30 neighborhood kids, each with a scouting report, preferred positions, and more. The roster was diverse, featuring kids of different backgrounds and abilities, and accurately conveyed the feeling of a neighborhood pickup game.

The graphics evoked the feel of a Saturday morning cartoon, and the gameplay was pretty seamless, with the drafting-your-team setup offering up a lot of replayability as well. Oh, and Backyard Baseball happened to spawn the legend of one Pablo Sanchez, widely regarded as one of the most powerful characters in the history of sports video games.

Future Backyard Baseball titles would incorporate kid versions of real-life players, which was a fun spin but ultimately made the game lose some of its luster. For fans of baseball looking to be transported back to when they first fell in love with the game, there's no better choice than the original Backyard Baseball.

Fight Night Champion (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360)

There are a couple of reasons Fight Night Champion deserves its spot on this list. Fight Night Champion was labeled Mature by the ESRB, meaning it didn't reach as many people as it could have. That's a shame, because the game was the best iteration of a boxing sim we've ever had.

The major selling point was the game's Champion Mode, which follows Andre Bishop, an up-and-coming prospect in the boxing world, working his way through some Hollywood-esque setbacks like seedy fight promoters and unjust prison sentences. Champion Mode was fascinating because it interrogated the violent, unfair world of boxing that many of its athletes have to overcome in order to reach the top.

Fight Night Champion also implemented "Full Spectrum Punch Control," giving players an unprecedented level of control over their fights. While fighting games have now created their own similar systems now, it was an exciting change that made the analog sticks even more important to seamless control than they had been previously.

Fight Night Champion's story is great, and it's also the reason why it wasn't experienced by as many people as it deserved. There's no time like the present to rectify that situation if you're a sports fan, however, as the title is available on Xbox One backwards compatibility.