Skip to main content

In an era when sports video games are maligned as little more than expensive roster updates, the great ones don’t always get a fair shake. No, not “The best Madden/NBA 2K/FIFA since [insert year here]”—the games that were true pioneers, or became cultural phenomenons, or even in some rare instances broke the mold entirely and changed not just the course of sports games, but the entire video game industry.

These are those games. The top five sports games of all time are not only what’s most fun to play. They also hold some historical significance. They’re titles that, no matter what year it is, you could make a case for going back and playing again and again.

And we all know that’s almost never the case.

Honorable Mention: FIFA Series

FIFA 23 Gameplay

Super Mario, Pokemon, Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto, Tetris. That’s the list of video game franchises that have sold more copies than EA Sports’ FIFA, which has eclipsed 325 million and counting. Granted, the incomparable worldwide appeal of soccer—or football to our friends abroad—inflates those numbers. Still, the series’ reach is impossible to dispute.

However, which installment of FIFA is the greatest is a topic that’s very much up for debate. While FIFA 18 is the best-selling edition at over 26 million copies and even fared well with critics, long-time fans don’t rate it—or any of the newer editions, for that matter—so highly. Many regard the franchise’s heyday as being in the early 2010s, with FIFA 11 being the best-selling title of the era at 16 million copies, while others would go back even farther.

So the best FIFA seems very much a matter of preference. Given its dominance and longevity, though, dating all the way back to 1993, it felt like the series should be represented here.

5. Madden NFL 2005 

Madden 2005 gameplay

No sports sim has been as influential to the genre nor as culturally relevant as EA Sports’ Madden franchise was at its peak. Consider the list of features that are commonplace today but Madden either pioneered or perfected in the 2000s: Franchise mode, Owner mode, Superstar mode, online multiplayer, mid-season roster and ratings updates, Ultimate Team—not to mention football-specific upgrades like hot routes and the hit stick. Every August, fans flocked to stores for the new game’s midnight release. The Madden Bowl became a huge celebrity draw. ESPN even created a Madden Nation reality show that aired for four seasons.

But if you were to attempt to pinpoint the franchise’s peak, many would say it was Madden NFL 2005 for the PlayStation 2. That year’s edition took a huge leap forward in terms of realism and offered a more complete Franchise and Owner mode than the series even manages to produce today. Every subsequent release has stood on 05’s shoulders, with only minor tweaks to gameplay and Superstar and MUT the only major innovations since.

Everything would change soon after. Franchise exclusivity started the next season and eliminated the competition, widely seen as the moment Madden’s slow decline began. Regardless, the series is one of the best-selling of all time, likely closing in on 200 million copies since its inception in 1988. That’s quite a feat for any game, let alone a sport primarily played and watched in America, and speaks to the cultural force Madden became.

4. Wii Sports 

Wii Tennis gameplay

Not since the original Super Mario Bros. for the Nintendo Entertainment System has a single title been so important to a console’s success as the company’s Wii Sports. Releasing a system with games that primarily played using motion sensing as opposed to standard controllers was a massive gamble in 2006, and it was ultimately this collection that wound up converting many people.

Players used the Wii remotes to compete in five different sports: tennis, baseball, bowling, golf, and boxing. None of the variations were particularly deep or advanced, and your mileage with each likely varied from household to household. Yet, when you could get a room full of people together and everybody started flailing their arms around, there was always a mixture of laughter, competitiveness, and unbridled joy. Age, gender, class, casual gamer vs. hardcore—it didn’t matter.

Wii Sports became the system’s killer app, selling just shy of 83 million copies (fourth all time behind only Minecraft, Grand Theft Auto V, and Tetris), and helping the Wii become one of only seven consoles to achieve over 100 million in sales. A sequel, Wii Sports Resort, sold over 33 million copies, and the franchise lives on today, too, with last year’s release of Nintendo Switch Sports. While maybe not what many would consider a classically great sports game, it’s unrivaled as a pure party game.

3. Rocket League 

This ranking might seem a tad high, but until everything is said and done, Psyonix’s Rocket League will not only go down as the most influential sports title of the last generation of consoles, but very possibly the new generation as well.

On average, 90 million people play Rocket League at least once per month, a figure that’s been holding strong for several years now. And it’s not even remotely controversial to claim the game is vastly more popular today than it was nearly a decade ago at the time of its release, growth that is unheard of and dare I say unprecedented for a single installment of any sports franchise. And, yes, soccer in cars—supersonic acrobatic rocket-powered battle cars, to be exact—most definitely qualifies as a sport.

There’s no sign the game is slowing down any time soon, either. Not with its free-to-play model and gameplay that’s fun and accessible for almost all ages. Not with a thriving esports scene, headlined by the Rocket League Championship Series that’s approaching its 13th season and has developed into a truly international competition in recent years. There are constant rumors of a possible sequel in the works, but it seems unlikely one will arrive in the near future, and by the time one does come to fruition, Rocket League will have set milestones for online sports games that will be difficult to match.

2. Pong 

Pong Atari game

Ok, hear me out … Actually, no. Forget that. If you’ve never played Pong before, grab a friend and go do that first. Then try to tell me it doesn’t belong on this list, whippersnapper.

Atari, Inc.’s Pong may look primitive, but the action is timeless. At its core a loose simulation of ping-pong, or table tennis, two players try to keep the ball in play and ultimately hit it past their opponent by controlling a paddle on either the left or right side of the screen. It sounds simplistic, and it is—which is the beauty of it. Two skilled players could play round after round for hours; or, conversely, anybody can play casually and still enjoy themself. True story, some of your grandparents probably met while playing Pong.

Pong is also incredibly important from a historical standpoint. It’s often referred to as the first video game ever, which isn’t exactly true—but it was the first commercially successful video game and essentially responsible for creating the industry. Pong, Pong sequels, and Pong knock-offs were everywhere, initially in arcades and then in homes, and it wasn’t until nearly two full years after its release that another truly original hit game came along.

Today, you can buy a standalone remake of Pong. However, I’d recommend tracking down some paddle controllers and a copy of Video Olympics for the Atari 2600 (also available on various Atari collections), which not only includes a port of Pong and a single-player version, but variations like hockey and doubles Pong as well, the latter of which supports up to four players.

1. NBA Jam

NBA Jam 1993

To give an idea of just how much of a grip Midway’s NBA Jam had on sports fans: the game grossed over $1 billion in arcades in 1993 and ‘94, and over $2 billion to date—a figure only six movies have eclipsed in theaters. That’s before you count console game sales (six million copies worldwide for the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis alone); before a dozen sequels were released; before its famous over-the-top presentation was spun off to other sports, most notably its pro football counterpart, NFL Blitz; and before spiritual successors like EA Sports’ NBA Street series introduced their own exaggerated takes on basketball to new generations.

For the (somehow) uninitiated, NBA Jam is no-holds-barred, two-on-two hoops featuring the league’s real teams and most of the best players from that era—one of the first basketball games to do so. And while the game would’ve caught people’s attention if it just did that, along with its gravity-defying slam dunks and now-dated but hilarious announcer, it also saved players’ records and stats and displayed them on leaderboards that proved who was the best on any given machine.

It wasn’t merely a fun and super addictive sports game. It was a cultural phenomenon on a level that no single edition of a sports franchise has ever come close to touching—and perhaps never will.