Sports video games from ‘Pong’ to present explored in new exhibit

The exhibit displays a host of playable games, including 1980's
The exhibit displays a host of playable games, including 1980’s “Tomy Tennis” VFD handheld electronic device. Photo Credit: Jeff Bachner

Sports and video games have gone hand in hand for decades, and the Museum of the Moving Image wants to show you the evolution of attempts to adapt athletics digitally.

The Astoria museum debuted “A Whole Different Ballgame: Playing Through 60 Years of Sports Video Games” earlier this month, featuring 44 playable sports games dating back 60 years. Interactive titles on display range from early arcade classic “Pong” to modern esports hits like “Rocket League,” whose developer Psyonix is the exhibition’s presenting sponsor.

Jason Eppink, MoMI’s curator of digital media, said he and co-curator John Sharp decided to break up the exhibit in themes, such as Early Adaptations or Playing with Data, which examines games that crunch numbers to simulate athletics.

Not all of the games on display are classics on the level of “NBA Jam,” but many were chosen for their unique interpretation of interactive digital sports, such as Xbox 360 Kinect’s “Michael Phelps: Push the Limit.”

“We gave all these interesting controllers, like the Michael Phelps game — which is not, frankly, a great video game — but it works really well in an arcade setting like our museum,” Eppink said. “You give it a couple minutes, you flap your arms around.”

Eppink said the timing of the sports-themed exhibit was to coincide with the 60th anniversary of “Tennis for Two.” One of the first video games of any type, the game was created using a Donner Model 30 analog computer and displayed on an oscilloscope. A playable replica is on display at the beginning of the museum exhibit.

“Even if you’re not a video game nerd or video game fan, I think that’s a really cool experience to have,” Eppink said.

Eppink — who admits he doesn’t like sports or video games very much — noted that sports video games are among the most inclusive genres — a product of the diversity in popular pro sports like basketball and football. But, as one can learn through a non-playable video of WNBA fan modifications, or mods, for the popular “NBA 2K” series, the ratio of men to women in sports games remains unbalanced.

“Sports video games are one of the few genres of video games where people of color are represented, but women still have a long way to go,” Eppink said.

The exhibit, which will remain on display through March 10, figures to be a nostalgic trip for Gen-Xers and Millennials who grew up playing the likes of “NHL ’94” and “Super Smash Bros.: Melee,” which falls under the esports category.

“I think it’s really important that they’re seeing their lives in part of the story. I think that’s great,” Eppink said. “I think the larger goal of the exhibition is to put that in a larger picture.”