Pro bowling gets back to the mainstream with its first video game in 30 years
After complaining for so long that sports video games are a contracting genre — the league-licensed, simulated kind, anyway — I suppose I should now eat my words: The Professional Bowlers Association broke a 25-year silence in the medium this week with PBA Pro Bowling, launching on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Windows PC.
The game, by rollin’, bowlin’ ball specialists FarSight Studios (known for its Pinball Arcade suite of virtual tables) delivers one of the most natural video game sports with real-life pros and all the trappings of broadcast presentation. And it also shows that a mainstream badge like video games are still available to sports outside of the multi-billion dollar Big Four of football, baseball and basketball.
“We tried to do a video game for a while, but the resources weren’t really there,” said Colie Edison, the PBA’s chief executive. The PBA had found success with a mobile game made by another studio, and that got the attention of FarSight, which turned out a Brunswick-branded game for consoles on the past generation (ported to PlayStation 4 and Xbox One in 2015). FarSight worked into an agreement with both the PBA and the mobile title’s developer (Concrete Software) to create a full featured console version, and that’s how we got here.
That streamlines a lot of the market realities that made such a thing possible, mainly that digital distribution not only removes a lot of the overhead to let boutique developers into the expensive territory of licensed games. But also, bowling — even pro league-licensed bowling — may have no market acceptance as $60 packaged goods. As a $19.99 title, it’s perfect.
“Bowling games shouldn’t be more than $20, $30 tops, regardless of licenses, in gamers’ minds,” said Bobby King, vice president of FarSight Studios. King said that, even if bowling seems like a good fit for video games, the casual or “fun-to-play” market of bowling titles also drove down consumers’ price-point expectations. It all meant that the sport would be in a wilderness as long as retail copies were the main means of distribution.
With PBA Pro Bowling, however, users get both a pick-up-and-play “arcade” mode that incorporates gimmicky power-up shots, as well as a straight-up simulation, with a career mode, that honors the sport’s more technical applications. “There’s a true athletic skill that these bowlers have, and you don’t really see that when you’re just recreationally bowling, or even sometimes when you’re watching our production,” Edison said. “This game allows you to see how a different ball, maybe one made of urethane, affects how the shot’s gonna go. Your lane conditions, the oil patterns, these are things that the average viewer doesn’t really get access to.”
King chimed in that FarSight isn’t done refining its physics model for the game. “We continue to look into ways to increase the realism of pin reaction and how different balls react on the lanes,” he said. “You can certainly expect that we’ll be adding degrading oil patterns to our bowling engine before too long.”
The PBA was recently acquired by Bowlero Corporation, itself a reorganization of the longtime AMF-branded chains of bowling lanes around the United States. PBA Pro Bowling is part of the company’s outreach and brand projection as its marketers and handlers try to recapture the Saturday-afternoon good times when keglers were a mainstay of ABC’s Wide World of Sports.
PBA Pro Bowling does its best, with a jocular commentary from real-life announcers Rob Stone and Randy Peterson groaning aloud when I only take four pins, or passive-aggressively advising me that picking up the four-pin for a spare is the tour’s easiest make. “These guys are hilarious,” Edison said. “They’re giving the play-by-play, and it makes me feel like ‘Wait, Rob Stone is talking about me.’ And then you’re like “Wow, leave me alone. I’m doing my thing.’”
My only criticism is the game doesn’t provide enough of a tutorial to let the user know how to create that rake that reliably delivers strikes — the wait-for-it, wait-for-it arcing roll that drives through the one and three pins for that oh-so-satisfying buh-PLOCK!!! followed by pitter-pattering applause. Arc is handled mainly as an after-effect, controlled by thumbstick direction following release. The speed and release-point inputs don’t have enough on-screen feedback to tell me whether I was using them right.
But it’s still very playable and enjoyable, particularly as a couch or social experience, and Edison acknowledges the PBA was driving for that appeal. “It’s like one of the original first-person point-of-view games,” Edison notes, and she has a point. PBA Pro Bowling is one of the few sports video games that is played from the same perspective competitors have in real life (as opposed to a TV angle, or other view).
But mostly, if you put down 10 pins and hand a player a controller, they instinctually know what to do, and will try and retry to take them all in one roll. That’s what the PBA is banking on here.
Roster File is Polygon’s news and opinion column on the intersection of sports and video games.