When you look at all of the fantastic sports games that have been released for video game consoles over the past three decades, picking a favorite is like trying to choose your favorite child. There are just so many great titles and no matter how you choose, there are going to be some fantastic and deserving titles left out of any best-of list. This is very much the case here as Metacritic rankings determined the top seven games and, by doing so, left out some of the best known names and franchises in sports gaming history.
Names like Mario Tennis, FIFA Soccer 10, Left’s Golf! 2, NBA Jam: Tournament Edition, and Tecmo Bowl are just a few of the amazing sports games all deserving of a place on this list. It’s also important to note that within these rankings, many games are released yearly like Madden Football or NBA 2K, so only one year was chosen to help broaden the list.
Let’s take a look at some of the best sports games of all time and see how they rank in the history books.
What is a Sports Game?
As one of the most recognizable game formats on the planet, sports games have helped usher in waves of technological advancements and achievements. Sports games often come in two different types of formats: arcade and simulation. For the former, you’ll see names like NBA Jam or NFL Blitz, and even Tony Hawk as these games feature extreme and unrealistic moves that often defy gravity.
As far as simulation games, these are more in line with real-world sports like Tiger Woods Golf, Madden Football, FIFA Soccer, RBI Baseball, and more. Regardless of which game type you choose, you are going to find nearly every activity covered in the sports world, and that is a good thing for the whole of gaming.
#7: SSX 3
- PlayStation 2
- Enter competitions, win collectibles, and take on Big Challenges
- Four new rivals
- Mind-blowing new tricks combos
The SSX series tends to go under the radar these days but at the height of the Xbox, PlayStation 2, and GameCube craze, it was at the height of the sports gaming world.
SSX 3, the third entry in the series, is often regarded as the most popular entry in the series upon its release in November 2023. Achieving a 93 Metascore isn’t all that common for sports games focused on winter events, but SSX 3 is just downright amazing.
Praise for the trick system in SSX 3 was immediate with critics and players alike throwing out positivity as the third-person view enables players to pull some ridiculous arcade-friendly action. All totaled, SSX 3 includes more than 30 different types of snow (yes, snow!) across its single-player campaign as you compete in the SSX championship. Character variety is enjoyable but you must choose wisely so you can win as much money as possible to win races and find new collectibles.
The PlayStation 2 variant offered an online multiplayer mode so two players could race together, though it did require an EA account to use (surprise!).
#6: NCAA Football 2004
- 36 new 1-AA teams and 100+ classic teams to play as
- Popular new tricks
- Better view of the action while you play so you never miss a pass
- Includes College Classics mode so you can replay some of the greatest football moments from the last two decades
Few sports offer as much rivalry as college football, and NCAA Football 2004 brought that rivalry home with one of the best football games ever released on a home video game console.
One of the highlights of NCAA Football 2004 over pro league titles was the opportunity to introduce players with all of the usual elaborate introductions that you see in regular college football. This means flag-holders, cheerleaders, and a much too excited mascot running around as teams are introduced.
Released in July 2003, NCAA Football 2004 brought forth all of the excellent features of previous editions of the game, including more than 200 different fight songs, 3D cheerleaders, and 150+ college football teams. NCAA Football 2004 also saw the return of Dynasty Mode so you could choose a team and create a dynasty of bowl wins over the years. College Classics mode was also first introduced with this release so you could replay famous college football games in history.
Earning a 94 Metascore, players raved about new plays like the halfback throwback or wide receiver double reverse pass as well as updated animations for fumbles, tackles, and touchdown celebrations. Should you win your season, you’ll be proud to see your team earn the in-game cover of Sports Illustrated magazine.
#5: ISS Pro Evolution
If you’re thinking the only reasonable answer on any best-of list for sports games should include FIFA titles, you wouldn’t be wrong. However, ISS Pro Evolution is such a fantastic game that has long been considered one of the best soccer (or football) titles ever created.
As the third entry in the series, the developers had some time to work out the kinks and with an exclusive release on the original PlayStation, they hit a home run (sports pun intended) with this game.
Released by Konami, it was the first game to include a franchise signature with Master League mode even as it did not include official FIFA licensing for player and team names. Even without official names, you still had the option of more than 16 club teams that were fictional players with misspelled names in the hopes of semi-resembling real players at that time. This mode would continue and still continues to be available on ISS Pro Evolution successive releases including the ISS and PES soccer series of games.
Scoring a 94 on Metacritic, this isn’t likely to be the first soccer game that comes to mind when you think of the sport, but it did an amazing job bringing the world’s most popular to game consoles.
#4: Madden NFL 2003
- PlayStation 2
- Interactive audio environment with Al Michaels as the announcer you love
- Control every aspect of the game
- Use new animations to improve your gameplay
The early to mid-2000 era of Madden NFL titles remains arguably the best of what the series and football gaming have ever offered, but it’s Madden NFL 2003 that stands out most of all.
The PlayStation 2 release is considered the best of the bunch but both the Xbox and GameCube versions all received the same universal acclaim upon the game’s release. With a 95 Metascore, Madden NFL 2003 holds the current title as the second best-reviewed simulation NFL football game ever.
Everything from tackling to running looked better and the updated controls were improved just enough over the previous year that they almost didn’t have to improve on them again. The opportunity to play a full franchise, play in minicamp mode, and have Al Michaels as your play-by-play announcer was icing on the cake.
Today, the Madden series still releases yearly but they are very much evolutionary instead of revolutionary. While this might be the same case of the early 2000 era Madden releases, there was just something so magical about the release of Madden NFL 2003 and how it would set the bar for the franchise for the rest of time.
#3: NFL 2K1
Sports games on the Dreamcast might go down as some of the most underappreciated games in the history of the genre. This is especially true with NFL 2K1, which remains the only football game with a better Metascore than Madden NFL 2003.
Whether another football game will be able to unseat NFL 2K1 as the best-reviewed football game of all time remains to be seen, but for now, it’s a game well-worth replaying.
The 97 Metascore shines through as soon as you fire up the series, and remember one very important feature that now seems unheard of to not include. Adding online gameplay was still relatively new in gaming consoles in the year 2000 but with NFL 2K1, Sega, with the Dreamcast, added a feature that is now a true staple of every sports game.
The Madden series is better remembered for its franchise mode over NFL 2K1 but its gameplay was good enough to make even Madden diehard fans full of envy. While the Minnesota Vikings might have been an unstoppable force in the game (definitely not in real life), it’s unfortunate that the Dreamcast would have such a short lifespan as a sequel to this game would have been scooped up by millions.
#2: Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3
- Renewed and refurbished
- 1 and 2 player skating
- Online and multiplayer
- Create-a-Skater to design your top skater
- Now includes female skaters!
- Features great songs from Red Hot Chili Peppers and Alien Ant Farm
Available as the third installment in the classic Tony Hawk series, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3 is an unconventional title to be among the best sports games of all time.
In a game world filled with football, baseball, and basketball, skateboarding is not the expected sport to hear about but it’s a testament to how good the franchise has been. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3 is best played on the PlayStation 2, but its October 2001 release was available on nearly every console including the original PlayStation, Game Boy Color, GameCube, Game Boy Advance, Windows, and even as the last game ever released for the Nintendo 64.
Introducing new tricks like the revert, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3 is best remembered as the first entry in the series with online play. Thirteen professional skateboarders are playable as well as a few extra fun characters like Wolverine and Darth Maul. Locations include Los Angeles, a foundry, and a variety of other skateparks that were yours to dominate with as many tricks as you could pull off. The biggest question for any players of this game was how easily could you beat your own high score?
With a 97 Metascore, Tony Hawk Pro Skater 3 is the second highest-rated sports game of all time.
#1: Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2
- Improved gameplay and graphics
- New Pros and new tricks
- Skate as legendary Tony Hawk, one of 12 other Pro Skaters, or Create Your Own Skater.
- Multiple Play Modes including 1-Player Career and free Skate Modes, 1-Player Modes like Trick Attack, Graffiti, Tag and Horse.
- Build Your Own Custom Skate Parks with The 3D Real-Time Park Editor
- Includes Hip-Hop & Punk Soundtrack Featuring Rage Against the Machine, Naughty by Nature, Papa Roach, and More
Catching the sports world by storm, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 is a surprising winner of the absolute best sports game of all time. What’s not surprising is its 98 Metascore which emphasizes just how great of a title this is to play on the original PlayStation.
The second installment in the Tony Hawk series, there were multiple console releases across the Dreamcast, macOS, Windows, Nintendo 64, Game Boy Color, and even iOS.
Widely considered one of the best video games of all time, the game uses the same game engine as the series’ first entry but made dramatic improvements to the graphics. Taking place in a 3D environment, players will kick, flip, and skate across a variety of environments while choosing between ten professional skaters and four unique unlockable characters. Regardless of the character, the more speed you gain, the more you fly into the sky for bigger scores.
Career mode was often regarded as the best way to play by earning in-game currency to improve your character and score more points. As the game has enough staying power to be released for today’s console generations and a release on iOS speaks highly to the staying power of the Tony Hawk series.
There are so many games worthy of placement on this list that it’s easy to point out game titles that are missing. What’s important is to note that the sports game genre has created some of the most memorable video games of all time. Even long after its release, there remains a vocal minority that continues to ask for the return of NCAA Football, a testament to its staying power even after 20 years. Games like NHL 94 and Ken Griffey JR. Presents Major League Baseball all deserve a place on this list, but without a spot available, playing them again is the next best thing.
The image featured at the top of this post is ©Tero Vesalainen/Shutterstock.com.