Imagine a heated Cardinals/Brewers game in the bottom of the ninth inning at Miller Park. The Cardinals have a one run lead. Trevor Rosenthal is on the mound. There are two outs and probably at least one runner on base, given Rosenthal’s recent tightrope act. After six tense pitches, Rosenthal finally pushes a 98 mph fastball past Ryan Braun for the strikeout. The crowd goes silent, but before the Cardinals can celebrate the win over their division rivals, the home plate umpire stands up and raises a finger to the sky, indicating that the game will go on for one more inning. With three more outs, and now Seth Maness or a tired Trevor Rosenthal, the Brewers come back to with the game in the bottom of the tenth even though the Cardinals were leading at the end of the ninth.
Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? Like a dystopian nightmare or the fever dream of a power-mad C.B. Bucknor. But something like that happens at the end of both halves of a soccer match. See, time doesn’t stop in soccer. It’s not like basketball, where points and fouls and out-of-bounds halts the game. Or like American football, where some things pause the clock (incomplete pass, touchdown) and others don’t (ball carrier tackled within the field of play). In soccer, the clock keeps ticking away. Then, at the end of each half the referee adds a number of minutes that he believes represents the time lost to events that paused the flow of the game.
As anyone who watched the US team in the World Cup can tell you, the decision about how much time to add to the half is where the system starts to break down for someone who isn’t regularly exposed to it. In the US/Portugal game, the second half of the game ended with the US leading by 2-1 and the referees added five minutes to the half–just long enough to allow Portugal to tie the game and prevent the United States from automatically advancing to the knockout round. And in the latest US/Belgium game, one a single minute was added at the end of extra time, which didn’t give a surging U.S. much of a chance to put together one last attack to tie. Naturally, US fans who aren’t accustomed to this method of timekeeping were furious about both decisions. It seemed arbitrary and, well, it is.
Watching even a bare minimum of soccer and playing several FIFA 14 games is enough to tell me that stoppage time does not actually equal the amount of time the game is actually stopped. If it was, the referees wouldn’t be adding 1-5 minutes at the end of each half. Instead, it would be closer to ten minutes. And even in FIFA, there doesn’t seem to be a reliable direct correlation between the amount of time the game is stopped to the amount of time added. The reason (seems) to be that the time added is based on injuries and substitutions. I think? I’m still not sure.
The handling of time in sports video games is a neglected subject that I could probably write a whole separate post about. It’s one of the most fascinating elements of game design in modern video games, but no one ever really pays any attention to it because people who are serious about game design don’t give a shit about sports video games. But consider this: every video game adaptation of a sport that is governed by a clock attempts to shorten the length of each game significantly while also preserving the experience of the sport. Madden’s default quarter length is five minutes rather than fifteen. Same for NBA 2k14. FIFA 14 defaults to six minute halves, down from 45 minutes.
Problems of scale are nothing unique to video games. Open world shooters like Watch Dogs and Infamous create (considerably) smaller versions of Chicago and Seattle respectively. Driving through the real streets of those cities would be terribly boring, as anyone who has lived in a city or played True Crime LA would attest to. Instead, the entire metropolitan area is condensed into a world that can be traversed in a matter of minutes. However, there’s one difference that affects sports video games: shitheads like me who will be unhappy if the statistics don’t match up.
When you finish a game of Madden, you want the score to look something like a real football score. You want your running back to have the right number of yards and your quarterback to have the right number of touchdown passes. When you finish a season in franchise mode, you want stats that look correct, and you want your superstars to have a shot at breaking league records. That’s difficult when the games are cut down to a third (or less) of their actual length. So the gameplay has to be altered. Madden moves faster than a real football game, but it still feels (enough) like a real football game. Same with FIFA, NBA 2K, and presumably the hockey games.
It’s been a while since I played a hockey game.
Baseball has it a bit more difficult because there’s no clock. There’s no great way to speed up a baseball game. High Heat and All Star Baseball had a feature that auto-generated pitching counts for every at bat. MLB the Show picked up that feature this year. It’s quite nice, because it serves a secondary purpose of increasing walk totals for both the AI and player teams.
FIFA 14 actually does something strange with its clock: FIFA 14 stops it.
Remember what I was saying earlier? The clock doesn’t stop in soccer. It ticks on no matter what. However, in FIFA, the impact of an out-of-bounds kick or penalty on the game is far more dramatic than in real soccer. A FIFA half lasts six minutes, though it is represented by the game clock as a very speedy 45 minutes. This means that if it takes a player twenty seconds to retrieve the ball from the sidelines, that wastes 1/36 of the entire game. That’s not something you can fix with extra time unless it is hilariously misrepresented. So FIFA actually stops its clock. It lets it tick for a second or two, as if to represent that the game would continue to go on, but then it disappears from the corner of the screen.
This is an elegant enough solution to a problem that could destroy a soccer video game. You can’t have the clock continuously run if you’ve sped up the clock 7x. But that begs the question: why can’t you just stop the clock in soccer? It works well enough for NBA and NFL. Why doesn’t the clock just come to a halt when someone is injured, when the ball is kicked out of bounds, or when a substitution is made? And where the hell are the timeouts?
Stopping the clock would make a soccer game really fucking long. Ninety minutes with clock stoppages would turn into four or five hour games and I don’t think even the most passionate soccer fan would put up with that bullshit. However, there has to be some recognition for dead time during the game. I suppose that’s what stoppage time is.
Understanding stoppage time is the closest I’ve come to siding with the stupid Americans who reflexively hate soccer. I don’t think soccer is boring, I don’t mind that a good amount of the game is played in the midfield, and it’s easy to make fun of ties but in a high-energy, low-scoring game I’m not sure there’s a better solution. The arbitrary enforcement of penalties and the prevalence of faked injuries doesn’t seem that different from the NBA. None of those things really took away from my enjoyment of the game. But stoppage time feels like a bridge too far.
I understand some of the reasoning. Unlike in the NFL or NBA, there’s very little clock management bullshit in soccer. The end of a basketball or American Football game can go on forever when the losing team tries to extend the game with fouls and free throws, time outs and spiked passes. Or when the winning team is in possession, it can feel like a dull slog as they loiter until time runs down. Literally obscuring the length of the game remaining (and never stopping the clock) prevents a team from taking measures to either wait out the clock or extend it to oblivion.
Still, I can’t quite find it in myself to accept allowing the clock to always run, then adding a (somewhat) arbitrary amount of time at the end that (kind of) represents the time lost when play was stopped. In any game with a clock, time is the most valuable resource a team has, much like outs in baseball, and extending that amount of time–or failing to extend it–can create the impression of imbalance, if not imbalance itself.
Basically, fuck Belgium.