The Video Game that Predicted the IPL


The Video Game that Predicted the IPL

Illustration: Sushant Ahire


t was the summer of 1999 and the video game Brian Lara Cricket had just come into our lives. It was revolutionary for the time: One of the first video games to incorporate 3D motion-capture technology for the player models, while boasting a responsive AI and painstakingly recreating venues and teams for the game.

Yet, for all its attention to detail, BLC 99 was still a product of its era, which meant that it was full of easily discoverable hacks and cheat codes. I figured out that pitching the ball exactly at the batsman’s toes and bowling at a speed of 148 kmph was a surefire way to get him clean bowled. If I pressed down the Shift key on the keyboard while playing a sweep stroke, I’d get a guaranteed six. The game’s code was riddled with many such loopholes, and with the amount of spare time I had that summer, coupled with a nine-year-old’s fervour for playing video games, I soon discovered them all.

With my almost arcane knowledge of the game’s mechanics, I became a God among gamers. Suddenly I was posting totals of 250 in 20 overs and beating the shit out of my friend in a game that can only be described as cricket on steroids. The only downside to our computer thrill rides was that real cricket, with a willow bat and tennis ball, paled in comparison. Nothing quite matched up to the ethereal experience of simulation – especially because my reality couldn’t be more different.

No matter what happened on the field, I knew there was a stadium packed with fans waiting to see my batting brilliance on my computer at home.

For a guy struggling to get on the school team with a shitty straight-drive game, BLC 99 was a tonic to my real-world scores of 8 and 12. No matter what happened on the field, I knew there was a stadium packed with fans waiting to see my batting brilliance on my computer at home. This was the thrill of the videogame – an overblown, exaggerated version of reality – whether you’re stealing a luxury vehicle in broad daylight in Grand Theft Auto or using anti-gravity boots to jump two storeys high.

However, sport video games began to work with a reverse logic. Sports games publishers started aiming for realism and with each new annual instalment, they brought you closer and closer to reality, cutting the imagination that can be unleashed. FIFA 2002 unleashed fireworks at the press of a button, making football intensely more fun than the IRL equivalent of panting for breath as you chased after the ball. And then, reality set in with every passing year, and the present-day incarnation of FIFA is a slog past “intelligent physics”, supposedly closer to real football than ever before.

I phased sports games out of my life, preferring the fantasy experience of commanding dragons in Warcraft.

Even cricket games weren’t immune to this trend. Playing 2007’s EA Cricket was an experience far removed from that of my favourite, BLC 99. As the years went by, playing sports video games became depressingly close to the actual thing: leaving you frustrated at your own skills and envious of those more gifted than you. It rung the death knell for the empowerment fantasy that video games are supposed to fuel.

I phased sports games out of my life, preferring the fantasy experience of commanding dragons in Warcraft. Eventually, even watching real sports became a drag, something to indulge in on a lazy afternoon when there was nothing better to do.

That was the phase of my cricket fandom where realism rained on my parade. My idea of
exciting cricket remained firmly grounded in fantasy. Until one fine day in 2008, fantasy caught up with reality: Lalit Modi’s cricket carnival had arrived. In the very first IPL match, Brendon McCullum set a world record for the highest score with 158 runs from 73 balls (not out). The BLC 99 version of reality was finally here!

While T20 cricket gets a lot of justifiable scorn for being a format that favours luck over skill, there’s no denying its immense power to entertain. The first T20 World Cup gave us Yuvraj Singh, who smashed six sixes in an over as if he had found a cheat code to reality. This was a brand of cricket that made us jump out of our seats and cheer until we were hoarse.

While other sports saw their video games devolve into lifeless simulacrums of the real thing, T20 cricket flipped the script, reached back into the past, and reanimated the spirit of a long-gone video game to rejuvenate the experience of watching the sport. Suddenly, the way we played on our computers and PlayStations all those years ago began to make sense. In a world where no record is safe and no feat seems impossible on the cricket pitch, one little video game published in 1999 proved to be a vision of the future.

I think I might make a return to the sports video games scene to check out some of the newer titles. It would be pretty sweet to go back to the glory days of feeling like I can score more centuries than Virat Kohli, instead of the certainty of knowing I’d be lucky to carry his bags.