The Sims Spark’d ignites new life into beloved franchise

Last week, TBS premiered The Sims Spark’d, ELeague’s new reality competition, to the excitement of Simmers and streamers alike. The show leads 12 contestants through a series of creative challenges that span four episodes. The winners receive a $100,000 cash prize— that’s USD, not Simoleans — placing the top-selling PC game of all time in the esports arena for the very first time. Ka-ching.

The Sims… an esport?

Spark’d wrapped filming in late 2019, so the show has a welcome feel of openness and an alternate reality that fits well amidst our current reality of face masks and social distancing. The contestants are smiling and are endearing even when they are freaking out, and the show itself gives the air of existing in the Sims universe.

The overall format of the show is well-curated: from the set design to the challenges, everything reflects the playfulness and imagination of the Sims universe without coming off too whimsical. It helps that the show is filmed at EA’s official headquarters in Redwood, California, home of The Sims, thus full of decor and paraphernalia. Similar to creative reality shows like Project Runway, there is also a workroom to complete the challenges, equipped with state-of-the-art gaming PCs.

In the first episode, the players arrive fresh-faced and are introduced by gamer tag and pre-placed in one of three categories: Storytellers, Stylists, and Builders. This is a nice format for television and those new to the Sims community, but as many players pointed out, most Stylists are also Storytellers and some Builders never enter either world, instead choosing to spend hours and days on the game’s architectural aspect instead.

Casting creators

The Sims community has shown love for those appearing on the show since its herald, giving The Sims Spark’d an air of anticipation —and expectations — before it even debuted. I was personally happy to see some of my favorite Black gamers: Xmiramira (Stylist), creator of the vital melanin pack, and one of the realest and funniest woman gamers, along with DeeSims (Storyteller) and SpringSims (Builder). I also appreciate the work of The English Simmer (Storyteller) & Plumbella (Stylist).

If you’ve ever downloaded custom content for The Sims series, watched a Twitch stream, or fawned over builds on YouTube, you will recognize some of the competitors on Spark’d. The show appeals to a spectrum of viewers from hardcore Simmers to casual players to those who have never played at all. There was a good mix of players from different walks of life, and the show did a pretty good job of giving a quick glimpse of everyone’s unique personality.

The judges include OG Maxis developer Dave Miotke aka SimGuruNinja, the Simon Cowell of the competition as DeeSims mentions on the show. While not nearly as cutting, he does add a stoic and technical critique to the panel. For example, he noticed Llama had bubbles as inspiration but didn’t utilize the in-game bubble blower item in one of the challenges.

It was also exciting to see Tayla Parx, known in the Sims community for her voice acting and music in The Sims 4: Get Famous. Her songwriting credits include BTS, Jennifer Lopez, and Mariah Carey. She’s also real-life BFFs with Ariana Grande and Normani  (formerly of Fifth Harmony). Her coy yet vibrant personality and colorful pink hair gave her the aura of a real-life Sim.

Kelsey Impicciche, the host of the 100 Babies Challenge on Buzzfeed’s Multiplayer series, is the third judge. She also has a show called In Control with Kelsey, where her celebrity friends come over and create Sims to play with while she comically narrates.

The Skills Challenge

The first challenge found everyone placed in groups of three, with a Storyteller, Builder, and Stylist. Teams were picked at random with the ol’ draw a large oversized object from a mysterious velvet bag trick. It’s hard to be too critical of the diversity of the groups, even if I found myself super disappointed during eliminations. The dynamics would have flowed better if the groups were curated — and wouldn’t have put two-thirds of the show’s inclusion at risk of leaving the show at any given moment. However, the tension in the groups also made for good television.

The team names are also a nod to game culture:

  • Team Freezer Bunny – xUrbanSimsx, SpringSims, DeeSims
  • Team Llama – xMiraMira, SimLicy, DrGloun
  • Team Gnome – Plumbella, Simproved, The English Simmer
  • Team Cowplant - Little Siha, Doctor Ashley, StephOsims

Kicking off the show by having players run and grab items to inspire a 90-minute build was fun. From the moment they went for the items, I was reminded of the cultural differences in Sims storytelling. While some would choose to play out stories with a fantasy or creative element, others go straight for the weird, bizarre, and downright dark.

Some teams, like Gnome and Cowplant, appeared to get to work immediately. The builds were beautiful, the stories were strange albeit interesting. There was a flow, but it also may have helped that they all shared the same vision and style of gameplay.

DrGluon of Team Llama essentially said “here is the idea, that’s it, let’s do it,” which created the episode’s tension. Frustrated team member Mira, a Stylist who also streams to thousands of viewers, probably felt she had valuable insight to add to the overall storytelling. SpringSims also faced challenges, being more of an introverted Builder taking direction from two strong creative women, one on each side of him and a 90-minute timer.

Steph0Sims, who described herself as the dumpster fire of the Sims community, explained that her social anxiety guarantees she’ll either “stand in the corner like a weird goblin or backflip into the place.” Thankfully, she did neither, but she did freeze during her presentation to the empathy of her teammates.

The first challenge took an improv-streaming approach, with live gameplay occurring as the Storytellers narrated. This meant gamers had to be able to simultaneously play and create a story that can fall short and translate awkwardly to television if not done properly.

Group dynamics definitely helped. Cowplant’s build wow’d both contestants and judges and it could have a lot to do with how they used the time and prioritized their tasks.

This backfired with Freezer Bunny, however, who decided to do an intricate build and forego exterior design while taking the cinematic approach. In cinematic play, we see the camera angles. On television, the judges noticed everything and made sure to comment on it.

Several times, the judges noted that the build was interesting but the story fell short, bringing up the contrast between your own imaginative solo play and entertaining for an audience - or in this case, to impress the judges for 100 stacks.

The Storytelling Challenge

The second challenge had an interesting theme: what does family mean to you? The winning team from the previous challenge picked a neighborhood and the teams had to create a family to answer this question – in five hours. With Simmers, you can either get sentimental or the most bizarre storyline and we got a little bit of both. And more reality.

This challenge also offered the added bonus of the winning team’s family being featured in The Sims 4, though it’s unclear if it’s a default family preloaded into the neighborhood or an official Maxis download in the Sims store.

Mira’s face, when Team Llama is doing the storytelling in this episode, is super classic and an entire mood. Again, cultural and group dynamics really come into play when you have five hours to do what would normally take you days. If everyone isn’t on the same page it can be disastrous.

Teams also took two different approaches to the final stories: scripted voiceover vs. voice acting. I personally prefer the narrative style voiceovers instead of the dialogue ones. From a gameplay perspective, narrating a story edit would seem more time-efficient than scripting and recording a dialogue.

Team Cowplant did an impressive job with their Gossip Girls-themed storytelling and build, but the judges were understandably looking for something more innovative than the re-creation model which is popular on YouTube and among Simmers. Also, they went so far into their concept, the family dynamic goal was lost entirely, to the judges’ dismay.

I loved Gnome’s storytelling from start to finish based on the idea of an unconventional family. And as SimsGuruNinja said, you feel like you can take that family and continue playing it with ease, again, remembering the technical element of the in-gameplay prize.

There was a heartfelt moment where Tayla and SimGuruNinja emphatically encouraged and affirmed Team FreezerBunny despite the slip up during their challenge. The team wasn’t able to complete the audio portion of their challenge. This ultimately decided their fate.

Creators creating

The first episode was surprisingly engaging, which has always been a question for those outside the beloved Sims community: can The Sims translate into other mediums? There have been talks of films, which all got axed, allegedly due to storyline and interest. However, the reality competition format works well. I wish we got to hear more about the inspiration behind their creations, but I also found the pacing of the show to be perfect.

It’s also cool how the show is 100 percent tailored to The Sims experience, however, some longtime Simmers did take to social media to complain about the lack of playfulness that makes The Sims so addicting and felt the focus on tension, anxiety, and pressure took away from that aspect. I felt there was a good balance for the first episode, we’ll see how the rest of the season plays out.

It’s still unclear whether the winning group will be splitting the prize or if the final challenges will be solo ones. The Sims is, for the most part, a solo experience shared with others where the player has control over everything.

Adding a group dynamic definitely shook things up, for better or for worse, as players had to now share a vision. I’m hoping we get to see more of their individual talents shine, though. Also, placing two Black Simmers in one group was risky, meaning two-thirds of the show’s inclusion could be eliminated in one round. My heart.

Overall, this is a show I will be investing in. I’m all for it and hope it works in a way that leads to more seasons. The trailer for next week looks interesting, mainly because there were scenes where competitors were playing solo, as well as in groups, which is intriguing.

I look forward to seeing where The Sims Spark’d take both the contestants and the franchise. Watch the entire first episode below: