FIFA 20 was revealed at the weekend with universal positivity over the inclusion of a 5-aside or FIFA Street mode. I must admit I was drawn into this straight away and despite my PES preference, FIFA 20 has shot to the top of my list. Despite this there is a nagging voice in the back of my head, wondering if I will give this new mode the time it deserves.
I love sports games. During the N64 and PlayStation era, I tried to get a virtual version of every kind of sport, from Lacrosse to Cricket but as I have aged the sporting game has lost appeal to me. Have I changed or has something fundamentally changed with the genre?
The best example of the change in sports games is in the critically acclaimed NHL series. In the early days of the XBOX360, there was a delay before the big and credible sports games came out. The void was filled with the excellent NHL 07. This was the first to use the analogue sticks as a true reflection of your players and played a fantastic game. The premise was simple, season mode. Pick your team do your trades and win the Stanley Cup. Unfortunately, every version since has added something that has diluted from the purity of why we buy sports games. There was be a pro, online be a pro and more features like Ultimate Team that relegated the joy of a single – player campaign to almost an afterthought. There has been an erosion of what sports fans want from sports games.
The personal case is my perennial favourite PES or Pro Evolution Soccer. It used to be the Master League was the raison d’être of this game. A multi-Season epic campaign where you earned cash by winning games and used this in your transfer market to improve your players. The dilution of this classic mode began slowly. Firstly, you were able to retain the real players for your team instead of beginning with ‘defaults’, then you were given ‘realistic’ transfer funds making the need for individual victories less crucial. There were games where you had identified the player you needed to buy and knew a victory meant the necessary funds. With realistic transfer windows and funding the urgency was lost and with it the Master League faded and faded. Now it is very much a mode buried in the background that when found can recapture some of the old magic. Check out PES Chronicles for the best online forum on the old way of playing.
The main catalysts of this erosion are the pursuit of realism at the expense of gamer satisfaction and the prioritisation of online multiplayer.
The online aspect of these games is now the be all and end all. They are the cash cows that keep on giving despite the ethical and moral issues that are raised by their monetisation. Ultimate team in FIFA and other EA games. Micro Transactions in the 2K games and My Club in PES. They place the online competition as the main marketing factor and front and centre on the menu screens. While there is fun to be had, playing against other people is no replacement for a grand campaign that recreates the drama of a sports season. Do the developers not look at the continued success of Football Manager and see that the core market for sports games is still the actual sports fan?
Unfortunately, the pursuit of realism is another nail in the coffin for the traditional sports game fan. Realism on the pitch, racetrack, Ice Rink and courts are one thing but sometimes they need to think of the audience playing at the other end of the controller. It is a very fine balance that very few companies get right. You aren’t looking for a perfect recreation of the sport, you are looking for a simulation that gives the illusion of a ‘perfect representation’. I want to feel like an F1 car is hard to handle and a beast to control. I don’t always want to deal with the unexpected unless it is my fault. I don’t want the engine to blow on my car unless I have pushed it too hard. I don’t want my players t get muscle injuries unless I haven’t rested them and most of all I don’t want to be forced into the kind of things that are a job. I understand this is for some people but for me If I want to sort out the club finances and negotiations I will play Football Manager and not FIFA. The blurring of the lines is severely affecting the sports game genre for single players. There needs to be more thought put into the end user experience.
Football/Soccer games are all about getting the percentages right. If your winger with amazing speed breaks clear then it should take an equally fast defender to catch them. If a chance falls to a character with a high finishing stat then it should go in. This is the realism we want and it was something so prevalent in the early days of PES. Unfortunately now there seems to be a lot of artificial limitations to level the playing field and create artificial drama. In PES it used to be called scripting as the AI opponent always seemed destined to score with their last-minute chances, now this has been adopted by all sporting games. Your engine blows when out in front, your star player gets injured, your new signing gets injured in his first game. All these artificial impediments to enjoyment have been added at the expense of just making the opponent better.
Because of this frustration, sporting games have stopped being a chance to escape and rewrite history and have become more inextricable from the real-life pain and triumph of following a sports team. I follow Aston Villa for my sins. At times this season the stress of watching them made me less inclined to play a version of FIFA or PES as they generated the same emotions. Now I am having an Indian summer with FIFA after the reality was a happy ending, yet it could have been the case that I was so sickened with the real-life team that the exact recreation of the season virtually would have been too much for me.
So despite my anticipation for FIFA 20, the current trend of sports games makes me feel that they have left their true fans behind.