Sorry Sports games, it’s not me, it’s you!

A Tifo image of Alex Hunter, taken from a prematch scene in The Journey for FIFA 19

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been looking back at the games I have and which ones I want to play while confined to my home during this 2020 lockdown. When I was most invested in video games, it was Sports, Racing, and RPG genres that had the most of my attention. Action-adventure games have joined that mix and are typically my go-to games of choice lately. Looking at my overall collection, I can confidently say that while I have an interest in many genres, 75-80% of them are Action-Adventure, Racing, RPG, or Sports.

My created player from NHL 20's World of Chel, taking a shot on goal.
World of Chel is a lot of fun but the small community makes playing against others a bit of a challenge.

But lately, my interest in sports games has really decreased. As someone who wrote about them at GameSpot, then worked for EA SPORTS, I don’t think I ever imagined I could burn out from the genre. But alas, in 2020, I have almost no interest in playing or investing any sizable amount of time in a sports game.

This has been a slow transition. It wasn’t like I just woke up one day and said ‘you know what, I don’t want to play sports games’. I still care very much about the genre and the games that come out. I just don’t see enough effort being put into their development to keep me interested in the long-term.

Putting aside my earlier work history for EA SPORTS, this is a problem I have with all sports games. It’s not as though I felt that since no longer work at EA, I should immediately start hating sports games. But watching the genre as an outsider, I really see how I am not its core audience and that the developers aren’t sure how to target people correctly.

My created quarterback from Madden 20's Face of the Franchise Mode. The University of Miami beating the University of Texas to win the 2019 National Championship
My created character in Madden NFL 20 leading The U to a National Title over Texas

When I was playing sports games regularly, there were two modes that kept me playing: Career Mode and Local Versus. Back in the early 2000’s, my friends and I would stay up until 5-6 am playing FIFA, NHL, NBA Live, etc… We would all have our teams then track our results. Most nights, we had anywhere between 3 and 8 people crammed into a basement or empty Bingo Hall (I used to work in a Bingo Hall and once we closed, we’d play) playing, commenting and just having fun.

As for career mode. I would spend hours creating myself and my friends then taking our created teams to glory. In something like FIFA, I would create an entire squad of my friends then take our custom team and seeing if we could win against the best of Europe. We did the same thing in NBA Live and NHL. If I wasn’t creating and playing as my self and my friends, I would see how well I could ‘coach a team’ to a championship.

But today, career mode doesn’t get a lot of attention from myself or the developers and my friends who are all grown up with families don’t really have time to spend playing a game or two online.

At the same time, I really feel like the genre hasn’t done enough to evolve over the last few years. This is a problem across most video games. Once a development team finds something that works, it really feels like they stick with that and try to avoid taking any huge risks for risk of losing fans, money and potentially going out of business. Since the thing that works is bringing in the money, they don’t want to take a chance and introduce something that has potential and could bring in a new audience.

My created player from NBA 2K20's Career Mode taking the ball past half-court.
When you actually are on the court, the early parts of My Career from NBA 2K are pretty fun.

I’m going to use examples of the FIFA series a lot to push this point. My love of sports games starts with FIFA 98: Road to the World Cup. It was an incredible game because it allowed you to take your country of choice through its respective qualifying campaign, then play the entire FIFA World Cup. I remember not only taking Yugoslavia to FIFA World Cup glory, but Canada, South Africa, and a few other countries all the way to World Cup Finals victory.

In later years, I loved Captain your Country, where you tried to earn the captaincy of your nation so that your created player (or player of choice) could lift the trophy in the end. I enjoyed the effort put into the World Cup-specific games, which always felt like the games where the development team tried new things that would (or would not) later feature in the main franchise.

Where past EA SPORTS FIFA Games not only took chances, it also didn’t feel like they were simply looking to grab a few extra bucks here and there.

For FIFA 19, EA managed to get back the UEFA Champions League license after over a decade without it. This is the most important club competition in the world and a huge selling point, so getting it was massive. But even with it, they couldn’t do it right.

Sorry Sports games, it's not me, it's you!
The default lineup for the Champions League in FIFA 20. Sligo (Group B), Norrkoping (Group G) did not qualify, while Piemonte (Group D) are actually Juventus FC

One of the biggest complaints Konami’s Pro Evolution Soccer series had with their control of the license was their inability to secure all the teams that took part. Even with EA’s plethora of licensed leagues and clubs throughout Europe, they also were unable to get all 32 teams. This is incredibly disappointing considering there are so few spots available to qualify for the tournament, so securing the rights to the remaining clubs should not have been such a problem. This wasn’t a one-year problem. Both FIFA 19 and FIFA 20 do not have all 32 teams.

To be fair, I am probably the angriest about this because one of the missing clubs, Red Star Belgrade, is a team I very much support. But if you’re someone who wants a 100% authentic experience, not being given that really sucks. Imagine if NBA 2K didn’t have the Sacramento Kings in the game. Sure, they’re not the biggest team in the league, but having 29 real NBA Teams and one fake one just seems off.

What’s funny about my previous analogy is that it’s actually true in FIFA 20. The Italian champions, Juventus, are exclusive to PES. In the past, PES was made fun of for featuring fake teams, now EA is facing the same problem with one of the biggest clubs in the world. Juventus players are in the game, but they are considered part of a fake team, Piemonte.

A video review of the 2018 World Cup mode from FIFA 19 that I did a couple of years ago. Please note: audio is a bit rough, please be mindful of that.

Not using a license correctly isn’t exclusive to FIFA and even the example above is not the only one that franchise is quilty of. Their 2018 FIFA World Cup update for FIFA 19 missed core rule implementations (eg. allowing teams to have an extra sub if a match goes into Extra Time or Video Assistant Referee (VAR)). They included Women’s National Teams as far back as FIFA 16 but never offered a proper World Cup mode for the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup in FIFA 19. It was a half-hearted effort with none of the fanfare.

EA’s NHL series features the Champions League of Hockey. It’s a European Club competition featuring the best hockey teams across Europe. However, a few years ago, it wasn’t properly set up. You could start the group stage but not actually play against the teams in your group. It was eventually fixed but how that got through QA is head-scratching. 

NBA 2K used to feature Euroleague teams but didn’t actually include a Euroleague mode. They eventually removed those teams from the game but they never properly utilized this license. Both basketball games (NBA Live and NBA 2K) feature the WNBA teams but neither bothered to include a proper season mode, only allowing for ‘quick play’.

Breanna Stewart of the Seattle Storm on the free throw line in a game against Indiana from NBA 2K20
It’s nice that the WNBA are playable in both basketball games (yes, even NBA Live 19), but they deserve a proper season or career mode.

When sports games try to do something different, they still suffer from a lack of detail and finish. Madden’s Longshot single-player campaign started well in Madden 18 but was really disappointing in Madden 19. The Journey for FIFA should have been a better experience. As someone who knows first-hand the proposed three-game story structure compared to what we got in FIFA 17, 18, and 19, I can tell you that they made a lot of changes and most weren’t good. The final chapter of the game in FIFA 19 is so disappointing and poorly structured, I only recently finished it, almost two years after the game launched.

Even while NBA 2K has done a slightly better job with its story mode, the plots are fairly generic and far from memorable. They do get a lot of credit for securing some well-known actors and athletes, they still don’t really stray too far from the typical sports story. I did like how 2K19 went with a fish out of water story where your protagonist had to play in China, the highs and lows were nothing new. 2K20’s story mode is really heavy on the cinematics and absolutely overdoes it with cameos and product placements.

I really want to get back into sports games because, in a time where I just want to have some fun for an hour or two, they should scratch that itch perfectly. To be fair, there are still some saving graces. Although I’ve only spent a couple of hours with World of Chel in NHL 20, it’s a fun set-up and hits that Be a Player itch I’ve used to love to play. The issue with an online-heavy mode, if there aren’t enough players online, it takes a while to play with others. There is a single-player portion to World of Chel but early on, it’s way too easy.

gameplay from the single-player portion of World of Chel from NHL 20. My created player is attempting a shot on goal.
Early on, the single-player portion of World of Chel in NHL 20 is way too easy.

With new consoles on the horizon and Madden, FIFA and NBA 2K all definitely being launch titles, I’m hoping this leads to some exciting and fresh ideas. In all honesty, there are so many things that they could do but I’m worried they will all still play it safe, cut back on the features, and rely heavily on their squad-building modes.