Sports games such as FIFA 21 and MLB Exhibition 21 are rightly praised for their excellently executed simulations in the real world. At the same time, these simulation aspects are not available, and at the same time they provide fun experiences that encourage long game sessions. This is fully supported by the solid career modes of each game, which are compelling not only for their playability but also for their ability to tell great stories.
Not playing any nerdy stereotypes or anything, but I really don’t like sports. Seeing the ball kicking up and down the field for 90 minutes or the same cars racing on the same stretch of road, who knows how many laps, is more of a test of patience for me than a fascinating display of skills and athleticism.
This is not to say that the daily disbelief in work ethic practiced by athletes and motorists is merely worth watching sports. Personally, I think sports are a lot more entertaining when you’re not a spectator.
Sports game careers, as in FIFA 21, NBA 2K21 or MLB The Show 21 lets you get behind the scenes, take control of your team, and possibly even commit emotionally. Sports games are strangely appealing in the way their stories meet, both in the game and in your head, and that the ability to dynamically form a story is not something I see many talking about.
Getting the ball
Don’t worry, I promise I haven’t lost a plot. I’m not going to argue that FIFA 21 has storytelling on some level Nier Replicant or Final Fantasy 7 Remake. Rather, sports games – especially their career modes – often do a great job of getting a player to form stories in their own head. It’s a weird genius.
I will give you an example of what I mean. While I don’t try to tune in to the Premier League, FIFA has always had a significant attitude in my life throughout the school, university and beyond. I don’t think you need to be a sports fan to enjoy games like this, and their dynamic career modes can ease that feeling by offering a lot more to love than just kicking the ball.
A few FIFAs then I found myself immersed in career mode. I took a strong leadership role and took a very hands-on approach to shaping my club. I was in complete control, dealing with everything from scouting and transfers to field configurations and strategies. With all this going on, I had already fully invested in the club of my choice, Bolton Wanderers. Fun fact: it’s a sentence that has never been uttered before or since.
I usually like to select underdog teams in sports games immediately because of an interesting installation. No one expects a poorly successful team to do well, and that in itself is enough to lay the foundation for a good story. Combine this with your ability to search for unknown players with potential bags, and you have a recipe for a dynamic story reminiscent of a soap opera rather than a football scene.
But that is, of course, just the beginning. Setting a career, choosing a team, and the approach you want to lead provide the shell. The madness that has been going on ever since makes sports gaming career modes really irresistible and shockingly stunning from a storytelling perspective.
Real choices, real consequences
Let’s say you’ve just pocketed a future star player for yourself. They are so unknown that they don’t even have an icon that describes their true appearance. They are young, they have good statistics and potential bags. Better yet, you’ve transferred them to your club for cheap. It’s a risky strategy that circumvents the idea of buying a reputable player that is almost guaranteed to produce results for you.
Then you start playing them. You even put them on the first team. In the first few matches, they already score almost as many goals as the best players in the league. You have turned an unknown potential into a title that steals a prodigy.
Then the next transfer window rolls around. All the big clubs want your star players so much that they are willing to pay millions for them. They have seen your success, and now they want it for themselves. What do you do in that situation?
Do you accept the highest bid, possibly by condemning a player to life on a low bench, but while raising funds to reinforce the weaknesses of your troops? Or are you refusing to keep your star players and caring for them further to drive your team to dizzying heights of success?
It’s just one of many plot chains that can form in your mind during a FIFA 21 career session. It seems like it’s so trivial to make such a big deal out of it, but it’s the kind of thing that makes sports gaming careers so exciting and compelling, more than they’re entitled to be.
It’s worth noting that, of course, FIFA isn’t the only football game in town to try a solid career trait. The beloved Football Manager series offers a tactical leadership experience. However, in such a pragmatic approach to management, it is ironic that day-to-day events happen Soccer manager can often feel completely out of your hands.
I like a lot of FIFA’s approach, where skill-based real-time gameplay makes you feel as if your winnings are more than earned, and losses are for the most part your own fault. I think this plays much better in the subconscious narrative.
Narration of strategy
You love or hate sports games and all the questionable things they do about “final teams,” micro-events, and intrusive in-game ads, it’s hard to win a good career when done right. This is because their ability to dynamically generate stories both within the game and in your imagination is no different than how many strategy games approach the same.
Take XCOM, for example. This long-running series of turn-based strategies could no longer be removed from FIFA 21 or MLB The Show 21, for example, if it tried. But if you look hard enough, you’ll find that there are certainly similarities between the two.
In the XCOM command, you command a group of soldiers who know how to kill evil space creatures. Your team, unlike the team you choose in FIFA career mode, is the body of the game. You can name individual team members, choose what weapons and abilities they will take into combat, and rest them when they are too tired to continue.
On the battlefield, your actions are greatly dictated by the fates of the members of the group. The hours spent leveling them, building ties with other teammates, building their skills and abilities can all evaporate in an instant – along with the physical form of your soldiers – when a gift or thin man throws an inevitable critical hit.
Playing XCOM 2 was one of the few times I shouted “NO !!!”. lose character. And surely, even though I didn’t have that arm in FIFA 21, losing your star player to another team or being injured can certainly cause similar losses and frustration.
Sports games really won’t win prizes for their storytelling at any time, especially since most don’t have a traditional narrative at first. Nonetheless, it’s always really fascinating to see how the career style of your sports game can affect you subconsciously. And whether it’s intentional or not, it’s kind of a genius.
Sports games like FIFA 21 and NBA 2K21 are often criticized, quite rightly, for being difficult to distinguish from each other, as they only offer step-by-step updates year after year and eventually signal that they have changed considerably.
With this in mind, I would like to see that careers really exploit their narrative potential. Using random events that can have a positive or negative impact on you, your team, and players would be a simple but effective way to differentiate your career from another player’s own.
I remember how in the old WWE Smackdown vs Raw series there were even complete cuts only for career modes that had a wrestler created by the player. It’s been done in the past, so something like that can certainly be achieved with the current generation of equipment and future sports titles.
However, it is not if FIFA or other sports have not tried to turn their career offerings. For a few years, the series experimented with The Journey mode, a fully story-driven football adventure starring a pre-determined character, Alex Hunter. And film director Spike Lee borrowed his talent for NBA 2K16 story mode, bringing a cinematic touch to something really different.
The Travel trilogy was impressively ambitious for the FIFA title, but it lacked the random randomness and decision-making found in the main career mode. I would love to see a combination of the two. A solid but impenetrable plot, complemented by the often chaotic nature of FIFA’s dynamic career modes.
I hope sports game developers can break the mold of annual cookie cutters to do something really special with career modes in the future. They already have so much dynamism and unpredictability, but I would love to love games like FIFA 22 so I can really rely on this to provide an unforgettable career experience.
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