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The Graded Generation: How sports did in their next-gen debut year

It may sound like damnation by faint praise to point this out, but every PlayStation 4 and Xbox One sports video game shares the core features of its PS3 and/or Xbox 360 ancestor. And bringing that up is a reminder how sports badly failed that modest expectation the last time a new console generation launched.

Madden NFL 06 on the Xbox 360 was probably the most notorious example, not even having real announcers thanks to a contract snafu with Al Michaels and John Madden himself. You couldn't create or edit players in that game, a baseline feature going back years. FIFA neither launched with the 360 nor the PS3, and when FIFA 07 arrived on Xbox 360, some 20 leagues were absent. NCAA Football's first Xbox 360 version lacked the "Campus Legend" career mode on the Xbox and PS2 editions, went without the popular create-a-school option for three years, and never included real Division I-AA teams. A good friend in Oregon returned his Xbox 360 because of it.

"we started thinking about the next generation long before Microsoft and Sony started talking about them."

So when you consider that everything on the PS3 edition of MLB 14 The Show was, yep, on the PS4 edition — and Sony's colleagues at EA Sports and 2K Sports toed that line with Madden, FIFA and NBA 2K14, too — some credit is due. It may also be why sports video games, on the whole, took few risks in the year they straddled both consoles; they didn't want to write any checks on the Xbox 360 that they couldn't cash on the Xbox One.

"We were adamant that we would never put ourselves in that position again," Andrew Wilson, then the boss of EA Sports and today the CEO of Electronic Arts, told me during E3 2013. In the last console transition he was FIFA's senior producer, and the difficulty it faced in introducing a new engine on the Xbox 360 is partly to blame for the fact it featured only seven domestic leagues.

"We have a forward looking-investment profile and a healthy paranoia these days," he added, "and we started thinking about the next generation long before Microsoft and Sony started talking about them."

The games his label released reflect that, and so do his competitors' offerings. This week's arrival of MLB 14 The Show on PlayStation 4, and NHL 15's announcement of what it'll bring when it makes its next-generation debut in September, provide a useful context to recap how sports titles did, and what they face in round two.

The First String

In subjective order I'll rate how each series bridging the two generations did.

1. MLB 14 The Show

The Show did the most of any title to change its entire franchise, and then implement those features into its next-generation offering. What puts The Show over the top of its peers is the ability to transfer career-mode saves from PS3 to PS4. I don't know that Sony effectively communicated this value to its loyal users, especially when Madden NFL 25, FIFA 14 and NBA 2K14 took pains to set up discount promotions that encouraged buying the previous generation's edition and then upgrading once the Xbox One and PS4 launched.

It's a shame this is the lowest-rated Show since — lo and behold — its PlayStation 3 debut, because it was the lone title to introduce fundamental changes to its previous-generation version, knowing it'd have to deliver them on the next generation. Player Lock, as I've raved about already, is a game-changer. Quick Counts needs a little refinement, especially as it can take away some situational strategy like base-stealing and bunting. Dynamic Difficulty is likewise a winner and a big structural improvement, reducing the need for longtime players to experiment with difficulty sliders to get a credible challenge. None of the other three titles reshaped themselves as much as The Show 14 did with these three features.

Its online support remains a mess, with a new Online Franchise functionally irrelevant. Then again, any sports developer not named EA Sports makes the same annual promise about their netcode and lays the same egg at launch. Other than improved visuals the PS4 edition may not be all that distinct from the PS3's but that never seemed to be a goal. On the whole, though, it is a different and better game from The Show 13.

2. Madden NFL 25

As disappointing as the game was on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, Madden was the sports title whose core gameplay improved the most on newer hardware. It still isn't much to look at or listen to — like The Show, it's basically the same animations and models rendered in a higher poly count. But damn if this game's oblivious blocking, long a pet peeve of mine, didn't improve to the point it changed how I played the game.

Realize Madden has a unique burden: writing an AI system that has to direct how five offensive linemen are going to recognize and block up to seven others across a slew of different formations, and then to the end of a play. On the PS4 and Xbox One, passing pockets formed more distinctly, and tight ends, pulling guards and even receivers were more effective at blocking away from the line of scrimmage.

Madden has been continually pummeled by gamers — myself included — for focusing more on overmarketed gimmicks than core gameplay over the years. If gameplay really matters more than just a talking point in a forum argument, then the improvement Madden NFL 25 showed from last generation to the current one rates the series a solid thumbs-up and legitimate optimism, instead of begrudging expectation, for the coming year.

College Football 15: What could have been

Let's speak a word of charity for the NCAA Football series, which was working on a next-generation version right up to the day it was canceled in September, in light of the ongoing litigation former college players have brought over the use of their likenesses in products such as video games. Designers I've talked to since then were already sketching out some unusual features that borrowed a page from Madden NFL's Connected Franchise Mode.

The game — likely to have been called College Football 15 — considered but didn't have the time to implement a true connected dynasty mode, allowing people to play either as a single performer or a coach controlling the entire team in the same online league, as with Madden. But it did have a novel idea for an MMO-ish experience. Players in the Road to Glory career suite would go through a high school career, exit it rated at a certain level, and then see their stars form the recruiting pool in the online dynasty they joined (as well as others.)

So when they took over as a coach in an online dynasty, players would effectively be recruiting themselves, their friends, and hundreds of other real people they never heard of. (The potential for seeing awesome names on your big board seems stratospheric.) The high school career could be replayable to give someone better attributes, a better recruit ranking, or other unlockables. Players would be able to see how their high school performers progressed in the 50 or so dynasties where they were seeded.

It'd be around this time of year we usually heard about new features for EA Sports' college football game. This year, though, it's only to hear what could have been. It's a shame. I was putting friends in custom NCAA Football recruiting classes 10 years ago; this concept sounds like an even more fun version of that.

3. FIFA 14

FIFA's Xbox 360 and PS3 edition actually has something the next-gen version does not: Tournament mode. Though a minority of players used it (according to EA Sports telemetry) it still was a fast way to experience something like the World Cup, where on the PS4 or Xbox One you had to go through the long preamble of a career mode. It's also worth mentioning that the standalone FIFA World Cup 2014 is not available on next-gen platforms.

FIFA still is the class of sports video gaming, and so perhaps it's graded down here because there was so little that needed the kind of eye-popping improvement seen in something like Madden. The crowd is eminently livelier and more involved, easily the one that most appears to be watching the game you are playing. Ball physics now make passing, first touch and dribbling more intensive acts. Still, much of FIFA's improvement rests on the advanced visual capabilities, especially as the Xbox 360 and PS3 version was largely a refined, if still solid, effort that suggested that generation had reached a point of diminishing returns. We should soon hear what new exploits this franchise will make, but at least it's coming to it from a position of supremacy, as opposed to the tentative challenger it was eight years ago.

4. NBA 2K14

NBA 2K14 is the sports series whose next-gen version is most distinct from its predecessor, thanks largely to a MyPlayer career mode that now features a scripted, believable storyline and branching interactions that deliver the most role-playing depth ever seen in a team sports career mode.

That said, all versions of the game suffered through a harrowing winter of online troubles, which exposed that NBA 2K14 on next-generation systems is essentially dependent on an always online connection, with exception of a half-measure workaround that few knew existed. Gamers also instantly distrusted and constantly resented a virtual currency system that was extended from 2K13's ultimate-team style mode to its MyPlayer and MyGM career suite, where things like adjusting a lineup cost virtual bucks. While the virtual currency costs are nominal and plenty is awarded for completing a game, the fact simulating a game in career mode returns no VC meant long-time players felt forced to grind through an entire 82-game season.

A lot of the furor, including over virtual currency, died down once 2K sorted out its connectivity problems, returning attention to what is still fundamentally a very strong sports simulation. Still, 2K Sports — which has a formidable social media operation — could have done a better job articulating to fans what benefit was delivered by the virtual currency expansion and the online requirement. And if it couldn't describe a benefit to gamers, maybe these choices should not have been made.

The Rookie

NBA Live 14 launched with the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 but had no presence on the 360 or PS3. What EA Sports delivered underlines what a tightrope act it is even iterating on a good sports title over a single year. There was no way they could do what is essentially a game from scratch in that span, either. Probably the biggest admission NBA Live 14 was not ready for its November launch was the patch it delivered in February, correcting all sorts of structural flaws and even adding a practice mode.

Still, the development team did its best to fix what was broken and made a visible, consistent effort at post-release support, rather than walk away from this mess as some may have expected. Last year I'd heard rumors EA Sports came back to simulation basketball in 2012 on a three-year contract and NBA Live 14 was the second year of that deal. (No publisher or league discusses these terms).

If so, that could make this one hell of a walk year for NBA Live 15. If it's true, we'll either get a save-the-orphanage effort to convince ownership to re-up, or a subsistence-level swan song. The series sacked its executive producer and creative director from 2012 and brought back Sean O'Brien, a longtime veteran from the series when it was produced in Canada. Just having two years of the same creative vision, frankly, should improve the next game a lot, but the patience of many gamers ran out a long time ago.

On Deck

Three sports series will make their next-gen debuts this fall. EA Sports UFC arrives in June; the first big sports hit of the Xbox 360/PS3 generation was Fight Night Round 3, and combat sports would figure to do well again. Its appeal is broader than team sports, it's something new and different, and what we've seen so far does look great. EA Canada is handling this; they've done the well regarded Fight Night series since 2009's Round 4. As this is essentially the third different approach to handling the complexities of mixed martial arts three phases — stand-up, clinch and ground —more prosaic features like the controls and tutorial could play an outsize role in its success.

NHL 15, due in September, released a minute-long teaser trailer on Monday. It showed no gameplay, but an accompanying release said NHL 15 is teaming up with NBC Sports to overhaul its broadcast package. Gone are Gary Thorne and Bill Clement, who had called the series for its entire run on Xbox 360 and PS3. In comes Doc Emrick and Eddie Olczyk; Emrick is basically the voice of televised hockey in the United States. It's encouraging that EA Canada considers commentary and broadcast presentation to be next-gen level improvements, considering how many series need work in this regard. The rest of the promised improvements include, of course, a ton of visual detail, better crowd and arena features, and refined physics. These are straight from the playbook of next-gen promises for sports video games.

Finally, there's WWE 2K15, about which we have no news, only rumors, such as a retired great making a big appearance. Presumably we'll hear more about it at E3 next month. Last year's game looked, felt and played very much like something Yuke's built for THQ and not 2K Sports, so I'm curious to see how that brand makes its presence felt, now that it's owned the series for a more than a year. No release date has been given, but WWE typically lands in late October as the last sports series on the calendar.

Roster File is Polygon's news and opinion column on the intersection of sports and video games.

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