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Sports at E3: Experimentation isn't in new games, it's in the old ones

Narrative modes and ultimate teams take the place of arcade titles and spinoffs a decade ago

Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

A decade ago, Madden NFL still published on PC. EA Sports took a chance on a management simulation called NFL Head Coach, not only for that platform but also on consoles. It published MVP NCAA Baseball 06, still the only licensed video game for a non-revenue (i.e. not football or basketball) college sport. And, thanks largely to the persistence of an Australian who is now the CEO for all of Electronic Arts, there was Rugby 06 — developed in Canada and also launched in North America.

My question, this week, to the bosses of EA Sports' two principal studios, was as rhetorically nostalgic as it was curious: Where has the experimentation in sports video gaming gone? Or has the modern age of licensing and development, ushered in by EA itself 10 years ago, closed the door on those days forever?

"I hear what you're saying, and a certain element of what we do is on a size and scale level of predictability," said Cam Weber, the boss of EA Sports' Tiburon studio in Florida, which makes the Madden NFL title he has overseen for the past five years. "We have very rigid timelines that we have to deal with, so when we push for innovation, it's within the game we're making every year."

Weber and his counterpart Matt Bilbey, the boss of FIFA studio EA Vancouver, spoke to me during E3 week for a kind of "State of the Union" conversational reset on where sports video games are and are headed, particularly within the segment's most dominant publisher. (Disclosure: As Tiburon boss, Weber oversees the NBA Live franchise, whose future on consoles is legitimately questionable. But in arranging the interview I was told by an EA representative that he would not answer questions about that franchise; I did not ask any.)

Both studio chiefs acknowledged the rigid nature of high-stakes sports development but insisted that experimentation is still very much a down-the-line value in their studios, even if it doesn't manifest in spinoff or arcade titles.

"Ultimate Team was an experiment," Bilbey noted. "That went from a small game team working on a game for the [UEFA] Champions League tournament simultaneously to a mode brought into FIFA itself, and then most recently all of our sports games, including UFC."

Bilbey pointed out that game jams happen routinely at EA Sports and ideas arising from them filter into finished products, albeit in more subtle ways like user interfaces or other parts of the experience. At Tiburon, for example, a solution for plotting the trajectory of a shot, with wind influences, in Rory McIlroy PGA Tour became the new kicking system for Madden NFL 16 and forward.

In late summer, EA Sports will begin seeing the results of three big experiments, all in flagship products. FIFA is introducing a narrative story mode to its career suite, one which greatly resembles the success 2K has seen with its NBA line the past two years. That series also is moving to the Frostbite engine, an actual game development engine (more known for titles like Star Wars Battlefront and Battlefield) whose sports debut came in last year's Rory McIlroy PGA Tour. Madden NFL is shoring up a persistently weak component, its audio commentary, with two new announcers and the means to update their dialogue as the real season progresses. And both games will be the tines of EA's fork into an esports entrée where traditional sports are treated as an outlier as much as they are in the rest of consumer video gaming.

"Competitive gaming is all about engagement and ongoing competition," Bilbey said, and FIFA certainly offered plenty of both but only within the informal matchmaking of the game or leagues created and joined by persons who know one another. "That accessibility has been the real challenge for the broader demographic."

FIFA, and Madden, will natively support tiered levels of competition beginning with their next launches. Though Madden has had an annual "Madden Bowl" around the time of the Super Bowl and other tournaments even have been featured on ESPN, making your way into that scene has been prohibitive, typically dependent on in-person competition. "We're not making sure we can connect those two pieces, where people can enter competitions that they can compete in, at their level, build their way up, and there's the opportunity for anybody to earn their way to the top."

There still are skeptics, and good reason to be skeptical, that traditional sports can have a meaningful presence in the widening esports scene. For starters, a sports video game based on real-world teams and performers is necessarily imbalanced, unlike a MOBA or fighting game based on checks and balances, or a shooter where all players have the same tools available. Other elements of a modern esports competition, such as sponsorships and talent pool, have seemingly left sports behind as a competitive enterprise. For now, EA Sports is stepping in itself, particularly with the "Madden Championships," comprising four events and a $1 million prize pool.

"But when I look at the benefit to Madden players, it's about driving that day-to-day engagement," says Weber, the Madden boss. "It starts with seeing the greatest Madden players in the world competing on the same stage. There's a rewarding aspect to seeing these players compete, and then it drives you to compete yourself, so we have to make sure we can connect those pieces. ... When you think abut engineering that drive, that's really where we are right now."

FIFA 17's "The Journey," in which a player inhabits the persona of a Premier League superstar (for any of the 20 teams), illustrates both the current competitive dynamic of the sports video game ecosystem as well as its shrunken nature. FIFA 17 isn't competing with Pro Evolution Soccer 2017 by introducing a story mode; it's going after NBA 2K, which has done this for two years and has become as much a cultural phenomenon as the soccer game. Of the major sports, international football and U.S. basketball have the deepest connections to mainstream celebrity and lifestyle, and their games face the greatest obligation to serve those stories.

"We have been playing NBA 2K for years [at EA Vancouver], and they do a great job; 2K's story mode has been an inspiration," Bilbey acknowledged. "We love competition and we love being inspired by others; we've learned a lot from what they have done. We've done things differently, and we hope we have put an authentic and accessible European football lens on it."

That said, FIFA 17 appears to be using "The Journey" as an on-boarding mode somewhat in the way "Champion Mode" was in Fight Night — breaking down the whole game to its components, instructing players in how to use them confidently, and graduating them to the main game after a climactic showdown.

"The Journey is being designed as a way to oboard new people into the game," Bilbey said, "whether they're younger or less hardcore, they can learn the controls and skills and a little bit about Ultimate Team, but in the end you're on you're own, it's all about you. You have graduated and now it's 'Hey, I want to continue on with this.'"

Still, both Bilbey and Weber acknowledge that when they meet fans and players, they routinely face the specter of past games, if not for the series themselves (like NCAA Football, or Fight Night) then for the era they speak to. "I don't think those days are dead forever," Weber said. "But there are other opportunities and platforms on the horizon, things like virtual reality," where everything is an experiment, or mobile, as much a wild-west landscape as consoles were in the early 2000s.

"There are always new things coming online, but we feel fondly for those franchises, too," said Weber, incidentally the last executive producer on the Fight Night series. "We play them and we miss them, too."

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

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