The Nintendo Switch’s 2017 lineup is promising so far, but perhaps not encouraging — and that includes the initial sports gaming support for the hybrid console.
During last night’s press event, Electronic Arts announced that it is bringing its FIFA series of soccer titles to the Nintendo Switch. A sizzle reel of upcoming games briefly showed a logo for 2K Sports’ NBA 2K18, and the publisher said this morning that a Switch version of the best-selling basketball franchise will be released this September. Following the event, Ubisoft announced that it is porting Steep to Switch this year.
Without further details, it’s hard to know what these three games will end up being. But we have some clues to follow right now.
Ubisoft’s Steep is an open-world winter sports game that debuted last month on PlayStation 4, Windows PC and Xbox One. It’s a free-form experience, letting the player wander around a snowy, mountainous playground with little direction. And it uses a persistent online connection to fill that world with other people for multiplayer action.
Steep seems like the kind of game that would work well on the Switch, especially once Nintendo adds video functionality to the capture button. And although we don’t have details on the Nintendo Switch Online Service, it shouldn’t cause problems for Steep even if Nintendo continues its tradition of overly restrictive online play because the game seamlessly brings in other players.
The fact that 2K Sports is referring to the Switch version of its basketball game as NBA 2K18 — as opposed to, say, NBA 2K Switch, or something else that doesn’t follow the series’ naming convention — is auspicious. It signals that it’s likely safe to expect the Switch version of NBA 2K18 to resemble the full-featured experience that fans are accustomed to on current-generation platforms (if not parity in graphics).
EA’s announcement of a FIFA game for Switch was the opposite. Patrick Söderlund, executive vice president of EA’s worldwide studios, called it “EA Sports FIFA on Nintendo Switch” — and never used the name FIFA 18, which will surely be the title of this year’s entry in the annual franchise. Söderlund didn’t provide any specifics on the game, except to say that it will be “custom built for Nintendo Switch” and “the most immersive, social, and authentic sports game ever created for Nintendo players.”
Peter Moore, EA’s chief competition officer, highlighted the “custom built” quote on Twitter as a response to a report from a Eurogamer editor who said he had “heard FIFA Switch is based off of the 360/PS3 versions which still get made.” When a game is brought to a new, different-style platform like the Switch — or its predecessor, the Wii U — people like to hear that the port is “built from the ground up” for that console. But the thing is, that’s rarely true for an annualized sports franchise; the developers have to start somewhere in most cases, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
FIFA 13 on Wii U was based on the gameplay of the previous entry in the franchise, with FIFA 12 features like the Player Impact Engine and Precision Dribbling “optimized for Wii U.” While the game didn’t offer the new elements seen in the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 versions of FIFA 13, it contained Wii U-specific features like first-person free kicks on the GamePad. But perhaps because the gameplay felt dated, or because sports fans didn’t buy the Wii U at launch (not many people did!), the game didn’t sell well — and EA never made another sports game on the console.
That’s the worry at this point about FIFA on Switch. It stands to reason that the game is going to be its own thing because of the console’s unique hardware functionality, and because the console doesn’t have the power to hang with the PlayStation 4, Windows PC and Xbox One versions of FIFA. With something as weird as the Switch, developers are probably better served building to the system’s strengths rather than blindly porting existing games.
But the downside of something custom-made for the Switch is that if the game compares unfavorably to its siblings on the existing current-generation platforms — if it just feels different rather than special — then it’s unlikely to catch on. And that could prove just as distasteful for EA as the company’s experience with sports games on the Wii U.
Of course, the Switch isn’t even launching for another seven weeks, and it’ll be a while before we see any of these three games. These concerns could flip — maybe the Switch version of NBA 2K will be NBA 2K18 in name only, and won’t hold a candle to its kin; maybe FIFA on Switch will distinguish itself as something worth playing even on less powerful hardware. Only time will tell, but sports fans have plenty of reason to be skeptical of Nintendo platforms.