This is the sixth year of narrative story modes as an annual feature in a sports video game, the second with them prominent in three big titles, and it feels like we’ve hit a turning point. It wouldn’t surprise me to see it end up as a nice idea that has run its course, as opposed to a new expectation of the genre’s biggest names.
I say that after laboring through the third installment of The Journey, the story mode of EA Sports’ FIFA series since 2016. The soccer action is enjoyable enough, but even with three playable characters, none of them have much of an arc or a conflict beyond building up to that big win. The second of four acts in The Journey: Champions positively drags with incremental games and rote skills drills, especially if the user is following the mode’s recommended story path and exploring all three characters’ timelines concurrently.
It’s not a bad campaign. It’s just, like Madden NFL 19’s Longshot: Homecoming, fixated on the wish fulfillment of a very generic sports fantasy, and it struggles to recreate the themes and moments that made its first chapter so appealing and fresh.
In contrast is the 2K Sports approach, which if it’s not better as a storytelling mode, is at minimum way more flexible and leaves its creators at Visual Concepts freedom to try completely different things year-to-year. Since the NBA 2K series kicked off narratives with NBA 2K14, every year has featured a different protagonist and a new story. This year’s game, for example, is about an undrafted college kid whose only pro option is to go to China, and then the NBA’s developmental league. NBA 2K19 was free to explore new leagues and teams (and even put Chinese-language commentary into the presentation, which has to be a first) without fitting those things to something Spike Lee wrote three years ago.
Moreover, this preamble to MyCareer isn’t a means unto itself. It launches the user into their created star’s open-ended career, albeit with a backstory concocted by someone else. WWE 2K19 will take this same approach with its MyCareer mode when that game launches in early October. By intertwining this story with the larger career, Visual Concepts isn’t peeling too much attention and resources away from a staple mode to service a more limited experience.
That’s why I think, if the decision hasn’t already been made, EA Sports should consider putting FIFA and Madden’s story modes on hiatus in 2019. FIFA 19 is once again an excellent game (my review on this is coming later), but its career suite received practically no upgrade, and that’s been called out and cuffed around by critics and fans. Madden NFL 19 delivered more improvements to its career mode, but they were largely of a technical and presentational nature. Both games, despite robust sales and booming online revenue, have seen plateaued Metacritic totals and reviews that sound largely the same: “Well, the story mode is nice, the gameplay is great, but career got nothing, so it gets an 8.”
I’ve had conversations with people who are frustrated by what seems to be an unwinnable musical-chairs game of criticism, with whatever mode left standing being the one that prevents it from a breakout number that developers and marketers both love. When you consider that the licensed sports video games all have the base game, online multiplayer, an Ultimate/fantasy/collection game of some type, and a multi-year career at both the club and individual player level, it’s impossible that every one of those sees innovation within the same year. The first chapter of a narrative mode may have made its title seem like a breakthrough — Madden NFL 18 was our sports video game of the year for Longshot alone. But succeeding chapters are just one more reminder of the baby that didn’t get the milk this year.
None of this is to suggest that Longshot or The Journey are bad or poorly executed ideas that should never have been tried. It is to question their concepts’ sustainability, especially considering the creative half-life in the stories of their sequels. Mike Young, the Madden creative director and co-writer of both Longshot chapters, was not sure his baby would get a second chapter when Madden NFL 18 launched. Homecoming isn’t a rush job but it doesn’t show the same sophistication of its predecessor, either. The story doesn’t have any loose ends that need tying off, much less a cliffhanger suggesting a third chapter is necessary.
The Journey: Champions is described by EA marketing copy as that story’s final chapter. That doesn’t necessarily mean a new trilogy is, or isn’t, coming in FIFA 20. (But God, would I love a prequel dealing with Jim Hunter in the 1960s Football League.) It may be that next year we see more of a hybridized approach, where narrative elements are woven into Madden and FIFA’s career, if not like NBA 2K’s MyCareer then like NBA Live 19’s The One or NHL 19’s World of Chel. Both of those features are the greatest successes of their respective titles.
Every year these games include a story mode only hardens the expectation that there will be one every year. To me, that presents two options: Disappoint fans for a single year by having no narrative next year. Or disappoint them for the next several years, as developers play hot potato with the mode that gets no attention, and the always-vocal constituency it serves.
Roster File is Polygon’s column on sports and video games.