6
Dec
2017

2017: The year of story-driven sports video games

This year wasn’t the debut of the narrative mode in sports video games. They’ve been around since 2011’s Fight Night Champion. But I think it will be remembered as the year when they became a baseline expectation of the big-budget, league-licensed sports title, the same way every multiplayer shooter still has to launch with a campaign.

Sports video games have told comeback stories, underdog stories, dynasty stories for decades. We’ve just had to supply the pathos ourselves, scribbling on the margins of the game action to give context to our created heroes’ feats. Relating these stories to others has been a combination of telling someone about a weird dream and talking about your fantasy sports team, both of which no one wants to hear about.

NBA 2K has offered a story mode since 2013. EA Sports’ FIFA series joined that kind of ongoing commitment with FIFA 18’s second chapter of “The Journey.” And Madden NFL 18 made its narrative-mode debut with “Longshot.” These three have stratified sports video games into The Big Ones and The Rest. The Big Ones have the budget, the actors and the dedicated writing to deliver a true story mode. The Rest may manage big-name licenses — MLB The Show, Pro Evolution Soccer, NHL — but there will be the lingering question of why they can’t or don’t do the same thing.

Even NBA Live 18 recognized this new obligation, girding its remade single-player career suite, “The One,” with a comeback story and full-motion video that skirts the edge of a narrative mode but at least does a capable job of impersonating one. Sony San Diego, which does more with less than any other major sports developer, even tossed in some dialogue options to MLB The Show 17’s Road to the Show career, though it still was nowhere close to a full-fledged story.

It’s strange that, only now, have sports video games seemed to discover this as a way to stand apart. Especially given the grim tale we heard this year about the future of big narrative games in other genres, whose increasingly hit-driven development eschews storytelling risks and embraces software as a service. For decades, developers and marketers of sports video games have struggled to find ways to distinguish theirs not necessarily from competitors, but from the edition that launched the year before.

The truth is that career modes, whether managing whole teams going back to the days of Tecmo Super Bowl, or individual players beginning with FIFA 08’s Be a Pro, supplied most of the appeal without involving a structured story hardwired to specific characters. The dear departed NCAA Football series offered the most role-playing features, for a coach or player, without an actual story, going so far as to generate fictitious news stories and email them to other human players in an online league.

A common lore

But the new wave of narrative modes have given players something different: A common story to embrace and discuss. No one should care how I dominated Mike Trout on three straight checked-swing strikes in the All-Star Game in MLB The Show 16. But those who played Longshot in Madden NFL 18 know what a mouth the (fictitious) defensive back Mario Gonzalez has on him, and what it means to bust it by throwing at his side of the field repeatedly in the game’s climax — especially if that means sacrificing hero Devin Wade’s shot at the draft to give his best pal, Colt Cruise, a better future.

Likewise, if you played “The Journey” in last year’s FIFA 17, you know that this year, when the agent Michael Taylor screws up and hero Alex Hunter loses his Premier League career, it’s not out of malice or neglect. “The Journey: Hunter Returns” nods to its canon by leaving the option for the player to give Taylor a second chance. I did, remembering how sincerely he’d helped Alex in that classic up-from-nothing tale of his first season the year before. Others may have jettisoned Taylor for making a costly and naive mistake. But there was also good buddy Danny Williams, who is now playable — at a point when his career needs saving. Pounding in goals with that big, lovable galoot felt like I was reciprocating his character’s moral support when Alex got transferred to a lower division in FIFA 17’s first story mode.

Alex Hunter is a Coke dealerAlex Hunter is a Coke dealerEA Vancouver/Electronic Arts

This kind of cinematic fulfillment largely happened by serendipity in the past. In MLB The Show 14, I developed a lifelong friend and rival in Ronald Rubio, a fictitious player who came to the league at the same time I did. That guy wore me out. When, in free agency, he actually left for the Oakland Athletics, I imagined that my player advised him to do so, because his hitting discipline fit in well there. And I vividly recall getting a phone call from a friend playing NCAA Football 2002 on PlayStation 2. He was despondent that Rocky Doss (yes, I remember the name), the all-American linebacker on his Air Force dynasty, had torn his knee up, ending his career.

“Dude, just reload the save,” I said.

“No,” my friend said, as serious as if he was at a postgame news conference.“We’re pushing on, and we’re going to dedicate the season to him.”

Sports narratives in video games work largely because they all force the player to accept a setback at some point. In standard career modes, it’s still very hard for me to take a loss, a poor individual performance or an injury without canceling the result and trying again. In Longshot’s case, Devin Wade’s comeback is filled with uncertainty and rife with failure.

The story has a very thick Texas twang in a lot of its motifs and the first two chapters have to cover so much ground so quickly that some supporting characters don’t seem to own their motivations later. But on the studs, that story is plausible, especially in the cheesy reality show that’s supposed to give Devin his chance at the NFL.

NBA 2K18’s story arc was a lot more gradual and traditional, but it’s also the tale of an outsider breaking into a league by non-traditional means. It’s not as structured as The Journey or Longshot, because the created player is the basis for the game’s vast MyCareer suite, which involves a lot of multiplayer. That said, it may portend where career modes are headed in FIFA and Madden.

NBA 2K18 - The NeighborhoodNBA 2K18 - The Neighborhood
NBA 2K18 gave its story-mode star a ‘Neighborhood’ to explore.
Visual Concepts/2K Sports

NBA 2K16 featured “Livin’ Da Dream,” directed by Spike Lee, which wrapped a created player’s first season in a tale of overnight success — at the cost of his innocence. NBA 2K17followed that with a story by the writer of Creed (Aaron Covington) featuring the star of Creed (Michael B. Jordan) in the lead role, with the option to play as his best pal teammate, a dynamic echoed by FIFA 18 and Madden NFL 18 this year.

But NBA 2K18’s retreat to a safe and standard plot line also seems to acknowledge that there’s only so many ways to serve a tale where players expect to become a star, particularly if it’s an official league product. Some leagues are more permissive than others in what they will approve, but all have their nonstarter topics, which cuts off a lot of the conflict and resolution a good tale needs.

The reason Devin Wade leaves a promising college career in Madden’s Longshot is barely plausible: there’s a death in the family, which puts him into an emotional void. OK. It’s hard to imagine that the NFL’s license minders would approve of a story where Wade’s future is interrupted by a concussion or serious injury, much less substance abuse or an arrest. And no one wants to put their logo on a tragedy, no matter how well written.

Writers Mike Young and Adrian Todd Zuniga tiptoed the line by placing Longshot’s conflict and antagonists outside of the league. Devin’s learning of quarterbacking fundamentals got a very smart and realistic context that doesn’t nullify his golden boy backstory. Real-life stars cameo in sports story modes all the time, and Longshot has a conspicuous walk-on who’s not good at reading his lines. But Dan Marino was given a remarkably earnest role and he succeeded in it. And that Longshot could slip in the following sequence, in which (fictitious) ex-NFL coach Jack Ford bares his soul and calls his own treatment of a high draft pick “abuse,” was more than remarkable. It’s the best thing I saw in video games all year.

Longshot winds up with one of three touching outcomes, one of them unusually meaningful for what I had expected would be a standard Frank Merriwell or Gil Thorp tale. The conclusions honor what the player learned and accomplished even if Devin does not get drafted. It leaves room for the player to put his stamp on Devin’s fate, while setting things up for a sequel. As FIFA 18 came right back with a continuation of Alex Hunter’s story from last year, I’d expect the same thing for Devin in Madden NFL 19.

I hope so. I’ve played Madden for more than two decades, going back to a time when I kept a handwritten record of my exploits in a three-ring binder. It was sweet to have a storytelling partner after all these years together, and to meet a character like Devin Wade, as worthy a hero as I’ve seen in a lifetime of thrilling victories.

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