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E3 Precap: Will Sports Games Mount a Comeback?

Is it time for next-generation sports sims to shine, or will they be overshadowed by the nagging issues facing the genre? Here are our forecasts for Madden, NBA 2K, FIFA, and NHL.

This article first appeared on USgamer, a partner publication of VG247. Some content, such as this article, has been migrated to VG247 for posterity after USgamer's closure - but it has not been edited or further vetted by the VG247 team.

It seems strange to say for a genre that consistently posts healthy sales and have a mainstream cachet that many games lack, but sports games are at a bit of crossroads at the moment.

Mindful of how devastating a bad next-gen showing can be for a franchise's momentum, most of the major developers played it relatively safe with their 2013 games. There were no sizzle reels promising life altering advances to the likes of Madden and FIFA. Instead, EA and company mainly played up the fact that they would be feature complete and playable, mindful of the consequences of over-promising and under-delivering.

If EA in particular seemed gunshy, it was probably because they remembered what happened when they put out trailers touting Madden 06's advanced graphics while Tiburon sweated over even getting the game running. Penny Arcade infamously coined the term "bullshot" to describe the discrepancy between Madden NFL 06's screenshots and the actual gameplay, and it stuck. Madden 25 and FIFA (and MLB: The Show, too) managed to avoid that trap in their own next-gen debuts, but at the expense of excitement of innovation. In taking that approach, EA tacitly implied that the really good stuff would be coming in 2014.

"Wait until next year," EA seemed to say, conjuring images of the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Browns and every other woebegone team that has ever implored their fans to just hold on a little longer. "We promise that good stuff is coming."

So now it's time for EA (and eventually 2K and Sony San Diego, too) to really show us something with their sports games. A fresh coat of paint and improved physics probably won't do it this year. It's not exactly a make-or-break year—NHL and FIFA didn't really come on until their 08 and 09 editions respectively—but there is definitely a sense of urgency. Developers like Tiburon know very well that reputations build in the first couple years of a generation have a tendency to stick. With that in mind, here's what I'm expecting to see from three of the major sports franchises that will be on display at E3—plus NBA 2K—heading into the show.

Madden NFL 15

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Madden NFL continues to get a bad rap from sports fans for a reason. Years of development have resulted in a product that still doesn't feel quite right. The next-gen version fixed some of the Xbox 360/PS3 version's flaws with improved AI and better physics; but the defense still feels weak, and the option game still feels overpowered. Its biggest problem though is that it doesn't really feel like football. Just try looking for defensive tips online sometime. In Madden, building a defensive scheme is less about Xs and Os and more about gaming the system with the right combination of hook zones, spies, and reblitzing. For a long time now, Madden has had its own language—one which many football fans won't recognize.

Unfortunately, I don't expect things to change very much with Madden 15. That's because despite having plenty of mainstream recognition, Madden is actually geared toward a specific and hardcore segment of tournament players who long ago recognized Madden for what it is—a videogame. Casual football fans will come and go, but the tournament players play Madden year round, and they're the ones who tend to be the most vocal. So while Madden 15's defense will undoubtedly be much-improved from that of Madden 25, I fully expect the metagame that has come to dominate advanced play in Madden to remain intact, to the detriment of both its accessibility and its realism.

Personally, I would love for Tiburon to completely rethink their approach to Madden. I would love for them to go in and craft stats that actually mean something; streamline the playbooks, and perfect the line play. I would even love for them to take the NHL 15 approach and take a year off to rebuild everything from scratch. The very nature of the sports game cycle makes that wishful thinking though. Madden is what it is at this point—a decent game that only superficially resembles real life football. There are certainly a lot of tertiary things that can be improved, the user interface and online play being two of the biggest. But for that stuff to really, truly matter, you have to put a good product on the field. In that regard, Madden is probably the weakest of all the major sports sims available today; and barring a really radical shift in the mindset behind the development, I don't expect that to change anytime soon.

NHL 15

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I have a little more hope for NHL 15 than I do Madden 15. And that's despite having hated NHL 14, which refined the hit physics but otherwise brought little in the way of new material to the table.

NHL was the only sports franchise that sat out the launch of the PS4 and the Xbox One, which was a bold move considering the visibility and relative lack of competion that comes with a next-gen launch. Instead, the NHL team at EA Canada seems to have put their heads down and focused on completely overhauling the engine, the commentary, and the arenas. It's as close to a reboot as a sports franchise can get these days.

It's the right move on EA Canada's part. Though still held in relatively high regard, NHL has lagged noticeably behind competition like FIFA and NBA 2K in recent years. The presentation in particular has been in dire need of an update for ages now, so it's great to see the more dynamic pair of Mike "Doc" Emrick and Eddie Olcyzk replacing the steady but relatively unspectacular team of Bill Clement and Gary Thorne in the commentating booth. It's also great to see that NHL 15 will be making use of the NBC Sports presentation elements while dramatically improving the arenas—two elemens that have been begging for an overhaul for ages now.

With luck, this also means a fresh coat of paint for the relatively sparse Be a Pro and Be a GM modes, including a new UI. And it would be nice if the NHL team fleshed out the online play a bit more and added a "Seasons Mode" like the one in FIFA. But even if those elements end up going untouched, the comprehensive nature of NHL 15's overhaul is still impressive. It was risky of them to sit out the launch of the PS4 and the Xbox One; but from the look of what EA Canada has on tap for the NHL series, it was time well spent.


FIFA 14 played it safe and retained its standing as the best sports game around. So what now?

FIFA remains the undisputed champion of sports games. I don't even think there's an argument to be made to the contrary, particularly given NBA 2K's rough transition to the PS4 and Xbox One.

For years now, FIFA has managed to nail the elusive combination of playability, depth, and presentation that seems to bedevil other sport franchises. It's long been well ahead of the curve in terms of the depth of its career mode and online functionality, and it has smartly woven real-world scores and events into its challenges and gameplay. It's telling that when people complain about FIFA, they're usually calling out nitpicky balance issues like headers being too powerful. The foundation that the gameplay is built on is solid as a rock.

With that in mind, EA Canada's problem is a little different than that of a Madden or an NBA. After so many years of sustained success, FIFA has become EA's golden goose, raking in millions above and beyond initial sales thanks to the immense popularity of modes like FIFA Ultimate Team. EA Canada's mandate is now to keep the series moving forward without breaking it and cooking that golden goose—an objective that can be as challenging as making wholesale improvements. Unfortunately for EA Canada, FIFA is trapped on the annual sports game treadmill, which mandates the sort of improvements that justify $60.

Thus far, EA Canada has managed that pressure well, weaving in significant changes to the gameplay on a year-to-year basis without significantly breaking the balance or the accessibility. But honestly, it's hard to say what changes FIFA will bring to the table this year absent the expected improvements to the graphics and the presentation. There will be tweaks to the balance, I'm sure. Ronaldo will have new shoes. Anything else though is pure speculation.

If there's one thing that FIFA can do to really make a splash in the next-generation, it's to finally give women's soccer its proper place next to men's soccer, especially with the 2015 Women's World Cup coming up soon. Maybe then I can finally create a female character for career mode. It's time, FIFA. Make it happen.

NBA 2K15

NBA 2K14 was certainly gorgeous to look at, but it was wanting in other areas.

As for NBA 2K, there is definitely some work to do after a next-gen transition that was problematic in a lot of ways. Of the major fall sports franchise, NBA 2K was easily the most ambitious of the lot. A little too ambitious, as it turned out.

A lot of NBA 2K's issues are structural. At launch, major server issues dramatically impacted the functionality of the online features, while the new MyGM and The Parks modes suffered from a spectacular number of bugs. Players were also upset by NBA 2K14's Virtual Currency model, which dragged down the pace and turned modes like MyGM and MyPlayer into a mobile game-like grind. Ultimately, it was a beautiful game, but the execution left a lot to be desired.

Virtual Currency issues and bugs haven't been enough to hurt sales—NBA 2K14 was the top-selling Xbox One and PS4 sports game back in December and its shipped more than 5 million copies—but the shine has come off a bit from the franchise that had been practically bulletproof since putting Jordan on the cover back in 2010. If such issues become a long-term trend, then the complaining will really get going in earnest. As of right now though, 2K has enough goodwill to take the mulligan and keep going, though as usual NBA 2K won't have a presence at E3.

Even without one of the genre's poster boys though, it will be an interesting show for sports games. Madden and NHL both have something to prove, and FIFA will try to show that it's still worthy of its crown. NBA Live will also be waiting in the wings, though it's tough to imagine it recovering from a launch so disastrous that it prompted EA to come out and apologize. And just around the corner will be EA Sports UFC, which may represent a rebirth for the mixed martial arts genre.

That said, hey will be overshadowed to a large extent by the very real issues still facing the genre. Despite holding steady in terms of sales, sports sims must still contend with the reality of rising costs and increased competition from mobile games. The available selection of sports games also continues to diminish. Last year alone saw the demise of MLB 2K and NCAA Football, with Tiger Woods PGA Tour going on hiatus. The core is still solid enough, but sports games will have to contend with plenty of question marks going forward.

Given the reality of rising costs, licensing issues, and the increased focus on monetization, it's easy to be skeptical about the direction of the sports game genre going forward. The annual sports cycle itself may not be sustainable given the pressure being put on $60 AAA releases. But with E3 on the horizon, there's at least some optimism to be found in what should hopefully be a year of substantial graphical leaps and ambitious new features. For better or worse, big changes are coming; but in the meantime, I'm definitely ready for some football.

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