Are You Ready For Some Football?!
EA was widely criticized for ending their 2017 EA Play press conference with a painfully long shout-casted gameplay demo of Star Wars: Battlefront II. This leads many to forget that they opened with an interesting and important announcement: after a drum line paying respect to the greatest quarterback of all time and God’s gift to Earth, Tom Brady, EA showed a short trailer for their football franchise’s new campaign mode, titled “Longshot.”
Powered by the Frostbite engine, Longshot is a new mode that features cinematic cutscenes and revolves around one pre-established character created by EA, rather than the user’s custom character. EA promotes this mode as the opportunity to “play the story of an NFL prospect’s road to the Draft – on and off the field.” This comes just one year after EA’s mega-popular soccer franchise introduced the story of fictional athlete Alex Hunter in FIFA 17′s The Journey. In their conference, EA later announced that Hunter’s story is continuing in FIFA 18‘s The Journey: Hunter Returns (though personally, I would’ve gone with Hunter Strikes Back).
While FIFA 17’s introduction of the Alex Hunter campaign seemed surprising and novel during its announcement in 2016, it’s clear that this kind of cinematic narrative and scripted campaign is going to be the new standard in EA Sports titles moving forward. This new trend can be seen as a reaction to the age-old criticism of new sports titles only being glorified roster updates with a $60 price point. These campaigns generate buzz and can potentially drive consumers to pick up the new FIFA or Madden title so as not to miss out on the new single-player story.
That being said, these one-man franchise modes are not new by any means. The first major instance of this type of campaign emerged in Madden 06‘s Superstar Mode, where players could control one player from their Rookie season to their retirement. Since then, Sports/RPG hybrid modes have become a regular feature not only in Madden, but franchises like NBA Live, UFC, WWE, MLB, NHL, FIFA, and a hallmark feature in NBA 2K. Longshot’s cinematic, immersive way of telling the story of a solo athlete’s career has come a long way from the humble beginnings of Superstar Mode.
More Than Just A Roster Update
In the last five years, there has been a growing complaint that each installment of Madden was a slightly prettier rehash of the previous game with a current roster, a slew of PR promoting some insignificant gameplay mechanic, and a $60 price tag. EA’s purchase of the exclusive rights to produce NFL games killed off their competitors and, in the gaming community’s eyes, made them complacent and stagnant. The shiny new addition of a narrative-driven single player mode is reminiscent of the massive leap forward the franchise took with Madden ’06. Apart from bringing sports gaming to the next generation of consoles, ‘06 made waves with Superstar Mode. Single-player sports-RPG campaigns may be standard today, but it was revolutionary at the time.
The Creation Process: Everything Matters
Apart from the perspective change provided by a focus on a single athlete, the character creation process was unlike anything seen in any major sports game or RPG to date. The first step was to choose a set of parents that would lay the groundwork for your character. Each of your parents’ traits would influence your character: their appearances and physical characteristics would combine to form your face and complexion, while their IQs, hobbies and occupations would determine your base statistics and strengths. For example, if your father ran track and your mother was a professor that jogged and danced in her spare time, you were likely to become a speedy, shifty running back with good field vision. There were many variables and combinations that made creating your character an interesting and exciting endeavor.
Then, after creating your character, there were even more decisions and simulations that would shape your player’s stats and potential. There was an actual multiple-choice football quiz with a time limit that tested your knowledge of the game and would determine your player’s IQ. Even if you’re a diehard football fan, the ticking of the clock can make you second-guess your gut feeling and cost you a few precious IQ points. The end result may not have had an enormous impact on your overall career, but it was another small feature that forced the player to think hard and become even more invested in their career.
Other features and simulations focused on the metagame of football management and branding. Choosing your agent required careful consideration of each strength and weakness, and how it may affect your player’s contract and overall career. There were also multiple-choice media interviews, where your answers would affect your team chemistry and popularity. The interview feature is a staple in every sports career mode today, but this was another novel feature that allowed the player to roleplay or project.
From Draft to Retirement: Your Career Is In Your Hands
All of these decisions and simulations eventually determined your character’s value, which leads us to Draft Day. Ignoring the painfully long and unskippable cut scene of the entire first round of the draft, it’s an exciting event. The graphics and animations were stellar for the time, and the excitement of not knowing which team your were going to end up with would build with each pick. It gets old after your third or fourth time creating a player, but there’s nothing comparable to that first draft.
Once drafted, the player’s development was much more straightforward, earning experience with each practice, drill, and game time performance. Everything from sticking a crucial block, to running a crisp route, and finding paydirt in the end zone racked up XP. Exceptional performances also earned you more touches or further secured your hard-earned starting role. Between improving your player, establishing your role in your franchise, and winning games for your city, there was a lot of gravity in each snap. This resulted in a fantastic, captivating evolution of Franchise Mode that would change the way you play Madden.
Trendsetter: Superstar Mode's Legacy
The original Superstar Mode made waves and was responsible for much of Madden 2006’s praise. This version of career mode is looked back on fondly by a section of the Madden community, with numerous playthrough streams on YouTube and plentiful message board/forum conversation referencing the mode to this day. It’s hard to ignore all of the staple features in today’s sports campaigns that originated in Madden ’06. It wasn’t perfect by any means, and many of its features were fleshed out and updated in subsequent installments, but the original Superstar Mode still has history and charm like no other.
With the debut of Longshot mode this year, it’s clear that EA’s sports division feel the series is in need of a fresh new single player mode to increase sales and shake off the last few years of Madden fatigue. While I don’t know for certain yet, this established history gives me hope that this change could do as much for the franchise as Superstar Mode did over 12 years ago.