In recent years, gaming has taken a huge swing towards personalization. In the multiplayer FPS, far gone are the days of mowing down the identical hordes of enemy soldiers clad in the same drab uniforms. Gone even are the days when one could only distinguish themselves from their opponents by the color of their gun and a clan tag. Take games like Call of Duty: Black Ops III where the player can deck themselves out in a vast array of colors and gun combos with custom paintjobs. Or Overwatch, with a cast of 24 different characters as of the writing of this article. Each character can be altered from the clothes they wear to the words they say.
This isn’t unique to FPS games, either. Grand Theft Auto V allows for customization of the player’s online avatar through an almost endless amount of clothing options, weapon add-ons, and faces. This doesn’t even get into the level of detail car customization gets. While on the topic of cars, recent racing games such as the Forza series or Project Cars let the player fine tune even the most minute aspects of the car. Even the Pokemon series is rife with customizable characters. Even these game styles fall short in comparison to the great RPGs of late, like The Elder Scrolls and Witcher series.
So, what the hell is with sports games?
Growing up, one of my favorite things to do in Madden was exercise the “Create-a-Team” feature. Even now, I find myself playing Madden 12 to mess around with some of my favorite parody teams filled with fictional football players with funny names. Older games, like NHL Hitz, let you create ridiculously-proportioned monstrosities named “Slappy” and “Dragon.” Even the NBA games of old let the player make super-tall, super-lanky demons that lumbered across the court at frightening speeds.
Nowadays, sports publishers tend to focus on making the games more realistic. And, honestly, that’s fine. I don’t want to get in the way of progress. However, in terms of customization, which I feel makes video games most unique, it feels like the modern sports game is regressing back into the 90s.
That’s not to say there’s no customization in modern sports. You can still make your own player. You can still pick difficulty levels. In some games, you can still make draft classes, although such games are few and far between. However, gone are the days of the custom teams, with names the player can write out for themselves, stadiums the player could build on their own, and uniforms they could design. Gone are the goofy, alien-esque proportions of the 3-foot-tall, 600-pound running backs. Even gone are the days when your characters could have any hair color other than those on the black to blonde spectrum (with the exception of the NBA 2K series and recent FIFA titles).
The poster child for fun customization in sports used to be the WWE franchise (which I understand is only technically a sports game, but bear with me). In games as recently as WWE 2K14, the player could build custom character that could be as ridiculous as a completely flat character with white skin named “The Papercut” (which may or may not be something that I did). The player could create their own custom finishing moves to make them stand out even further from the rest of the pack, which could be completely reasonable or entirely gravity-defying. In the most recent title, WWE 2K17, these features are gone. While there is still an extremely impressive roster of characters and options for the game, playing both games side by side feels almost like the more recent games have been watered down in favor of incrementally better graphics and marginally improved “Story modes.”
And this, here, in the part that confuses me the most. The “Career mode” of modern sports games. Back in the day (oh God, I’m one of those people), any sort of limitations like salary cap or trade deadlines could be turned off in favor of, oh, I don’t know, fun. In Madden 16, having a salary cap is so default that in the roster management tab it’s already on, making roster moves pre-career nearly impossible for the journeyman sports gamer.
In short, it’s a huge pain in the ass. But how did we get here? How did sports games somehow develop into having less player choice? Why can’t you just sit back and play a game of FIFA with a stacked team without worrying about bullshit contract negotiations? Why can the game force you to sell players to another team because they’re “feeling homesick” (even though Manchester clearly isn’t in Brazil, Neymar, you dick)? Basically, why are these games sacrificing player choice in favor of more annoying career modes?
In truth, I don’t know. But I think it has something to with “realism.” You can’t make a team full of quarterbacks and a team full of wide receivers without a ton of hassle because it’s “not realistic.” You can’t have a 2D paper-man beat the Rock for a championship belt because it’s “not realistic.” It doesn’t match what the developers had in mind for the game, which is to be as close to reality as possible.
But honestly, who cares? Until sports games start implementing contract lockouts into NHL games, doping scandals into MLB games, and domestic violence into NFL games, I don’t really want to hear about realism. I want to take the Buffalo Letdown to win their 10th consecutive Super Bowl on the back of their All-Star running back, Stan Lee. I want to have fun.