One of the biggest criticisms of modern sports titles is that they’re just the same game every year with updated rosters and licenses. As someone who plays a lot of them, I’m not sure that’s entirely fair – we get a handful of new features each year, plus the graphics receive a welcome polish. If there are any glaring problems – crossing in FIFA 20, for example – these typically get fixed too. But on the other hand, these are expensive games, most come with built-in microtransactions that see other game modes neglected, and the new features are either repackaged old stuff or minor tweaks to existing systems that barely get used anyway. Madden’s new defending in this year’s version is noticeable but still wonky, FIFA’s dribbling additions feel like extra fluff, and NBA 2K’s new shooting is, uh… a choice. Let’s say that, shall we? I’ve since gotten used to the shooting and I can vaguely understand why someone thought it was a good idea, but it still feels like that attention could have been spent elsewhere.
In truth, the reason I pick up new sports titles each year is because I’m buying the fresh sense of excitement. I know that I’m buying the same game again, but this is the new version with new challenges and new Trophies/Achievements, new mechanics to get bored with, new pros to get used to. Before I worked in games, I waited for these titles to come out on EA Play, or to drop cheap enough in price for them to be a worthwhile second hand purchase. I wasn’t quite daft enough to buy them all new, but considering my suggestion for sports games, you’d be forgiven that I was, in fact, very daft. Because I think more sports games should include classic teams.
Considering the one undeniably new thing each year is the updated roster, pining for teams from the ‘80s and ‘90s might seem like I’m asking for even fewer changes. But what I’m really asking for is a shift away from the same roster updates year after year into games that think differently. If you’re making a football game, you’re limited in how creative you can be – it still has to be football – but there are ways to think outside of the (penalty) box, and using classic teams could help with that.
Every year when I get Madden or FIFA, I’m never sure what to do first. Make some early headway in the microtransactions mode before I’m priced out? Jump in the deep end with online games? Begin a career? Try out one of the new periphery options and inevitably get bored? Mostly I weigh up all of these options and struggle to decide. In NBA 2K, I always know. I play a game as the classic Chicago Bulls. Because NBA 2K includes all the great teams from history, I get to play as Jordan-Pippen-Rodman-the other two. Sorry, Steve Kerr. You know how it is.
This has become something of a tradition, and the Bulls are no ordinary team. I’d argue the double-treble team is the greatest team of all-time in any sport, but that’s a debate for another day. The point is, while this is just something I do every year for no reason other than I do it every year, the fact these classic teams are there at all offers sports titles a lot of compelling options.
NBA 2K still only scratches the surface of what classic teams could mean. Most of the game is built around the modern pros and the microtransactions, as you’d probably expect. Honestly, if FIFA just cleared that low benchmark and let you play as Pep’s Barca team, the Man United treble winners, or the Cruyff Ajax team, I’d be satisfied. But there’s more potential here than just adding them to the game. Several icons are already in Ultimate Team, although ‘icon’ is a generous label for some of them – Jens Lehmann? Really? Anyway, FIFA adds old pros to microtransaction mode, but there they exist as a bit of a golden ticket, just another way to get you to pump money into the game in the hopes of brute forcing a lottery win. Putting classic teams at the centre of a new mode would actually be something truly new for once.
A world cup featuring each nation’s best ever line-up? The Hungary of the ‘50s meets ‘00s Spain meets ‘80s Argentina? Bit better than more dynamic feints, doesn’t it? You could do the Champions League in the same way. The old World Cup games used to ask you to recreate famous wins or comebacks, or else repeat memorable moments. Those games were forced to squeeze every inch of content out of a 32-team tournament; FIFA (and Madden) know that creativity just isn’t necessary. People buy the games anyway. Even NBA 2K isn’t making the most of the classic teams it has assembled. It feels like sports games have reached a ceiling, but if they think hard enough, there are a lot of ways to reinvent the wheel… or should that be ball? Anyway, give us the best 50 teams of all time in FIFA 22. Bobby Robson’s Newcastle team has to make that cut, right?
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Stacey Henley is an editor for TheGamer, and can often be found journeying to the edge of the Earth, but only in video games. Find her on Twitter @FiveTacey
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