Like many great strategies, EA Sports' plan to take sports games into the future was born of necessity.
It was 2009 and Cam Weber was working on Fight Night Champion, the fifth installment of EA's boxing franchise. It was scheduled to arrive at a volatile time. The sport itself was stagnant, with the upstart mixed martial arts scene siphoning its audience and nothing beyond the faint and ever-receding flicker of a Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao megafight for boxing to market as a mainstream draw.
But the mythology of the sport remained strong. The next winter, David O. Russell's The Fighter would garner seven Academy Award nominations and two wins. Soon after, FX would premiere Lights Out, a critically acclaimed, albeit ultimately short-lived series about a fighter with pugilistic dementia. There were only the latest examples of the sweet science's resilience within popular culture. Weber decided that his team needed to pivot accordingly.
"We were forced into this place where [we said], 'You know what? For the good of the Fight Night franchise, what we need to do is we need to build our own blockbuster Hollywood boxing movie and let you play through it,'" Weber says now.
Fight Night Champion dropped in March 2011. Its centerpiece was the game's namesake, a first-of-its-kind story mode called "Champion" in which the player shepherds a fictional boxer named Andre Bishop out of prison and up the ranks as a heavyweight championship contender. Looking back, Weber calls it "fairly static," an almost rote interspersing of cut scenes and boxing matches. It was a start, though, and as the game earned critical praise, Weber began to see "Champion" as a blueprint for where the industry could go.
"I was convinced this was the future of sports games," he says.
Seven years later, Weber is a Senior Vice President in charge of overseeing development at EA Sports. His once-distant future of narrative gameplay in sports titles has become present-day reality for the largest sports video game company in the world. Last year, FIFA 17 debuted "The Journey," which chronicled the rise of Alex Hunter in the English Premier League. It was a hit: According to EA, FIFA 17 was the highest-selling console game in the world last year, and Alex Hunter is back for another run in this year's edition.
Now, on August 25th, the company will reveal its greatest statement of intent yet. Madden NFL 18 hits shelves with the usual roster tweaks and gameplay adjustments expected of EA's flagship football title. The star of the show, however, is "Longshot", a multi-hour campaign mode about two football players from small-town Texas arriving at the NFL Draft Combine to chase pro football dreams.
At first blush, it's exactly what you would imagine a story catering to a die-hard football audience to be about, right down to casting Scott Porter—best known Friday Night Lights' Jason Street—as Colt Cruise, a Wes Welker-esque slot receiver with a drawl. Meanwhile, both Weber and Madden's creative director, Mike Young, are not shy about the "Longshot" narrative also being a vehicle to deliver heavily demanded gameplay modes like the NFL Scouting Combine and 7-on-7 football into the series for the very first time. This is catnip to hardcore fans, in other words, a story that can be just as accessible as it needs, whether the audience truly wants to invest in the narrative or simply use as a means to an end.
But "Longshot" is also the type of story that Young says was inspired by games like The Last of Us and Telltale's The Walking Dead series. When he gathers feedback from testers, Young says the two words he hears most often are "emotion" and "relatable." There are branching storylines and quick-time events and dynamic cutscenes. It is a Telltale game tucked inside the greatest football behemoth on earth, making this year's Madden the sort of gaming experience that many longtime devotees have never been exposed to.
The endgame is a push and pull between familiarity and ingenuity—and, most crucially, the sports video game industry's best hope at escaping the Catch-22 it's battled since inception. No other genre is so handcuffed to the wider reality it tries to portray. Rosters must be note perfect, as well as constantly updatable. Gameplay needs to reflect exactly what takes place on the field or court or pitch each weekend. Franchise modes encompass every shred of salary cap minutiae. There is little room for innovation and even less margin for error. Sports fanatics will stand for nothing less.
Nevertheless, scores of fans flit in and out each year, content to sit out an edition or two if they sense that a franchise has stagnated. EA is hardly naïve to that reality—"As developers we're always frustrated when fans say, 'Oh, this year's skippable. There's nothing really that great,'" Young says—but only so much could be done. There's a reason why NFL and NBA Street became their own franchises instead of a Madden or NBA Live subset: Creep too far outside the box in a simulation game, and things skew toward the inauthentic.
Narrative gameplay like "Longshot" gives EA a shot at having its cake and eating it, too. The simulation gameplay isn't going anywhere; if anything, Weber says, the most common complaint coming out of "The Journey" was it leaned too much on action at the expense of the story. But as it continues to tweak the narrative formula, EA Sports can position itself to say, with a straight face, that every installment of every franchise is a must-own.
"It's brand new content for people every single time," says Weber. "This new narrative that everyone knows is something new you can get in the game each year, I think that's very powerful for us."
Then there's the crossover appeal. Here, Young harkens back to Porter's days on Friday Night Lights, a show that garnered admiration from football fans and novices alike. "My wife… grew up in Pittsburgh and somehow doesn't care about the Steelers," Young says, and yet she became an FNL fanatic thanks to the plotlines and relationships that orbited around the sport.
"Longshot" was created with the same ethos in mind. As a game that tend to find its audience among—and be marketed to—young men, "Longshot" offers something to players that might be left cold by the call of "Madden Season." Already, Young is floored by the number of male gamers who have told him that they can't wait to dive in with their spouses—"and if you work in this industry and you work in a sports video, most people's wives could care less what you do." If nothing else, he reasons, it gives EA a new tool in their arsenal with which to sell Madden.
"It's like a movie trailer," Young says. "'Oh man, I'm going to experience that this season?' If we can get there, it gives people that bigger emotional reason to come versus when you sell someone a new iPhone, you're listing a bunch of bullet points. That's not usually that emotional."
Altogether, story modes present the sort of sales potential that makes EA's expenses along the way almost immaterial. It's why EA spent three years integrating its Frostbite 3 engine to power those narratives along, with the sort of speed that leads Young to claim that "Longshot" won't feature a single loading screen.
It also explains "Longshot's" seven-figure budget, which supported a filming schedule spread across 45 sets and features a 45-person cast, including Porter, Academy Award-winner Mahershala Ali, and J.R. Lemon—a former Stanford running back and a current cast member on NBC's The Night Shift—playing Devin Wade, "Longshot's" protagonist. Seven years after Fight Night Champion and four since Young initially conceived of "Longshot," EA is no longer in the business of parroting sports movies. For all intents and purposes, they're now making their own.