The latest sports games are not always the best.
There is an obsession with incremental changes and bullet point features in the sports game scene, one that challenges fans ’ability to step back and value each game as their own standalone title. . It’s something I try and deal with in my own sports magazines on this site, and it’s something I took to its logical conclusion here in this Quixotic test to take a game out of hundreds and call it the “best”.
Sports games by their nature are not presented for every new season as entirely fresh products. The economy of the industry has determined that they will reuse the same engine and models for years to come, which means that the difference between them can often be limited to current uniforms, a few new features and some adjustments to the ball physics. And these changes are generally influenced so much by the feedback from fans that they are from the development teams working on them.
So it’s hard to see Madden 17 like something healthy separate, since its creation has been greatly influenced by sales and revenue of Madden 16, and will return to play a large part in how Madden 18 it is conceived. How do you choose one of these games and say, ok, THIS is the best, when a lot of what made it great may have been inspired by — or come directly from — an entirely different video?
Then you have to take into account the way that sports games have changed their whole vision in the last 20 years. In the 90s, series like FIFA and NBA Live they were perfectly happy being fast, approachable, almost arcadey. Advances to date and technological advances have transformed highly successful sports games into simulations, each trying its hardest to replicate the experience on the field as best as possible (or, if it can’t, then the experience of transmission instead). This makes direct comparisons between long-running series games pretty bad!
The worst thing is that every sport is different, with its own fan group, style of play and culture. What makes baseball game # 1 better than hockey game # 1? Is football better than basketball?
I think I’ve found a way to compare all the sports games, though, and as weird as it may sound at first, it’s through the only thing they all have in common. The only thing they are more focused on than anything else, and that in many ways defines sports video games as their own distinct space in video games. And it’s content.
Every sport game is stingy. It’s perhaps the most defining thing about business, and it’s often the first thing non-fans make fun of. The business model of the genre is built entirely around balancing the need to make gamers happy with the game they just bought, but unhappy enough that they turn around 12 months later and buy an incredibly similar product.
So after persevering on a short list of really great sports games-Madden 2002, NBA 2K11, Pro Evolution 6, NBA Jam, NFL 2K5– I set the tie going with one that was not only a very good sports game in its own right, but one that decided to just say “fuck” and give fans everything they could have wanted or needed for years to come, all in one box.
This game is FIFA: Road to the 98 World Cup, as weird but loved a great sports game as I thought we’d always see.
At the time of its release in 1997, it was a beautiful football game. It had very bright polygonal visuals, audio commentary, all the things we have long associated as distinctive characters of the FIFA would be. But that’s where the game has gone beyond what we would expect a sports game to include, both then and today, which makes it look really great.
INTERIOR FOOTBALL – In addition to regular football 11v11, FIFA 98 it also included an entirely separate 5v5 interior mode, with its own rules and conditions, such as the fact that the ball would never go out of bounds. It was just as much fun as the current one FIFA. Maybe no longer fun. And while it was actually being introduced to FIFA 97, the fact is signed around 98 when there was so much else in the box is one of the things that helped cement the legacy of this game.
A CURRENT WORLD CUP – The reason for the longer title of the game was the fact that the development team decided to include, alongside the national leagues, the 1998 World Cup. Not only the finals in France, but the whole qualification system as well. That meant more than 170 nations and their teams made it into the game, absolutely ridiculous number that literally represented every country playing football on Earth at the time (modern FIFA games usually include only a few dozen). You can, if you wish, play as one of the smallest nations on the planet, bringing them up to qualification after winning the tournament itself, a fact so monumental that after FIFA 98 it would only be seen again in standalone video games specifically made for the World Cups.
CUSTOMIZATION: In addition to the 170 national teams, there were almost 200 club teams also included in the game. And you can customize the lot. Kit home, kit outside, even the appearance of a player. I remember spending what must have been weeks joking around with this, making sure that each kit from the senior team corresponded to their current conception, and that the haircuts of the players were recreated accurately. It is not only useful in 1997; people were playing FIFA 98 for years to come because as 1998, then 1999 revolved around it, you could just update the kit designs as well.
Here’s the most incredible thing of all: FIFA 98 it was so great that it made another of EA’s video games quite useless. Apart from FIFA 98 (released in 1997), EA Sports had a game in development designed to cash in on the World Cup itself, due to be released in early 1998. Called simply 1998 World Cup, had an official brand throughout, from the tournament mascot to the branded kits (a first for the series). But with only 40 teams, that was the buying point when you could just turn it on FIFA 98, edit some kits and enjoy a lot of the same experience?
To get noFIFA Fans at speed on how crazy this was, it’s like NBA 2K18 shipping on four blue-rays, or next MLB game that decides to cover all pro-Japanese and Korean leagues, only for one year, only for hell.
This kind of thing doesn’t just happen with sports games, it gives fans everything they need no buy your game next year. Yet here we have, for a good year, sport EA giving you the keys to the realm. Between the blur of year-to-year releases, FIFA 98’s the width looks as big as any other sports game inclusion ever.
But it wasn’t just the excess content that helped FIFA 98 put up with. The amount would be nothing without quality, and the game includes many other series favorites, from the humble free kick frequency (always somehow superior to everything EA comes up with these days) to the ability to scroll facing a goalie. and be sent immediately, which despite its punishment is one of the most cathartic moves in all video games.
Then there’s the question of the game’s soundtrack, starting with its intro, perhaps the most iconic in the history of sports games:
Don’t let Blur’s cameo overshadow the game’s true musical hook, which is the fact that most of the menu music was provided by The Crystal Method:
Sports games with popular music are nothing new today, but in 1997 it was a coup d’état for FIFA (for reference, check out FIFA 97’s tragic attempts at hip-hop and rock). In fact, you can trace the current location of the series on the pop culture landscape FIFA 98 and its soundtrack, which I dare suggest suggests that, hey, maybe these sports video games can be cool.
In a world where sports games are and have always been seen as available, FIFA 98 is distinguished. By including so many teams in such a wide range of competition, and allowing such a degree of customization, people have been able to dig in and play not only throughout 1997, but also in the years to come.
Even today, when the FIFA The series is known as much for its license as it is for its football and has over 20 years of experience under its belt, you will find fans who always talk about it. FIFA 98 in reverent tones. Amazing what some decent music, tiny teams and the ability to let try and kill a guard will do to a fanbase …
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This story was published in 2017.