As I watched Manchester City and Liverpool battle it out for first place in the English Premier League yesterday, a strange thought crossed my mind: "Hey, this looks a lot like FIFA 19."
This shouldn't come as a surprise given that FIFA is, you know, a soccer sim, but realism has never really been the franchise's forte. And unfortunately for FIFA, most of the similarities I saw were negative. In the space of a few minutes, I saw multiple blocked shots, a ball off the post, and a ridiculous save by Liverpool's keeper—all fixtures in EA's soccer sim. The positive aspects of the City-Liverpool match—the flow, speed, and skill—are a little harder to come by in FIFA these days.
Still, FIFA 19 has a certain verisimilitude if you don't look too far below the surface. The ball movement, the players, and the presentation all resemble what you would see on TV. But there's an uncanny valley element to it all, like it's the sports equivalent of Grand Moff Tarkin in Rogue One. It looks about right, but it feels... off. It's not because FIFA 19 is lacking for power, though I'm sure EA wouldn't mind having the extra juice of a PS5. It's more that EA wants FIFA to be a hardcore competitive game that's viable as an esport, something akin to Street Fighter or Counterstrike, but that it doesn't quite seem to understand how to make that happen.
It's an issue that stretches back to the beginning of the current console generation, but has been especially noticeable since the switch to the Frostbite Engine with FIFA 17. In trying to shed the franchise's reputation for being a casual-friendly, pace-focused arcade game, EA has turned FIFA into a game that generally looks like the real sport, but isn't all that fun to play. The result is that basically no one is happy right now: casual sports fans are frustrated by the barrier to entry, hardcore fans by the strange metagame that has developed on the field.
At the moment, success in FIFA has less to do with knowing the sport and more to do with knowing which strategies work and which don't. Pressing works. Finesse shots work. Dribbling into the box doesn't work. Crosses aren't a great idea. If you choose the wrong shot, the keeper will almost certainly make a save. The wide range of styles and strategies that define the beautiful game in real life are mostly absent in FIFA 19.
Like FIFA 18 before it, FIFA 19 has received a number of patches aimed toward addressing community feedback, but they've been uneven at best. The most recent patch, released back in December, has set Reddit afire with complaints of sticky A.I. defending and poor shot mechanics. And it's not the only one. Over in the NHL community, fans have been begging the development team to roll the gameplay all the way back to the beta. Madden 19 has problems of its own.
This has become a depressing cycle for EA's sports games: A new entry will arrive and receive fairly positive review thanks to some smart innovations, but also have some problems. EA will make adjustments to address these issues, but in the process will often break whatever worked about that year's entry, and the community will complain. This cycle will continue until EA unveils a new entry in the summer, in which it swears that it's figured it all out. And then it will begin again.
As EA has learned firsthand, building a competitive game is difficult even for veteran design teams. Blizzard has been slammed for its large-scale overhauls of Overwatch, and every studio from Riot to Capcom has had its share of gameplay balance horror stories. It's an imprecise art at the best of times, and invariably some segment of the community is angry with the developers.
Adding to this challenge is the fact that it's built on years and years of legacy code, the product of 25 years of annualized releases. It's such that tweaking one system can break a dozen others, sometimes without the development team realizing it until it's in the wild. Long-time fans will recall a FIFA 16 stats bug that rendered certain bonuses useless, which went unnoticed until the community finally caught it.
These issues are exacerbated by the sense that EA Canada still isn't entirely comfortable with the Frostbite Engine. Compared to Ignite, a next-gen engine built specifically for EA's sports games, the Frostbite games feel slower and clunkier. Neither the physics nor the collisions feel quite right, and it's prone to strange glitches. It has some advantages, including the ability to render story modes like The Journey, but the drawbacks seem to outweigh the advantages.
FIFA is Different Now
All of these issues have made many fans nostalgic for the days of the Xbox 360, when FIFA was at its height. Some of that nostalgia is misplaced—I still remember how overpowered long overhead passes and pace were in FIFA 13—but it's hard to deny that the series was, at a minimum, a lot more fun in those days. It was a period when FIFA was still being developed more with local play in mind, and the result was fast, fluid, and most importantly, addictive.
FIFA earned itself a legion of new fans on the Xbox 360 and PS3, finally besting PES and becoming gaming's preeminent soccer sim. It played a large role in the sport's explosion in America, its success coinciding with NBC making EPL games widely available across its various platforms. It was praised as "the perfect game to play with your mates"—the ultimate dorm room game. Even if you didn't like soccer, FIFA's accessibility could still win you over.
As time has passed though, EA has focused more and more on a narrow core of superfans referred to as "Game Changers." I saw this shift for myself when I sat in on a meeting between the Game Changers and the developers of NHL in the program's first year.
The introduction of Game Changers has coincided with a more hardcore, inward-facing approach designed to cater to existing players. They are the streamers, Youtubers, Weekend League champions, and yes, big spenders who comprise the bulk of EA's most vocal fans. They are extremely close to EA's various development teams, often having a direct line to designers via Twitter DM and email. It's these players who have largely charted the direction of FIFA, Madden, and the rest of EA's sports sims over the current generation.
The motivation behind this approach is essentially positive on the face of it. EA wants to make a deeper, more interesting soccer sim, and it's directly soliciting the feedback of its biggest fans to accomplish this goal. But in so doing, EA has drifted away from the formula that made the series so successful in the first place. Worse, EA has struggled to implement the feedback of its Game Changers in ways that actually makes its games better.
Should EA eventually resolve these issues, it's still unclear what the endgame is supposed to be. Does EA want an ultra realistic soccer sim? That would be quite a departure for FIFA. Does EA want a competitive video game? That's potentially something very different.
The answer, I'm sure, is that EA wants all of the above. It wants the casual fans that have long served as its base. It wants to be a hardcore competitive esport. It wants to be a realistic soccer sim. And that, ultimately, may be why the current iteration of FIFA can't seem to make anyone happy. It broadly resembles "soccer," but it can't quite capture its essence, and it's unable to satisfy either the casual or hardcore fans.
It's funny because the trailer above seems to capture everything that FIFA should be. It's fun, vibrant, and realizes the fantasy of becoming players like Neymar. It even begins with a group of friends playing on a couch. And yet the actual game is nothing like what this trailer purports to represent. Where this trailer is energetic and colorful, FIFA 19 is stilted and mechanical. Where the trailer is about wish fulfillment, the actual game is about endlessly tuning shot mechanics.
For better or worse though, EA's path is set. It is determined to turn FIFA into an esport, and it wants to keep Weekend League players—the hardcore fans who are coincidentally the most likely to drop hundreds or thousands of dollars on Ultimate Team—on the hook. It may yet resolve the problems plaguing this generation, most likely with the help of the next round of consoles. But as for whether the final product will actually be fun to play, I have my doubts.