The Neymar transfer saga that has unfolded over the past few weeks has been fascinating to watch. So fascinating, in fact, that I recently tried to recreate some of the drama in FIFA's career mode. The results were... mixed.
The short version is this: Neymar—arguably the third best soccer player in the world—apparently wants out of Barcelona, where he has formed a magical partnership with Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez. His potential destination is Paris Saint-Germain (PSG), a French power club that has mostly disappointed in the Champion's League despite splashing insane amount of cash on high-profile players.
The subsequent transfer drama has consumed the soccer world over the past couple weeks, with a new and contradictory report coming out seemingly every hour. I love drama, so I wanted to see how hard it would be to get Neymar on to PSG myself.
As it turned out, it wasn't very hard at all.
This is basically how FIFA's transfer system works: First, you scout out a player and add them to your shortlist. Neymar is pretty well-known (obviously), so his stats and general info are all available for public consumption.
From there, you can do one of the following: Send an inquiry about his worth, approach to buy, or approach for a loan. Unlike in real life, you can't simply pay a set sum to trigger a release clause—PSG's strategy to snagging Neymar. The club you're buying from has to want to play ball.
A quick inquiry will always be met with a straight-up refusal: "We will not sell at any price." But if you offer a concrete sum, Barcelona will come back with a price tag: 195 million euros, or not that much less than his real-life price.
Unfortunately, I didn't have 195 million euros, which is the second way in which FIFA's transfer system differs from the real thing. In real-life, PSG's Qatari oil shiek owners have basically unlimited cash and will pay whatever it takes to get the player they want. FIFA being a video game, though, there have to be some limitations, so I sold Angel Di Maria and Thiago Silva to make room in my budget—maybe not a great idea from a team construction standpoint, but worth attempting for my little experiment.
I forked over the 195 million euros, and shortly afterward I had one shiny new Neymar. It was a little surreal given the wall-to-wall coverage currently consuming the soccer media. Even by FIFA standards, it was stunningly anti-climactic.
And so it was that I found myself looking at my shiny new left winger and wondering, "Is that it?"
The Neymar Saga's Teachable Moment for FIFA
So here's a quick caveat: There's a bit more to FIFA's transaction system than what I just highlighted. Teams can refuse to accept your offer, opening the door for a rival to swoop in and put in a competing offer. Players can refuse to sign a contract before the transfer window closes. It's not always as easy as all that.
But the Neymar saga also does a lot to highlight the limitations of FIFA's career mode. Indeed, what was once revelatory has long since become stale as EA has failed to build upon their excellent foundation.
On the face of it, FIFA works really well. Conservations make players feel like real characters with their own wants and needs, and they will often surprise you. Transfer negotiations can be fraught as you try and entice a reluctant player from their hometown. You can be a national team manager and take part in the World Cup. It's exciting and fun: a kind of stripped down Football Manager that manages to stand head and shoulders over Madden.
But after a few seasons, FIFA's limitations become painfully apparent. The storylines start to repeat themselves, mid-level teams stop buying and become stagnant, and it becomes too easy to hold on to your superstars. If you are Stoke City, you will never face a situation in which PSG (or West Ham) swoops in and swipes your second best player.
All of this makes FIFA's career mode feels surprisingly shallow. Transfer window drama exists, but it's often predictable. Players will get homesick, but you will find nothing like the reports that Neymar is sick of playing in Messi's shadow. Even if a player hands in a transfer request, you can just ride out their frustration until the season ends.
In short, the current Neymar transfer saga isn't really possible in FIFA. The current mechanics offer only a crude approximation at best.
The frustrating thing is there's plenty of room for FIFA's career mode to grow. The existing procedurally generated storylines and media inquiries could be expanded. An optional release clause mechanic could potentially add an extra element of challenge to running a smaller club. In-game social media could offer an avenue for players to speak out. Many of these features have existed in other games for years and would be very welcome in FIFA.
To be sure, I still enjoy some aspects of FIFA's career mode—last year I made a super league featuring Bayern Munich, Manchester United, and Real Madrid and laughed when Arsenal got relegated—but it's been left stagnant for too long. The inclusion of the (heh) International Champion's Cup can't hide the fact that the mode has gone to seed.
Alas, it doesn't seem as if much will change in FIFA 18. The presentation is getting a facelift and there are some intriguing new gameplay mechanics, but EA has declined to highlight any major changes for career mode. As always, FIFA Ultimate Team is king.
So as delicious as all the Neymar drama has been, it's been tinged with disappointment that it can't really be replicated in FIFA's declining career mode.
Here's hoping that EA will take this as a teachable moment. FIFA's career mode could sure use it.