I really don't envy sports sim developers. Working on a compressed development cycle, they face the nearly impossible task of justifying the $60 price tag of their product to the widest possible variety of fans, both core and casual. It's hard to know even where to start.
But as I've said in the past, every sports sim has an area where it can improve. Yes, even the NBA 2Ks and FIFAs of the world. And some of these games have issues that have festered for years, usually in the form of a feature that didn't quite work when it was initially introduced and has stuck around through sheer inertia. Trying to fix these issues can sometimes result in a million more problems; but on occasion, they can result in real, measurable improvements.
Most of the suggestions below have been on my mind for a while now. It's too late for developers to act on them now, but they are still useful as a kind of bucket list for what I would like to see when the majority of the sims debut next month.
I've tried to hit most of the major sports sims, the exceptions being UFC, WWE 2K, and Rory Mcllroy PGA Tour, none of which I can speak about with authority. Rory Mcllroy isn't even out yet, so I'd like to hold off on making judgments on what should be improved until I've played it. As for the other two, I'm sure you all have your own thoughts on what should be improved, so share them in the comments. I'd like to hear what you think. Otherwise, here's what I would like to see over the next couple years.
Madden NFL: A revised Owner Mode
I have more issues with Madden NFL 15 than most. While it's made great strides on the field, impressing with substantially improved physics and A.I., it still feels frustratingly cheesy at times. At this point everyone knows that zone defense is the best defense and counters and power runs are overpowered. But I'm not here to talk about what's happening on the field.
Instead, I'd like to highlight Owner Mode, which is broken to the point of being unplayable. First introduced in Madden 25, it promised all the functionality of being a coach with the added benefit of being able to sell jerseys, build new stadium, and move teams to London and San Antonio. Mostly, though, it's just larded up with tons of meaningless stats, with elements like setting the price of hot dogs having little to no effect on your team's financial destiny.
It's at its most frustrating when you get to the offseason and realize that you have no money to re-sign your own players, let alone pursue free agents. In the world of Madden, NFL teams depend solely on gate revenue and merchandise sales, completely ignoring the fact that even the Jacksonville Jaguars get an ungodly sum of money from TV deals. It's bad enough that I actually killed my owner midway through my online franchise and came back in as a coach, solely because I wanted the ability to actually spend some of my cap.
Tiburon knows that Owner Mode is problematic, and it sounds like there will be changes this coming year. Their best bet is to remove all of the meaningless price changes, give every team a base amount that grows with success, and reserve the money for cosmetic purchases. I'd love to spend my money on the ability to unlock custom uniforms, trick out my stadium with a new jumbotron, or buy a sweet swimming pool. The more visual upgrades the better.*
* I can hear the devs chuckling from here. Oh annual sports cycle, you are the enemy of ambition.
I just hope that Tiburon doesn't wind up junking Owner Mode altogether. I'd hate to lose the ability to turn the Jacksonville Jaguars into the Dublin Celtic Tigers or the Mexico City Diablos. But if there were one thing I could improve about Madden, that would be it.
NHL: Improved board play
Okay, this is a pretty simple change compared to junking an entire mode and starting from scratch. Actually, I lied, it's still hard. But with the EASHL and the rest of the modes cut in NHL 15 likely to return for NHL 16, this is one meaningful improvement I feel could make a big impact on the product on the whole.
Basically, NHL's board play isn't that great. When battling along the boards, physics mostly fall by the wayside, with players getting sucked into canned animations as they try to kick away the puck to a teammate. It's not as bad as it used to be, but it still feels painfully artificial in the context of the rest of the game, and it bugs me every time I find myself trying to dig out the puck.
As we progress further into the current generation, details like these are only going to grow in importance, particularly with games like MLB: The Show doing such a good job of capturing nuances like playing a ball off a wall. For as much as we focus on presentation and core modes, niggling details like these are where the game is made. It's the difference between feeling "next-gen" and feeling like a holdover from the Xbox 360 era.
There are other elements for NHL to address, including the way players control the puck, goalie A.I., and skill moves; but as most hockey players will tell you, being able to dig out a puck from the boards and get it in front of goal matters as much as making a flashy play on net. I'd like for NHL to do a better job of capturing that element.
NBA 2K: A game that's actually playable at launch
I feel like I say this every year: The only thing keeping NBA 2K from being the single best sports sim in the market is its frankly awful always-online connectivity. It impacts every aspect of the experience, from making it impossible to properly upgrade a character in MyPlayer because the servers are down, to accidentally erasing everyone's data in taking the previous iteration offline (in fairness, 2K Sports was able to restore the data almost immediately, but it still left a bad taste in everyone's mouth).
Frustrating as such issues can be, always-online connectivity is pretty much a fact of life at this point, and it's only going to become more pervasive as time goes on. But if you're going to make it such an integral part of your experience, you have to nail it. For the past two years, online connectivity issues have derailed what has otherwise been an exceptional sports sim, frustrating fans who just want to play their game in peace. The damage isn't irrevocable, but the negative headlines must be getting tiring by now.
So I implore you, 2K and Visual Concepts: Please buy more servers. Please tweak the online code. Please do something to ensure that NBA 2K16 is actually playable at launch.
And while you're at it, please bring back the Jordan Challenge. I miss it.
FIFA: Better representation for Major League Soccer
Like its counterpart, Pro Evolution Soccer, it's kind of hard to think of where FIFA can go from here. Hopes of a Woman's World Cup mode were dashed with the release of FIFA 15, and an online league mode seems to be a total non-starter (which is a real shame, by the way). FIFA continues to sell very well, but its review scores have been dipping for years now, and it's hard to fight the feeling that the series has plateaued to some extent. The series needs a spark of ingenuity; something to remind longtime fans of why they fell in love with it in the first place.
I'm not saying that better representation for Major League Soccer is that spark, but it would definitely help. As it stands, MLS is treated as an afterthought, with no licensed stadiums, no CONCACAF Champions League, no Designated Players, and no real reason to play outside of the novelty of representing your local team. It's not even that much fun to play as an MLS team, with even top teams like the Seattle Sounders getting middling grades.
You can debate MLS' relevance all you want, and I know plenty of European fans who sneer at its quirky structure and its level of play; but if EA is going to keep putting Clint Dempsey on the cover, then they might as well make an effort to represent MLS accurately. For those who do care, like me, it will actually make a big difference.
It may not represent the sweeping improvement that longtime fans want to see, but it's a start. And as I said, after two mostly unremarkable years highlighted only by the series' successful transition to next-generation consoles (admittedly, no easy feat), it's a start.
NBA Live: Deeper defense
It's really hard to know where to start with NBA Live. To be perfectly honest, literally everything about it could stand to be improved, from its gameplay to its offline modes. But let's also give credit where its due: NBA Live 15 was an improvement over its predecessor, which was practically unplayable.
If EA wants to continue making modest gains in the coming year, the best place to focus is on the foundational gameplay, particularly the defense. In its current state, shutting down even the biggest stars is mostly a matter of staying close to them, and steals are far too easy. There is none of the dynamism of NBA 2K, where every player has their own identity and shutting them down becomes a kind of puzzle to be solved (even if NBA 2K has its own issues with canned animations).
Like I said, it's not easy to pintpoint any one thing when trying to figure out how to improve NBA Live. Literally any improvement is welcome. With that said, for as much flack as EA takes from fans, the Infinity Engine is a solid next-gen platform, and there's plenty of room for growth. It's been a long, painful road back from the debacle of NBA Elite, but EA at least has a toehold on the basketball market again, which is more than could be said for them as recently as two years ago. We'll just have to see whether NBA Live 16 ends up being a step forward or a step back.
Pro Evolution Soccer: More realistic player transactions
Pro Evolution Soccer is a weird case. It's widely praised for its realism on the field, but it's widely panned for its presentation and lack of licenses. I'm afraid that the licensing issue is only going to get worse - FIFA pretty much has a monopoly on that front - and Japanese companies don't exactly have a great track record for creating elegant interfaces for their simulations. Absent a fresh coat of paint, though, Konami could stand to improve PES' management modes, which currently aren't up to par.
PES may have FIFA beat on the field; but in terms of off-the-field management, FIFA eats Pro Evolution's lunch. Most fans agree that PES neeeds more realistic transfer windows, more nuanced player negotiations, more varied player development, the ability to scout and sign players to youth squads, and player morale and satisfaction. Any one of these elements would immediately Pro Evolution's management elements, which have actually become shallower over time rather than deeper.
PES managed to build up a lot of positive momentum last year, taking advantage of FIFA 15's lack of major upgrades to make a statement with the hardcore sim crowd. But if Konami wants the series to break out of that niche, the series must make real strides in terms of polish and off-the-field realism, where it continues to lag behind other sports sims. Getting back to basics and implementing many of the foundational features outlined above would be a good start.
MLB: The Show: Harsher penalties for using a tired pitcher
As you may have read, I play quite a bit of MLB: The Show online. I still like it, but there's one thing that's been driving me up the wall recently: the propensity for people to wheel out their ace even if they're exhausted. In theory, the ace should be completely gassed, and thus shouldn't be able to locate pitches. But while there are some drawbacks to using a tired ace, offspeed pitches still work just fine, which means people are free to abuse Knuckle Curves and other nasty pitches.
Even without all the offspeed pitch abuse, though, it's just not fun facing a tired pitcher. Even Madison Bumgarner can't throw 150 pitches in back-to-back starts. At a certain point, an exhausted pitcher should just be totally useless; and if the player persists in using them, then they should get hurt and leave the game. Barring that, starting a pitcher should be impossible beyond a certain point of exhaustion.
As it stands, I find the current situation deeply annoying. There are plenty of improvements to be made elsewhere, but this is the hole that I most want to see closed.
On that note, it sure is nice to talk about something other than lag when discussing improvements for MLB: The Show. It's still rough in places, but it's infinitely better than what it was, which was totally unplayable. That one improvement has resulted in me spending more time with The Show than I have in years. So take note, EA and 2K, this is what happens when you finally nail a long-standing problem - it can have ripple effects that improve the entire experience. I would love to see every other sim follow suit.