I'm now in the fifth season of my offline Madden 17 franchise, and I'm starting to wondering how long I can keep going. I've won two Super Bowls and two league MVPs while making the NFC title game four times in a row, but I don't feel like I'm done. This is the best that Madden's franchise mode has been in ages. But is it the best franchise mode period?
As a dedicated offline player, franchise mode is pretty much what defines a sports game for me. In addition to offering a degree of wish fulfillment, they make for fun long-term challenges. Can you build a top team? Can you win a championship? Can you go undefeated? These short and long-term challenges give rise to organic narratives, which in turn nourishes a game's overall longevity.
With tomorrow's release of FIFA 17 rounding out this year's crop of sports sims (absent Football Manager 2017, which is in a category all its own), I thought I'd take a moment to rank the current franchise modes. Keep in mind that none of these modes are really "bad." In fact, pretty much of all them bring at least one interesting idea to the table. But some are definitely better than others, and that's what I'm going to highlight.
6. MLB 16 The Show
I'll start with MLB 16 The Show: A deep but also very dry take on the standard sports franchise mode. What it lacks in narrative, team relocation, and other features, it makes up for in pure depth. It includes advanced stats, baseball-specific features like the Rule 5 draft, and revenue sharing. It also goes further than sports sims in letting you track your prospects, even allowing you to play their games at the Double-A and Triple-A levels. It's not particularly rich in terms of narrative or flexibility; but for baseball fanatics seeking to live out their dreams, it's more than enough. And anyway, The Show's biggest strength has always been its fantastic gameplay.
Defining feature - Player Lock: MLB The Show is at a vast disadvantage when compared to most sports sims. Where you can knock out a full NFL season in less than a day, a "True 162" in MLB The Show is a daunting task. Over the years, Sony San Diego has combatted this issue with features like Player Lock and Quick Counts, significantly speeding up the otherwise slow-paced games (a full game of MLB The Show can take more than an hour to complete). Player Lock works particularly well in that it integrates the strengths of Road the Show by allowing players to play one role on the team. That way, if you're comfortable with pitching but not hitting, you can still enjoy The Show's franchise mode without always having to sim through each inning. Even better, you can turn it off anytime if you want to take full control - a smart feature from a very smart studio.
5. Pro Evolution Soccer 2017
Pro Evolution Soccer's Master League is like the rest of Konami's soccer sim in that it's fearlessly experimental. Outside of maybe NBA 2K, I can't think of a franchise mode with more weird and interesting features than PES. To wit, player development in Master League is really interesting in the way that players grow into unfamiliar positions, experience accelerated growth when started regularly, and take on leadership roles that affect the team spirit. It feels organic and interesting in the way that your actions directly impact the way players develop. Unfortunately, like the rest of PES, it's hampered by a clunky interface, and even super teams like Bayern Munich are only available if you utilize mods. Its overall lack of polish makes it seem like an artifact from the early days of the Xbox 360, or even the PlayStation 2. But I'll say this: It's smarter and more interesting than it looks.
Defining feature - Player training: When you're putting together your squad for the first time, you can choose a position-dependent role for them, which boosts certain stats. For example, a midfielder can be more of an attacker or a creator, with attendant stat boosts for each. You can also train players in certain moves like one-touch passing, which makes you feel like you're actually a coach. Athletes in real life will grow in fits and starts, and coaches have a lot to do with players ultimately develop. Rarely have I seen that reflected as elegantly as in PES.
4. NHL 17
Last year, NHL's franchise mode probably would have been at the bottom of this list. This year, though, it's showing signs of growth. The new owner options add a bit of flexibility and structure to the mode, up to and including moving your team to a new city and completely rebranding it. Like MLB The Show, NHL 17 gives you a lot of power in tracking your prospects, including the ability to play with their minor league team. Also like MLB, each season has a lot of games, though the NHL season isn't nearly as grueling as baseball's. It handles player morale rather well, with players receiving bumps or drops in morale depending on how they're playing, their playing time, and whether or not their friend ends up getting traded. Ultimately, it aspires to competence above all else; and in that, it's successful.
Defining feature - Relocation: So why rank it so much higher than The Show? Because its new relocation feature is really good, that's why. Following in the footsteps of NBA 2K and Madden NFL, NHL lets you move a team to one of a handful of markets and rebrand it from the ground up. You can even go as far as to choose the arena's paint job, goal music, and lighting effects. True, NBA 2K does it better; but for long suffering fans of former teams like the Hartford Whalers and the Quebec Nordiques, it's a real gift.