3. FIFA 17
I've spent way too much time with FIFA's franchise mode. It's really brilliant in a lot of ways, neatly incorporating the game's huge number of licenses in an easy-to-understand and enjoyable way. With the help of its scouting function, you can readily turn up and sign all sorts of diamonds in the rough, all leading up to an exciting countdown as the transfer window slowly slams shut. Players will complain about playing time, angle for new contracts, and secretly complain to the media, then swear up and down that nothing is wrong. Its newsfeed is something else: A mix of rumors, predictions, and drama that is unrivaled outside of Football Manager. If you want, you can even sign up to be a national team manager during the international breaks.
The only thing keeping me from rating FIFA 17's manager mode higher is that it all kind of peters out after a couple seasons. Midsized clubs stop buying new players, storylines start to be recycled, and the board magically forgets that you're a legendary Champions League winning manager. Regrettably, EA has mostly elected to rest on the laurels of this success, with more recent additions being fairly uninspiring. Its lack of an online mode remains disappointing, and it doesn't really do enough to commemorate your accomplishments. But what it does well, it does really well.
Defining feature - League customization: One of the cooler things you can do in FIFA is customize an entire league to your liking. Want to see how Manchester City would fare in La Liga? You can do that. Want to put the MLS in the Champion's League? You can swap them with the Portugese league and you're good to go. You can even go so far as to create a super league consisting of all the biggest teams in the world and FIFA's flexible and powerful simulation engine will handle it without a problem. It's the flexibility to create your own little soccer thought experiments that has kept me coming back time and again, and it's one of my favorite features in any sports sim.
2. Madden NFL 17
Madden NFL has rarely been spoken of in the same breath as FIFA and NBA 2K, at least in the positive sense. But times change, and Madden's Connected Franchise Mode (CFM) is actually rather good these days. Though it lacks the power and flexibility of FIFA and NBA 2K, it has its loop down to a science. In Madden, you can knock out a season in a little more than an afternoon, then spend the evening obessing over the draft and free agency before doing it all over again. And trust me, when you have a really good offseason, you will definitely want to do it all over again. It's enough that I can even forgive its broken owner mode, which is only good for relocating a team to another city.
What pushes it over the top for me is its smart design and its presentation. Madden understands the power of positive reinforcement, constantly bombarding you with fake tweets about how great your team is, making big wins all the sweeter. On the design front, the new gameplanning feature does a nice job of letting you choose which parts of your team to boost while doubling as a gameplay tutorial. They've even managed to get the balance of the XP right this year, making it easier and more rewarding to develop rookies.
In addition to one feature I'll get to in a moment, though, Madden's biggest advantage over its rivals is that you can play with your friends. Online leagues have been on the decline in recent years, but Madden has been steadfast in its support of those who like online franchise; and for that, I'm grateful. It's the cherry on top of a mode that, like Madden itself, is suddenly really great.
Defining feature - Key Moments: Key Moments might be this year's most important sports game addition. In simulating most of the game and handing the reins to players in big moments, Key Moments makes Madden infinitely more digestible. All the sudden, playing a single game of Madden isn't a massive undertaking, which has the effect of sharpening the overall loop and making me want to play (ahem) five seasons in about a week. A friend of mine who's a game designer recently called it a triumph of interface design. I agree.
1. NBA 2K17
NBA 2K still has the best franchise mode out of any sports game. Every time another sim makes a move toward catching up, NBA 2K throws in a new wrinkle. You have relocation? That's nice, NBA 2K has three times as many cities and the ability to instantly download a team template. You have an online franchise mode? NBA 2K will see that, and include the ability to play as a classic team like the 2001 Lakers or the '96 Bulls. And that's on top of having by far the best announcing and presentation in the genre.
This year's wrinkle is expansion - an initially uninspiring addition that soon reveals its brilliance. See, relocation is nice, but it's even nicer to be able to simply drop a new team into a league and not miss a beat. NBA 2K does that while making the team creation and subsequent expansion draft as painless as possible. The result is a totally seamless addition to your franchise, whether you're bringing back the Sonics or randomly injectly Ohio State.
Beyond that, NBA 2K is just loaded with lots of good little ideas. For instance, you can buy your team and use the money you make to build your MyCareer player - a neat bit of synergy that encourages you to play a variety of modes. You can pick up your franchise wherever the NBA season happens to be at that moment. You can even redo the most the recent offseason and rewrite history.
All of the franchise modes I've listed above have their individual strengths, but NBA 2K is the best mix of flexibility, narrative, and utility.
Defining feature - Everything: NBA 2K has pretty much everything you can ask for out of a franchise. Narrative? Players will become disenchanted with your team if they don't have enough minutes, and the pregame shows and press conferences tell the story of the season. Flexibility? You can create any team you want and drop it right in via the expansion functionality. Accessibility? Assistant coaches will advise you on your draft picks and offseason moves. It has a fully-functional online franchise mode now, too - a notable weakness in previous versions. As with the rest of NBA 2K, you can argue with the decision to tie virtual currency into the GM skill upgrades; but taken as a whole, NBA 2K's franchise mode is simply genre's best.