Editor's note: This article was originally published in 2014.
Last Saturday, I watched helplessly as my Minnesota Golden Gophers coughed up a 17-3 lead and allowed their hated rivals, the Wisconsin Badgers, to lift Paul Bunyan's Axe for the tenth year in a row.
It was a bitter end to what was otherwise an amazing season, but I nevertheless left the game feeling confident about the future. There would be other chances in the future, I told myself. The losing would just make the winning sweeter.
Most sports fans have probably shared that sentiment at one time or another—even those supporting historically successful teams like the Yankees and the Packers. After all, no team has a 100 percent success rate. Even the 2007 New England Patriots, one of the greatest teams I've ever watched, ultimately failed in their quest for a championship (much to the delight of everyone outside of New England). It's the prospect of failure and disappointment that makes sports tense, dramatic television.
And yet, it's the one ingredient consistently missing from sports video games.
If sports could be saved and reloaded, some of the most memorable moments ever would be lost to history. Kirk Gibson's walk-off homer, the helmet catch, the Immaculate Reception—all might have been erased in a fit of pique by A's, Patriots, or Raiders fans. Granted, I'm a hypocrite. If I could, I would erase the Gary Anderson miss from history, and the 2009 New Orleans Saints for good measure. But as nice as wish fulfillment can be, something is lost when the stakes are low and your team of choice is winning every championship by a score of 70-10.
So with my latest FIFA 15 career, I decided to bring back some of that drama by accepting every result, win or loss. I had absolutely no idea how deep that rabbit hole went.
The idea came to me while I was losing to Everton near the tail end of the first season of my career. No matter how many times I restarted, Everton always seemed to best me with their combination of speed and power on defense. Finally, after what felt like roughly a dozen losses, I gave up. Everton ended up grabbing the final Champion's League spot and I was forced to settle for the Europa League.
It was a disappointing conclusion to a long season, but it made me think, "What if I could win the Champion's League without ever restarting a game? What if I could win all of the trophies?"
It was not the first time such an idea had occured to me, but it was the first time that it felt feasible in FIFA. I had finally gotten to the point where I could consistently beat the computer on the Professional difficulty level, which made the challenge doable without feeling completely rote. I was also playing as West Ham United—a team that sat at the Premier League goldilocks zone of being talented without being overwhelmingly stacked like Arsenal or Chelsea. I loaded up the second season and decided to see where it would take me.
I don't remember my first loss—it might have been a 4-1 drubbing by Manchester United or a desultory 1-0 loss to a bottom feeder like Sunderland. I just remember the frustration, the grumpiness, and the desire to try and win big the next game. It was more addictive than I expected—a kind of propulsive force that kept me play through afternoons, evenings, and sometimes late into the night. It was by far the most engaged I had ever been with a sports game career mode.
One thing I learned in those first two seasons: The big teams like Chelsea and Arsenal don't scare me. More often than not, I beat them by a comfortable margin. It was the minnows that always seemed to trip me up—the Sunderlands, Stoke Citys, and Burnleys of the world, all of which would grab that go-ahead goal in the 34th minute and just sit on it for the rest of the game while I tried fruitlessly to break through their back line. It was one such game against Newcastle that ended my run at a league title in Season 3, coming hot on the heels of a tough 2-1 loss to Chelsea. After a while, I started to really dread the sight of Newcastle, Sunderland, and Everton in particular—three teams that could push my lean, pacey strikers around the pitch and play tough defense.
Of course, there was the time that I got my goalkeeper suspended on the eve of a Champion's League quarterfinal match against Real Madrid.
Playing against Chelsea, I sent my keeper charging in to stop an Edinson Cavani run, and the resulting collision got him send off and suspended for the next match. Oh, and I hadn't dressed my backup for the match. Lovely. I ended up putting in John Stones, one of my centerbacks, into goal and crossing my fingers. I think I lost 4-1. Things didn't go much better against Luis Suarez and Real Madrid, putting me in a deep hole going into the second leg of the round. That was one of the few times I seriously considered reloading a previously saved game.
I went on like this for five seasons, with moments of triumph and bitter defeat peppered throughout. I won the League Cup and the FA Cup in my second season, and my first (and thus far only) league title in my fourth season. I consistently qualified for the Champion's League, but the twin buzzsaws of Real Madrid and FC Barcelona often conspired to keep me from going anywhere.
One of the weird things about playing in a sports game career for a long period of time is the way that it starts to warp time and space. Early on, I snatched up Zakaria Bakkali and Ryan Gauld—two promising prospects who are both 18 in real life, but are now each 24 years old and in the prime of their careers in my league (though neither have changed physically, meaning they look absolutely tiny on the pitch). Meanwhile, Messi and Ronaldo are both well into their 30s, and the likes of Tim Howard and Clint Dempsey have long since retired.
The teams are different too. Suarez is a newly-minted member of Barcelona in real life; but in my career, he's a Real Madrid stalwart. Other things are different as well: Sergio Aguero—Manchester City's terrifying striker—leads Paris Saint-Germaine, Edinson Cavani plays for Chelsea alongside Romelu Lukaku, and Aston Villa is now rich and a major player in the transfer market. To be honest, it's messed with my head a bit. When I watch West Ham play now, I instinctively expect to see Bakkali, Mario Balotelli, and Lars Stindl on the field, leaving me mildly confuse when I instead see Andy Carroll and Enner Valencia instead. At times, I have this palpable feeling that one universe is bleeding into another, and I'm not sure which is which.
In other ways though, things feel all too familiar. After the initial flurry of moves in the first season, even the big teams seem to settle into a sort of holding pattern, with the result being that rosters are largely static by Season 5 or 6. Granted, there's still some movement; but with the way stars regularly change hands in real life, it's jarring to see teams like Arsenal and Manchester United with almost exactly same rosters in the year 2020.
By contrast, my own roster has undergone almost 100 percent turnover, with only Mauro Zarate and Enner Valencia remaining among the old guard. Multiple trips to the Champions League has fattened my wallet to the point that I can afford recognizable stars; and at one point, my transfer budget sat at north of $100 million. If Barcelona would let me, I could probably find a way to buy Messi in the offseason. Given the computer's relatively conservative approach to the transfer window, it's not hard for even a mid-tier team to gain a sizable advantage in a short period of time.
With a roster loaded will burgeoning stars and a mandate to spend, it seemed like I was a lock to win both the Premier League title and the European Champions League in Season 5. And then something funny happened: I failed.
I suppose you could say that I played one game too many.
The majority of Season 5 saw me holding a narrow lead over Tottenham Hotspur, who simple refused to lose. The first match had resulted in an inconclusive 1-1 draw, so it was all down to the second to the last game of the season, which we we entered tied at the top of the table.
This is where I mention that I don't like the Spurs very much, being that they are West Ham's blood enemies in the Premier League. I was more than happy to drop four or five goals on them and hoist the trophy in White Hart Lane. The match came at the tail end of a long evening playing FIFA though, and I was tired. I lost 2-1.
I suppose I could have said, "Screw it," and restarted at the moment. I could have done the same after I lost to Borussia Dortmund by another 2-1 score in the Champions League Final a couple matches later. I think playing for 200 hours or more broke me, though. Instead of putting away FIFA as I intended, I continued right into the summer transfer window. And then, all of the sudden, Season 6 was underway.
And so it was that I found myself in a dogfight with—who else?—Chelsea in the FA Cup Semifinal, down 1-0 in the 89th minute with my quest to capture every available trophy in serious danger, when the old veteran Mauro Zarate slotted home the equalizer to send it into extra time. Minutes later, I was somehow through on penalties, my quest to win every single trophy without restarting a game somehow still alive. I couldn't help doing a little dance around the house to celebrate.
And the story isn't finished, either. When I go home tonight, it will be to face Real Madrid in what will be a difficult Champion's League semifinal, with Chelsea continuing to lurk three points behind me in the league table. I have the League Cup, and the FA Cup seems winnable as well, but it's entirely possible that I will flame out and miss out on the biggest trophies of them all, particularly with Bakkali and his 21 goals out for the rest of the season with a broken elbow (ow).
I wouldn't have it any other way, though. It's been an amazing ride—one of the best game experiences I've had in years. This could be the culmination of everything I've been working toward... or a devastating defeat.
But even if I lose, I won't mind too much. After all, that's sports.