I couldn't help feeling sorry for Pele as he sat under the lights at EA's E3 2015 press conference on Monday, trying to extol the virtues of soccer to an audience that barely knew who he was. It was the most awkward moment in what was a poorly constructed press conference by EA.
Somehow, despite taking up a large chunk of EA's press conference, the sports sims still ended up getting lost in the mix amid confusing pacing, minimal details and poor editing. And that's too bad, because there's some actual news worth discussing at this year's E3. So to give EA a hand, I'll summarize what EA should have actually said about Madden, FIFA, and NHL - three games that took up the majority of the conference and yet somehow still felt barely featured.
1. Draft Champions is the best idea Madden has had in years
You may have heard that I've recently gotten into Heartstone, and by extension, collectible card games. One of Heartstone's key features is the Arena, which implements a draft style approach that allows you to pick one card from a group of three until you have a deck of 30. It's given me a new perspective on Madden NFL's most interesting new feature, which combines the fun of fantasy football with draft-style CCGs.
Called Draft Champions, you choose from one of three players over the course of 12 rounds to construct a roster on the fly. When you're done, you can take it online against other opponents for games against friends and random opponens.
Draft Champions makes sense for Madden on a number of levels. First, it serves to shake up the online play, which tends to get stale after a while as people continuously pick the same two or three teams. Second, it plays on the game's connection to fantasy football, which has played a huge role in the sport's growth over the past 15 years. And finally, with the play clock being set to three minutes, the games wrap up in about half the time.
I played several rounds of Draft Champions, mostly favoring the offensive line and the front seven with a mobile quarterback and a solid rushing game. My best team had Randall Cunningham throwing to Calvin Johnson with LeSean McCoy coming out of the backfield, which was a fun fantasy grouping in itself. Oh yeah, you can totally draft legends, which by itself increases the value of the mode immeasurably.
I've gotta say, I'm really impressed with the design and implementation of Draft Champions. If EA implements couch play and lets me mess with the clock settings, I can definitely see this becoming my primary online mode. I'm glad to see that Hearthstone has something to teach sports developers outside of how to make more money selling cards.
2. Women's teams are finally in FIFA 16, and there's more to come
I've already written about EA's introduction of women's national teams in FIFA 16, so I won't rehash the broader points. I'm glad to see that they're in the games, and I'm glad that they've been implemented with care rather than just being reskinned versions of the men's teams. I can't imagine the work that must have gone into getting this mode ready.
But as I discussed on the Press Row Podcast, it's really disappointing that they don't have any sort of role to play in the career mode, even being absent from the International Manager options. Having been segregated from the rest of the game to the extent that they have, they aren't much more than a fun novelty, and aren't likely to be seen as more than a change of pace when playing online. If this is just a first step, then so be it. But I really hope EA Canada takes things further next year.
Beyond that, FIFA is still FIFA, which is to say that it doesn't look or feel significantly than it has in previous years. Of course, FIFA has set the bar so high that they can more or less take a year off and still be about on par with every other sports sim. I can say, however, that the defense has been tuned quite a bit and is now much more adept at cutting off passes and stopping runs before they have a chance to the develop. Compared to the Barcelona-driven scorefest that was FIFA 15, this year's version feels more subtle.
Still, I'll have to see what else FIFA brings to the table this year. After binging on FIFA 15's career mode to the tune of six seasons and more than 200 hours, I feel like I need some serious improvements to the solo modes to be able to reengage for another season or two. In the meantime, I can finally play as Abby Wambach, and that alone is a hell of a thing.
3. NHL is on the road to recovery after a disastrous year
Of all the sports games on display during their press event, the game EA did the biggest disservice to was NHL 16. After an incredibly tough year, the series is very much on the road to recovery, but you wouldn't know it at EA's press conference, where it barely warranted more than a sizzle reel. So I'll do my best to explain why NHL is worth your time this year
As you may recall, NHL 15 had problems. It was missing a ton of features, including the EA Sports Hockey League, which had built up a devoted following over the years among those who enjoyed competing against other teams with four of their friends. Beyond that, it just wasn't all that fun to play. The action on the ice felt choppy and disjointed, and modes like Be a Pro were flatout broken without crucial features like "Sim a Shift." It was a mess, to put it mildly.
If you want to look at NHL 16 cycnically, you can say that this is a year of getting back to the baseline. EASHL is back, Be a Pro has been fixed, and it's once again possible to play in the minors. If that were all, then NHL would deservedly be judged harshly, not the least because of what it's still missing, including GM Connected. But in addition to getting back to par, as it were, NHL has made a number of smart additions to their core modes.
Most of the additions have been announced elsewhere, but they bear mentioning here since they're got so little attention at E3. Aside from existing, which is a huge improvement over last year, EASHL will include pre-built character classes, making it much easier to build a balanced team. It'll also impact the team-building metagame, encouraging players to strategize and decide if they want to emphasize speed, shooting, power, or some combination of all three. Meanwhile, Be a Pro has dynamic stats that grow depending on how you play, while Be a GM has a fully-functional morale system that lets you relive that time that Martin St. Louis demanded a trade because he was snubbed in the Olympics.
But most importantly, it plays so much better than last year. The puck-handling is much tighter, the animation just a little bit smoother, and it makes a huge difference. I still enjoyed FIFA the most out of all the games on offer, but I was drawn back to NHL on more than one occasion. It's enough that I feel motivated to try and put together an EASHL team this year, or at least try and get into HUT.
Now, I mentioned that NHL is on the road to recovery, not that it's arrived. There are still no custom soundtracks, no Winter Classic, and no GM Connected, and to be frank, it is still leagues behind NBA 2K, FIFA, and MLB: The Show. But it's playable now, and more importantly, it's really fun. It's just too bad that EA hasn't told anyone.