Playing career mode with an MLS team in FIFA is like that nagging feeling you get when you're watching Man City play–everything looks good on the surface, but there's an undercurrent of inauthenticity running through it.
In real life, the biggest soccer league in the continent is an interesting hybrid of Europe and North America: While the action on the pitch mirrors a match you’d find on the other side of the Atlantic, off the field things are more North American—there’s a players draft, trading instead of buying and selling, and a salary cap (along with which comes a slew of special player quotas). But in the FIFA series, the MLS is just another league in the Career Mode, still stuck with the European management system. The MLS experience in FIFA needs improving, this much is obvious.
The MLS deserves a more faithful replication, and not the mash-up we’re currently getting from FIFA. You can argue that there should be motivation on EA’s side as well. In 2012, a poll conducted by ESPN has soccer being the second most popular sport in the 12-24 age group in America, and FIFA 13 increased its North American sales for the third-straight year. While it’s true that these North American fans’ favorite league may not be the MLS, it’s not a stretch either to imagine most of them having an affinity to their local club. And if numbers themselves aren’t enough encouragement, EA Sports also owns the exclusive license to the league. So how does company go about improving the MLS experience? A different mode? Or is it time for a dedicated Major League Soccer game? After all, the "big 4" do, and soccer isn't far behind.
But, let’s just say, don’t hold your breath for MLS ’14.
That’s not to say there aren’t any arguments for a dedicated Major League Soccer game, because there are a few. A dedicated game is the most complete and accurate way to recreate everything that’s unique about the MLS, warts and all. Imagine the possibilities: scouting the combine, wheeling and dealing your way up and down the Superdraft, and witnessing the in-game atmosphere in each club’s stadium, complete with authentic fans’ rituals.
Surprisingly enough, numbers, at least on the surface, may not be an issue either. FIFA 13 sold more than 1.7 million copies in North America for X360 and PS3, while NHL 13 sold 610,000. If, say, half the people who purchased FIFA 13 buy the dedicated MLS game, that’s still more business than what NHL 13 did. Add to the fact that an MLS game can use FIFA’s match engine, potentially lowering the cost of producing the game and, if one can dream, also the retail price, you have a pretty convincing argument for at least exploring the idea of a dedicated game.
However, the problem is that soccer, amongst all the North American sports, relies on the rest of the world’s leagues much more than the others do.
Making a soccer game for a specific league will not be a new thing for EA Sports. The Stars series—with the most popular one being FA Premier League Stars— was a series of games dedicated to an individual soccer league, released around the turn of the millennium. Take the Premier League version for example, while the game itself was fun, and it was a treat to see the kit and stadium of every team in the league, from Chelsea to Coventry, being realistically replicated, the game ran out of steam too quickly because there just wasn’t enough variety. You rarely have a sense of what’s going on outside the UK, and the game felt like it was being played in a vacuum. A dedicated MLS game will likely suffer from the same fate as the Stars series, even with a league as distinct as the MLS.
Soccer needs the Premier Leagues and the Serie As and the La Ligas more than an NHL game needs the KHL. Players and managers frequently get transferred around the world, and a team in the MLS still needs to pay attention to what goes on in the other continents and look out for potential recruits. Making an MLS game without simulating the other big leagues will simply not work. And if the solution is then to simulate those leagues, then why not make them playable? And if the leagues are playable, how is that any different from career mode in FIFA?
And that’s where the path leads back to: FIFA, either with MLS as a separate feature, or more likely, a few years of slow refinement within the existing career mode. These are much likelier possibilities.
A separate mode, like what PES currently does with Copa Libertadores, may make sense, if only to really distinguish and showcase the MLS format from the rest of the leagues. But again, why make a separate mode that still needs to simulate everything else, when you can just lump it in with career mode?
Which takes us all the way back to FIFA’s original career mode. As much of a compromising option as it is, it’s the one that makes the most sense for both sides, with the caveat that the philosophy of the current FIFA team carries on. On EA’s side, improving MLS within the career mode should cost the least out of all available options, besides doing nothing. And while the do-nothing option may have been a reflexive expectation from cynics (who were probably brought up playing the previous generations of FIFAs), the current producers have so far lived up to their watchword of authenticity. It requires a slight leap of faith, but you would have to think, with the inauthenticity of managing an MLS team like a European one sticking out so much compared to everything else that FIFA has gotten right, that correcting it is on the producers' radar.
The drawback, if this indeed the most likely solution, is the amount of time it may take for them to get to it. And when it happens, it may still only be the big things that get implemented. The crucial aspects will come—the draft, the trading— but what's more doubtful are the league/team-specific bells and whistles. It's a matter of priority, and while it may be nice to see Timbers fans singing the anthem, it's more important to make sure the right rules are implemented first.
So while the idea of a dedicated MLS game is an interesting one, ultimately it's just too unviable. And while that’s pretty much expected, what's more interesting is the reason why: not because of the familiar refrain that the MLS lacks the potential draw—an argument only those without much knowledge of the league would make—instead the issue is a more philosophical one. The consumers are actually there, but an MLS game needs the rest of the soccer world while the other North American sports, with the slight exception of the NHL, don’t. The next best thing, and a much likelier possibility, is a more authentic experience within FIFA's current career mode.