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As Sports Leagues Expand, Will Expansion Modes Disappear?

Expansion Modes in Sports Games

Operation Sports

As Sports Leagues Expand, Will Expansion Modes Disappear?

In a couple months, the NHL will welcome the Seattle Kraken, giving the league 32 teams. I’m happy for Seattle. I remember when Ohio got an NHL team over 20 years ago. It was great! The team was bad! Ron Tugnutt became an All-Star! The Blue Jackets didn’t quite get the generous rules regarding the NHL Expansion Draft that Las Vegas had, but that’s a grudge I’ll save for a different time.

While it’s great for Seattle to have a team, I’m worried about who’s really impacted by this: the sports gamers. Like I’m sure a lot of you have, I’ve spent way too much time in the Expansion Mode that’s included in EA’s NHL series. It’s deep, engaging, and unlike any other part of the game.

…Which is exactly why it’s going to disappear.

I’ll confess, I overreacted just one sentence ago. Despite knowing EA’s record on feature removals, that’s not exactly why the mode could go away. The NHL just reached the magic number of 32 franchises (if you want to count the Buffalo Sabres). A nice, round, even number. Two conferences, four divisions of four teams, or two divisions of eight teams. It’s symmetrical. 30 used the be the number it seemed all leagues were after, but then the NFL kind of owed Cleveland a do-over (success pending). 31 was too strange of a number, so the league gifted a team back to Houston and here we are.

As each major American sports league commissioner looks at putting his stamp on the league, and, more importantly, increasing revenue, talks of expansion will get more and more prevalent. And the closer you get to reaching a nice number like 32, the less sense it makes to include expansion modes in a video game. I’ll try to outline my unfortunate case by looking at each of the big games below.

EA NHL

nhl 21 expansion mode

When the NHL added Vegas, it was a matter of when, not if, the 32nd franchise would be awarded. During the time between Vegas and Seattle beginning play, it made sense for NHL 18 through NHL 21 to have an expansion mode. You could round out the league to 32 teams yourself since there was an open spot. But next year the league will be at 32 teams with no reasonable open spot available.

Adding a 33rd team wouldn’t seem crazy, since NHL teams play on all days of the week. And the NHL’s currently getting by okay with an odd number of teams. But we all knew 31 teams was just on the path to 32. The addition of a 33rd franchise doesn’t quite even itself out until 36. It’s hard to envision this mode continuing in the NHL series in the same form for that reason.

NBA 2K

nba 2k21 next-gen franchise mode

NBA 2K arguably has the best expansion mode available. The league currently stands at 30 teams, but the game gives you the option to expand to up to 36 teams. It makes sense with the current divisional setup: add one team to each division. Though it does seem odd if you only expand by two teams and are left with divisions of five and six in each conference.

This is the only game where you are given the opportunity to both expand and relocate teams. This should be something all sports games look to include, regardless of whether or not they reach 32 teams.

If NBA 2K has already opened the door to 36 teams, it doesn’t make sense to drop this feature until the league has reached that number. So it looks like it could be here to stay.

MLB The Show

mlb the show expansion mode

The SDS team finally answered everyone’s prayers with a Stadium Creator, but the developers didn’t quite deliver on the assumption from many that this would be part of an expansion mode within the game. Of the major North American sports leagues, Major League Baseball has gone the longest since last expanding. There was even talk about contracting teams less than 20 years ago.

Franchise mode in MLB The Show has had its issues with producing an accurate schedule in future years for years now, so I can’t imagine adding two teams to the mix would make that any easier. If you consider that adding teams would likely result in a shakeup of the divisional alignment, it gets more complex. Acclaim Sports released All-Star Baseball in 2002 with an expansion mode. The creation aspect wasn’t very customizable, and the divisions ended up unbalanced, but it was fairly deep for a PS2-era baseball game. If it could be done almost 20 years ago, there’s no reason it can’t be done now.

MLB The Show has a long way to go in matching some of the aspects of the creation suites in NHL and NBA 2K. But that studio also has the most reasons to get it together with the addition of the Stadium Creator, and the league being years away from expanding.

Madden

madden 22 franchise mode

Like the NHL will be in a few months, the NFL is already at 32 teams. Adding a 33rd team would introduce an entirely new complexity to both the league setup and scheduling math, much like adding a 17th game. Unlike the NHL, adding a 33rd team would require one team to be on a bye every week.

Madden used to have a create-a-team feature that would result in you just replacing a current team. While taking out 98% of the customization, EA re-invented that idea as relocation, and it’s likely to stay that way. It’s also the most likely place these modes are headed.

FIFA

FIFA expansion mode

MLS has never really been at the forefront of FIFA’s development plans, so it doesn’t seem likely that the recent grift wave of MLS expansion would convince EA to include anything like this in the game. Most of the leagues around the world are already set, crazy Super League ideas aside. The game also hasn’t had anything resembling a career mode club creator since FIFA 14.

Bottom Line

I’m not sure if expansion modes are going away or not. But as leagues expand to the magic number, it doesn’t seem to make sense, mathematically, for these modes to exist. They might get discarded altogether. They might all just turn into create-a-team modes that replace a current team. But they would be better served if kept as a relocation option within career/franchise/whatever-NBA-2K-is-calling-it-now mode. As these modes transition to this new stage of their lives, let’s all enjoy them while we can.

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