Video game simulations of team sports have undoubtedly made some great strides in recent years. As someone old enough to remember a time when the release of the 4-Way Play for Sega Genesis was a huge moment — as it meant doubling the number of friends who could play NHL 94 at the same time — it’s clear things have certainly come a long way since then. With the ability to now play games like NBA 2K19, NHL 19 and FIFA 19 with full 5-on-5, 6-on-6 and 11-on-11 user squads, people can now get closer than ever to the experience of playing a smaller role within a larger framework on a team.
But what about other team sports games?
If people want to “do their job,” as Bill Belichick is so fond of saying, on a football team in Madden 19, the closest they can come to that right now is playing 3-vs-3 Squad games with a handful of other people. Or if baseball fans are interested in perhaps filling out a lineup card with themselves and eight or so of their friends, there’s not only no opportunity to do this in MLB The Show 19, there’s absolutely no mode at all that extends beyond head-to-head play.
While the logistics of playing these sports with teams made up entirely of users admittedly present their own unique challenges, it’s something that the makers of these games will have to continue to experiment with as we head into a new decade and technology continues to evolve. Because even though there are inherent difficulties in trying to simulate these team sports that will need to be addressed, there are also solutions or compromises that can be found to optimize the gameplay for everyone involved.
Here are some ideas on how to overcome some of the biggest hurdles to getting everyone on the field at the same time while keeping things as entertaining as possible no matter what position you might be playing.
The first question that has to be posed when it comes to trying to re-create 11-on-11 football action in Madden is a big one. Does anyone really want to play a position like left guard?
Admittedly, any position on the O-line is hardly going to be the sexiest choice for most people, all things considered, but perhaps that’s largely because they only have in mind the way the position is played now in the game and not the way the position could be with a little work. Most would be willing to admit that the line play in Madden has been pretty stale for quite some time, with little more than a button-mashing win/lose proposition driving every interaction in the trenches.
But consider how dynamic line play in Madden could potentially be, if only it became a priority of developmental resources that implementing 11-on-11 play might instantly force it to become. Imagine a mode where being player locked as a lineman means being transported right into their nasty and brutish little world where you could find out what those scrums can really be like. Whether accomplished through first-person perspective or not, it’d be nice to actually get a better concept of how gargantuan these linemen can appear when they’re lined up right across from you.
As for the mechanics of playing on the line, it’s probably time to start from scratch at this point and overhaul the entire engine. So instead of mindlessly mashing buttons to either rush or protect the quarterback, let’s have a mechanic instead that at least approaches something as nuanced as blocking and shedding blocks.
That cat-and-mouse game would seem to demand a far more complex mini-game, one that might see a defender selecting at every snap from a variety of different approaches (think swim moves, bull rushes and the dreaded Freeney spins) to try to get past a blocker and the blocker, in turn, having to react quickly in order to counter these moves. The back-and-forth interaction could involve having to hit a variety of buttons in a short period of time and/or moving the left stick and right stick in order to quickly react to what one another are doing. The details obviously would have to be ironed out, but the larger point remains that all line play really needs in order for it to be accessible to people is to actually be a little fun and challenging in its own right.
A Return Of Two-Way Players
Though players in 3-vs-3 Squad games naturally are required to flip and play roles on both offense and defense, it would make things even more interesting in 11-on-11 user matchups to have one position that you’re locked into for every game on both sides of the ball. It may not be much of stretch as it is for linemen to turn around rush the quarterback instead of block, but other positions would require players to cultivate entirely different skill sets in order to achieve balance on offense and defense.
Sure, you might be an amazing receiver at running routes or going up for contested catches, but how good are you when the shoe’s suddenly on the other foot and you have to cover the same guys who were just trying and failing to cover you? Quarterbacks could become linebackers on defense and running backs could play at safety on the other side of the ball. This would also be a nice organic way to develop natural rivalries during the game, as you find yourself lining and matching up against the same adversary over and over again.
Now the only thing you have to figure out is who’s going to kick the ball, as something tells me it still might not be all that realistic to expect to have a dedicated kicker or punter who’s just patiently waiting around to finally see some action.
MLB The Show
At The Plate
Speaking of waiting around, easily the biggest hurdle to transforming MLB The Show from purely a head-to-head affair to the team sport it was always conceived to be is overcoming the fact that it would entail a lot of downtime for everyone involved. When your team is at bat and all of your players are presumably in the dugout, are people really going to be willing to wait for their turn in the lineup to come around, which could mean only getting to see the plate every third inning or so on average?
Now there might be some people who would embrace that level of realism from a baseball game, but most simply aren’t going to settle for being quite so inactive when playing a game. Until the majority of people develop that kind of unfathomable patience, there are at least some initial steps that MLB The Show could take to start having more people play the game together.
If you had just a 4-on-4 user matchup in the game, for instance, then that would reduce the wait to get to the plate to the point that a player is very likely to get up to bat every inning. Plus, with four users playing on the same team, it would allow all players to continue controlling a player should they get on base, creating the rare exciting scenario where three users are loading the bases and the final user at the plate is trying to drive them all in.
In The Field
With a full squad of nine users, you would surely just run into the same kind of inactivity problems that you would on offense, as there are likely not a huge number of people who would be stoked to play a whole game camped out in right field where the ball may not even get hit to you more than a few times in an entire game. Even though a real game of baseball may involve an awful lot of standing around, that just isn’t as acceptable when you bring that into a video game environment.
If you were to once again envision a baseball game played with four users on each side, however, there are real solutions to get people more involved. With this configuration, you could easily have one user control all four infielders, one user control all three outfielders, one user control whichever pitcher happens to be on the mound, and one user control the catcher, who would put down the signs for the pitcher and work in concert with him to keep hitters off balance. This would help ensure that people stay busy enough at their respective positions to have them on their toes at all times instead of lazing around in the field.
This may not be the same kind of accountability and realism that people experience when every player is being controlled by a user, as with NBA 2K19 or NHL 19, but it would certainly be at least a welcome first step from a game that remains the only major sports title without that kind of multiplayer functionality.