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Online Leagues Deserve a Comeback

EA Sports

Online Leagues Deserve a Comeback

In recent years, there has been a belief in sports gaming that franchise modes have been overlooked in favor of lucrative team-building modes. With the possible exception of the upcoming Madden 20 (we shall see), the mode once acknowledged by developers as the most “popular” has languished across several titles.

This group of franchise players are generally thought of as the “offline” gamers, but there is a subset of this group. This group relies on working servers and stable matchups. This group smashes together rigorous real-life schedules in order to play the next week, or possibly make a trade. These players enjoy competing in online franchises.

What was once an exciting, on the rise feature, online leagues have become something of an afterthought recently. Only Madden and NBA 2K still maintain the experience, with MLB The Show and EA’s NHL removing the feature. Other notables, such as FIFA, never offered it to begin with.

Online franchise players represent a unique viewpoint in sports gaming, mixing the realism of running a team in real-time with the skill required to take on unique users from game to game. While there are players who enjoy other forms of online competition such as ranked matches, for many there still exists that itch to have the games mean something, to be progressing toward the next draft, the next championship, the next rivalry game.

Developers must not overlook these players as their hunger for this immersion represents one of the groups most likely to continue playing their title all year long. As such, they are also very likely to be early adopters of the new version, eager to continue the rapport and routine that has been built.

Driving The Emotion

I, like many, recall a time after school when we would continue our dynasty or franchise at a friend’s house using local features. Madden 2004 and other titles became magnets for incredible experiences, and as a buddy nudged you in the hall at school to say your game was up next, that momentum continued to grow. The memories of intense competition are some of my favorite in all my time gaming.

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Online leagues are the modern-day equivalent of this experience. Rather than potentially taking a break from the game entirely after playing solo, players begin to scheme for revenge after a season-ending defeat. This competitive electricity is what makes online leagues special, and why its lack of love, or altogether lack of inclusion, has led to an annual reaction of disappointment from players hoping this will be the year of progress.

The lack of news in developer blogs brings those waiting crashing back to the fate of hoping for another year. Inevitable, but always crushing when it actually happens.

The Way Forward 

After interviewing several current online CFM players in Madden 19, a running theme became apparent: If they had to sacrifice another mode to secure the longevity of online CFM, they wouldn’t hesitate. Most commonly mentioned was Longshot, with online exhibition and Ultimate Team itself also mentioned.

The good news for developers is that as storage and console power continue to increase, a zero-sum solution is not necessary. What is needed is the belief that it is worthwhile to upgrade or include online franchise modes, and that enough players consider it to be a primary reason to buy a game.

The title that stands the most to benefit from this inclusion is EA Sports’ FIFA franchise. Club and international soccer are made up of big moments in big tournaments held at big arenas. Soccer has a wild array of ups and downs over the course of a season.

But what if the Champions League coming up on the calendar was also being eyed by other players in a shared league, each with their own goals and stories throughout the year, and each eager to hit the pitch against a human feeling the same passion and emotion to compete?

Perhaps that league runs a social media group, or a website, and you see a special banner placed to commemorate a championship. During this competition, there was a major contender racked by injury in the group stage, a player with a hot controller who made an unexpectedly deep run, and a runner-up eyeing that banner in disbelief that it came down to that late penalty kick.

This feeling cannot be replicated in quite the same way when playing alone. The fire for competition burns in sports gamers in a way that only human opponents with the same fire can truly satisfy.

To that point, another player interviewed remarked that they would rather have a mediocre record among humans than a perfect one against the computer. The wins just mean that much more.

Overcoming Challenges

To be sure, there are technical challenges to implementing the functionality needed for online leagues, depending on the complexity of each sport. There is also the practicality of multiple players working together to keep a league going. For sports such as baseball, finding time to play an entire series can be daunting.

These issues can be attacked with developer commitment. For example, Madden has implemented draft boards, allowing users to set their boards in order of player importance. If they happen to be unavailable for the draft itself, the highest available player on their board is chosen.

Developers for Madden and NBA 2K must continue to make their modes accessible for both commissioners and players, ensuring the process of playing and advancing is a smooth experience.

Ultimately, there are challenges. There always are, even when creating a way to collect cards and build a unique team. A challenge, yes. Impossible? No. Profitability inspires ingenuity, and a revitalized market for online leagues could just prove to be profitable.

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An exception: NBA 2K continues to push the boundaries.

Imagine upgrades to Madden’s CFM to include more detailed stats, in-game advance timers, drafting on cell phones. What about MLB The Show allowing a drop-in, drop-out system to keep the season moving and allow the team owners to come and go.

And what about other sports that have yet to attempt anything? Is it possible to recreate the feeling of looking at a schedule and seeing that this weekend you’re scheduled to make an appearance at the next UFC PPV, or WWE’s next weekly show? As the days count down, your conversations to find a time for the matchup doubles as a build-up of intensity for the event, with other members influenced by the outcome.

The challenges in these respective titles are worthwhile because the experiences that come from online leagues have the potential to be endless.

But it requires the developers to take a chance on their players, just like we take a chance on them every year. They would recognize that even the most ardent card collectors were once core franchise players themselves, some possibly souring on the lack of updates and attention.

And if they decide to give it their all to bolster the online league community, they nod to the players who never stopped believing that franchise, with friends, was the best way to play.

We just needed a new way to do it.

How important are online leagues to you? What can developers do to improve the experience? 

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  1. EA won last year more than 800 million dollars only on FUT... That's right, 800.000.000 usd!!!
    It's not for lack of money that EA doesn't improve their games and bring back online franchise or create something new to connect players that would be really cool, like suggested in the article, is simply because they don't care about non-ultimate team customers anymore, simple as that.
    Online leagues are all I play for sporting games.   I don't really get the appeal for "Ultimate team" modes and get bored of them rather quickly.   Offline franchises are fun to run a team but I don't enjoy playing games vs the cpu so I lose interest.   Online leagues provide a chance to play directly vs a user and also act like a GM against others users.   I wish other games would support online leagues but it seems like they are focusing on the cash grab.   One of my favorite leagues was connected GM because the games were quick and fast paced. 
     NBA2K has stepped up recently with their My League Online and I hope they continue to take steps forward and not backwards.  I am intrigued by some of the Madden changes to CFM and am hopeful they are as good as advertised.   
    Online league players are some of the most loyal gamers because they tend to play the game year round.   My 2K league is planning on playing right up to 2K20 release date and then will jump into a fresh 2K20 franchise.   I've been involved in online leagues since 2009 (2k9) and have been hooked since.  
    I really miss when LeagueDaddy.com was popular during the PS2 sports title and early PS3 era was going.  Those leagues and the format with them was something special for me. 
    Online league play used to be my primary reason for playing sorts games. In my mind, what ruined it was the introduction of CFM. Suddenly, it was no longer possible to grab five of your buddles and play in six man league.
    No, now it has to be full sim all the time. You can grab five friends, but you will mostly play the CPU, because, in reality, sim players don't like playing humans. So even their online leagues have become crap-filled AI fests. The games take well over an hour, because how could you enjoy a game without really forcing gamers to grind for 45 minute before the game gets down to the nitty gritty.
    Give me 6-12 team leagues that can either draft or assign players and 5 minute quarters. You know, so a group of friends can play without the game needing to be some sort of intense sim, but rather a fun game that is competitive.
    I grew up playing Indian Ball in the cemetery, so we could play baseball with just a few guys. We played 4 on 4 football in the backyard. We played half court basketball 3 on 3 on a blacktop court in a neighbor's backyard. We took the sports we loved and altered them so that we could compete and play with the numbers we had.
    When we played sports video games, it was just about competing with each other. It was about the fun. We had Strat O Matic, which was obviously sim, but even that we sorted into smaller leagues. My favorite way to play Strat was to create four all-star teams based on each division (back when baseball had 28 teams). I would play out seasons and track stats in the notebooks. Sometimes I ran full seasons, too.
    But more than anything, with the friends I grew up with playing sports and sports video games, we never restricted our selves to making it real. It was always about making it fun and competitive. You know what is not fun? Playing a 30 team league, because, inevitably, you will not enjoy many of the folks you play with. Too often, you won't enjoy the commissioner.
    This move to CPU being forced into the game to run teams has eliminated league play as something I am interested in. I think it has mostly destroyed online sports leagues.

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