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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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