In Search of the World of SportsCraftSBrian wanted to go to Boise State. I remember that much. Eight years ago, captivated by NCAA Football 2004, I asked my closest friends from grad school to give me their preferred position and college. I was going to create all of us as blue-chip prospects in the game's recruiting engine and see where we ended up.


Dan, a 6-5 Pennsylvanian, was your prototypical drop-back, pocket-passing statue with pigeon shit on his shoulders. He is a Penn State alumnus, but ended up at Virginia instead. Pete D., I think, asked to be a kicker, and signed with Maryland. Chris, from Marin County, wanted to quarterback a Bay Area university, but landed at UCLA. Peter S. probably had the best fit. A water polo player at a Catholic school in real life, his five-star avatar became a fullback for Notre Dame.

But it was Brian, a J-school buddy with Rocky Mountain ties, who left the deepest mark on me. Boise State did pick him up in the video game, and the Broncos did make him a starting linebacker, and he personally sacked my starting quarterback three times when we first met in the following season.

Eight years later, we're finally seeing sports video games making these kinds of incursions into the realm of the MMO—the massively multiplayer online role playing game, in which dozens, if not hundreds, of human participants contribute to the story of a season, rather than one player plugging his friends into the roster and then sending them amusing wish-you-were-here-updates over email, as I did back in 2004.

These games are not there yet, though in the past month, EA Sports released two titles that, separately, show the means of handling large player populations and player-versus-player action. NBA 2K so far lacks that kind of interconnectivity but its singleplayer career offers more outside-the-lines role-playing opportunities than anyone else. And MLB The Show's Road to the Show mode may be the one most tuned toward the traditional RPG model of acquiring experience points and improving attributes.

MMOs are often considered the provenance of fantasy realms, or of superhero worlds. Considering that in high school I lettered in one sport—baseball, as a right fielder—and played Dungeons & Dragons or Marvel Super Heroes on Friday nights, I think I can speak to this subject with some authority. Sports video games are clearly pushing in this direction, and it may be the way their career modes survive past their offline roots.

We're finally seeing sports video games making incursions into the realm of the MMO

Already sports video games have a strong multiplayer base. FIFA, NBA 2K, and Madden are, year round, the top titles on Xbox Live. NHL shows up on the service's Top 10 list even in the middle of baseball season. What you're seeing now are the first attempts at making that player base into a feature of the game itself, as opposed to a resource pool.

This year, Madden NFL 13 offered up "Connected Careers," a segment designed principally at Electronic Arts' outpost in Texas—coincidentally, where EA's BioWare studio also has a presence. Connected Careers is notable because members may participate in the same league either as a coach controlling an entire team, or a player controlling a single superstar. When this concept was unveiled to media in April, EA Sports' Josh Looman drew a deep breath and called it "the sports MMO." You had a character. You acquired experience. You allocated it. There was a grind mechanism, in the form of a weekly practice. But most importantly, human players interacted with one another in the same league.

A lot of us shrugged. "Connected Careers" may not be, truly, a sports MMO. Where massively multiplayer games have server populations in the thousands, in Madden, you're limited to 32 in the same league, administered by one person. And you can't have human players managing a franchise with a human player on the roster. There's no trading a star human-controlled quarterback to a human-controlled franchise and back, in other words. Everyone is in charge of a single team, sort of by trick, but you still have a PvP equivalent when someone's franchise goes up against another that week. And Madden is still the first multiplayer sports video game that allows players controlling an entire team to play friends controlling a single player.

"GM Connected," debuting in NHL 13 this past week, adds significantly to a career mode's population but sacrifices personal identity. Theoretically, you can have 750 players in the same league—but they don't occupy a specific role on the roster. One person is the club's GM, and the next five or six who show up for that night's game control the other positions on the ice, not a specific performer. It's a novel take on the game's Online Team Play mode, with an obvious application to the "My Crew" mode that NBA 2K abandoned last year as it tried to upgrade its server infrastructure.

While no one wants to ride the bench as the 53rd man on an NFL roster, it has the NCAA, and the NHL and MLB have minor leagues, all of which, theoretically, could be integrated into persistent online experiences preparing a "character" for his big league debut, as these series mature.

There's a significant technical cost to all of this, of course. In Madden, I can't imagine what it takes to maintain equilibrium between a player running both sides of the offense and someone only controlling one player, who can be substituted out at any time. That's in a 16-game season. Hockey and basketball play 82 games a season. Major League Baseball plays 162. Human players need to be able to advance the game on their own terms without waiting for other participants. NHL 13 seeks to accommodate this by allowing its teams to upload customized AI files so that other league participants can play against a computer behaving with the same strategy. Madden, right now, will simply force-simulate results when necessary.

Still, this seems to be the direction in which sports video games are headed, especially as they seek to indulge their players' fantasies of being top-flight coaches or individual athletes. The last evolution in sports gaming career modes was putting you in charge of one performer supporting teammates—MLB The Show allowing you to call pitches as a catcher is probably the best example of this. The next step is placing you in persistent situations where your actions affect the success, and failure, of other human players, and vice versa. Madden has dipped its toe into these waters this year.

Before all of this happened, I was playing MLB The Show and ruminating on the chance I'd drift across a friend also playing in the minor leagues, both of us trying to get to the big leagues. MLB The Show's "Road to the Show" career lets you skip past all of the at-bats in which you are not involved. But if I was playing first base, I'd love to be able to greet a real-life buddy after a walk. I'd love to measure my performance against his among the league leaders. I'd love to reach the Majors before him, and shake his hand at the bag when he gets his first base hit.

In Search of the World of SportsCraft
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears weekends.