For the last few years, most major sporting games have had a mode that pits you as a single player progressing through their career. These can be fun, but damn it, they're not enough.
It doesn't take much stripping back to view these modes as role-playing games. You build a character, you name them, you give them a backstory (country of origin, college, etc), you design their physical characteristics. Then through your actions they increase their abilities. Most games even have perks, or unique attributes you can assign to them.
For an experience with such heavy RPG leanings, though, the experience could be so much about the actual role-playing.
I was playing FIFA the other day, going through my career, and I ran into this weird issue where I kept getting benched, even though I was the best player on the team. And I thought, wouldn't it be awesome if FIFA for just one second could stop being a regular ol' sports game and tell me why I was getting benched? Or at least invent a reason?
Inject a little flair into proceedings! Give me some more narrative! Like, maybe the coach hated me. Maybe I'd been caught having a cigarette outside a London nightclub at 2am. Maybe I'd said in the newspaper that I dreamed of playing for a team other than the one I was playing for. Maybe they'de just bought a hotshot young competitor in and were trying him out.
When I did get on the pitch, the only notice I'd get was a short note saying "you're in the team". Not "OK, welcome back, don't screw up again", or "you need to lift your game or you'll be off on loan to Macclesfield Town".
What I want from a sports game, then, is for one to stop being so timid about the RPG road they're tiptoeing down and just embrace it. I want to feel like I'm really taking a character through a career, instead of just a hollow bag of stats.
Turn the coaches and teammates into people with personalities, that I can build relationships with. Like Mass Effect's crew system, only on a pro sports team.
As it stands, in a game like FIFA or Madden, you simply join a team and that's that. Once you're in, if you want to do more than just crunch numbers, you're out of luck. But wouldn't it be more exciting if a new head coach hated you, and forced you out? Or you left a team and joined a bitter local rival? There'd be motivation there. A story for your next encounter, which could play out in fake newspaper reports or internet stories.
Also, let me be interviewed by the press! Let me mouth off an opponent, or dish dirt on a fellow teammate! Then let that effect the next time we meet, or every time we interact on the field!
If you follow sports, you'll know that what happens on the field/court is only ever half the story. The news is often dominated by things that happen after the final whistle, whether it be transfer requests, trades, personal dramas or controversies. That stuff is as important to a sport - and its players - as performances are, and it'd be nice to see big sports games reflect this.
I know some games are better than this at others. The NBA2K games, for example, have tried pretty hard to make these career modes more interesting, even instituting some of the stuff I've mentioned above like off-court, personality-driven mechanics. They deserve a lot of credit for this. Football Manager lets you talk shit about another team in a pre-match interview. Even Pro Evo, as broken as it can be, has tried to inject some narrative on top of its career systems by in the past providing an "agent" character who tells you what's going down.
But there's so much more they could be doing, especially the big football games (both American and football football). Here's hoping, then, that alongside more polygons and bigger crowds, next-gen sports games can squeeze in some more role-playing as well. Because not every quest has to about saving the land and slaying the beast. Sometimes it's fun to just pretend to be a sports superstar.
Note: Let me clarify that, like I mention up top, I mean major series. The Maddens and FIFAs of the world, the ones with licenses for real teams and real leagues.