There’s an obsession with incremental changes and bullet-point features in the sports game scene, one which challenges fan’s ability to take a step back and assess each game as its own standalone title. It’s something I try and address in my own sports reviews, and it’s something I’m taking to its logical conclusion here in this Quixotic attempt to pluck one game out of hundreds and call it the "best."
Sports games by their nature don’t turn up for each new season as entirely fresh products. The economics of the industry have determined that they re-use the same engine and models for years at a time, which means the difference between them can often be limited to current uniforms, a few new features and some adjustments to ball physics. And those changes are usually influenced as much by fan feedback as they are by the development teams working on them.
So it’s tough looking at say Madden 18 as something entirely separate, since its creation was heavily influenced by the sales and reception of Madden 17, and it will in turn play a big part in how Madden 19 is designed. How do you pick one of those games and say, ok, THIS ONE is the best, when much of what made it great may have been inspired by—or come directly from—an entirely different video game?
Then you have to take into account the way sports games have changed their entire outlook over the last 20 years. In the 90s, series like FIFA and NBA Live were perfectly happy being fast, accessible, almost arcadey. Fast forward to today and advances in technology have turned blockbuster sports games into simulations, each one trying its hardest to replicate the on-field experience as best it can (or, if it can’t, then the broadcast experience instead). This makes direct comparisons between games in long-running series pretty damn hard!
Making matters worse is that each sport is different, with its own set of fans, style of play and culture. What makes the #1 baseball game better than the #1 hockey game? Is football better than basketball?
I think I’ve found one way to compare all sports games, though, and as weird as it may sound at first, it’s through the one thing they all have in common. The one thing they’re more fixated upon than anything else, and which in many ways defines sports video games as their own distinct space in video games. And that’s content.
Every sports game is stingy. It’s possibly the most defining thing about the business, and is often the first thing that non-fans will mock. The genre’s business model is built entirely around balancing the need to make gamers happy with the game they just bought, but unhappy enough that they’ll turn around 12 months later and buy an incredibly similar product.
So after lingering over a short list of truly great sports games—Madden 2002, NBA 2K11, Pro Evolution 6, NBA Jam, NFL 2K5—I’ve settled the tie by going with one that wasn’t just a very good sports game in its own right, but one which decided to just say “f*ck it” and give fans everything they could have wanted or needed for years to come, all in the one box.
That game is FIFA: Road to World Cup 98, as bizarre but beloved a major sports game as I think we’re ever going to see.
At the time of its release in 1997, it was a damn fine football game. It had very flash polygonal visuals, audio commentary, all the things we’ve long associated as being hallmarks of the FIFA series. But it’s where the game went above and beyond what we expect of a sports game can include, whether at the time or today, that marks it as truly great.
INDOOR FOOTBALL - In addition to regular 11v11 football, FIFA 98 also included an entirely separate 5v5 indoor mode, with its own rules and conditions, like the fact the ball never went out of bounds. It was just as fun as the actual FIFA. Maybe more fun. And while it had actually been introduced in FIFA 97, the fact it stuck around in 98 when there was so much else in the box is one of the things that helped cement this game’s legacy.
AN ACTUAL WORLD CUP - The reason for the game’s longer title was the fact that the development team decided to include, alongside domestic leagues, the 1998 World Cup. Not just the finals in France, but the entire qualifying system as well. That meant over 170 nations and their squads made it into the game, an absolutely ridiculous number that literally represented every football-playing country on Earth at the time (modern FIFA games usually only include a few dozen). You could, if you wanted, play as one of the smallest nations on the planet, take them all the way through qualifying then win the tournament itself, a feat so monumental that after FIFA 98 it would only be seen again in standalone video games specifically made for World Cups.
CUSTOMISATION: Besides the 170+ national teams, there were almost 200 club sides included in the game as well. And you could customise the lot. Home kits, away kits, even a player’s appearance. I remember spending what must have been weeks tinkering with this, making sure that every major team’s kit matched its actual design, and that player haircuts had been accurately recreated. This wasn’t just useful in 1997, either; people were playing FIFA 98 for years to come because as 1998, then 1999 rolled around, you could just update the kit designs again.
Here’s the most incredible thing about all this: FIFA 98 was so big it made another of EA’s own video games completely pointless. In addition to FIFA 98 (released in 1997), EA Sports had a game in development designed to cash in on the World Cup itself, due for release in early 1998. Simply called World Cup 1998, it had official branding throughout, from the tournament mascot to branded kits (a first for the series). But with only 40 teams, what was the point of buying it it when you could just fire up FIFA 98, edit some kits and enjoy much the same experience?
To get non-FIFA fans up to speed on just how crazy this was, it’s like NBA 2K18 shipping on four blu-rays, or the next MLB game deciding to include the entire Japanese and Korean pro leagues, just for one year, just for the hell of it.
This kind of thing just isn’t supposed to happen with sports games, because it gives fans everything they need to not buy your game the next year. Yet here we have, for one beautiful year, EA sports giving away the keys to the kingdom. Amongst the blur of year-to-year releases, FIFA 98's largesse looms large like no other sports game’s inclusions ever have.
But it’s not just the excess content that’s helped FIFA 98 endure. Quantity would be nothing without quality, and the game includes several other series favourites, from the humble free kick arrow (still somehow superior to anything EA comes up with these days) to the ability to slide tackle a goalkeeper and get instantly sent off, which despite its punishment ranks as one of the most cathartic moves in all of video games.
Then there’s the matter of the game’s soundtrack, beginning with its intro, perhaps the most iconic in sports game history:
Don’t let Blur’s cameo overshadow the game’s real musical hook, though, which is the fact much of the menu music was provided by The Crystal Method:
Sports games using popular music is nothing new today, but in 1997 it was a coup for FIFA (for reference, check out FIFA 97's tragic attempts at hip-hop and rock). Indeed, you could trace the series’ current place on the pop culture landscape back to FIFA 98 and its soundtrack, which dared to suggest that, hey, maybe these sports video games can be cool.
In a world where sports games are and always have been seen as disposable, FIFA 98 stands apart. By including so many teams across such a breadth of competition, and allowing for such a degree of customisation, people were able to dig in and play it not just throughout 1997, but well into the next few years as well.
Even today, when the FIFA series is known as much for its licensing as it is its football and has over 20 years of experience under its belt, you’ll find fans still talking about FIFA 98 in reverent tones. Amazing what some decent music, tiny teams and the ability to let try and murder a goalkeeper will do to a fanbase...