The 2018 World Cup Deserves Better Than EA Sports

No Caption Provided

There are few events that guarantee joy and excitement with more certainty than the World Cup. It doesn’t matter that FIFA is run by an openly corrupt cabal of capitalist power mongers, or that the tournament will be in the hands of human rights abusers until at least 2030, or that the United States, thanks to a mix of arrogance, incompetence, and a lack of actual talent, managed not to qualify when all they had to do was beat a Trinidad and Tobago reserve team. (I’m not mad I swear.) Electronic Arts, as the preeminent seller of all non-basketball related sports games, has had the World Cup license since 1998, and they have used the occasion to add some substantial content in the past. Previous World Cup games have given players the opportunity to play through the qualification rounds from the very beginning with every recognized nation in FIFA, as well as playing through specific scenarios from real games. The previous installments displayed an impressive amount of ambition considering they were released mid-cycle for a franchise that has to put out a game every September. But the past is the past, and present-day EA has a much harder time making good games now than then. The 2018 World Cup, added to FIFA 18 as a free piece of DLC, features none of that creativity or sense of purpose. It'd be unfair to expect this rendition to be so fleshed out, since those games cost money and this is free, and this fact didn’t bother me when this add-on was first announced. It should have done in hindsight, or at least compelled me to lower my expectations to the point where this update so lacking in basic necessities and flourishes could be deemed acceptable.

Excitement turned into confusion, which turned into anger, which settled as an exasperated sigh for the developers. All of the expected game modes are here: there’s the World Cup, which you can customize to add notable nations that didn’t make the cut like the US or Italy, a spin-off of the ultimate team mode that makes EA crazy amounts of money, a kick-off mode for one-off games, and online multiplayer. But they’re implemented in the most shallow way possible. For reasons unknown to the outside world, the edit mode from regular FIFA 18 isn’t available in this DLC, so you can’t make any changes to player ratings at all, or to tactics outside of a tournament setting. The list of available players is surprisingly finite - forty for every team in the World Cup, twenty-three for those who didn’t make the cut - which seems like a misuse of resources considering the thousands of players that they could’ve given players access to from FIFA 18. The players that are included all have new pictures in their profiles, which I guess is the reason? It’s dumb either way. Customization has never been a defining feature for the FIFA franchise - the edit mode has basically been the same for a decade, and EA still won’t reply to my e-mails about bringing back the Creation Center - but taking the option away entirely is senseless. The inability to change the default formations or game plans of any team is especially egregious considering one of FIFA 19’s main selling points is a more nuanced approach to tactics that will allegedly deliver on the annual promise of making teams actually play differently from each other.

Not quite an accurate portrayal of Senegalese culture at the World Cup.
Not quite an accurate portrayal of Senegalese culture at the World Cup.

The atmosphere around the matches themselves is similarly disappointing. One of the best parts of the World Cup experience is seeing disparate cultures congregate together and show out on the world stage. No other tournament will make you fall in love with a team/country you’ve never watched before quite like the World Cup. Shoutout to Morocco, Nigeria, Peru, Egypt, Senegal, Colombia, Iran and South Korea, all of whom I’ve become fans of during this year’s tournament for mostly inexplicable reasons. But EA’s traditional inability to reproduce that sense of theater continues here. The Icelandic Viking clap is in there and that’s cool, but it carries nominal weight when it’s the only display of pageantry with a specific sense of place. I’m not saying you have to simulate Senegal and Japan fans getting together to sing the One Piece theme, but they could do more than reusing the same three crowd shots with different jerseys. As funny as it is to see a crowd shot of Senegal’s surprisingly diverse supporters, EA could have done more to make fan groups more distinctive between nations.

If this update does succeed at anything, it’s in reminding me how sports games are a mostly futile exercise in verisimilitude. (Verisimilitude being a word I definitely knew before I saw it printed on a wall at the Detroit Institute of Arts last weekend.) As graphics get better with each iteration, the minute details that EA is unable to replicate become more and more apparent. The actual soccer is only part of what makes the World Cup so special: it’s the unparalleled human drama that elevates it into something magical, a quasi-religious experience that allows grown men to openly cry in public with a freedom our masculinity-obsessed society normally doesn’t give. The pressure star players such as Neymar or Lionel Messi must feel during these tournaments is unfathomable, considering that the mere act of watching World Cup games on television with a level of stress that is usually reserved for the latest news story about how the world is falling apart. By the end of the Germany - South Korea game, my hands were shaking so much that I could barely scroll through Twitter, and I desperately wanted to take a long nap. Implementing emotional rollercoasters like that in a sports game are next to impossible - Virtual tear technology isn’t quite there at this point - but a more concerted effort into framing the action as a piece of a grand tournament, and not just a light variant on an oft-iterated formula, could go a long way.

Case in point: there’s a real lack of tension in how the group stage is presented. In real life, the final round of games in each group happens simultaneously so that match-fixing is hard to do, if not impossible. Trying to follow the group standings in real time as teams fight to advance leads to incredible moments of tension and release. In the hands of EA, unfortunately, the World Cup is a decidedly lifeless trifle. There are no live standings to add dramatic context to the final group games. I was playing as Senegal during one playthrough, and much like the real-life Group H, there were three teams with the chance to qualify on the final day. I had no idea what was going on in the other game, which could’ve potentially changed the way both teams played. EA already has a workaround just sitting there, waiting to be used: while playing matches in FIFA’s career mode, scores from other games in the same competition will be periodically fed to you while you play your game. I wouldn’t think that would be hard to add to this DLC, but I’m not a game developer.

A traditional Spanish midfield, this is not.
A traditional Spanish midfield, this is not.

It’s one thing to not add anything new for your one-off DLC; it’s another to not include features that have been done years before. One of the basic tenets of The World Cup is that each nation puts together a squad of 23 to compete in the tournament. It’s like the first rule in the World Cup rulebook. Previous World Cup games made by EA have been aware of this fact and made squad selection a part of the game. And yet the World Cup of FIFA 18 completely ignores this idea, so every team has access to all forty players at all times. On the bench, you can only have seven players as potential substitutes instead of the twelve available in real life. This doesn’t have any effect on the fundamental gameplay - it plays like FIFA for better or worse - but this franchise is built around being the most realistic soccer game out there. Errors like this make it readily apparent how far off from reality these games are. I was playing as Uruguay in my first game, and seeing Egypt start some dude with the number 31 starting at striker for them was a little deflating.

It’s a perplexing lack of attention to detail for something that has been treated as a pretty big deal in the past. The World Cup update reminded me of Mass Effect: Andromeda in the sense that the failures of both games are emblematic of the self-inflicted structural issues that caused EA’s disastrous 2017. Making games is a labyrinthine process full of unforeseen problems and technical issues that leave games as scattered messes until the end of production. EA knows that better than anyone. No one ever tries to make bad games. The most obvious reason for all of the strange decision-making is that the team at EA Vancouver simply didn’t have enough time or resources to make this DLC as good as it could’ve been, so they focused on the visual touchstones they had to recreate, like the new jerseys or the licensed Russian stadiums (Those stadiums do look really nice, to be fair.) As a result, this update feels like a shell of itself, a retrograde product brought forward from a time where standards for downloadable content were not as refined, and the idea that you could just add something like the World Cup to a game post-launch still felt revolutionary. I’ll still play loads of it because I can’t not play the official World Cup game while the World Cup is happening. I have very poor impulse control! Still, it will be impossible to play this version of the best sporting event on the planet and ignore all the ways that it should be better.

Start the Conversation