The first thing I’d really like to mention before delving too deep in to the “is offline FIFA dying” premise of this article, is that I think FUT Champions is excellent. Back at E3 and Gamescom EA trumpeted their ‘competitive FIFA for everyone’ message and we all, myself included nodded along in a ‘yeah right, okay then EA…’ fashion, but they have absolutely nailed it. Bravo!
Combining competitive play with FIFA’s most popular mode Ultimate Team, is an obvious cocktail for success but the way EA have seamlessly fused these elements in year one, is astounding really. I don’t think they’ve actually had enough credit for it in fact. When you think about the new matchmaking, the tier system, the bulk reward days, the presentation, it’s all brand new territory for EA and yet bar inevitable teething problems, it’s a really solid piece of development.
The other pleasing thing is that EA have also shown willingness to change the FUT Champs landscape quickly based on feedback. After just a few weeks the Weekend League had its time window increased to give people more time to play, and weekly qualification became automatic should you perform well enough. It would have taken the EA of old months to make these changes, and it really is testament to their increasingly agile development methodology that they can bring these community requests to life so quickly.
I think we've all in a way been surprised by how just popular FUT Champs has been and continues to be, even after the initial hype of weeks one and two had passed. It is undoubtedly ‘the’ talked about mode in FIFA with YouTuber’s, Streamers, Pro’s and regular civilians like you and I, happily sharing their successes and frustrations with reckless abandon. Whether you personally do well in FUT Champs or not, no one can deny that the mode has pulled the FIFA community together in ways we haven’t seen for a number of years, and it’s been great to watch. Especially as the Weekend League ticks down it's final hours.
So there you have it, me the classic offline FIFA gamer, loves a bit of FUT Champs. I admit it. But, I’m also a tad concerned.
Firstly the gameplay bothers me. Not the way EA have put FIFA 17 together per se, but more the brand of football the competitive FIFA scene promotes. Which is one of winning, and nothing more. When the rewards are so good, and the prestige of being Elite is so great, people will do everything and anything in their power to win. Which is an admirable trait in many ways, but it’s also one that brings out the worst in people and subsequently, can paint FIFA 17 in an unflattering way, in terms of it being a genuine simulation of the beautiful game.
“Play Beautiful” is FIFA 17’s mantra this year after all, but there is nothing beautiful about being matched against teams, and players who are created by design to eek every exploit or foible the gameplay presents for their own benefit. At times competitive games of FIFA can descend in to utter madness and if you’re going to have a bad or frustrating experience, then FUT Champs is mostly likely where it will be found this year.
Above is the footage from this year’s FIWC Final which is arguably the pinnacle of competitive FIFA as we know it, and just look at the gameplay… Persistent short corners, ping pong one touch passing, diagonal through balls galore, one billion tackles, interceptions, end to end counter attacks, it’s a mess and it’s not representative of the sport we avidly watch on TV almost every night of the week. And yet these are the people who are the ‘best’ FIFA players around and all power to them. They get the most from the game, and that is the key distinction for me, because it isn’t really about football. It’s about the efficiency and speed at which processes can be carried out with a controller.
I am acutely aware that FIFA is a game, and it shouldn’t ever aim to replicate every single real-life football detail because it just can’t within the boundaries of 12 minute virtual matches. But what concerns me most about the growing popularity of FUT Champions this year, is that the brand of online football you might see at a FIWC once per year, is actually becoming the new normal for everyone who plays FIFA. And that’s not a style I personally enjoy no matter how well developed I think FUT Champions is.
So the worry of course is that when EA make FIFA 18 decisions, they will quite rightly look at what’s popular, what’s not, and divide their resources accordingly. Which means that inevitably Ultimate Team and FUT Champions will get further enhancements, and things like Career Mode won’t get nearly as much. Gameplay innovations will be made but will they really address the core issues which make offline FIFA gameplay a less compelling option? CPU AI, Team Styles, differing Tactical Manager Persona’s? All massive things for EA to invest time in but when the majority of your population is somewhere else screaming for change, you can easily understand the decision to choose one over another.
It would be remiss of me to not mention The Journey at this point, which is ‘new’ and from a gameplay perspective very much an offline experience. Much of it is story driven as we know but EA have at least shown intent to keep the offline show on the road in part. However, the least compelling aspect of The Journey is the gameplay itself, because the AI is predictably bland and uninspiring. So even The Journey, EA's killer offline mode needs a heap more offline work to really challenge its online superstars status as top dog.
So I guess the big question is this. Will there ever be a time when EA ship a FIFA game without a dedicated offline element?
You could argue that due to the requirement to be connected to EA Servers that we’re already there. But in terms of having to be online to play anything at all, I think offline FIFA is definitely at risk of being cut. Perhaps not right now, or in the next few years, but longer term a persistent online FIFA you would assume is the strategic goal for EA.
The bigger worry for me though, is that whilst offline FIFA modes may indeed continue to persist on disk for some time. They instead face a much greater risk of becoming extinct though a persistent lack of development. Which year on year, results in fewer and fewer people picking up the pad and playing (for example) Career Mode. Low player numbers, ultimately results in lowered development time, which exacerbates the problem as time goes by. A spiral of doom if you will.
Ultimate Team’s meteoric success started this ball rolling a few years ago, and now with FUT Champion’s being so successful as well and in the perfect position to complement the core FUT experience, I see no reason why EA wouldn’t continue to push on with further and even more dramatic development of online FIFA modes. Right now, online FIFA feels like an unstoppable force of nature which is ready to steamroll any hope of offline modes ever making a genuine comeback. I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t think I am.
My football gaming lineage comes from the very beginnings of FIFA (I'm old) like FIFA 98, Road to World Cup, ISS and countless other FIFA and Pro Evo titles. These games were offline through necessity at the time but they still possessed the power to keep you coming back for more against the AI and I've just not had that urge in the most recent crop of FIFA games.
Football games have changed and you know what, maybe that’s a good thing. After all FIFA is now a staple game for a whole new generation of football fans who’ve grown up knowing nothing other than FUT, FIFA Seasons and now FUT Champions. But there’s still part of me that craves that big offline push from EA where I happily plough through season after season of compelling AI gameplay experiences like the Manager Mode’s and Master Leagues of old. For my own love and enjoyment of the series, I hope they can bring offline FIFA back to the fore. That's if it isn't already dead and buried?