The Present and Future of Career Modes

In the past couple of years, my sports gaming habits have completely changed. I used to be a season/franchise kind of guy, dialing up my favorite team and sticking with them through thick and thin for the duration. This, despite a complete and utter disinterest in the financial side of franchise...

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In the past couple of years, my sports gaming habits have completely changed. I used to be a season/franchise kind of guy, dialing up my favorite team and sticking with them through thick and thin for the duration. This, despite a complete and utter disinterest in the financial side of franchise modes. Whenever possible, I let the CPU handle the majority of trades, contract renewals, and so on.

The rise of career modes in sports games has changed that. Starting with modes like Road to the Show in Sony's MLB series, Campus Legend and Superstar in EA Sports' NCAA Football and Madden series and, most recently, the cross-title phenomenon known as "Be a Pro" in EA Sports games, my interest has completely focused on my alter-ego in whatever game I happen to be playing.

Getting it done on the ice.

Take MLB 09's Road to the Show, for example. I've been aware of, and have dabbled in this mode for the past few years, but it's only really in this year's game that my career as a virtual baseball player has really come to life. Despite its shortcomings (and RTTS isn't perfect), I've found myself more engaged with this mode than any other aspect of the game. I was similarly obsessed with Be a Pro mode in last year's NHL 09 and the Campus Legend mode in NCAA Football 09.

You can draw parallels between the rapid evolution of sports game career modes to the similar pop culture prominence of modern pro athletes. Like the me-first athletes that these modes draw inspiration from, in career mode, it's all about your player, not your team. Sure, winning is great and championships are fun but the best career modes finely tune the focus of the game on you, your player, your performance, your stats. Like today's professional free agents, your entire purpose in career mode is getting the most out of your own career. Essentially, you can become the selfish, spoiled athlete, if only for a few hours.

And it feels good, too.

Three things to love about career modes:

  • Responsibility -- As a pitcher in MLB 09's Road to the Show mode, there are few moments more terrifying than coming up to the mound with the bases loaded, zero outs and a miniscule lead for your team. The entire weight of the world rests on your shoulders, knowing that a single errant pitch can result in disaster for your team. Conversely, a few Ks and a ground-out can give you a feeling of satisfaction that's practically unmatched elsewhere.
The same is true when playing a quarterback in NCAA Football, or a goalie in NHL 09: career modes let you get perhaps as close as you can get to understanding what it's like to perform (or, indeed, completely blow it) in a big-time sports situation. That sense of responsibility over not just your team's outcome, but the fate of your player's career is what career modes do best.
  • Ownership -- Going hand-in-hand with responsibility is the feeling of ownership you develop with your created character. I'm as zealous about my RTTS pitcher's ERA as I am with my yards total for my running back in NCAA Football 09. One bad statistical game--even in a winning effort--is enough to get me down in the dumps. One great performance, on the other hand, might be worth a Twitter post or two.
  • Specialization -- I'm bad at batting in MLB 09. Terrible, in fact. I swing at everything. Fastballs over the middle, curve balls inside, change-ups on the outside. It doesn't matter. As long as the pitcher delivers it, I'll probably take a whack at it. Because of my lack of skill, I'm perfectly happy playing RTTS as a pitcher. Same with NHL. I'm terrible in goal and wouldn't dare take my lack of skill online and ruin someone else's game. Instead, I'm perfectly happy laying down hits as a checking left wing.
Specialization has its downsides. While pitching continues to be great fun for me well into my third season in RTTS, playing any position other than quarterback (and, to a slightly lesser degree, running back or defensive back) is a complete snooze in Madden and NHL. And while you could argue that this level of positional specialization doesn't do much to make you better at the game you're playing, why not let people play the game the way they want to?


One more step to the Heisman.

Three things to hate about career modes:

  • Separation -- While career modes revel in being all about your individual player, an unfortunate byproduct is an odd sense of separation from the rest of your team that occurs, particularly when playing baseball. Playing as a starting pitcher in MLB 09, for example, means you're pitching once every five days. When playing as a reliever, there's no telling when you'll get called in to a game--and when you'll go several days without seeing a single batter. This isn't such a big deal during the regular season, when games seem to count less, but it's a big-time problem once the playoffs begin.
In my RTTS campaign, my Chicago Cubs won the 2011 World Series in seven games against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. My contribution to that epic eleventh-hour victory? Zero. Zilch. Nada. Instead, after the game was over, I was greeted with a screen of text congratulating me on the win. That's it. To be fair, this complaint is more an indictment of the sport of baseball (and the amount of time certain players go between starts) than it is its implementation in MLB 09 but I wish there was a way to let the player feel involved in his team's progress even when he isn't on the field.

  • No Personality -- This is probably the most damning problem in career modes these days and, ironically, the one that poses the most danger when looking for solutions. After all, there's a sense of simply going through the motions in many career modes these days; whether you're simply simming to your next appearance or, worse yet, simulating the regular season until you get to the games that matter.
Still, while the day-to-day career can be a bit of a grind, adding flair to a career mode can be a minefield. Attempts at injecting some fun into career modes have sometimes come off like cheesy tacked-on solutions, like the "media" interviews in Madden's SuperStar mode or the fake college exams in Campus Legend mode in NCAA Football.
For a while now, Sony's MLB series has given you "interactions" in RTTS mode. Essentially choices you can make as a player--including things like complaining about playing time, looking for a new contract, etc.--that can have either a positive or negative effect on your player. For example, complain that you need to be a starter and you might convince your manager to make a move on your behalf. Or you might make him mad and find yourself missing your next start. It's not a perfect system--text menus are inherently pretty drab--but building on this kind of consequence-based interactions can go a long way towards making the time in between your next game something more than just checkmarks on your calendar.
  • Money For Nothing -- After my Cubs won the World Series in RTTS, I was offered a four-year contract for a good chunk of money. How much money, you ask? Who cares! What does money matter in a world where you have nothing to spend it on? All I cared about was staying with my favorite team--not how much imaginary money I was getting paid to do so. Another way to incentivize career mode players to keep going with their careers is to give them something to spend their career earnings on. Things like unlockable jerseys or player cards, that kind of thing. 2K Sports had a good idea with the 2K Cribs thing a few years back--it wasn't a central theme of the game, just merely something you could customize as you went along, or choose to ignore altogether.

The point: I'm a big-time athlete making millions of dollars per year. Make me feel like it!

Not my RTTS pitcher. But a nice screenshot nonetheless.

Three things that career modes need to do next:

  • Reward (and Punish) -- Whether it's keeping me engaged between game outings, or giving me something to spend my fake money on, the key is to keep the player always busy. I should be fending off calls from multiple agents trying to take control of my career. I should be trying to decide when to spend time in the gym, and when to spend it with my lady friend. I should spend the offseason getting fat. Or getting better.
Better yet, make the decisions I choose matter. If I spend time training my butt off on my jump shot in NBA Live, at the expense of hanging with the boys in the locker room, give me a boost to my jumper in the game, and lower my team chemistry rating as a result. Life is full of choices and all of those choices matter. Make them matter in the game too.
  • We Talkin' About Practice -- Lots of games have dabbled with training the player over the years. Madden's training camp, MLB 09's batting and base-running training sessions, even practice mode in NCAA Football or the training mini-games in Fight Night Round 3. MLB 09 surprised me by not including any pitching training games, which I thought was a big omission this year. While I think that giving the player the option to play or ignore these training session is the right design choice, I think that the more opportunities you have to train your career mode player, the better.
  • Mix It Up - NCAA Football has the right idea. Coming out of high school in Campus Legend mode, you compete for a chance to earn the starter position at whatever spot you play on the field. I like the direction of this feature but think there's still more room to grow. For example, why not give players the chance to come on board your program as an "athlete" position, try multiple positions on the field, and then choose the one that you like best (or, indeed, let the CPU coach decide for you). After all, spending four years as a fullback can get boring; what if, mid-way through your college career, your coach moves you to middle linebacker after a big injury to a team mate? Granted, it might not be for everyone, but adding a little randomness to a career mode might be just the kind of thing that spices things up over the long haul.

So that's what bumping around in my brain regarding career modes these days. I'm curious to hear what you think, too. Do you play in career mode? What do you like or dislike about them? Where do you think the modes will be next year, or five years from now?

Discussion

78 comments
smackman2
smackman2

I love being in careere mode in Nhl 09 its the best I have 189 goals in my first year

smackman2
smackman2

how do you get unlimited career points in mlb 80 the show

docwoo
docwoo

One thing I'd like to see more sports games do is allow online play with your career mode (or franchise) team. For example, if you're next opponent in your NBA 2K career/franchise is against the Cavaliers, one of my friends should be able to jump into my match, play as the Cavs, and have the stats carry over into my career/franchise stats. I think a few games have tried this but I think it needs to be explored further.

youngstuntz
youngstuntz

king23 I wouldn't mind stuff like that. stuff like coaches talking to players before games or halftime. owners in the stands or sideline (only if they are playing for a playoff berth or season opener) seeing the owner every game would take the fun out. Or what about when you when the championship have players run on the field or court whatever and throw up the #1 sign, newspapers, shirts and hats, receive the rings, MVP, and trophy

king23_
king23_

:lol: This is getting out of hand. Honestly who would want them to take it as far as a life simulator where you wake your player up, walk around the house and eat breakfast, get it your car and drive to the field? That's just over the top.

king23_
king23_

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

Shaun373
Shaun373

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

endwill1
endwill1

i love the idea of acctually having a life in sports career modes but the whole idea of driving to games and practice is stupid because it's not like you could drive fast and crazy like in racing games because you would need to stop at red lights and drive the speed limit or you would get pulled over and arrested by the police but yea why did do they even tell you how much you get paid if you can't spend it on anything

rynedee
rynedee

Money is meaningless in video games. You could utilize your salary as a means to purchase attribute points but that undermines current systems. Keep in mind that there are leagues/associations that have salary caps/taxes or a large disparity between the haves and have nots (eg Yankees, Royals) and that needs to be represented within the game. It really is a damned if you do, damned if you don't situation. Implementing a Crib-type aspect could be neat, but i remember NFL2k5 using points attained thru gameplay as the means of purchase. @BrianEk I would really like to import my RttS character. In 07 i spent four years in the majors and accumulated a healthy amount of hits, runs, etc. I put about the same amount of time in 08 with even better numbers (set season records in just about every offensive category). At no point in the last two iterations of this game have i made a dent in my HOF Potential. If i combine my 07 & 08 guys, then i might have an opportunity to 'Ride into the sunset as a professional...' during my 09 campaign but as it stands i'll never make it to the Hall. One last thought: I wish developers would keep in mind that these modes are all about fantasy for the player. They should allow the player to fine tune the experience to fit their expectations. The Show took a step back from the fantasy setting this year by reworking their sliders, which removed control from the player. I see a lot of posters who are frustrated with a game that doesn't play like they want it to, just i'm frustrated with certain aspects (eg baserunning in RttS, sliders that don't seem to do anything). I know that hitting 100 HRs in a season is unrealistic but i'm not playing RttS for the realism. I'm playing to write my name in the virtual recordbooks as the greatest of all time. I'm not skilled/motivated/lucky enough to compete with Ryne Sandberg or Billy Williams (who really should be enshrined) in real life, that's why i'm playing a game. I want to get lost in my RttS career like i get lost in a Ludlum novel. I hope the various developers are aware of this gaming philosophy while designing their next iteration.

EWSzuba
EWSzuba

Dynamix and Sierra made Front Page Sports (Baseball and Football) with career modes way before it became popular in today's renditions. I had a career league in FPS:Football that ran through 5 versions of the game and over 50 seasons with big name players being created solely on combining a (then) NFL player's first name with another player's last name. Later versions let you put in your own names. After that many seasons, you even had the listings for all-time records in every category.

fireycheeseball
fireycheeseball

I agree there needs to be something you spend your money on. Whats the point of signing a huge contract with the Lions, if you can stay in New England and have it have no effect. There's almost no point. Maybe these need to be separate games, sorta like Sims meets Madden so you play madden most of the time but you can still meet other people and make friends, pretending to actually be that person(I might be slow in real life, but it feels good being a 99 speed running back in my game). EA owns both so why cant it happen?

mechberg
mechberg

@rynedee -- Really good thoughts and I completely agree with you about importing your character. I'd love to be able to finish my career in MLB 09 but, due to lack of time, I really doubt that I'll be able to. Giving a player the option to continue a career from the previous years' game or start from scratch would be fantastic.

rynedee
rynedee

This is a good critique of career modes. I've spent a lot of time in The Show's RttS (07, 08, 09), NCAA's Campus Legend (08, 09) and FIFA's BaP (09). I think Campus Legend has the most complete experience. It gives you ample opportunity to improve your ability while giving you feedback on what needs to happen to advance on the depth chart. I'm a huge baseball fan so Road to the Show is my favorite career mode, however it has room to improve. The one improvement that would vault RttS above everyone else is the ability to import a previous RttS character. A baseball season is at least twice as long as any other sport, thus restarting your character from the beginning every year is tedious at best. I'd like my 1B for the Cubs to be enshrined into Cooperstown but am not willing to spend three or four actual years playing 162 games for 15 seasons to do this. One more thing RttS needs is a reduction in loading times (it's frustrating to spend a minute or two to load a game, see that you are a pinch runner in the 9th with two outs and nowhere to go and spend the next minute or two reloading the menus). This leads me to an improvement all career modes could make: the inclusion of records. Campus Legend and The Show do this to some extent but doesn't have the depth. I'd like to see school/franchise, conference and NCAA/league/association records, not just the overall record (eg 755) but the top 25 or 100. This ties in to having ownership of your character, only it's the historical aspect. I want to say that NFL2k5 did this really well.

Moopoo
Moopoo

One thing I really like about FIFA 09's Be a Pro (it's the only next gen sporting game I have with this kind of system - so far...) is that in a team, you have to earn the spot of captain before you decide your lineups, formations, etc.. It's a big reward that feels worth working towards, without having too negative an impact without it. Also, Sport RPG ftw.

ronmexico-7
ronmexico-7

RTTS mode in MLB 09 is the best career mode ever. But they might want to rethink the slogan of most realistic game ever because the Cubs will never win the world series.

knighthawksfan
knighthawksfan

yeah dude career mode is huge in sports games now since most of us will never do this for our career jobs anyways.

placksheep
placksheep

Sounds like the author of the article really wants a sports RPG! Personally I think that would be an awesome sort of hybrid game. Take your player through his career as a pro, and all the while make choices that affect your life/ career. Bioware! Make a sports game :-D

jeremiah06
jeremiah06

There are only 3 reasons to buy a sports game 1. you have a bunch of friends who like to play that game (Lets face it online is OK but it gets boring after a while but playing with friends never gets tired at least if you win sometimes.) 2. It has a good carrier mode.If you don't have a bunch of friends willing to play(or your not that good) This is the only other reason. 3. It would only cost you like 4.99. If your not sure buy 07 when 09 is out or 08 when 2010 is out if you like that then move up.

rsox07
rsox07

U said wut i was thinking

geaux321
geaux321

Good stuff. And is that Rod Smith throwing a block on the outside?

CMakaCreative
CMakaCreative

Is there a MMOG sports game? With a game like MLB The Show, playing with other people on the same team would be mind blowing. Those of us who play RTTS are pretty use to playing soley with one person, so we're used to the AI doing everything that we don't. Now, replace the AI with real people & that would be cool. We could be able to chat with eachother...get on that guy who just hit into a double play for the third straight time. The only thing that would be a turn off is how long the game would last. I love the RTTS because of how fast I can get thru a season. Playing with scrubs & having to watch every pitch & every a-bat would be the only down fall to playing online with everyone playing a single position. It'd be like watching real baseball.

ltcbhouse
ltcbhouse

I am with you 100%. I have waited years for the career mode to come to video games and now that it's here I want more. Nascar total team control did a great job by giving you an agent (Rex Moneymaker?) that would motivate you to move to the next level, but it came up it came up short in a big way. Rex would tell me that another driver is pissed at me and ask me if I want to apologize or tell the other driver to piss off. Cool idea but I have no idea who the driver is. Then there is NFL head coach, awesome idea but they did such a poor job with those games that EA probably should not have even bothered. Things are going in the right direction and I'm excited about that, just not so excited that I will drop my coin until they figure out what makes customization fun.

cballer13
cballer13

overall i love career modes..i believe that in madden 10 for example, they should allow you to drive to practice, the games etc.

bobbyjoe321
bobbyjoe321

Can't wait for NHL 10, the Be A Pro mode's the best thing that has happen to the series (and the Joysting shooting). This is why I don't rent them anymore: I buy them.

shaddix55
shaddix55

@boobla: isn't that what NBA Ballers tries to do?

ejaka1
ejaka1

Man your good I couldnt agree with you more and you have some great ideas i enjoy the career modes(rtts is my favorite) but at the same time gamers have to hold them to a high standard in the madden blog only like 9% of gamers said they want improvements on superstar mode and that aint gonna get it done. But i hope they hear your ideas because they're great

boobla
boobla

You are onto something. The token economy that is all token and no economy is a major factor. Why isn't the sims-like system put in place. Why can't we buy a nice house then earn more cash and buy a mansion. We could add anything to the mansion, throw parties where we meet marketing reps who place you in commercials. The commercials become mini-games. Why don't they have vehicles in the game that you can customize and drive around the virtual stadium. Drive to practice or games or physio. Imagine if we could by fishing gear and a yacht, depending on your salary earned. There is room for this idea. How about investing in real estate, condos mansions, decorate them upload them online where other athletes can purchase them. This would increase your cash. But the more time you spend in real estate or car detailing takes away from endorsement time or practice time. There are many avenues to travel here..

crash2614
crash2614

i love the way NHL 09 went this year with be a pro mode..about time i thought..they were the last ones to commit to a superstar type mode...but the sitting on the bench, to feedback to working yourself up to the detroit red wings, its awesome...i only hope it goes up from here on out with all them, MLB MADDEN NHL NCAA, hopefully a NCAA MARCH MADNESS prospect able to be put into NBA Live 2010

garcia_jx
garcia_jx

Wonder why 2k removed the "cribs" mode. Maybe they could implement that into career mode, where you can buy stuff for your house or see the throphies you have earned.

cpspeed
cpspeed

The last time I tried career mode was Madden 2007 on Xbox 360. I wanted to play defensive back, but I would have rather had the camera angle the way it normally is, instead of behind my player. It was very difficult to see the field and read the play. I haven't tried one since then.

njm1314
njm1314

Couldn't agree more with the sentiment about being able to train your player and make him better. Also a problem I have noted in some games with a career mode is that when you don't have control over your teams, they tend to make terrible personnel decisions (case in point Madden).

HBTEAMHUH
HBTEAMHUH

The mode I only dedicate my time to now is CAREER mode for games. I love playing FIFA 09 for Be- A - Pro, but its only 4 seasons long. Since I have a 360 I'm limited to some games I want to play, for example playing MLB 09 for PS3 instead of MLB2K9. Overall i like Career Modes in games and would like it too expand, because with your character, you almost feel like loner the whole entire time.

mechberg
mechberg

@shaddix55 -- Go Sharks!

shaddix55
shaddix55

I just won the President's Trophy and Stanley Cup in NHL 09 in my Be A Pro mode. :) Go Sharks!

MrQuest77
MrQuest77

well written, caught many thoughts i have had

mechberg
mechberg

@CMakaCreative -- You bring up a good point about 2K. Beyond Power Pros (which 2K publishes and Konami develops), they haven't really jumped too far into the career mode thing. Maybe it's simply to differentiate their games from EA's Be a Pro. Still, I can't help but think that they might be missing an opportunity...

CMakaCreative
CMakaCreative

I'm a big career mode player. Before MLB had it set up to only play as your character only...I was simming through innings so that I could just bat as myself in MLB 07 (right before they decided to give your created player the spot light). I always create an avatar of myself in all sport games I play. And then try to enjoy my vitual career as a top athlete. Too bad NBA 2K series doesn't have a career mode. I hate it when I make so much money, my favorite team can't keep my created player. This has happen to me a few times. They definitely need to add something to make it worth becoming a highly paid player, by giving you the option to spend your money anyway you want...go from the guy who's in AA getting the so-so groupie chick to the MLB king getting the models & the actresses. Let me buy that 50 million dollar mansion after signing that 250 million dollar contract.....then have to sell it cause I can't afford it because of my lavish spending. I like the reward and punishment idea. @smokeydubbs....I envy you...I can't get even half those stats & I'm in my third year in RTTS. I'm mediocre at best & when I get cold....brrrrrr...bundle up cause it's gonna last a few games.

klutch1000
klutch1000

an yea great article man, really good stuff in here. i never knew anyone felt the same way i did lol..but yea great job on it

klutch1000
klutch1000

everyone who makes games should listen to this guy. ive said this to myslf all the time an i wonder why no one has done it. if u want to make a great game u should add rewards or if i wanna spend time practicing my jumpshot. take things out of the games that no one cares about an put in things that would make a perfect game

ocdog45
ocdog45

i only like career mode for baseball and hockey.

Awesomo2008
Awesomo2008

I play RTTS as a starting pitcher.I was in New York in AAA league and i got traded to the Giants and i went up to the big leagues. I won 19 games with a month left.(Helping them get back into playoff talk)and then they put me down to the AAA league. :(

QingJao86
QingJao86

Brian! How could you forget a game with ninjas! That is one of the best career modes ever! I demand you resign your job and give it to me :-p!

Awesomo2008
Awesomo2008

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

mechberg
mechberg

@QingJao86 -- Wow, I didn't even think of Power Pros. Good call. Plus, that game had ninjas.

QingJao86
QingJao86

The two best career modes so far (that I have played, so not RTTS, don't have a PS3) have been NHL '09 (really fun to play as your player in the larger sense of the game) and MLB Power Pros '08 (both the road to the pros and MLB Life were great). I would give the nod PP so far because it did both give you the sense of being part of a team and the knowledge that sometimes it would be up to you to win the game for the team (and other times you would go 0 for 4 and still win, just like a real game) and it gave you more of a sense of being a pro athlete (having to donate to charity (and donating too much on accident), getting a contract (granted this was busted if you ask me, after becoming Rookie of the Year I get a horrible contract...), interacting with teammates, buying new stuff, etc. NHL had better gameplay but was not better in the larger sense of the game. Madden needs to take notes from both games if they want to make it work (which I hope they do).