The Sports Desk – Expressing Momentum In Sports Games

by Matthew Kato on Jan 09, 2017 at 09:00 AM

A couple of weeks ago the FIFA subreddit erupted when a mention of "momentum" in relation to the game's Ultimate Team chemistry system appeared in apparent game files for the PC version of FIFA 17. Whether sports games have momentum, rubber-banding, or catch-up A.I. to automatically try and level the playing field or give one team the advantage in certain situation is always a hot topic. Some swear developers put it in there, while others think it's all conspiracy talk. And when you layer on the charged world of FIFA Ultimate Team in particular (with real-money involved), people can get very angry when they feel they've been treated unfairly.

Along with the file's mention of momentum, player traits are listed, some of which (like Low Concentration, Super Sub, and Chicken Header) are not surfaced to the player in the front end. The insinuation being that the game makes players act a certain way under the hood at times.

I contacted EA about the matter to try and receive some kind of explanation or context for the mention of momentum and player traits listed, but did not receive a response.

Pulling back from the specific game file and FIFA 17 for a second, this brings up the question if there is a place for momentum of some or any kind in sports games. Of course, as sports gamers, we always want gameplay fidelity, an understanding of why things happen the way they do, and the wins and losses to transpire fairly. But momentum is undeniably an aspect of real-life sports. How should that be expressed in video games?

First of all, the majority of momentum in game can realistically be generated by the players themselves – and rightly so in a competitive environment like an Ultimate Team mode. Missing an open net, throwing an INT, or starting a run in basketball can produce momentum – or stop it – as a byproduct of what's naturally going on. No attribute tweaking or hand of the developer is needed. Ever "get in the zone" where you're draining shots and feel on fire? Ever nervously hang on to a lead in latter-stages of a match? These are situations that put the game in your hands and require your skill to resolve. That kind of pressure is already present in moments large and small throughout every contest.

At the same time, team-based sports titles or when playing against the CPU always requires some A.I. control of your teammates or opponents. Thus, how should a game account for the mindset of these players not always under your control? First of all, this is already present in titles and has been for years. Madden has a "clutch" trait. NCAA had a coach influence at key moments of a game. FIFA players have form that changes from week to week. Even Ultimate Team already has it in the form of the chemistry rating among players.

The difference here, however, is that it's out front for players to see and understand, as opposed to the feeling that the game is going to come back on you just because you scored an early goal or went up by two TDs. I also think there can be subtlety in how this is represented. Clearly a player becoming unstoppable is too heavy handed. Perhaps any concept of momentum could not only be optional and/or clearly indicated in the affected backend sliders. Or should be more about an already designated "clutch" player rising to the occasion instead of making already good players inexplicably weak.

Against real-life opponents in an Ultimate Team context, for instance, it's better that gameplay be left untouched. The integrity of the gameplay when it comes to a competitive tournament or ranked match, as well as the fact that people have spent money on cards (the recent FIFA Chem glitch also highlights this), means there cannot be doubt over how one person beats another.

Differentiating competitive play from a career mode, for instance, would be like playing the game with different tuner sets for different modes – something that most of EA Sports' games already do.

I think the larger issue at hand is that sports games in real-life or in video games are never won or lost on paper. The tension between expectation and the frustration of blind fortune doesn't seem to have a place in a controlled environment like a video game, but we know it's there in real life. Player skill is clearly the fundamental way to resolve outcomes, but would we want a world where every tackle, shot, or pass was as simple as the unfolding of an expected outcome? Perhaps we as video game sports players demand a level of control over our sports destiny as a way of compensating for what we cannot control when it comes to our often maddening real-life teams. Somehow, sports will always be a rollercoaster.

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Joycity's 3on3 Freestyle PS4 title is in open beta for anyone looking for some basketball action. I recently tried it out, and it mixes arcade-style gameplay, character growth built around grinding/microtransactions, and a mix of multiplayer options – including coach co-op with online teams.

3on3 is an online-only title that in beta lets you play 1 vs. 1 or 3 vs. 3 games, the latter which includes the ability to gather two friends on one system and play another team online.

Gameplay revolves around different characters who occupy a specific position (like center, point guard, etc.), each with 15 abilities to level up. While you don't directly apply points to those attributes (like 3-point shot, mid-range shot, stamina, steal, etc.), the game's progression system is built around a five-star prestige system. There are 10 levels to each character. Attributes improve through XP (which can be aided by spending coins earned through playing on sports drinks), and these in turn determine which level your are. Get to level 10 and buy some requisite items with your credits and you unlock the next prestige star – at which time your level goes back down to one and you start the process all over again and drive towards the next prestige star.

Hitting the next prestige tier unlocks additional skills for your character (for a total of nine). Skills (which have their own levels to unlock) include fake passes, jab steps, the ability to randomly make steals, have your shot success rate increase when you're losing, and more.

Finally, there is special training, which are passive boosts to your attributes you buy with coins that are slotted into specific days of the week. However, I don't know if these are only active if you're playing on the specific day of the week.

There are also ways to customize your character with outfits, although the beta itself doesn't have a lot of them. As I mentioned, coins are earned for playing, and premium points can be purchased with real money which can in turn be spent on gaining coins or clothes. In the open beta $4.99 gets you 50 points. Seven points can be spent on 1,000 coins, while an outfit may cost around 60 points. For reference, a large sports drink – which gives your attributes a good boost – costs 1,500 coins. I lost a handful of games when I played and was still able to buy sports drinks and other player-growing items.

On the court, the gameplay transpires as a typical arcade-based half-court game, although you're not lighting on fire or performing fantastic dunks. Even if you play a 1 vs. 1 game, the title makes you fill our the other player slots on your team so it's always 3-on-3. While teamwork is very much the name of the game, it can be frustrating when your big A.I. center insists on trying to hit a three or an A.I. teammate just won't pass. You also can't switch between your A.I. teammates – you're player locked. Therefore, 3on3 is more fun when you have a full compliment of real people, where knowing your role and having good communication is important.

The game is obviously in beta, so there are a number of tweaks that could happen before its full release sometime this year. It'll be interesting to see if the currencies are tweaked, how all the players and their skills are balanced, and the general clean up of bugs, online performance, and the A.I.

I understand the loop of wanting to unlock skills and the various characters, as well as the arcade gameplay, but I'm curious how tight the matchmaking is and what kind of larger league or leaderboard structure there might be. As of the beta it appears there is none of the latter.


A quick rundown of some of the sports news from the week.

Rocket League Is PS4's Most Downloaded Title Of 2016

Porsche Inclusion In Forza Horizon 3 Revealed Via Leak
An accidental upload of an unencrypted developer build to FH 3 PC users may have accidentally corrupted some users' saves. The upshot, however, is that the build revealed possible Porsches coming to the game. (via GTPlanet)

Old School Hockey Reveals New Teams, Including Some Iconic Hockey Towns
Click the trailer's "show more" description for the list.

Project Cars 2 Hopeful For 2017 Release
In a forum post, CEO of Project Cars 2 developer Slightly Mad Studios, Ian Bell, said the studio has planned seven months of QA and bug fixing on the game. In a later post, when asked when pre-orders would start, he replied, "Septemberish." Hopefully everything stays on track so we can play it before the end of the year. (via GameSpot)