"Cinematic" Story Modes in sports games - do you like them?

So, I’ve been thinking about this since E3, but maybe as far back as when the Giant Bomb east guys talked about the insane NBA 2K16 story mode.

EA’s Madden 18 includes Longshot, a cinematic story mode, joining FIFA’s The Journey and competitor NBA2K’s recent story-heavy career modes.

But who, exactly, is this for? New or lapsed players looking for an easy way into the long-running franchises? Hardcore Ultimate Team players looking for a break? People who’ve watched Friday Night Lights or Moneyball but who have little to no interest in following the real-life leagues?

Shout outs also go to Nick’s piece here about how the off-the-court features in NBA and other sports games necessarily cross paths with the African-American experience.

So what about you all? Do you play sports games for their story modes? Do you play them, but ignore them completely? Has a good story mode convinced you to finally buy a sports game - or are you waiting for one with a good enough hook?

I am the mythological sports game player who only plays sports games for the single player experiences.

I’ve spent thousands of hours slaving away in FIFA’s manager mode and NBA 2K’s My League mode. I’m not sure I’ve ever actually touched an online match or an ultimate team.

Strangely, I find myself incapable of finishing or getting completely engaged in these cinematic story modes. I find this strange because they give context to the slog of matches and menus you would otherwise be navigating. Perhaps there’s a disconnect. I mean, I do have a narrative when I’m playing the ‘un-cinematic,’ non Spike Lee single player of sports games and it’s my narrative.

I’m the plucky GM who’s gonna rescue the Nets from habitual failure, I’m the young manager, who’s gonna bring my boyhood club Southampton into the conversation for Europe’s best football club. I am going to single-handedly revolutionize the sport in question for I am wunderkind legendary moneyball savant master.

In this new wave of cinematic, high production sports single player, I find myself waning after only a few hours. Perhaps this is due to the writing, or the fact that in order to make something more scripted, you’re ultimately removing player choice. I mean, this is FIFA, not Uncharted. Choice is good.

Lately I’ve found myself gravitating towards the Football Manager games, the ultimate in the bring your own narrative experience. A bit more than a glorified spreadsheet and simulations, I particularly find the writing around these games to be excellent. Check out The Set Pieces if you’re interested in Football narratives.

TLDR: No, I’m not waiting for a particularly good sports game narrative, I’m fine bringing my own.


confession: it turns out i… actually don’t like games?

but i do like them insofar as they’re a good way of telling stories, and longform career modes in games like 2k have the potential to work really well precisely because sports live or die on the power of their narratives in the first place

so where a story framework can really make a difference is in helping to shape the narrative rather than try and be it and control it, in the same way that crusader kings knows that random events and personality traits give you a really good sense of the character you’re playing but it’s also self-aware enough to pull back and understand that you’ll tell the story you want to tell

i really like the 2k games so excuse me if i can’t / won’t give any other examples but: the story mode started off as the most basic of outlines. in 2k15 here’s what you know about your character: they’ve been passed over entirely in the draft, now it’s up to you to help them prove themselves and show everyone else how wrong they were. that’s fine! and because it doesn’t try and be any more than fine, it’s good! like 70% of sports narrative revolves around the idea of the underdog and putting you in that position is pretty much all it needs! then the next year they brought in spike lee to try and make a weird retrospective documentary with it’s own narrative and christ it’s a mess

so yeah… sports are good… games are good when they let you tell your own stories… games are bad

don’t @ me, ever

I still haven’t jumped on board yet, but here’s something - I’ve never even looked twice at a sports game. My eyes glaze over at any podcast talk of them, I fast forward that part of EA’s E3 conference, I’ve never even touched any sports game. When EA announced The Journey last year, I sat up and paid attention. When I heard it was good, I put it on my list of “one day pick this game up” games. Same goes for Madden 18.

Here’s my take on it - it’s the last missing piece that the games needed to fill the same shoes that the COD campaign does. The campaigns in COD are flashy and big budget, yet reportedly only 5% of people play them. I’m in that 5%, insofar as I won’t ever be into the multiplayer aspect, but I’m down for Infinite Warfare.


I was vaguely interested in the FIFA one, but I tried the demo and just cannot with the way that game chose to do set plays, so went with Pro Evo instead.

I guess what I’m saying is if the game I was already getting has a story mode, I would be down with it, but I’m not about to suffer through a component of the game I don’t like just because it has story mode and the competing title doesn’t.

I’ve been a sports gamer all of my life. I’ve bought every Madden and NBA 2K game since the start of the PS2/Xbox/Gamecube era. The franchise mode and vs online play is pretty much what I stick to.

The new story mode has me super excited. Honestly, the first thing I’ll do before I start my franchise mode, will be to play through this. I’ve heard some people say that it might have tell tell like decisions within it. That sounds super cool to me.

I’m hoping it stays grounded though. I don’t want it to take the route of the NBA 2K16 story mode. Talking to the ghost of your best friend. Sigh…

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I’ve found the cinematic experiences to be a little bit constricting as well. I’ve only played through the 2K16 Spike Lee mode one time, and even though it was cool that my university was one of the schools chosen for the college portion of the story, I found myself pretty bored with the rest of it, like I didn’t feel like I was making an impact on the game, and in the first season, the player only gets a shot in like ten or eleven games. I actually preferred the 2K15 MyPlayer mode, because there was more variety in player choice. I remember moving from Charlotte in the first season to Sacramento in the second, and in the one game we played in Charlotte that next season, my player had a really bad game and got outplayed by the Hornets’ rookie point guard. That sort of scenario was more impactful than Freq’s friend dying because it was actually based in the performance within the games, rather than being written by someone and acted out.

This is the sort of thing that I love about sports games, because stories can be made by the player if they so choose. I follow one YouTuber who writes out storylines around the franchises that he plays in NCAA Football and Madden games, going so far as to write a book surrounding one character. This is the sort of thing that I love about sports games, everyone can tell a different story.

I see the value in the story modes in sports games, but players have been telling their own stories for a long time.


From my own personal experience if I had to guess these modes are meant for children and young teens?

Around when I was in middle school I sunk hours into NBA Ballers on PS2 and got hype about a demo for “The Life” version of Sony’s NBA game that was a predecessor for the much more popular-- and from what I understand better-- MLB “The Show.”

The primary appeal of those games to me was that they provided my younger self the opportunity to live out the stylized dream of being an NBA player with all the drama, cars, clothes and tattoos.

As I got older obviously my interests and goals shifted, but those games still try to hit on a lot of those same notes which is why I would say I no longer care for them.

Modes that allow you to create a player and live out their career with some light RPG elements can still be enjoyable, but the writing and some of the other cinematic story elements tend to get in the way too much and make the player you’re controlling seem more like a poorly executed character than an avatar for yourself.

Aside from that as @PizzaPachulia said, when playing sports games I much prefer to just play through the standard simulation modes and construct my own narrative rather than having the game cook one up for me.

2K’s earliest versions of MyPlayer were much better at allowing you to do that and slowly improved over time by adding in elements and rewards outside of the games such as postgame interviews, shoe deals and magazine covers that helped simulate the idea of a pro-athletes life while still allowing the player to fill in their motivations and story details.

MyPlayer lost me around 2K14 when they added in elements like your in-game teammates hazing you and requesting that you play a certain way. I particularly remember Kevin Love being a real diva and asking that I complete a certain number of assists to him.

I also played a version of “The Show” for the first time somewhere in that time period (whichever one was free on PS Plus if anyone would know) and I really enjoyed the bare bones approach and focus on playing games and building up your character that was reminiscent of the early MyPlayer modes, including working your way up from the minor leagues.

I tried NBA 2K16 the Spike Lee story because I was interested about the college aspect, but noped out of it almost immediately after sitting through the beginning cutscene that explained your motivations.


I found myself really enjoying Longshot in Madden. The story is pretty predictable, but funny at times with the stereotypical evil producer only interested in what is best for their show, and asking you, the talented rookie, to do some questionable things to make the show better. My favorite parts of that mode were the actual “teaching you football” moments. I have played Madden for years, and still struggled with some of the more strategic and complex defensive formations. The tutorials in Madden have been getting steadily better, but the way that the show’s resident QB expert guides you through various scenarios and the practices you get as a QB getting ready for the combine really helped me understand what I should be looking for when choosing a target.

I haven’t played the other games in question here, but I did really enjoy Longshot and I was left wishing there was more when it was over. I would have liked to continue playing as the story mode character through the rest of their career but I understand why they didn’t devote resources to that on their initial test. Hopefully enough customers played through it and liked it to justify them making another one.

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Have story/career modes in sports games evolved beyond the point of “you bring a rookie player up through the pros, somehow winning every single game and championship in a row?”

MLB’s Road to the Show mode has evolved very much passed that sort of paradigm for a few years now. Part of that is because baseball is a sport where even having a generational talent on your roster does not guarantee contention (e.g. Mike Trout and the Angels), but also because the game does such a great job making individual improvement feel very satisfying. So while my knuckleballer starter with a 2.50 career ERA might not be enough to take what passes for the Blue Jays current roster to the postseason, I still can find meaning in earning a Cy Young. Plus, with the ability to carry my save file to each new game in the franchise, I can have that long and storied career punctuated with occasional playoff runs and the rare championship win.

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I played through NBA 2k16’s story mode as someone who was just getting into basketball and wanted to play a game to help solidify some of the rules. I didn’t get a better grasp of basketball, but it was certainly a trip. I’d play through another Spike Lee story but probably not interested in the Friday Night Lights sort of story.

I’d love to see a story mode for a sports management game though!

I also very much enjoyed Longshot. I recognized all the cliched beats and fell for them every time because well, that’s me and sports narratives. The cringiest parts were the real people cameos; otherwise, I liked the characters, I liked the story (despite its somewhat obvious missteps that Austin also talked about back when they discussed it on Waypoint Radio – there were definitely moments where the “dumb athletic black QB + scrappy hard-working white receiver” thing annoyed me a lot), and the football parts are, you know, Madden.

OTOH, FIFA’s recent single player campaign (Alex Hunter) was both too long and poorly told and I bailed right after the rival got traded.

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I’ve been thinking about this recently since madden 18 came to origin access. I think a large portion of why stories in sports games don’t work for me is the fact that they’re about professional leagues and its pretty much expected that your career patch is expected to go to the hall of fame if you do it right. I’m sure theres some that do it better than others but its hard to do a proper underdog story if your character is already a professional and usually a first round pick.

I’d like to see like a valkyria chronicles for sports with the combination of missions(games) combined with visual novel elements and the side stories and being able to know more about certain teammates (whether its from an owner/coach/captain’s perspective or player). And stuff more like Sandlot or A League of their Own or Mighty Ducks or Whip It or Longest Yard or GLOW or Dodgeball. Stuff that dip into different genres and have clear narratives focused around people you want to see succeed.
Like imagine if there were a rocket league single player campaign where you’re a teenager who “borrows” your dad’s car to join the Rocket League and maybe you bump into this one hotshot who decides you aren’t shit and trash talks you when they can. So like standard anime drama at the very minimum. Or like a management game where you gather a group of people to form a rec kickball team and some players would have the possibility that their job would get in the way of their performance or even attendance.
Or even if you’re doing professional sports do a story like the Las Vegas Knights last year from the NHL. A new expansion team where you could even choose a name logo etc where you have to gather a group of misfit players together and make the best of bad odds with the possibility of going far

Best example of narrative sports that I can think of is Pyre. It tells a compelling story about a fictional sport and gives you interesting and clear rules that you can get better at over the course of playing it. Its generally a set story but does have management elements and you get lots of flavor with distinct opposing teams that each have their own subplot which interact with your team to various degrees

Personally I think it would be really cool to make a roller derby game since you can have lots of fun with the aesthetics and can tell a story about moms and trans women and just generally women that wouldn’t be likely to be protagonists in games. I’d really like to do it myself but sports physics are hard. maybe some day


the first sports game with a story mod was fifa 18
I liked that even such games have some kind of history

NBA 2K16 has a story mode directed by Spike Lee, and I’m pretty sure even that’s not the first story mode in a sports game, even if we’re only looking at licensed simulation sports games.

Sports games are fertile territory for story. Even more so than the 2 offerings gaming has either paint-by-numbers or weird-for-weirds-sake choices that story in videogames offer. There is the occasional Kirsk game that I’m interested in but games like that get summarily overlooked that it’s hard to jump in when there’s no 3rd party encouragement for sites to tell you do do so (now wishlisting that game) For the life of me if we are up to 16 final fantasies that franchise alone has mathematically, in the dozens of not hundreds of hours of content, plumbed every heteronormative idea known in the history of man.

The professional sports leagues will never touch aspects worth examining. In hindsight I’m surprised that NBA even allowed Spike Lee to make something but it’s not like he had full editors control or anything (that is a documentary that needs to come out).

As I write through this a game like Bully 2 could really serve up the budding NCAA and aspiring professional athlete take down. They have experimented with a lot of sports mechanics, including table tennis. Videogames have never really been the hot take on the real world in ways that ever other medium seems to. The Michael Jackson Martin Bashir interview or the declassifying of the Kennedy Assasination?

Rockstars take on the NCAA machine could be scathing and actually affect hearts and minds and encourage people to aspire to be anything but a professional sportsball player. I’m sure final fantasy already covered that though.

I want a lab NFL story mode where you get to play as like a Trevor Siemian or Blake Bortles. The kind of mode where just surviving in the league another season is a huge accomplishment. Starting games is unbelievable. Winning them, even more so.

But really the victory is how much money you make with pretty mediocre to below mediocre skills, and how little long term damage you have in the end.

I’m not exactly a fan of the ones that have been put out but I badly want a good career mode story mode. Just something that kind of crafts itself as you go. I think 2K has gotten the closest to what I’m looking for but not there yet.