FIFA 17: The Journey is the first sports game I actually want to play

Say what you will about EA, its sports titles, and especially the muddied name of the FIFA organization, but one of the underappreciated highlights from today’s press conference was undoubtedly our first look at The Journey, EA’s latest attempt to add a real character presence to its sports titles.

We saw this a bit in last year’s NBA 2K16 as well, with a story mode crafted by none other than master filmmaker Spike Lee. At the end of the day, though, NBA 2K16‘s MyCareer still had its limitations, based around a player’s created avatar — that’s different from what we’ve seen so far of The Journey, which gives us a specific protagonist, Alex Hunter, and a window into his life as a rookie player in the Premier League.

The Journey's Mass Effect-style dialogue wheel.

The Journey‘s Mass Effect-style dialogue wheel.

As players, we get to choose which team Hunter signs with and control his performance in games, with commentators’ reactions and, presumably, story events adjusting themselves in response. There’s some kind of dialogue wheel system a la Mass Effect when Hunter does interviews as well (no word on whether you can punch out the reporter). But there’s an emotional core to what we’ve seen to Hunter’s story that isn’t getting sidelined; that seems constant. Here’s his bio from The Journey‘s official site:

Alex is a 17-year-old from humble roots in Clapham, London who has football in the blood. Guided by his grandfather and English legend Jim Hunter (20 goals in the 1966-67 season), Alex has a name that carries weight in football circles, obstacles to overcome, and a personal legacy to build. Alex now has a promising footballing career in front of him, but how far can he go? That’s up to you.

In the trailer (above), we see his family moving from a modest home to a gorgeous penthouse; we see hugging and frustration and moments of doubt. I can’t say I’ve played football (sorry, soccer; the term is older and it’s not actually an Americanism) at any point after high school but I’m finding I already care about this kid and his family. This is a sports game I, a person who does not particularly care for sports games, am actually eager to pick up! That’s a huge accomplishment on the strength of the trailer alone. If the game itself can deliver on its promises, it could help engage a whole new audience.

Americans: we love rags-to-riches stories and CALLING SOCCER BY ITS PROPER NAME.

Americans: we love rags-to-riches stories and CALLING SOCCER BY ITS PROPER NAME.

It’s often said that sports contain narratives. There’s the narrative of the match itself, the narrative of the teams against each other or against their own past records, the narratives of players overcoming either personal or professional hurdles — this is why we love movies about athletes, and why I’m personally such a sucker for sports anime shows. There’s power in videogames letting players tell their stories, whether through just gameplay or something like NBA 2K‘s MyCareer, but I think there’s a great deal of potential in telling specifically tailored, single narratives like this as well. For a brand as big as EA Sports to zoom in on those stories, to really tease out the personal meaning of a specific athlete’s experience, is an incredibly smart move, in my opinion.

I never thought I’d be saying this about a sports game, far less a FIFA title, but The Journey looks like one to watch this year. It launches in September on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.