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"Check to the f&%$# ball!" I scream at digital players on my TV.
"Why the hell do you play the game if you scream at it all the time?" my fiancee asks, rolling her eyes at me.
"I'm trying…actually, I don't know."
It's the same story every time when it comes to FIFA. I grew up playing soccer, from when I started walking until, well, what time is it right now? I coach a high school varsity team, I play in a men's amateur division, and I also ref as well. You could say I'm pretty into it. So why does the FIFA franchise always disappoint me?
In a word, realism.
Being a soccer coach has conditioned me to think that soccer should be played a certain way. It's what a coach does: teach the game. You start with individual skills — checking to the ball; making good, accurate passes; shooting on frame with accuracy; dribbling with short, quick steps; and so on.
Then you progress to team tactics and strategy. This is where practice becomes key, because during a soccer match you cannot "time out" to plan your next move. Soccer is a free-flowing, 360-degree game and in order to survive, you and the other 10 players need to be on the same page. A coach is necessary to convey the tactics to the players, so they can apply them on the field without managed instruction.
FIFA does a great job at keeping the players spaced out and where they're supposed to be, and gives you a great amount of formations to choose from. What it sorely lacks is the individual players' skills. They're horrible.
What professional player boots the ball over the net when he's three feet in front of the goal? If there was a way to time the button press right, they sure made it difficult to master.
I think that in order to remedy the issue I have with the franchise you need look at the A.I., and see it from a player's perspective. As EA Sports Creative Director David Littman told Game Informer:
"I believe that every team that's making a sports game needs at least one former professional athlete, or at the very [worst] one division-one college athlete. You don't truly know the sport until you've played it for a living."
Littman is a former NHL athlete, and I totally agree with him. I don't know if FIFA has an ex-pro on staff, but I feel that they need one (hey EA, call me! Division three college player here, but still).
Here are some ideas I have to push the series in the right direction:
On the ball skills: The players' dribbling patterns and maneuvers need to change. Coaches teach pro players to make quick, fast steps with light touches on the ball, and the dribbling I see in FIFA is close to U-8 level soccer — pushing the ball forward and running to it isn't dribbling, it's chasing.
Better movement off the ball: If you're attacking in the midfield, one player needs to make a checking run to the ball (in that once the ball is passed, the player makes his way to the ball instead of waiting for it like a douche). Checking to the ball reduces the length of the pass, and helps prevent the defense from picking it off. Meanwhile, other players need to make runs forward. FIFA has too many linear runs (straight forward and back), and in the professional game you are always taught never to run straight for a through-pass, but rather diagonally (I won't talk your head off explaining the tactical rationale behind this). And if you're passing a through ball, the player needs to sprint to it. Not jog.
I've got a longer list than that if you really want to see it, but that's a good start.
Realism in video games isn't just about better graphics and sound; the A.I. needs a similar boost as well. It's hard to learn the professional game of soccer if you have not lived it first-hand, and this is where employing someone with experience can really help (the NHL series has made huge strides thanks in no small part to Littman). I know that programming A.I. probably isn't the easiest thing in the world, but with the right direction I think the series can make great strides, and turn naysayers like me into hardcore players.