Madden NFL 18: Sports games chase their Friday Night Lights moment with cinematic stories

EA's Madden 18 is the latest big-budget sports video game to include a lavishly produced story mode, with the hopes of bringing in casual sports fans who may be intimidated by complex, competitive multiplayer games.

Longshot story features Moonlight's Mahershala Ali and Friday Night Lights' Scott Porter

Mahershala Ali, right, plays Devin Wade's father Cutter in Madden 18's story mode, Longshot. (EA Tiburon/Electronic Arts)

Sports video games haven't changed a whole lot in the past decade.

Yearly instalments of games based on FIFA, the NFL, NHL and more are usually content with roster changes, graphical upgrades and minor gameplay tweaks.

But the past few years have been a little different. Publishers have been adding lavishly produced stories to appeal to casual fans.

The latest is Electronic Arts' (EA) Madden NFL 18, out this weekend. In addition to the expected online and offline matches, it adds a longform story mode called Longshot.

Devin Wade (J.R. Lemon), along with his childhood friend Colt Cruise (Friday Night Lights' Scott Porter, as though signalling EA's aspirations with a single casting choice) were the stars of their high school football team in a small town in Texas.

But following a string of bad college games and emotional turmoil after the death of his father (seen in flashbacks and played by Moonlight's Mahershala Ali), Devin walked away from the game and joined the army.

After returning from a tour in the Middle East, he's plucked by a reality show called Longshot that frames him as an underdog rookie, dangling the chance to be drafted by the NFL in front of him.

Players will help guide Devin Wade (J.R. Lemon) along the path from college football washout to, hopefully, NFL draft prospect. (EA Tiburon/Electronic Arts)

In addition to Ali, former football superstar Dan Marino appears as himself. Its theme song was written by hockey star and musician Theo Fleury.

It's the second major story mode in EA's sports tentpole, following last year's well-received The Journey in FIFA 17.

Ideal training ground

Mike Young, EA Sports creative director and co-writer of Longshot, cites Friday Night Lights as a major influence on the "mood and tone" they were looking to emulate.

From the gaming side, "The Last of Us was a huge inspiration on me," says Young. "It made me care more about the characters. I engaged with that more as the father of a daughter than just somebody who loved zombie games. So I thought, why couldn't we do that in a Madden game?"

Such experiments might suggest EA's sports games are struggling to maintain relevance, but they're still among the most popular and profitable games in its portfolio, thanks in part to the Ultimate Team mode.

Ultimate Team allows players to build fantasy rosters, bolstered by buying digital trading card packs — for real money.

Madden 18 still includes the full suite of traditional single player and multiplayer competitive modes in addition to Longshot. (EA Tiburon/Electronic Arts)

In EA's latest financial call, EA revealed that Ultimate Team was worth $800 million US annually in revenue. That's in addition to the game's $80 retail price.

Rather, FIFA 18 creative director Matthew Prior describes Longshot and The Journey as an ideal training ground for new players prior to jumping into hardcore competition.

"We haven't done a brilliant job in the past of getting people into the world of FIFA. We just kind of throw a bunch of modes at people, and it was almost a little bit of a baptism of fire," Prior told CBC News. "We kind of built The Journey as almost like basic training for FIFA."

From career mode to cinematic narratives

Historically, sports video games preferred a light hand when it came to narrative.

In single player "career modes," brief cut scenes between games served mostly to motivate players to get through the season, with characters they built from scratch.

"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," gamer Daniel Uria from Miami told CBC News.

NBA 2K16's story mode Livin' Da Dream, penned by Spike Lee, was panned for its ridiculous plot. (Visual Concepts/2K Sports)

It didn't help that a recent, highly promoted sports game narrative was a hot mess.

2K Sports' NBA 2K16 included Livin' Da Dream, written by Spike Lee. The ludicrous plot starred an aspiring baller named Frequency Vibrations, nicknamed "Freq" (pronounced "freak").

It was panned for long-winded monologues, poor editing and a madcap plot better suited to a Grand Theft Auto game.

Your choices influence the story

Comparatively, Longshot tells a more conventional story that also serves to slowly introduce new players to the intricacies of the game.

Your performance during key matches or football IQ tests, as well as your choices during key conversations, can influence Devin's (and Colt's) fate.

For example, do you want to make a risky pass to Colt, so your best friend can share the glory (and impress NFL scouts)? Or will you follow your coach's advice and make a safer play instead?

Alex Hunter, the principal character of FIFA's The Journey story mode, will return this fall in FIFA 18. (EA Canada/Electronic Arts)

Gamers should recognize the branching narrative paths of games like those made by EA-owned Canadian studio Bioware (Mass Effect, Dragon Age), who consulted with EA Sports to help craft these scenes.

It's hard not to be invested in Devin and Colt's intertwining stories during Longshot. The two have a great on-screen chemistry.

Devin, haunted by his past football failures and the expectations set upon him by his father, is buoyed by the effervescent optimism of Colt, a millennial southern boy as comfortable driving a pickup truck as he is livestreaming to social media on his smartphone.

A sports game for non-sports fans?

Of course, you won't see anything that shines a truly critical eye on real-life politics or controversies surrounding the league or its players.

You won't see any discussion of concussions. Devin, who is black, won't take a knee during the national anthem like Colin Kaepernick.

That's not necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, Longshot is one of the most successful sports stories told in a video game yet. But it's worth keeping in mind that this is ultimately a story told with the approval of the NFL.

It remains to be seen whether Longshot will attract swathes of new players who have typically ignored Madden games. But at the very least, it's generated some attention.

"I still haven't jumped on board yet, but here's something — I've never even looked twice at a sports game … [But] when EA announced The Journey last year, I sat up and paid attention," said one gamer who goes by the username Lawnch.

"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."