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FIFA 21 Career Mode Preview: Deep Dive

And a slick trailer to boot.

Courtesy of EA Sports

A few weeks ago EA Sports gave us the tiniest glimpse into the changes that were coming to FIFA 21 for Career Mode. It’s a major update for the first time in years. Well this week, they opened the floodgates with their deep dive via their Pitch Notes article on the subject (it’s really a must read to get all the details).

Let’s break it down, feature by feature.

Interactive Match Simulation

In the recent versions of FIFA you had two options, play the entire game or quickly simulate the entire game without any input beyond the lineup. Now a third, more interesting option, has been added. You can now sim a match at double regular match speed with all the clock stoppages cut out. I’d personally like the option to go faster than that but stay short of a quick sim (or at least the option exist to go at different speeds).

During the Interactive Match Sim you have access to the individual players stamina, match ratings, stats and the game plan. You can make subs, change tactics or hop in and out of the game at will. It will definitely make it easier to play through more seasons while still having some control in situations you may have previously chose to play the entire game or do a quick sim.

Courtesy of EA Sports

With Interactive Match Sim, you can choose to “jump to result” to sim the rest of the match when it’s in hand. You also have the option to start a game, and if you feel it’s firmly in control you can switch to simulation or quick sim.

EA also says, “the Interactive Match Sim also features audio commentary and stadium atmosphere throughout the match.” It’s unclear if that’s full commentary or maybe just stadium announcers declaring goals, red cards, etc.

One thing I noticed while going through the videos screen by screen is on the “Game Plan” tab of the Interactive Match Sim. You can see the other teams formation, along with their offensive and defensive styles. I wonder if that will lead to an unfair advantage in knowing how to overcome that style as you can instantly see it instead of having to figure it out.

Another change is when you are about to decide to play, sim or quick sim a match, you can see the likely lineup of your opponent and your lineup based on the active team sheet, as well as some changes to speed up play like automating kit selection (though this is still customizable).

Any way you look at it, this is a big, needed change.

Player Development

In the past, player development was a bit of a crapshoot. You could train five players a week (as long as they weren’t injured or on international duty). Players that played well seemed to grow, players on loan it was very unclear if they were even playing and finally the rest of the growth felt random.

EA is aiming to change that in FIFA 21.

“Player growth is is determined through XP accumulation. Based on how well they do in matches (their Form) and their potential to grow, they will gain more or less growth XP. That XP is distributed to their Attributes, determining Attribute growth over time. By default, all players are placed on a Balanced Plan, meaning that the XP is distributed evenly to all Attributes. When setting a custom Development Plan for each position as Active, you can choose a set of player Attributes and features to get all XP growth.”

There are four areas you can then put that XP towards: “Major Attributes (attributes that generate the OVR of the player for their current position), Skill Move/Weak Foot ratings (especially for attacking players), Attacking/Defensive Work Rate and attributes that fuel specialization (attributes that may not contribute to the current position OVR).”

EA goes on to say, “much like in real life football, the speed at which players develop depends on their age, abilities, potential, form, and playtime. Give a young player with great potential a few games and help him perform, and he will turn into a better player at an accelerated rate. Keeping him on the sidelines for too long can have the opposite effect, so it’s up to you to make the decisions that work best for your team.”

That’s pretty exciting that you can control where the player focuses their development.

Player Position Conversion

Going hand-in-hand with development is the ability to convert a player to a new position. This is especially helpful to those of us that enjoy developing youth talent but can’t seem to scout a specific position. Now if you can’t find a striker or some other position that doesn’t seem to come up in scouting often, you can convert players, starting while they are still in your youth academy.

But it’s not limited to just youth players, you can convert any player to any position, it just may take a while. In the example given Trent Alexander-Arnold can go from right back (RB) to right wing back (RWB) in 4 weeks, left back (LB) in 4 weeks, center back (CB) in 164 weeks, right midfielder (RM) in 31 weeks and defensive midfielder (CDM) in 21 weeks. It’s all about upping the stats in those areas, not that you can’t play the person out of position like you already can today.

EA goes on to state that younger players (like 21-year-old Alexander-Arnold) can be converted quicker, but you can still move a declining veteran into a role that will better conserve their attributes.

Active Training

Since player development has essentially replaced the training system in past FIFA games, training is now much more like real life, where the vast majority of the players will be involved. It’s also a focus on match readiness, instead of stat improvement. That’ll see the introduction of some new stats: fitness and sharpness. But more training doesn’t equal fitness. Instead, depending all the difficulty level of the drill, fitness is consumed and sharpness is raised depending on how you score on the drill.

And if you just simulated training in the past, the game seems to be discouraging that (though there is no word if this can be shut off). If you simulate and you’ve never done the drill, they’ll score a D instead of an A, B, C or F. If you’ve done the drill then you get the highest you’ve ever scored on that drill. So it would seem you may need to do the drills until you earn something higher than a D (ideally an A) and then you can simulate that drill going forward.

The new sharpness stat starts at a 50, with anything above that improving a players stats and anything below that diminishing them. That has the ability, along with age, morale and playing their preferred position, to increase or decrease the players overall rating.

Courtesy of EA Sports

Team Scheduling

Training is also no longer a once a week thing. Instead, you have to decide if you want to use each non-game day on the calendar to train, take a recovery day or rest. Train too much and fitness and morale will go down. Too many recovery days will cause a big hit on sharpness, though it gives the biggest boost to fitness. A rest day lowers sharpness too and gives a small boost to fitness, but less so than a recovery day and it gives a morale boost.

If this all sounds like too much to manage, you can set “schedule rules” and the computer will follow your generic rules — like always rest before/after match and train all other days — and make a schedule. I’ll be interested to see how this works with heavy fixture congestion. If you switch team sheets and go to your ‘secondary lineup’ then all the ‘starters’ will rest, so possibly that’s how it all get’s balanced. That of course requires you to set specific team sheets if that’s not something you currently do beyond the starters.

New Transfer Options

Here is where I’m personally excited. EA is adding the Loan to Buy option. Currently I only do a loan if I’m desperate, otherwise I develop the player and they just return to their original team. Now you can insert the very common purchase option. And if the player doesn’t work out, you can send them back to their original team. However if they flourish, even though their stats have increased, you can snatch them up at the originally agreed upon price.

Additionally, the game has long allowed you to swap players, but the AI never took advantage of it. Now when trying to do a transfer, they may request you throw in a player instead of all cash.

And one of the biggest changes is the AI will finally stop letting their great players simply become free agents. The game has long been broken where you could sign nearly anyone on a free transfer within six months of their contract expiring. Now teams will keep their best players, or at least try to. Player may choose to decline contract extensions, just like in real life, to test being a free agent.

Additionally, there are lots of other factors that are added into a “score” which determines if a player will go out on loan or accept a transfer. Some of them include: if they are a free agent, if they’ve already received offers from other teams, if they have a release clause, loan length, how their overall rating compares to the league they are being transferred to, their role at their current club versus future club (Crucial down to Prospect) and the new contract length offered versus their original contract length.

Negotiation Strictness

If you are looking for a more realistic transfer negotiation, that’s here as well (though it can be turned down to ‘loose’ and you can still build super teams). If you opt for the ‘strict’ setting, rivals won’t sell to each other, players won’t move to lower ranked leagues or clubs, if a player has the “One Club” trait, they won’t want to move and you won’t be able to sign players that just signed within the last year. Currently, it seems the only rule in play in FIFA 20 and prior is the one where they just joined a team. The exception, not mentioned here, is that some teams find a player too valuable and won’t let them go — no mention if that’s in 21 as well.

Other Improvements

FIFA 21 will have lots of other tweaks, as detailed in the Pitch Notes, but a few stood out to me.

  • Your Youth Academy will already exist and you’ll have at least one scout. No longer do you start with zero youth players. It even says there is a chance you could have a player with the potential to be ‘one of the world’s best’ already in your academy.
  • The financial takeover setup will now allow you to set this before the game starts so you can infuse your club with hundreds of millions of dollars, or start at any other level below that.
  • Retirement has been pushed back closer to 40. And if you sign a player to a longer term deal, they won’t consider retirement until the end of their contract — though one suspects their stats will still decline as they age.

Career Mode Trailer

Overall, it seems like big strides are being made in FIFA 21 career mode. If you want to get deeper into the details, I highly recommend reading the very detailed Pitch Notes.

Let’s hope this isn’t the last update for a decade and we can look forward to things like second teams, expanded youth academies and much more in the coming years. Getting to manage Sporting Kansas City and Sporting KC II would be quite the treat and give me a place to play my youth players that demand contracts at 16 and then I’m forced to release them and they just vanish from the game entirely.

What are you most excited about? What do you wish EA would change/fix but they haven’t? Join us in the comments to discuss.