REDWOOD CITY, California (Reuters Life!) - Sports fans who struggle to excel on the real soccer pitch or hockey rink, now have their chance to play in a team as they've always dreamed -- in a full virtual team.
Online sports games have been around for years but these challenges were relegated to man-on-man matches, or at best, a quartet of friends playing together.
But from next month EA Sports is opening the floodgates for full team play in hockey, basketball and soccer with its upcoming FIFA 09, NHL 09 and NBA Live 09 games on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.
FIFA 09's "Be A Pro: 10 vs. 10 Online Team Play" marks the first time that the success or failure of a virtual team in a soccer game will come down to human skills or mistakes, according to David Rutter, producer of the Xbox 360 and PS3 games.
"There's no AI (artificial intelligence) involved, with the exception of goalkeepers, so it's fairly nail-biting stuff," said Rutter.
"In our play tests we've seen people new to the experience playing it like schoolboy soccer - all huddling around the ball - and we've seen people who play week-in, week-out holding their positions and screaming at their teammates just like they would on a real game."
In addition to potentially opening up the sport of soccer in the United States, the Online Team Play (OTP) feature will become standard across NHL 09 and NBA Live 09 beginning this fall.
All three games are developed at EA's Burnaby, British Columbia studio.
"It's centralized technology, but the designs for the features come from the game teams getting together and thrashing out the detail," said Rutter.
TEAM RELIES ON YOU
The team behind NHL 09 is taking the OTP concept a step further with the EA Sports Hockey League allowing gamers to customize their player down to their on-ice attributes and the name on the back of the jersey.
A team of six gamers can form a team and then play through online seasons and tournaments, watching as their virtual forwards, defenseman or goalies improve over time.
There are even in-game hockey cards loaded with statistics.
"This is one of the best online experiences you can have as everybody is depending on their teammates to succeed and everything you do has a much bigger impact than if you were playing as a single player," said Andy Agostini, online producer for NHL 09.
"Your teammates will notice if you're having a bad game."
Hoops fans will be able to track individual and team accomplishments in NBA Live 09's OTP Clubs, which allows teams of five to progress through online seasons complete with playoffs.
According to Julien Carron, producer of NBA Liver 09, the game tracks every good and bad action each player makes in the game. At the end of each game, gamers are given a rating.
"We keep track of all these ratings on the server and allow other GM's to scout you in order to invite you to their clubs," said Carron.
With the advances in sports videogames every year, this type of online play is just the first step. That said, not every sport works for team play, as no one wants to be the center or kicker the entire game in Madden NFL 09 or NCAA Football 09.
"I guess for us this was always where we wanted to go - it's a team sport, so team play makes complete sense," said Rutter. "This is the next frontier - and there's still the goalkeeper to sort out for next year."
(Editing by Belinda Goldsmith)
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