In 'FIFA 21,' the game's Career Mode finally shows signs of life again

But not all of the new features are worthwhile.

After years of players begging for EA Sports to provide significant updates to Career Mode, FIFA 21 has finally taken a step forward.

With the rise of Ultimate Team and the microtransactions it’s enabled, the FIFA franchise has let languish what is still one of the most vital game modes for any sports title. Career Mode, in which players can take the reins of their favorite team over the course of several seasons, has only seen minor adjustments for the last five years and has largely failed to address players’ most frequent complaints.

Most prominently, it’s been nearly impossible to take advantage of the Youth Scouting and Youth Academy to produce a high-quality player for the senior team. Growing a player’s skills largely depended on a mini game-based training system that was prone to overdeveloping a player in certain areas and messing up the balance of their skillset. Most difficult of all was improving a player’s stamina, without which they couldn’t play a large number of minutes in matches. Sure, a player could improve if they consistently played well in matches — but again, their initial stamina held them back.

This frustrating conundrum defined the experience of Career Mode’s youth development, but it appears as if it’s finally been solved in FIFA 21. The latest version of the world’s most popular sports video game, which officially launches on October 9 for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC, has overhauled the training and development systems for Career Mode and shifted the focus of its mini game-like drills.

Back to Basics

EA Sports

A player’s growth has been separated from the playable training systems and is now determined by plans that take into account their position and specialties. By choosing the right plan, a player can convert positions — from, say, fullback to winger — and improve in key areas for distinct approaches to their position. If you want your fullback to be more active in the attacking game, you can select a plan that’ll increase their speed, crossing, and attack rate. If you want them to be more of a staunch defender, select another plan that’ll focus more on their defensive traits and defensive work rate.

At last, our desires are starting to be addressed.

This development occurs largely in the background over the course of a season, but in the half-season I’ve played, it’s proven much more reliable than the old system. If you’ve played Career Mode in the past, you’ll also notice that I mentioned work rates are able to be improved. This is a first for the franchise — addressing another frequent complaint — and players’ skill moves and weak foot attributes are also subject to improvement for the first time.

Instead of improving players’ skills, the new Active Training feature is used to determine players’ sharpness and fitness. As manager, you must balance training sessions with days of rest and recovery to achieve the optimal balance of these two traits. Players with low sharpness scores won’t play to their full abilities, while players with low fitness won’t be able to play for as long during a game. Training sessions boost the players’ sharpness to a degree determined by the score you receive for each mini-game, but they also decrease fitness. Rest and recovery days increase fitness but decrease sharpness.

All In

EA Sports

Deciding what to schedule for each day may sound like a delicate equation, but the truth is that the default setting solves it easily. During weeks with fewer games, you’ll end up with more training days than in years past, when you were limited to just one per week. Keeping up with these sessions quickly becomes tedious, but fortunately, simulating them will automatically apply the best score you’ve achieved on your own. Once you’ve gotten As across the board, simulating is the most convenient and efficient way to move forward — but that’s not exactly a ringing endorsement for one of the two most significant new features for FIFA 21’s career mode. If you don’t find yourself wanting to play it, why should it be there?

If you don’t find yourself wanting to play it, why should it be there?

Another new feature is Interactive Match Sim, which allows you to watch the gameplay out in a window that shows the game moving at an increased speed, as well as key statistics like possession, shots, and chances. You can make adjustments to your teams’ tactical approach and substitute players while simulating — and if the game still isn’t going how you want, you can jump right in and play. It’s a great way to take more control of your team while still moving through the season at a faster rate. The number of matches during each season can quickly add up, and not everyone wants to play each and every game.

My biggest complaint, besides the monotony of Active Training, is in how clunky the menus are. The layout carries over from FIFA 20 and drops in the new features haphazardly. Player Development can’t be accessed in the same window where you set your lineup — you’ve got to exit and go into the Squad Hub to access it. And to access the very same feature for your Youth Academy, you’ve got to go to a whole other section. EA Sports should have taken the opportunity to completely redesign its Career Mode menu, but instead, it’s given us an experience that’s even more inconvenient.

From the Trenches

On the plus side, the Transfer Market has been improved with the addition of “loan-to-buy” options from the real world. Players looking for a more authentic experience can increase the negotiation strictness when initially setting up Career Mode. By doing so, rival teams won’t just ship over their best players, and many players will indicate they don’t desire a move regardless of the situation. With the difficulty turned up, I’ve been unable to get wünderkinds to transfer over to Forest Green, the fourth level English club I’m managing. The league is beneath their skills in real life, and they feel the same way in-game. It makes my mission to make Forest Green a Premier League powerhouse more difficult, but I appreciate the challenge.

Overall, FIFA 21’s Career Mode manages to decrease the feelings of neglect that have come with it for too long. The new features aren’t a fix-all, however, and I hope that the team at EA Sports doesn’t think that because they made more changes than usual, they can sit back and largely ignore Career Mode for a few more years. Some of us FIFA players don’t want to play online and be bled for more money than we’ve already spent on the game. At last, our desires are starting to be addressed — but it’s just that, a start.