Today the latest version of the football-simulation juggernaut, FIFA, was released worldwide. You may think this annual event is just like any other entertainment release – a way for youngsters to while away the time while filling the coffers of global video game companies. But you’d be wrong, because for teenage boys across the land, FIFA has become an integral part of, and in many ways indistinguishable from, the footballing culture that cements so many male friendships.
Whereas the stereotype of someone playing an FPS (first person shooter) or RTS (real-time-strategy) is a man-child wearing headphones in a dark room in his basement, playing a football simulation does not carry quite the same stigma. And as the king of football sims, FIFA cleverly trades on the cool of the sport it is based on.
This is clear in how its adverts feature superstar athletes playing as themselves and trying to beat their famous friends. These real-life gods want to be better than their friends at FIFA, just as we mere mortals do.
FIFA is designed for the armchair fan, but that is not a criticism because football now belongs to those armchair fans. And there are few with greater ownership of the game than the teenagers playing FIFA. Twelve-year-olds now know who every player in every major league is, and regardless of how skewed FIFA’s stats may be, we know who should be faster than whom, and who should be better at taking free-kicks.
In this way FIFA has changed the way we consume the full circus of football. FIFA aficionados will rate the transfers of unknown players based on FIFA ratings, and hype a player accordingly. Before Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku became household names, they were unknown 16-year-olds in FIFA with extremely good stats. Teenage boys who played the game closely may well have known about the future superstars before Antonio Conte or Jose Mourinho ever did.
FIFA further mirrors the game it simulates by never really changing a great deal. Its business model is simple but effective – get millions of people to spend £50 each year, for what is essentially the same game with a few tweaks here and there. It’s a lot like the way each new Premier League season kicks off – the same, but slightly different. Again, like football, and indeed many other games, FIFA is played throughout the year. There is no bingeing to complete a storyline as though it were a Netflix drama.
In its essence, FIFA translates the culture of going to see your team play every weekend, or going to the pub to watch the game with your mates, for the teenage boy unable to afford a season ticket or too young to drink. It takes the history and tradition of football and puts it in the trust of teenagers, assuring the beautiful game’s future.
For generations of young fans, FIFA is more than a football simulation – it is the essence of what football is today.