It's all in the game

By Jonathan White Source:Global Times Published: 2017/9/28 23:29:27

Release of FIFA 18 shows how far the series has come


Arsenal and France striker Alexandre Lacazette holds a placard showing his attribute rankings in video game FIFA 18 at a launch party for the game in London on September 21. Photo: IC

For millions of soccer fans, the biggest day of their season took place this past Friday with the official launch of the FIFA 18 video game. Many of them had already got hold of the game through downloadable demos, pre-ordered special editions or, in some cases, queuing outside the store for midnight openings. Those who do get their hands on a copy can pick from over 700 full-licensed club and national teams, with women's national teams again included as they have been since FIFA 16, and a variety of game modes that go well beyond recreating the leagues and cups of the real world.

It's all a far cry from the release of the first in the series, FIFA International Soccer, back in the run-up to Christmas 1993. The game was created by Electronic Arts (EA) as the first soccer game in their EA Sports series, which already included American football (the Madden series, beginning in 1988), golf (PGA Tour, 1990) and ice hockey (NHL Hockey, 1991). Developed by Extended Play Productions, now known as EA Canada, the first game continued with the officially licensed model of other EA Sports titles but the 48 playable national team rosters are all populated by fictional names, including star players bearing the names of members of the development team such as Chinese programmer Jan Tian being immortalized as Brazil's crack striker Janco Tiano.

Player fury

That is not a problem that EA Sports has to deal with for a long while. The FIFA series signed a deal with FIFPro, the federation of professional soccer players, which allowed them to use real player names for the third game in the series, FIFA 96, and has continued to do so ever since. It's something that the players themselves take seriously and several have been very vocal in response to EA Sports releasing their ratings in the weeks leading up to the release of FIFA 18.

Delle Alli complained about his in-game rating on Rio Ferdinand's FIVE YouTube channel, while Manchester City's Benjamin Mendy called out EA Sports on Twitter for rating him lower than his teammates, and Chelsea's Michy Batshuayi demanded EA Sports "explain yourselves" for his score. Even down in the lower leagues - FIFA 18 covers 52 fully licensed national leagues, including their lower divisions - Wycombe Wanderers striker Adebayo Akinfenwa has expressed his ire at not being given a 99 rating for strength.

Alternate reality

The man they call "The Beast" owes some of his cult status to the series, where in various editions of FIFA he has been ranked as the physically strongest player in the game. If that is something that even the most casual fan of the real game can get behind when playing the virtual version, then Akinfenwa's career at AFC Wimbledon also added to his cultural cachet thanks to acclaimed author John Green's sideline in uploading videos of him playing as the side he calls the Wimbly Womblys to his own YouTube channel.

FIFA has emerged as something of its own world. There are professional players of the video game, who earn money on contracts representing real world clubs at tournaments or for prize money, and their regimes are every bit as controlled and demanding as the players of professional soccer. There are also real-world teams that exist because of the video game. Hashtag United were started by YouTube gamer Spencer Owen on his Spencer FC channel and now play in their own version of the game's FIFA Ultimate Team mode and challenge teams made up of Premier League academy staff, media organizations and celebrities. Hashtag United's kit is one of several e-Sports teams that can be purchased by players for their own FIFA Ultimate Team in the game. That is another indication that there are hundreds of thousands of people who will watch people play video games, or video gamers playing real soccer, or even play as those video gamers in a video game rather than watch the actual sport that the FIFA series makes virtual.

New world

This blurred line between the virtual and the real is one that EA appears wise to with the inclusion of The Journey, a narrative game mode that was introduced in FIFA 17, where the player takes the role of promising young player Alex Hunter as he aims to build a career, interacting with real-life players and media personalities along the way. Hunter, played by Nigerian-English actor Tomiwa Edun, returns for this year and during his attempts to reach the peak of world soccer, in which he meets the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Rio Ferdinand, he also becomes a Coke Zero ambassador. It's a believable part of the life of a young player while simultaneously a canny advertising opportunity and follows on from his role in the adidas "First Never Follows" campaign in his debut.

Aside from exciting the advertising industry, such tie-ins add to the authenticity within the game. The series has sold well over 100 million copies around the world with FIFA 18 localized in almost 20 languages and available in more than 50 countries and regions. For many of those, this is how they consume all of their soccer. Many of them think FIFA is merely the name of the game and not the world soccer governing body, which is perhaps no bad thing given the original FIFA's recent past.

FIFA, the video game, hasn't had it all its own way over the years, either. It has long been in a pitched battle with Konami's Pro Evolution Soccer series, a rivalry as strong as any in real soccer. And for many years PES, not FIFA, was regarded as the superior game (and still is in some corners), while the FIFA Manager series of management simulations was ultimately a failure in the face of Football Manager. Regardless, FIFA remains on top for now and is set to break sales records once again with the release of FIFA 18, and a new generation of future professional soccer players and professional FIFA players await.

Posted in: SOCCER

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