As the past week brought exciting news of the impending releases of both FIFA 17 and Football Manager 2017, the biggest two games in terms of relevance of the footballing genre around, a fan of either of the franchises, or both (as I passionately am), could have been forgiven for thinking Christmas had come early. A defining aspect of the modern day, games in the sporting genre surely couldn’t have dreamt they would’ve got to the point where millions gather just to revel in the pre-release hype for their much-loved £40-a-year disks, while YouTubers, bloggers and national journalists cover breaking news regarding new features or graphical revamps. These are games that have gone from glitchy, graphically laughable cult heroes to cutting-edge, box office-smashing cornerstones of lad, and footballing, culture in the modern day, with unimaginable amounts of fans right across the globe, breaking records and pushing boundaries with every single release. But how, and why, have games such as FIFA, Football Manager, PES, Top Eleven and Flick Kick Soccer have become so popular (and financially successful) across the platforms of PC, Xbox/PlayStation and iOS/Android in the age of technological revolution when they have so many competitors in the video game market with higher quality products? How much further can they now go too, given that they have a formula that is proven as successful, and we are starting to see their influence at top clubs with official FIFA players, and in the Premier league with noticeable sponsorship from EA?
Starting off with clunky graphics, hard-to-master controls and fondly remembered titles such as International Soccer, Kick Off, Match Day, NES Soccer, Atari 2600 RealSports and Goal! over the course of the 1980’s, the culture of football video games rapidly grew from a few hundred sales to (partial) worldwide success, without any company ever sustaining off of it. Each game brought new and interesting niches, capturing the imaginations of a vast market of young football fans, carrying onto the early 90’s with this pattern. But many game producers were under pressure to keep producing new concepts to stay in business, so couldn’t afford to risk returning to their once-successful games to reproduce annual editions, and as a result, there were no real dominant players in the market.
But this all changed when the world football governing body leant their name and approval to a burgeoning American video game brand, Electronic Arts (for no small fee on EA’s part), and thus the FIFA game legacy was born with FIFA 94 being released in the late weeks of 1993. The game only contained International teams, with no genuine player names, but it had everything that was required to succeed, improving graphics and gameplay (other than a glitch from which you could score by standing in front of the goalkeeper). Most importantly though, it capitalised on the interest in the 1994 World Cup, hosted on EA’s home turf, possibly a player in the global federation’s decision to hand them the rights to their name. EA never looked back from that point on, with ever-growing sales year on year, breaking the mould of football games with everything they did, and winning the hearts – as well as hard-earned cash – of millions.
New players came onto the scene at this point, sensing the potential of a franchise boosting notoriety and profits with increasing annual sales corresponding with improved quality for the customer, as Championship Manager (growing after its 1992 release) and Goal Storm (originating in 1997) began on their paths to glory. By 2001, the latter had become the now world-famous (as a result of the FIFA vs PES debate) Pro Evolution Soccer, while after an unceremonious break-up with Eidos Interactive, the creators of the former, Sports Interactive, merged with Sega to form Football Manager in 2004. Ever since, all three games have had incredible success, employing more and more talented game mechanics and graphic artists every year to produce the most up-to-date and streamlined editions of these beautiful games there can be. They each have their competitive advantages, their unique aspects which allow them to keep drawing fans back, but there is no doubt that they have become titans of not just the sporting genre of video gaming, but of the entirety of the gaming industry, winning over the hearts and minds of many a football fan, from 6 years old to 60, with enduring appeal, much like the game itself they all parody.
But why do we all (well, many of us at least) love them? Well, in my opinion, I would say it is because they are an escape from the reality of both football and everyday life; taking away the nitty-gritty, petulant imperfections to the beautiful game and instead creating a world which focuses on the one important aspect of it; the actual football. It puts us in the positions we would love to be in; the managers, the players and the chairmen, making all the decisions which seem so simple to us and transforming the fortunes of clubs like Accrington Stanley, FC United of Manchester, or in my case Forest Green Rovers, giving us the power to shape the game we want. If there is a more immersive and wonderfully unrealistic gaming experience out there which can still parade itself as a ‘simulator’ of real life, I’d like to know about it, because I don’t feel games like FIFA and Football Manager can be beaten on this. If there was a tagline for these games to run on, for me it would be ‘from the sublime to the ridiculous; the power is in your hands to shape your footballing world’. Seriously, in the year 2036 in my current FM16 save (yes, another instalment of what’s happening in Football Manager for me), Lionel Messi just became manager of Swansea, sitting 19th in the Championship. You just cannot make this stuff up.
One of the things that these games get so right is the emotional journey. If you are like me, über-competitive, you will get truly involved in the path to possible glory for your club, and will share the kind of joy from a win or despondence from a loss for your side as you would in real life, even if you were managing a side you had never heard of before. To be able to get so emotionally wrapped up in the story of a football club, one which you are writing yourself, is a magical experience, and in all honesty hard to explain as to how it happens every single time, as maybe it is just one of those biological things about sport; how it brings out the rawest emotions in anyone.
Other than being emotional rollercoasters, these games also play a vital role in lad culture, perfectly summing up the phenomenon of the man-child, as we all revel in the social entertainment they provide, bringing mates together of any age to reminisce, have a chat and get competitive to become the unopposable champion of the art of gaming. If you think about it, playing the video game version of the beautiful game has become the new going-down-to-the-park-with-your-mates kind of ritual, a way to connect with others who have a passion of our sport, and I very much doubt that will change over the next few decades. It has become the social norm for any football fan to be an avid player of all the computer games based on the sport, as many companies have capitalised on a gloriously untapped market and delving into the depths of possibility to gauge how deep the market really is for these types of games. Luckily for EA Sports, as well as Sports Interactive here in the UK, they have found mind-boggling success from their partnerships with the various clubs, leagues and federations of world football, and I think that success can go a lot further, as they have both already survived the tests of two, maybe even three, generations who have all been firm favourites of the games.
But the profiteers of the growing sales EA, Sports Interactive and many more game companies are seeing are not just the producers themselves, rather the actual football organisations themselves. The best analogy I could give the relationship between the big cheeses at these top footballing federations and the ambitious salesmen of these flashy new products is that it is similar to that of the African Rhinos and Cattle Egrets, stork-like white birds who perch on the backs of large mammals in the savannah. I’m sure you must have seen it on a David Attenborough documentary, where the egret sits on the back of the rhino and feeds off the numerous ticks which disturb and wound the rhino, protecting the short-sighted beast from predators with high-pitched calls and performing a vital role to its survival, while the horned creature provides the food which the bird needs to be successful. This is one of the most basic examples of a mutualistic relationship, in which both sides get no more than they give and are both rewarded by the achievement of one another. The way this works with our game producers and Premier League representatives, let’s say, in the human world, is that as the Premier League strikes a deal to allow the game to use its name, club and league logos, player identities, stadiums and rules, the game company can make a more realistic in-game experience, therefore selling more copies, and bringing profits into both companies, as the Premier League gets a cut of the revenue.
This isn’t all though, as the success of a video game bringing in new fans to the sport, as well as retaining the interest of millions of fans who could potentially be lost in between game weeks, can result in higher ticket sales for real life matches, higher viewing figures on Sky Sports and Match of the Day and healthier merchandise sales for clubs. This combination of positive things for clubs and leagues can then result in droves of new sponsorship deals falling their way, as more companies will spot how big a deal the league, or each club, is in society, and decide they want a slice of that pie. Results on the stranger side for clubs around the world from FIFA and Football Manager might include new fans from half way around the globe that have never attended a match, but heard about them through the game and got swept up in the emotion. I know I’ve definitely felt like a fan of the likes of Forest Green, Gainsborough Trinity, St Mirren and Deportivo La Coruña during my stints managing them in various editions of Football Manager. I also know of many stories where fans have travelled the world over to witness their adopted club play and get involved in the story, whether that be purchasing a share, organising a fan club, or volunteering at the club on match days, proving that amazing things can happen just from loading up FIFA or FM one day and discovering something totally new.
The point is, these simple computer games can create commercial opportunities that were impossible and unimaginable 25 years ago in the days before the world wide web (first booted up in August 1991), linking people from each corner of the globe together, allowing them to share stories and research anything they like in a matter of seconds. This is the future of football; and clubs have to join in on the freight train or risk being left behind in the shadow of a commercial paradise. Global partnerships are what are making football so interesting, compelling and fantastic in the modern day, linking people together who otherwise would never had even been aware of one another, and this is partly thanks to the FIFA/Football Manager-led revolution of instantaneous fandom.
It’s important to note then, that one of the most significant changes these games have seen from their birth up to now is the variety of leagues and teams that you can manage and play for, vastly broadening the footballing spectrums of millions around the world, and becoming part of the education of new football fans. For example, who knew of the teams in the Spanish Liga Adelante, Dutch Jupiler League or Welsh Premier League outside of their home nations before they spotted them on the databases of FIFA or FM? Who memorised hundreds, if not thousands, of club badges, from scrolling through the options of clubs to take over, and has since become an expert in naming each? Who has since gone on to become a true connoisseur of the beautiful game, a footballing hipster, ever since they picked up these life-changing games? Millions of people, that’s your answer. These mere games have altered perceptions, expanded horizons and brought people together by just being masterpieces of creation, ambitious enough to try different things and take risks in introducing new leagues which might not bring vast commercial income, but sticking to their guns in pursuit of perfection. I can do nothing but love games like FIFA and Football Manager for whetting my footballing appetite and allowing me to roam free with football, learning so much and honestly inspiring me to do what I do today, as I was playing FIFA far earlier than I was running around in the playground against those who actually had a bit of skill with the ball. Honestly, I don’t think you’d be reading this blog right now if it wasn’t for my endless hours spent playing various editions of FIFA or Football Manager.
How far can these games go in the future though? Well, they can continue to capture the imaginations of millions of young fans for a start, while sharpening up graphics and the reality of their gameplay, working with the platform designers at Xbox, PlayStation, Apple and Steam to really make these games second only to actually playing or watching a match of football. Virtual reality may be the next big step, but the heart of the game must remain in giving the gift of football to generations of new fans, with the chance to just have fun with the most popular participation sport around the world. Sometimes we can get too carried away with the sad reality of modern day football, but it is impossible to hate games like FIFA and FM (even if they do charge £40 for one copy of their software) because they strip away all the lamentable and regrettable aspects about the game, focusing on what really matters; the actual game. That is why these titles do so well, because we would all rather focus on that part of the package, the human part where we can just have fun, that crux of any sport which has enduring and endless appeal to (almost) everyone who gets involved in it, that one special thing which keeps us sticking around for more and more of the crazy game. Let’s just hope that we can continue to be blessed with that one thing for many moons more, rather than being blinded and misguided by the rest, as we all need a bit more enjoyment from a sport, which like any other, was invented for the rawest of human emotions; fun.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!