With FIFA 21 released in the past week, My Old Man Said podcast contributor Phil Shaw looks at his relationship to the game, and the game’s relationship to the modern day football fan.
EA Sports FIFA series has been around since 1993. I’ve owned or played every copy and despite strong allegiances to the rival PES series, FIFA is as important in many people’s lives as football itself. Fans buy the game and the disc isn’t removed from their console until the next iteration is out. But why is this game so popular and what effect is it having on this generation’s football fan?
The reason FIFA sits on top of the tree is the adherence to modern football. PES always felt more like you needed to use reality and techniques learnt through actual participation in football, FIFA was the simulation of what is served up to you as a product by the Premier League and Europe’s elite leagues. So as the product changes further and further from the grassroots, the game that simulates the product rather than the sport, is always going to be the winner. It is a series played and promoted by fans, professional footballers and online celebrities who use the dark arts of Ultimate Team to raise their online persona.
As a Villa fan these games sit in an uncanny valley, meaning that they can be such an accurate representation that if Villa are performing poorly, the last thing you want to do is fire the game up and play as them. Luckily, we’ve been doing OK as version ’21 rolls around, so I’m willing to get stuck in again.
The Idiot’s Guide
There’s three main components to current FIFA games, Ultimate Team, Career and Volta. These three modes have allowed the game to cast a wide net and try to cater for as many football fans as possible – both casual and hardcore.
For a mature gamer like me, the main focus is on the career mode. Pick a team in any league and assume the role of manager off the pitch as well as controlling the team on it. The main changes this year are added individual dribbling depth, controlling team mates runs and the ability to play the game like a stripped-back version of the other football gaming juggernaut, Football Manager.
Introduced last year, Volta mode is the successful street football simulation, that allows for outrageous tricks and skills in 3-on-3 or up to proper Futsal matches. It is a worthwhile distraction as not everyone wants the mid-season slog against a team parking the bus, if you only have a short time to play. It can be tricky and an improved campaign mode will give it some legs, when you are feeling the fatigue of normal football. Of course being played on the street, it comes with all the trappings of designer clothes and sportswear sponsorship that flood the global game.
The real damaging influencer on modern fans however is the Ultimate Team mode. For anyone unaware, this is a controversial mode that allows people to build teams through randomly achieved packs of players. You play matches against other players created teams and earn coins, which are spent as an in-game currency for the chance to win more and more coins to improve your team even further.
There is a similarity with the direction of travel for FIFA and the state of football in general over the last decade. The effects on the coming generation of football fans mentality and attitudes can be traced back to this mode in FIFA.
Football’s Gambling Problems
Despite the fact you can earn coins by beating teams, doing challenges and generally playing the game, this isn’t enough for some people and lured by the chance to have the best players to compete online with others, pour hundreds of real life money into the mode.
I still play the game as it was originally released and get a sense of satisfaction playing this mode and not spending a single penny of real money in building my expensive squad. There is though a multimillion pound industry built off the back of people gambling real money in the hope of landing the best players in the world at ridiculous odds in these packs.
What started off as a gimmick addition to the game has grown into a moral and ethical debate in multiple countries. Laws have been passed to make EA Sports put the actual odds of attaining decent players on the packets before they are purchased.
There are countless stories of younger players getting hold of their parents credit cards and running up bills into the thousands, without even getting any decent players to show for it. In fact, the House of Lords are trying to get this mode regulated under the 2005 Gambling Act, as the origins in gambling are so blatant.
An online marketplace for the trading of players adds to the shady area of real money being needed as substitute for hours of game play. People even spend hours watching gamers on YouTube and Twitch posting videos of themselves opening hundreds of packs in the hope of landing the best players. Of course, they are a self-sustaining industry as everyone who watches contributes to their income, but the gateway into gambling that this perpetuates is ingrained in younger fans from an early age.
When you see FIFA advertise players as being in the team of the week or TOTW, this is just as bad as seeing an advert at half-time for you to put a bet on the team that are losing. It is a time limited event that hooks you in with the shiny card of your player at set odds, just like betting on the number of goals in the second half. The triggers are the same even if one is wrapped up in a video game.
It grates me when you put your team online and all you play against are people who have bought their way to success. Play a game online and you will invariably play against teams full of the players Halaand, Mbappe, and Ter Stegen, who are the main offenders this year. This trio of players is coveted most by online players for their stats in the game and to an extent how they can be used against others online.
Every year there are freak players who are unplayable in FIFA, yet are pretty ordinary in reality. Google Ben Yedder and FIFA, and you will see what I mean.
Gamers work out increasingly complex ways to shoehorn these players into their teams and because they can do this in the game, they have this twisted logic that the actual teams they support can do this at the touch of a button in the real world.
Amplified by social media, you only need to look at the furore of the recent transfer window to see how easy fans think it is to sort out multi-million business deals for players and slot them into their team. In reality, it isn’t as simple as pay the money, get the player, like it is on a games console.
Villa fans recently experienced this with the hype over Milot Rashicha and the reported interest in him. People who presumably had seen just a clip or two of him online, or played with him on FIFA, thought he would be the signing that would transform Villa.
Of course, outside of FIFA, Villa were led on a merry dance by a combination of Twitter ITK’s, the player’s agent and the player himself, until they opted for Bertrand Traore and Ross Barkley, allowing Jack Grealish to remain out on the left.
Despite this solution, people were still begging for the Rashica deal to be done until the closing moments of the window, with no regard what knock on effects it could have on the team.
Faux Tactical Nous
The fact that Football Manager and FIFA are such cultural icons now is creating an online echo chamber for people who’s main interaction with the sport is via a controller or keyboard. The same kind of fan is the one that can attack players and managers on social media, as if they are online competitors in a game.
The most obvious criticism of players are the simple ones – you should have scored that, you should have made that simple pass. More experienced people will highlight positioning and movement off the ball. Yet people who play these games take it to a new level. He wasn’t playing his part in the gengen-press, he has tried to reinvent himself as a deep-lying playmaker. We need to sign a Trequartista. These are phrases born out of these games and then suddenly parroted as valid critique of players online. Criticising Henri Lansbury for misplacing a pass in a match report is one thing, but abusing him online for not fitting into your tactical nous discovered against a computer is something entirely different.
Obsessive success in these games lead to people thinking they have an in-depth technical understanding of the game, when in fact all they are doing is putting the quickest players in attack and holding down buttons. In fact, one feature of the Ultimate Team mode is the ability to convert one of your players into another position. In real life this happens so rarely, Thierry Henry was converted from a winger to a centre forward in the most famous modern example, but FIFA has people thinking players can be converted into all kinds of roles, when the truth is football only has a set number of roles on the pitch, no matter how they are dressed up in online discussion.
Take the furore over Gareth Southgate not picking Jack Grealish regularly for England. Southgate, whether we like him or not, has been in the game for decades, he has seen and competed against all kinds of players, and he has a defined way he wants to play and the characteristics of players he wants in his starting eleven. He will know more about setting up a team and what’s needed than the world’s best football gamer, despite his apparent love for right-backs.
People don’t play Superhero games and think they can fly, so they need to stop playing football games and thinking they are better than people with actual experience and qualifications.
It’s Only a Game
It’s easy to say this is only a game or people are smart enough to know it’s a simulation, so what’s the problem? However, doing so is turning a blind eye to the future of football media and behaviour.
Already it is major news among players when the latest FIFA ratings are revealed. If players endorsed gambling companies as blatantly as they endorse FIFA, then people would be in uproar. The fact that gambling can be endorsed as insidiously and unwittingly as this should be the warning needed for how influential a game can be. After all it is an increasingly captive market, with fans almost guaranteed to buy the new edition every year once hooked.
You may say this is hypocritical coming from me an avid fan and player of these games, but my true interest in football came from playing amateur league football for over 20 years and having a fascination with the game’s history. These are my first reference points when it comes to football, the console is more like another dimension.
These games have their place and should compliment the sport. I enjoy them and it is the closest simulation I will get to playing at the greatest stadiums in the world and pitting my wits against others, but the key word is simulation. I can tell it is a simulation and enjoy it for what it has always been.
That said, I thought it was only by playing FIFA on a console that you’d have a chance of beating Liverpool 7-2, but that apparently happens in real life too nowadays.
Maybe I won’t need FIFA 22, if Grealish and the boys keep performing?