James Thursfield explores how FIFA has influenced the way we perceive real football
FIFA, with its constant iterations and slight gameplay changes, has over the years become a key component in every football fan’s vernacular. The franchise touts realism and facilitates what fans already know and enjoy about game whilst also portraying a host of teams and players unknown to the gamer. FIFA has become a key contributor, whether subconsciously or not, to how we understand the modern game. In doing so, it has become a source of numerous contrivances and premeditated views that have warped our perceptions of the real game.
At present, the ‘FIFA versus reality’ debate is relevant due to the controversy surrounding Mario Balotelli’s recent form for Liverpool FC. Despite the majority of pundits, such as Mark Lawrenson, describing his recent acquisition as “a bargain,” in recent weeks the player has attracted serious criticism. As a result, questions have arisen as to why there were such high expectations of him in the first place. This article advocates that one such reason lies within his excellent FIFA statistics.
In FIFA 14 Balotelli possessed a magnificent rating of 84 and even though this fell to 82 in FIFA 15, he still maintained the growth potential to become one of the world’s best players. Assuming that the majority of football watchers also play FIFA, it is likely that some individuals would have caught on to his virtual potential and expected similar dividends in reality. Whilst this article is not suggesting that Liverpool spent £16 million based on a player’s rating in FIFA, there is the possibility that the game helped to build a positive atmosphere which gave Balotelli’s signing an air of anticipation that was not necessarily warranted.
Similar misconceptions can also be applied to what FIFA gamers value in their football players. It is no secret that gamers such as myself prefer having faster defenders to slower ones. This has resulted in FIFA gamers dropping slow defenders who are widely considered excellent in the real world, such as John Terry, in favour of picking faster yet less reliable defenders such as David Luiz. Such views are misleading because they subtly imply that speed in the real world is more important than positioning. It could be argued that such inconsistencies are harmless because gamers and football fans can identify the differences between FIFA and the real game. However, considering that recent FIFA releases are boasting unprecedented levels of realism, it appears that the franchise is trying to make this discrepancy less pronounced.
It is also important to note that because the average English football fan is most acquainted with the Premier League, we are less familiar with foreign leagues, teams and players. Consequently, when it comes to our perceptions of foreign players FIFA has a far greater say in how we view them. Players such as Hulk, a winger who plays for Zenit St. Petersburg in the Russian League, is amazing in FIFA. For many years I was personally enthralled by his amazing pace and strength which he possessed in the game. However, when I watched him play in reality during the 2014 World Cup, I was disappointed and surprised to see him pushed off the ball so easily and have so little resemblance to his virtual counterpart. This shows how FIFA can be harmful to our football understanding, where we have limited knowledge of the real game and subsequently use information garnered from the console to fill the void.
Similar issues arise with the ‘potential’ of real-world footballers. Sport simulators such as FIFA Career Mode and Football Manager construct simulations based off statistics that predict the future of young players. Players such as Zakaria Bakkali, who in FIFA 14 had the potential to grow to a rating equal to that of Lionel Messi, has failed to show the meteoric rise he was predicted virtually. In fact, it is likely that nobody would have even heard of him had it not been for his virtual presence.
Another significant influence that FIFA has had on gamers’ perceptions of the real game, lies on their team preferences. Barcelona, a football side who in the last 5 years have had one of the best teams to ever grace the planet, is inferior to Real Madrid and Bayern Munich in all iterations of the franchise due to their lack of physicality. Similarly, England, a nation who failed to qualify from its group stage in the World Cup, is still considered on a par with Germany, the tournament winners. And considering that the overall football consensus is that Messi has consistently been the best player in the world over a number of years, in FIFA it cannot be disputed that Ronaldo has always been the best.
This piece does not aim to discredit or criticise the FIFA franchise. It remains a very useful tool for learning about new players, formations and just having loads of fun. However, FIFA no longer advertises itself as just being a great game to play with friends. It is also trying to be a football simulator. FIFA now fills the void of what the average gamer or football fan does not know about the real game. In doing so, FIFA provides a portrayal of the world in statistics and animations which, despite being convincing, is also a misleading medium. FIFA is arguably dangerous for this reason because its inaccuracies are only subtle. From discovering the unknown player, to prioritising speed over positioning, FIFA has defined our perception of what we want or expect from a player and has warped our perceptions of the real sport of football. FIFA may hold the most realistic depiction of the beautiful game, but details are lost in the translation and, unfortunately, those are the differences that distinguish myth from reality.
(Special thanks to Zachary Owen who was instrumental in the creation of this article)