As 'FIFA14' launches, its real-world counterpart watches closely

With every virtual match played, the video game gives American soccer officials big insight into potential audience

Paris St.-Germain and Manchester City square off in this screen shot from "FIFA14," which hits stores Tuesday.
Electronic Arts

As Crew Stadium in Columbus, Ohio, prepared to host a vital World Cup qualifying match between the United States and Mexico two weeks ago, Major League Soccer executives were gathered at a business summit elsewhere in the city talking about video games.

It wasn't all fun and games, though.

Matt Bilbey, general manager of EA Sports, presented not just the latest edition in the company's hugely successful soccer video-game series, "FIFA14," which hits store shelves Tuesday, but also the potential of the online data mined from the video game's players. 

As the EA Sports presentation outlined, from its user data it is possible to know who plays "FIFA" games where, which teams people choose and how long they play -- potentially serving up at least one engaged group of fans for MLS to factor into future marketing decisions. And the fact that, according to a 2012 ESPN poll, the strong gamer demographic of 12-to-24-year-old Americans watches more televised soccer than any other sport except NFL games suggests there may indeed be some correlation between the market penetration of the video game and young people turning toward real-life soccer. 

Among U.S. soccer officials, the notion that the "FIFA" franchise might represent a significant front in the battle to engage hearts and minds in North America is an idea taken very seriously. In a market where fewer than 50 percent of Americans have access to a local MLS team and where large-market teams like the New York Red Bulls must compete with nearly a dozen other major sports teams (as well as televised versions of the bigger European leagues) for attention, the "FIFA" success story throughout the continent may offer some intriguing clues as to where to place finite resources.

The raw numbers for the game are astonishing.

"FIFA13," last year's edition, was the No. 1 game in 43 countries the week of its launch, selling 4.5 million copies in the first five days. At one point that first week, it had more than 810,000 players online playing the game simultaneously, and just under 7 million online games are played every day. To put those figures in context, rapper Drake, the guest at Monday night’s "FIFA14" launch party and one of the biggest artists in the world today, saw his 2011 album, "Take Care," debut at the top of the Billboard charts with first-week sales of 610,000 and then take two more years to sell 2 million copies. And an album is considerably cheaper than a game. "FIFA14" retails at $59.99 for a console version, and the series has taken in some $6 billion through its various editions. 

In part, the appeal of the game for the uninitiated is the game play. While each version brings incremental improvements ("FIFA14" leans heavily on the improved realism of players' abilities to shield a ball in their possession, and the online component has become more sophisticated each year), the video game, like soccer itself, has an innate simplicity, especially compared with other popular sports video games.

"Out of the box, it's a game that you can play right away," said Eddie Pope, a former U.S. international player and currently the director of player relations at the MLS Players Union. "There's not a huge learning curve."

Pope is also a firm subscriber to the idea that the game is a big cultural influence.

"That is true, 100 percent," he said. "I've seen (NFL) football players and basketball payers tweet about playing 'FIFA,' saying they'll take on anyone. Then when you can play these games (online) and see who's who, it makes it tempting to want to turn on the TV and say, 'I want to see what that player's like in real life.' I know my son does it, his teammates do it, and it's been a bit of a cultural phenomenon. It’s definitely played a role in broadening the horizons of people who don't normally play soccer or who didn't watch soccer. For some of the kids tuning in to watch soccer for the first time, their first taste of it was through a video game."

A virtual sensation

As if to emphasize that this is a franchise built on crossover potential, Monday's launch party at New York's Union Square Ballroom featured a "FIFA" contest between soccer star Tim Cahill (formerly of Everton in the English Premier League and currently a New York Red Bulls player) playing against guest of honor Drake while Swizz Beatz deejayed a booming set. In drawing on a crossover between soccer and music, EA knows it's tapping into a formula that goes back to the 1960s, when Manchester United's playboy superstar George Best was dubbed the fifth Beatle. But if soccer and pop like to borrow each other's glamour, they were both outdone by the host that night. The video game is king. 

Even Drake is not too big to know the value of an appearance on the game's soundtrack, and at the highest level of international soccer, it's easy to see how the game's mirroring of real life allows for already dominant brands to cross-promote. "FIFA13" has seen more than 30 million matches played between Spanish powerhouses Real Madrid and Barcelona, for example, and the latter has 1.9 million fans on the game's social-media site. 

At the other end of the spectrum, though, many of Cahill's New York teammates were able to wander around the launch event unrecognized in their home city -- very aware of soccer's historically subordinate position in American culture even as they sense the stirrings of that status changing.

Dax McCarty, who plays in midfield alongside Cahill, could be forgiven for having a more skeptical take on what the game has done for him. Despite being a most valuable player in real life last season, McCarty wasn't even listed as a starter in the video-game version of his team.

"I am crossing my fingers that not only am I in the team but that they made my hair color more accurate," he said dryly. "I think last year they invented a special new color ... nuclear orange."

But he's excited about what the launch represents.

"It's insane. Drake's definitely one of the biggest stars out right now, so for them to get an A-list celebrity like that to come and play Tim Cahill in the opening game, it shows how far the sport and MLS have come, as well as 'FIFA,'" he said. "It's already breaking into the top four major sports and with the youth ... You can't find one kid or fan that hasn't played 'FIFA,' so they’re doing something right."

Back to reality

MLS executives may be cautiously optimistic that the success of the "FIFA" series and broadcast arrangements like NBC's recent megadeal for English Premier League rights represent a tipping point for the sport's audience in this country, but MLS will soon confront questions in negotiations with the players' union over the expiring collective-bargaining agreement next year. Player rights, salary caps, sponsorship, pensions, concussion policy and more are real issues the domestic game must resolve.

The challenges of the future were far from anyone's concerns at the New York "FIFA14" event, though. Cahill prevailed 3-2 over Drake (with his own avatar scoring the winning goal), and he dutifully enthused about the new game play.

"It's more realistic. It makes you play through the midfield, which suits me," he said.

Having won, he was surrounded by his real-life teammates for a grinning photo shoot that looked like any team celebrating a win anywhere, even if this battle was fought with moving pixels on a large screen.

The same players will be contesting the real thing soon enough. They fly to Seattle this weekend as MLS Eastern Conference leaders taking on the Western Conferenceleading Seattle Sounders in front of an anticipated 60,000 people. And as much as Cahill, originally from Australia, is a respectful ambassador for the "FIFA" franchise, it's the mention of the Seattle game that makes him really light up.

"That's why we play football," he said.

For real.

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