On playing yet another FIFA: A Bridge Too Near in Simulation?

By Jordan Brown

Fall is here, and tagging along behind the start of major European football—as it annually does—is the release of another iteration of Electronic Arts’ FIFA Soccer franchise. It is part of our yearly calendar, as expected as any other recurring event like Christmas or V-E Day. As such, it shouldn’t be a cause for much preoccupation on my part, but this year I find myself facing a choice which for so long has been as determined as the change of seasons: will I be buying FIFA this year?

An indicator of just how existentially fraught this question is for me would be the pre-order receipt in my desk which was purchased six months ago. It was a transaction done with the same compulsory spirit as submitting my taxes. The evolving soccer simulator has ingrained itself into my life, serving as a short time-waster between dressing and waiting for friends to go out, as an expressive outlet for my aesthetic of short and quick passing which builds to a fluid goal execution, and most often as my nearest available analogue to experience the world of professional football. The thought though, that has been constantly nagging through this year’s swelling marketing and looming release is, “Is this even the football game I want to be playing?”

Since 2009, each iteration of FIFA has been met with greater and greater acclaim. Where the market was once split very deeply between Konami’s Pro Evo loyalists and FIFA dilettantes, the resources behind EA have dragged the contest in their favor, making their game a revelatory phenomenon in annual sales and marketing ubiquity. The other shoe seemed to really fall for Pro Evo this year as Lionel Messi—the most marketable athlete on the planet—brought his cherubic face over to FIFA after years posing for Konami cameras.

One can almost imagine the reviews just prior to 0-day. One can do so because one has seen essentially the same review for the past five years. This is the best FIFA yet. While showing mostly incremental changes, this is still the most realistic football simulation ON THE PLANET. We do have some quibbles about some of the multiplayer and Ultimate Team… This isn’t a slight towards reviewers, it is the same approximate situation with most annual sports games, but football is my sport—it is my daily obsession—and something about this ritual is becoming hollow. Where EA is supposed to be selling me a simulation of this beautiful game which holds my attention so firmly, all the minor tweaks and multiplayer features aren’t adding up to be the football I want to simulate.

In all these years of playing FIFA, there have been no El Clasico brawls—no embattled referees or gouged eyes. I’ve never had to spar with Zlatan in the press, entered the San Siro to crimson-lit smoke, nor have I ever seen a single, solitary Gunnersaurus. Perhaps I’ve lost too many online matches to absurd Drogba headers or chased Robben too long down the sideline, but hearing about a new ‘First Touch System’ or ‘Refined Tactical Free-Kicks’ just doesn’t get me going. It all adds up to just more ways to press A,X,Y, and B—but none of it has Pepe Reina stomping on my hand.

The moment I think EA sent me into this hand wringing was at the last E3 when they were showcasing how Xbox Kinect would be involved with the FIFA 13. You can shout substitutions and tactical changes at your television, or ask your teammates to shoot—all things which can easily be handled by the controller in your hand. But then, near the end of the Kinect features, they showed off a little joke—a novelty of theirs—if the Kinect recognizes any foul language, your player could be carded by the referee. The audience laughed. How droll! Then they moved on, with a corporation and a packed conference hall missing the point entirely. That limited feature, mere degrees away from being a developer’s clever Easter egg, embodies everything missing from FIFA.

At their best, video games are art—crafted expressions of human ideas that connect to their user in a profound way. At their most common, video games are escapes—skillful diversions wrapped around some sort of control mechanic. Right now FIFA is, to me, a common game. It is a skillful representation of soccer as the game is played, but the glaring reality that has been pushing further and further forward into my consideration of this year’s purchase is that you can pass the ball, and shooting works pretty good, and the players move around the pitches in a fine simulation of human movement. Those are the easy parts that sports games have been doing that well since NHL ‘94—but five feet from the sideline, the game stops being great. We’re 18 years on from 1994 and computers can do incredible things—I can watch whole seasons of Boy Meets World on my laptop while cooking dinner, WE HAVE 3D MOVIES, but I still can’t have an engaging transfer saga in a video game. The crowd is a sea of blurry faces, and John Motson is still speaking very generally about onfield action.

It may be the nature of the industry. The real gains right now for gaming companies are in micro-monetization—the Auction House in Forza and Diablo III, the card packs in Ultimate Team, and however the hell people are spending money on Farmville. It only makes sense for EA to have their resources focused on the online player, catering to their happiness with incremental tweaks in gameplay and control. The problem is the more that ‘Match Day Central’ and ‘Ultimate Team’ are developed to the continued lack of Arsene Wenger on the sideline in a puffy jacket, no amount of unique first touch animations will distract me from his absence.

The sad truth for all of us may end up being that I don’t cancel my pre-order for FIFA 13. It involves at the very least phone calls to a corporate hotline, and at the most an actual visit to Game Stop, so the transaction may yet clear. It’s sad because not buying the game is the most powerful act of protest I could make as a consumer and supporter of beautiful soccer simulation everywhere—it’s just unlikely. The ritual is habit now—15 seasons of manager mode, taking a dog of a team to win many consecutive Champion’s League trophies before accepting an offer at Barcelona, all which is followed by the torrid self-abuse of online head-to-head seasons played against mouthy foreigners whose XBox Live messages prove at least the weakness of FIFA’s Respect campaign is digitally reflected. I’m going to do all of that, and each time I turn off the television and walk back to my room it will be an impoverished journey, one uninterrupted by Samir Nasri press outbursts, invitations to share some wine with Fergie, or any sound other than the footsteps on my apartment’s hardwood floor. 

This piece is by Jordan Brown, a Senior Writer of the AFR Team. Comments below please.

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  14. paucisverbis answered: Another good article, AFR.
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