A Virtual Kick

Young Americans have become soccer die-hards — thanks to a video game.

By Roger Bennett

Since 2006, EA Sports FIFA has experienced annual growth of at least 20 percent in the U.S.

Shortly after the U.S. was chosen to host the 1994 World Cup, former Representative Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) felt compelled to address the matter on the floor of Congress. “I think it is important for all those young men out there who someday hope to play real football that a distinction should be made,” he declared. “Football is democratic capitalism, whereas soccer is a European socialist sport.” Perhaps it’s better that the late Kemp, a former professional quarterback, didn’t see the recent ESPN study finding that soccer is the nation’s second-favorite sport among ages 18 to 24, surpassing basketball, baseball, and college football. “Soccer has traditionally been seen as an adolescent rite of passage in this country,” says social scientist Rich Luker, the study’s author. “We are seeing a real changing of the guard.”

Largely driving this transformation is one of the most popular video game franchises ever, EA Sports FIFA, the 20th edition of which will be released this month. “For the longest time, I believed video games and fandom of sports were not connected,” says Luker. EA’s FIFA, he says, has done “more to advance the popularity of soccer than I have seen with any other sport.”

EA Sports’ general manager, Matt Bilbey, has spent 18 years overseeing the development of the game into a $5 billion juggernaut. An average of 5 million games are played online every day. “Young Americans are now developing emotional connections to teams like Real Madrid, F.C. Barcelona, and Manchester United through our game,” says Bilbey. Two million fans downloaded the demo version within three days of its release.

The new FIFA Soccer 13 is a visual marvel. Executive Producer David Rutter has worked meticulously to re-create the physical realities of soccer, ensuring that the subtleties of the dribble and 360-degree mobility are more lifelike than ever. “You quickly realize there are deeper levels that you can only master if you learn to think like a real soccer player,” he says. The virtual gameplay is an improvement on previous versions that were used by EA Sports to predict the winners of the 2010 World Cup and last season’s Major League Soccer championship.

Young fans aren’t the franchise’s only devotees. Detroit Lions star wide receiver Calvin Johnson was recently introduced to the media as the cover star of EA’s sister game, NFL Madden 2013. “I play [Madden] rarely,” Johnson confessed to reporters. “I’m more of a FIFA soccer guy.”


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