As I pulled up ESPN.com this morning as part of my daily ritual, I already knew what the featured stories at the top of the page would be: some garbage about NFL rankings, a LeBron James-Miami Heat update, continued World Series coverage/analysis, and an article about the latest surrounding Randy Moss’ free agency.
I don’t intend to sound as critical of ESPN news as the online readers and commenters of the News with regards to our sports coverage, but I cannot help but crave a bit of variety. Even ESPN’s favorite son, featured columnist Bill Simmons has fallen into a deep rut of journalistic predictability, defined by weekly NFL forecasts punctuated with some restatement of the now-nauseating question, “LeBron and Wade: Will it Work?”
And so, as one who is fortunate enough to have the unique opportunity to write freely about any sports-related topic of my choosing each week, I feel the increasing pressure to deliver something new, unique, refreshing. What do I hope to find when I open ESPN.com when everything leaves me inevitably disappointed?
In my frustrations, I tossed aside my laptop and called out to my roommate, “Yo dude, feefs?”
And like that, it occurred to me.
“Feefs” in this case is the phonetic abbreviation for FIFA, meaning FIFA Soccer 2011, the EA Sports video game that has this nation’s male youth completely hypnotized. But the FIFA soccer series is much more than a typical video game, and its cultural significance, I argue, is sufficient enough to merit a place on these hallowed pages, where otherwise one might be tempted to subject readers to more of the same.
The game sold 2.6 million copies, generating over $150 million in less than a week after its release. FIFA might be a video game, played with thumbs on a couch, but it highlights the qualities of competitive sports that make them so near and dear to our culture. It’s more than just your average Mario Brothers, it’s a phenomenon.
For starters, FIFA is extremely conducive to trash-talk, an essential feature of any good-natured competition. Non-players might find this point amusing, but the ability to flick your thumbs more effectively than your roommate and friends is just about the most fulfilling satisfaction a 21 year old man can achieve.
“Aw nice mate, almost got the ball to mid-field there, you’re really improving. Been practicing, have we?” my Aussie roommate mocks me as his set of pixels, his team of 1s and 0s has me in a 0-2 hole. This kind of taunting is not always welcome on the playing field, where sportsmanship and graciousness are exalted. That said, perhaps moderate trash-talk should play a larger role in our “actual” sports; I certainly don’t plan on listening to my roommate spout this garbage at me for the next six months, and have responded by planning a few more digital training sessions for later in the week.
Secondly, the quality of in-game coverage and commentary during a televised sporting event really elevate it from a game to a spectacle, and in that respect, soccer commentary is second to none. Naturally then, FIFA delivers some of the best pre-programmed video game commentating, with Martin Tyler and Andy Gray adding a further dimension of reality to the game. More importantly, it lends itself naturally to rowdy mid-game voice-overs, predictably offering another dimension to trash-talk.
The key element of the commentary, though, is the role it plays in familiarizing non-soccer fans with the sport. The jargon and British speech mannerisms featured in FIFA help non-fans learn the language of professional and international soccer. Hearing this language repeatedly in the context of user-controlled gameplay facilitates a great education in the sport, and enables FIFA players to have intelligent soccer conversations with devout fans, masking their general ignorance behind the most popular video game phrases.
If this last point does not fully betray the primary reason why I praise FIFA so highly, allow me to be more frank. Everything I know about professional soccer is rooted in my knowledge of FIFA. I became an Arsenal fan in 2005 because Thierry Henry was literally impossible to tackle in FIFA 2005. I can tell you, today, that Cristian Chivu, despite playing left back for Inter Milan, is a key feature of the Italian team’s attack as he pushes up the wing to draw defenders in order to free space for left attackman Samuel Eto’o. This I know, not because I have watched Inter Milan recently, but because it is the natural tendency of the team in the game, and the most successful strategy in obtaining goals.
And this is why FIFA is so impressive. The painstaking detail with which individual play styles are duplicated, and fit into the team’s tactics have produced a game that is so accurate in its depiction of real gameplay that FIFA all-stars tend to think of themselves as real soccer fans.
At the end of the day, though, this is a great thing. By creating a quality product, EA has in turn incited an unprecedented interest in soccer among Americans. Especially in the wake of the 2010 World Cup, the release of FIFA 2011 as the most perfect volume in the most exciting sports game series is catalytic in the growth of soccer here in the states.
So this might not be news, or really of much interest to anyone, but some sportswriter somewhere had to admit his obsession. FIFA 2011 is awesome, and as the series continues to take off here in the U.S., one can no longer ignore the slow but sure pace at which soccer is taking hold with America’s youth.
Sam Goldsmith is a senior in Branford College.