Football video games go back some way, from early titles like Kick Off and Match Day in the 1980s to Sensible Soccer, Ultimate Soccer and the arcade classic, Virtua Striker in the 90s. They all had great names back then. These days, it's FIFA from EA Sports and Konami’s Pro Evolution Soccer, or simply PES that dominate the gaming landscape. But both made their beginnings in the 1990s as well.
The role these games play in football fan culture has grown significantly over the years. This is perhaps partly due to the way they have have evolved with technology. The level of realism has increased with each annual release, making them as close to a simulation of football as possible, whilst still retaining the element of fun. They’ve become a staple in the football diet of existing fans around the world as well as a gateway drug for new fans of the beautiful game.
For the football obsessed, video games fill the gaps in soccer fandom and enable you to play out your football fantasies, building a story for yourself in an imaginary world. Career modes in particular, like Pro Evo’s Master League certainly provide this. They tap into something that all fans can appreciate, like taking a minnow club to footballing glory.
But there’s another football game that maybe illustrates this even more. Football Manager. For years, the FM series has captured the imagination of fans like no other computer game, fuelling football addictions and providing an escape into a world of the players own making.
Video games have impacted football culture in educational ways too. The amount of information available to fans these days is due in part to games like Football Manager and FIFA. Although, not comprehensive it’s still important to acknowledge that the data and information that comes from video games is still based on reality. Fans now have a greater understanding of the global game and a familiarity with players and teams than previous generations. There’s no doubt that it’s influenced how much we understand the sport as a whole.
But perhaps even more intriguing is how video games are now impacting football itself. There have been several cases in recent years where FM players have landed real jobs in football thanks to skills they honed in the computer game. Including a 22 year old who was hired by Azerbaijan club FC Baku in 2012 as a General Manager, assisting with scouting and transfers. In similar fashion, volunteer researchers for Football Manager have gone onto become data analysts and scouts for real life clubs. And on a deeper level, FM has influenced the very language used in football.
It’s taught us another way of thinking. How to gauge a player's worth and how to quantify a player's ability that didn’t exist before and it’s become a universal language throughout the game. It’s essentially changed the way business is done within the sport and the way players are valued within the football marketplace.
Video games have also had an effect on football players themselves and the way they play the game. Arsene Wenger once called Lionel Messi a “PlayStation footballer”. It’s well known that Messi and his teammates at La Masia would play FIFA and Pro Evo continuously in their spare time. It’s reasonable to suggest that partly the player Messi became is perhaps because he played a lot of video games. These games challenge the conventions and push the boundaries of the sport itself. They change what you think of as being possible.