Football video games have become a major part of soccer fandom. We explore their role in modern football culture and the growing influence they're having on the sport itself.
James: What was the first football video game you ever played?
Iain: I think the very first one was the original Kevin Toms Football Manager.
Rory: I guess I started playing Actua Soccer…
Mike: It was Dino Dini’s Soccer, I believe. On the Sega Megadrive.
James: I'm James Parkinson and this is By Association, a show about football and the connection we all share with the beautiful game.
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.
For me, the first football game I ever played was International Superstar Soccer, precursor to the Pro Evo series.
Looking back, the gameplay was stiff and the commentary was robotic and repetitive but I’d play it for hours on the weekends. Growing up in Australia in the 90s, my exposure to the world game was limited but I suspect that football video games were a contributing factor to my growing fascination with the sport.
Rory: It’s a gateway drug for people and it’s a way to feed an addiction as well. So, I still play FIFA now and my wife finds that incredibly strange that I should want to, having thought about football all day for work, that I should want to come home and my way of decompressing is to spend half an hour or an hour playing a football game. She finds that completely baffling. And her view is that there’s enough football in my life and I don’t need to kind of add to it unnecessarily.
James: This is Rory Smith.
Rory: Chief Soccer Correspondent for the New York Times.
James: Do you think video games have have an ability to attract people to football and become fans of the sport? Particularly young kids that get exposed to the games before the real life version?
Rory: Yep, absolutely, without a shadow of doubt. I think particularly in the States, I think that’s been a huge thing and I would imagine it’s been a significant factor in Australia as well. That in, how do you put it? Football’s developing world, in countries where it’s not necessarily the dominant sporting option. I think, particularly things like Pro Evo and FIFA have been important in drawing kids in because it’s a much more - well it’s much shorter, that’s important. It’s much more action packed, a football video game, rather than an actual 90 minute match. It’s probably more easily available in a lot of situations. I think it’s been hugely important in forming fans for the last, what, 25 years I guess? So yeah, it is a gateway drug as well as a way to feed an addiction.
James: The role of video games in football fan culture has grown significantly over the years. This is perhaps partly due to the way the games themselves have evolved with technology.
Rory: The level of realism is incredibly high now. And that applies obviously to the console games in terms of the on-pitch action, making it as realistic a simulation of football as possible whilst still retaining, kind of, the fun element.
James: But even the older games can be just as addictive. So, what keeps players coming back?
Mike: For me I think it’s just to past time, because obviously it’s one game a week, maybe two games a week for your club but you gotta do something in between. I think, going back to the nostalgia point, it’s literally, it’s the one more game and you just don’t want to stop playing.
James: That’s Mike Harvey, founder of the PES fansite, Only Pro Evolutions.
Mike: I mean, you’re not gonna play football professionally so you’ll do the next best thing. Although that sounds a little bit sad.
Rory: It enables you to play out your fantasy, I guess. It’s a story that you build yourself in this imaginary world.
James: Anyone who’s played career modes, like Pro Evo’s Master League, can probably relate. The idea of playing out your football fantasies, like taking a minnow club to the heights of the Champions League, taps into something that all fans can relate to.
But there’s another football game that maybe illustrates this even more.
James: For years, the Football Manager series has captured the imagination of fans like no other computer game.
Iain: You wanna be a part of it and with the management games, you’re creating your own world that you can obviously be a major part of. It becomes something much more in your own head.
James: This is Iain Macintosh.
Iain: Hello! I’m Iain Macintosh and I’m a football writer.
When I co-wrote the book, Football Manager Stole My Life, I spoke to a psychologist - or a psycyatrist, I can never remember which ones which. Anyways, very very clever. And he talked about the nature of addiction. And he said addiction is just addiction. It’s doing a thing to get a thing.
You play Football Manager, you want to win a game, you want to have that feeling that you’ve won a game - and then you want to play another game because you want that feeling back. So there’s absolutely no difference in the nature of addiction.
But one thing that does sort of change with people is how they conduct themselves in the game.
Now with me, I’m always fiercely meticulous. I like to manage the youth team, the reserve team, I want to do the training, I want to set up scouting routines. And yet, in real life I’m not perhaps as organised as I should be.
He said that the way I played Football Manager is perhaps a kind of subconscious yearning to be the person I want to be, by being this super organised micro manager. With other people, they will play and be successful then immediately move clubs, try and take a bigger job, take a bigger job, take a bigger job. And maybe they’re searching for something as well. It was all fascinating and a bit scary.
James: Has playing management games ever impacted your real life?
Iain: I think there’s been plenty of occasions. Certainly, university. My third year at university was a bit of a disaster and ended up with me not getting a degree. But on the flip side, I won the UEFA Cup with South End United so who’s laughing now?
The point where you realise you’re too deep is when you’re actually doing press conferences in your head. That was always the point where you realised you had a problem. I would have two levels. I would have press conferences in my head after a game and I’d also occasionally be walking around a supermarket where I’d be outlining a five year plan in an extended interview with the Sunday Times. I’d be like wondering how this was gonna look in my autobiography when it came out and you know you can go pretty deep with it.
James: Does it feel like a real accomplishment sometimes when you win that Championship or whatnot?
Iain: Yeah, it does and you get weird conflicting feelings as well. I remember one game I had, I was either Liverpool or Manchester United, I can’t remember who. But on winning the League Cup in the first season, obviously the first big Final of the year, my first thought was, “I’ve won something. Whatever else happens, they can’t take that away from me, I’ve won something.” And then my second thought was, it’s 2 in the morning, I have a wife and daughter. What the hell am I doing with myself?
James: Video games have impacted football culture in educational ways too. As Rory explains, the amount of information available to fans these days is due in part to games like Football Manager and FIFA.
Rory: Even though that information isn’t from real life, it is based on something. A lot of the information people have got, and I maintain this, about those players who aren’t the kind absolute superstars in Spain, Germany, Italy or whatever. A lot of that information people will have, comes not just from YouTube highlight reels but will come from Football Manager, will come from FIFA. That’s where you’re getting first exposed to those names, that’s where you’re first hearing those names.
And it’s really easy to be sniffy about knowledge gleaned from those games, and it’s certainly not comprehensive, it certainly shouldn’t be taken as gospel. But it is information based on something, those rankings aren’t just made up, those ratings that FIFA give players aren’t just plucked out of thin air.
But it’s raised the level of discourse I think, it’s raised, essentially the education level of football fans. People do now have a greater understanding of who the teams are in the Bundesliga, who the teams are in Serie A, who’s playing for who, who’s where, who’s good, who might be good. Although that information comes from video games it’s to be taken seriously and I think that’s really important and that has, without question been a huge impact. All of these things have helped raise how much we understand the sport and how much we know about the sport.
James: But what intrigues me most is how video games are now impacting football itself.
James: 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.
Rory: What’s really changed is the language of scouting has come to reflect Football Manager more.
It’s taught us that there is this other way of thinking about how to gauge a player's worth, how to quantify a player's ability that didn’t really exist before. And I think that’s become a universal language throughout football.
Now you have a generation of people working in football who’ve grown up, not necessarily playing Football Manager, but in a culture where the idea that someone's speed might be easily described at 15 out of 20 rather than 14 out of 20. That’s not an alien concept.
Even the terminology they use is similar. So the assist didn’t really exist as a metric in football until the 90s. It wasn’t something that people talked about. It became a thing when fantasy football was launched and it was a way of getting points, but the early Championship Managers, rather, had assists in there, that was something that they quantified. And they kind of take credit for making the assist a thing. And it’s the same name with things like - a lot of the categories that clubs will use to assess players, kind of belong to Football Manager. They’re kind of the same fields that Football Manager was using and they are quantified in a similar way.
And that’s an incredible effect for a computer game to have, it’s an incredible way of kind of changing the way business is done within the sport, the way people are valued within the sport, that it owes a little bit, not everything but a little bit to Football Manager. And that’s more than the individuals who kind of build a career from Football Manager. To me, that’s it’s real influence.
James: Video games have also had an effect on football players themselves and the way they play the game.
Rory: I spoke to Alex Iwobi who said that he used to go out in the garden and practice tricks that he could do on FIFA and that was how he honed his technique as much as anything else.
A few years ago, Wenger called Lionel Messi a Playstation footballer. If you look at Messi, he kind of is. He’s the kid. He’s your neighbour on FIFA who knows how to do all of the little tricks so you can never get the ball off him and it’s really annoying. Whether he played computer games as a kid, a young kid, I don’t know - I doubt because of his upbringing. But certainly, you talk to anyone who was at La Masia with Messi and that whole generation played FIFA continually and Pro Evolution Soccer continually. That was how they entertained themselves.
And it seems to me, reasonable to say that partly the player Messi became is because he played a lot of computer games and it changes what you think of as being possible and I think that’s really important. And if you look at people like Pogba and Neymar, who would have grown up playing video games, as much as they grew up playing football on the street or on the pitch - what they consider possible relates more to video games that to watching football as a spectacle, even at the highest level. Because there’s certain conventions that you still have in the game that they don’t adhere to. And that is because part of their education, I guess, has come from what many would think is an unrealistic artform, rather than the kind of dour realism of actual football. And that’s what really interests me and what I think is actually really significant in footballs continuing development as a sport.
It’s really crucial to consider that when you consider what football will start to look like in 10, 15, 20, 30 years time. As the games get more realistic, as they get more widespread will they have a kind of reflective process within the sport itself? So we’ve had for the last 20, 30 years, games trying to reflect football. There will come a point where the games are so popular that football will start, to an extent, start to reflect them back.
James: By Association is produced by me, James Parkinson. Many thanks to Mike Harvey, Iain Macintosh and Rory Smith.
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