Before entering college, I’d only played one game of “FIFA” in my life, a match I was coerced into entering by a friend on our high school’s soccer team. Even though I, like a growing majority of today’s youth, actually played soccer in elementary school, I quickly realized that I had no idea what I was doing. I faintly recall collecting three or four red cards by the end of our match and was never invited to play again.
To be honest, I didn’t really care — though a number of my high-school friends played some iteration of the “FIFA” franchise after school, I stuck to other classics: “Call of Duty,” “NHL,” perhaps even “Mario Kart” or “Super Smash Bros.” I never expected to see or play the soccer game again.
That lasted until my freshman year at Michigan, when a roommate (and growing pressure from the other Oxford dormmates) coerced me to pick up the controller.
It was a hard few months, but slowly I learned — I’d say now, as a junior, I’m … OK. It’s hard to tell when playing against the same opponent rotation.
But I’m still astonished by how many gamers — or, at least, sports gamers — list “FIFA” as one of, if not the most played games. It’s pervasive as a unifying form of entertainment in the college-age demographic — and at that, it’s immensely popular as a stand-alone video game.
In the current gaming industry, sports games have grown from a niche to a major chunk of the market: Three of the 10 best-selling games of last year were sports games, and “Madden NFL 13” followed only “Call of Duty: Black Ops II” as the second-biggest moneymaker of the year. “FIFA 13” ended up rounding out that list at No. 10, with Take-Two’s “NBA 2K13” floating in between at No. 6. So, it makes sense that — considering what appeals to college kids — games like “Madden” and “FIFA” become obvious entertainment choices with 25-minute time commitments.
But how did soccer start outpacing other, more popular sports? Financial records from 2011 show that America’s most popular soccer league, Major League Soccer, was dwarfed by the “Big Four” leagues in terms of total revenue. The NFL made $11 billion as the obvious favorite, with the MLB, NBA and NHL collecting $7, $4.3 and $3.3 billion, respectively.
MLS pulled in a paltry $300 million — so how did “FIFA 13” suddenly surge ahead as a major juggernaut in the gaming industry?
Well, there may be one explanation. According to the ESPN Sports Poll conducted by University alum Rich Luker last year, soccer (which groups together the interest for MLS, FIFA and other governing bodies of professional soccer) is now the second most popular sport among 12- to 24-year-olds, trailing only professional football. Baseball, which was once as popular as football less than 20 years ago, has drifted to fourth. The sports audience demographic is shifting.
Luker cited a number of factors that explain such a widespread change. For one, it’s been growing steadily as a common athletic option for children: There’s now at least one soccer player in 30 percent of American households. And despite the anemic amount of attention paid to the MLS, EA Sports’s “FIFA” franchise has brought international soccer to an American audience. According to Bleacher Report, five of the 50 most popular athletes in the U.S. are international soccer players. Lionel Messi clocks in at 16th — which is pretty hard to believe. Of the innumerable amount of athletes in the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL, Messi is more popular than all but 15.
And so far, we’ve ignored the most important explanation for a game’s popularity: how fun it is to play. Metacritic, critical reception aggregator, seems to tell the story. “Madden NFL 13” ’s score of 81 is relatively impressive until you realize that “FIFA 13” ended up at 90 (indicating an obscene average review score of 9 out of 10).
Its ease and fluidity of play has turned “FIFA 13” into a sports game with broad appeal, in large part because it takes everything seriously. Attention is paid to the most minute details: Teammates from the same country work better together to simulate bonding over language. Players that slide or run into each other suffer realistic falls and injuries — I’ve seen a player stop dribbling a ball because he pulled a hamstring at the end of a game.
The takeaway from all of this seems to be that we shouldn’t be surprised that “FIFA” is so popular, but rather that the MLS is so unpopular. But even that should be poised to change, with a growing domestic market for the sport as current students land jobs and become more dedicated customers. Once the dollars are there, the international stars will come — how many NHL players are from the United States? Even the most optimistic estimates say less than a quarter. The world’s talent will finally start seeing the MLS as a legitimate option to consider.
And when that day comes, we can finally settle in, launch up the newest “FIFA” and realistically play as American teams on the global stage.