How video games are changing the face of soccer



…The men met as fraternity brothers at the University of Alabama, but the image of innate Southerness they convey is shattered the instant the immense television glows with the home screen of EA Sports FIFA 2012 video game. With a flurry of dexterous controller-clicking, the two men assemble their teams with the cold, calculated eyes of professional soccer scouts.

Scarborough’s pedigree makes him an unlikely soccer aficionado. Coming of age as a self-described “blue-blooded baseball-loving American male” in Pensacola, Fla., he viewed soccer as a peripheral pursuit.

“Our housemates were rural Alabamians,” remembered Lovelady. “Two of them played the game on the house television and one day, I picked up the controller and experienced the kind of thrill I imagine people must have had in the 1950s when they heard rock-n-roll for first time. My life has not been the same since.”

Both men were soon playing an average of three hours a day. “When we first came to school, most of us used to think soccer was a communist sport,” admitted Scarborough with a smile. “Before we knew it, we were getting over tough breakups by going on nine-hour FIFA binges online.”

A quiet national revoloution

Of all his findings, one caught Luker by surprise: the role soccer video games have played in stimulating a passion for the real thing. “For the longest time, I believed video games and fandom of sport were not connected,” he said. “But games like FIFA have done more to advance the popularity of soccer than I have seen with any other sport.”

If Luker’s findings are correct, American soccer’s ground zero is EA Sports Digital Laboratory, a 450,000-square-foot facility spread over two city blocks in Burnaby, British Columbia, a suburb of Vancouver. The lab is akin to a veritable United Nations of football populated by representatives of 18 nations from Argentina to South Korea whose love for the game they create is all-consuming. Clusters of employees unwind after a torrid workday by holing themselves up in a conference room to noisily compete on their product.

Few men understand the nation’s budding love affair better than the man who has spent 18 years overseeing the development of the FIFA franchise, transforming it from a crudely rejigged version of the developer’s NHL game into a $5 billion franchise so deeply authentic it has been used to correctly predict the winners of the 2010 World Cup and this past MLS season.

“We have more research on what motivates people to watch football than anyone in the world,” said Bilbey. The narrative he has uncovered validates the story that played out in Scarborough’s Alabama fraternity house. “We analyzed passive interactions with soccer and compared them to interactive experiences with the sport,” he said, “and while there can be no substitute to seeing Barcelona at the Nou Camp, the American audience enjoys interacting with our game more than watching soccer passively on television.”

Bilbey points to the franchise’s explosive growth in America as proof. The country has become EA’s second-biggest territory, eclipsing Germany and trailing only England. His executives had recently returned from explaining the power of their brand to Manchester United. “We told them they connect to their fans for just 90 minutes a week on game day. We retain that connection for several hours every day,” he said.

Wayne who?



Their efforts initially stalled as they latched onto a global marketing campaign featuring an all-star ensemble of footballing talent including Manchester United’s Wayne Rooney, Barcelona’s Andres Iniesta and Juventus’ Giorgio Chiellini. McKinlay learned the hard way that as much as his target audience had savored the World Cup experience, they knew next to nothing about the actual players. “To market the product globally, all we had to do was tap into the world’s natural passion for football and link it back to the game under the motto ‘Love Football, Love FIFA,'” he said. “In America, that connection did not exist.”

A solution lay close at hand in the form of a vocal celebrity following that had attached itself to the franchise. An eclectic cast including Seth Meyers, Steve Nash, MLB All-Star Tim Lincecum and Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson had randomly proclaimed their love for the digital franchise. Johnson even informed reporters upon becoming the cover star of the NFL game “Madden 2013,” “I’m not the best at Madden; I play rarely. I play the real thing. I’m more of a FIFA guy … more of a soccer guy.”

EA Sports set out to exploit this cult following in their 2012 campaign “United States of FIFA,” crafting a commercial that toned down the actual soccer and played up Nash, Meyers and others, enjoying the act of playing their game. The ads were positioned against NFL and NBA broadcasts, as well as “Saturday Night Live” and “Family Guy.”

Back on the Upper East Side, Scarborough and Lovelady are living proof of its impact. “This game destroys everything an average American has been taught to feel about soccer,” says Scarborough. “It made me realize the power of netting a single goal, which feels like scoring 12 touchdowns simultaneously.”

Read the entire article How video game is changing face of soccer by Roger Bennett

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