Along with Mario and Tetris, Fifa belongs to a select group of video games that are familiar to people who have little further interest in the medium. For many, Fifa is the only game they buy each year. In many parts of the world, the word “Fifa” is synonymous not with football’s scandal-ridden governing body, but with the video game that licenses its name.
On any given Sunday, the day on which it is played most often, more than 200 million matches of Fifa take place in living rooms, studies and bedrooms around the world. The series has sold more than 150m copies, its popularity extending far beyond the world of football. In 2013, the NBA star LeBron James, who features in numerous EA-made basketball games, posted a photograph to Instagram of his sons playing Fifa alongside the caption: “Game is fresh to death!” Celebrity endorsements like this on social media can cost more than £10,000 a go. Yet LeBron, alongside other athletes and pop stars (Justin Bieber: “@Drake: I’m getting nice at Fifa. Be prepared”), have, at least according to EA, expressed their fandom freely.
From the start, EA’s long-term ambition – its plan, in fact, for market dominance – was to make a game that faithfully reproduced, pixel by pixel, every aspect of real football. “My vision, even before I founded EA, was to make authentic team-sports-simulation games,” Hawkins told me. EA’s original slogan, repeated in a metallic drawl during the start-up sequences for its sports games, was: “If it’s in the game, it’s in the game.” Later, this became simply: “EA Sports: It’s in the game”.
For most people under the age of 40, that familiarity extends beyond the catchphrase. The pinch of a trigger to make a player sprint, the momentary squeeze to power up a shot, the thumb-flick to perform a defender-beating feint – these moves are almost as deeply embedded in players’ muscle memory as the swipe to unlock their smartphone.
EA’s single-minded drive towards authenticity has been key to Fifa’s growing dominance, even at the expense of rival games that videogame critics have considered to be superior. While it is possible to opt to play 90-minute matches, by default Fifa attempts to condense the rhythm and drama of a football match into a more manageable burst of 10 minutes (the in-game clock hurries accordingly). All of the aesthetic pleasures of the real-life game are captured: the feints and step-overs, the curve and dip of a perfectly arced free kick, the rippling net, the boots with the luminous laces. “The entire presentation aims for nothing less than an accurate rendering of the match-day experience, as seen on your TV,” says the video game critic Steve Burns. From the punditry to the branded, whizzing graphics that frame the screen with information before each match, Fifa has evolved to reproduce the glossy sheen of Sky Sports.
These trappings are just the start of the game’s campaign for authenticity, which now embraces everything from the rampant commercialism of 21st-century football to the increasingly obsessive focus on data analytics. Switch on Fifa today and you will be able to play the league or international fixtures of the week, complete with accurate starting line-ups – details that are automatically sucked into the game via the internet. Teams shake hands in front of true-to-life sponsor boards, inside meticulous digital recreations of real-world stadiums, from Wembley to Gamba Osaka’s Suita City. Virtual fans sing their team’s actual chants and spit abuse at the referee – even when he has made the right call. (The virtual ref is programmed to be both omniscient and infallible.)
EA works with a 9,000-member network of data reviewers, led by the German statistician Michael Müller-Möhring (known as Triple-M by his colleagues) in Cologne. They ensure that each player profile, which includes more than 30 statistics, from speed to stamina to temperament, is as accurate as possible. In the hours after the launch of the latest version of Fifa, which typically arrives each year in the final week of September, many of the 18,000-odd professional footballers included in the game huddle around, anxious to see how their recent form has been translated into the virtual game. The results can sting. In September, former England and Manchester United player Rio Ferdinand jokingly threatened on Twitter to visit EA’s office and “tear the place down” after his in-game character was awarded 65 out of a maximum of 99 for his passing skills. In 2011, Chelsea’s diminutive attacker Eden Hazard complained that he was “three or five centimetres” too short in the game. This year, the Ipswich midfielder Jonny Williams was upset to find himself described as “injury prone”. “That hurt to be honest,” Williams told the Daily Star. (Such complaints are logged but never acted upon, one current member of the Fifa team told me.)
The data Fifa draws upon has become so accurate that teams have started to use the game to scout for potential new signings or to test out the strengths and weaknesses of upcoming opponents. The Arsenal midfielder Alex Iwobi recently told the New York Times that when he was starting out if a player he had never played against was on the other team, he would “look at his name and then try to remember how good he was on Fifa”. In October 2013, Leyton Orient’s manager introduced a no-Fifa-before-a-match-day policy, after members of his team stayed up late rehearsing the next day’s fixture (which they subsequently lost).
If EA’s original aim was to fit the whole world of football into Fifa, the company’s dogged pursuit of this goal has come to alter the world of football itself. “Until Fifa is indistinguishable from football in real life and plays exactly like football,” says Matt Prior, Fifa’s current creative director, “we’ll always have more to do.”