In the United States, Saturdays and Sunday are reserved for one thing: football. Across the country, people neglect their chores, homework, jobs, and responsibilities to flock to sports bars, friend’s couches, and the biggest TV they can find to in order to watch college and professional football. Recently, however, American sports fans have been putting aside one kind of football in favor of another. American soccer, or football, as it’s known to the rest of the world, has seen a seismic shift in popularity during the last several years. According to Rich Luker, the brains behind the ESPN Sports Poll, soccer is America’s second most popular sport for those aged 18-24. How? What could be the source of this newfound fanfare? Perhaps it’s the increasingly global reach by the world’s most popular clubs? Maybe. What about all the new international club cups and tours that have come to America? Somewhat. The growing stardom of the world’s best players? To an extent. How about the recent availability of world-class soccer through the Internet and cable? That is definitely important. Well then, why is soccer becoming so popular in America? Two words: video games. The EA Sports FIFA franchise has arguably played the most crucial role in making soccer appealing to American sports fans. EA Sports FIFA is the foundation upon which international clubs can infiltrate and find a niche in the American sports market, international tours can sellout stadiums around the country, and television companies can justify spending $250 million for the rights to broadcast professional English soccer matches. This grassroots movement is taking American sports culture by storm.
There are two assurances to growing up as a boy in America: playing soccer and playing video games. Before the past decade, these two events were seemingly mutually exclusive. Soccer was an activity that parents enrolled their kids in to exhaust them before dinner, while video games were a way to escape reality through the control of a virtual world. However, when these two distinct spheres came crashing together, the realms of soccer and video games were inexplicably changed.
A prime example of the way this confluence of events had significant effects on boys growing up playing soccer and videos games is my own life. As a kid, I loved to play soccer; I was on a club, school, and indoor team, all at the same time. I played for hours on end every day. Yet, the only thing equitable to my love of soccer, was my love of video games. I had all kinds of games but, sport simulation games were my favorite. Like soccer, I would play video games for countless hours, lost in a whirlwind of button mashes and stick flicks. Until I picked up EA Sports FIFA World Cup 2006, soccer and video games were two disparate parts of my life. Before playing FIFA, professional and international soccer bored me. All they did was pass the ball backwards and side-to-side, seemingly going nowhere. The score was low. The players always flopped and complained. What was so awesome about soccer, besides actually playing, anyways? How things change. I was dazzled by the graphics, gameplay, and intricacy that FIFA brought to my TV. I had never experienced soccer like this. I was hooked, and it only got worse. My Saturdays and Sundays that used to be dominated by football, were now being overtaken by European soccer leagues such as the EPL and La Liga. The time I spent looking up sports statistics about the NFL and the NBA, were instead dedicated to researching international European soccer competitions and soccer tactics. This radical shift in my own sport’s habits began to make we wonder whether I was slowly becoming un-American. However, I soon realized that this trend was growing and that these same sentiments rang true for numerous sports fans across the country.
Similar to my own story, Roger Bennett, an ESPNFC blogger, chronicled the impact FIFA had on other sports fans. In his article, Bennett describes how two fraternity brothers from the University of Alabama, the motherland of college football, found their love for soccer. Prior to playing FIFA, they perceived “soccer [as] a communist sport,” but soon found themselves playing “nine-hour FIFA binges online.” The video game paved the way to the real thing — “Our entire campus quickly became littered with guys pairing the traditional Southern garb of camouflage hunting pants with a red-and-black-striped AC Milan Jersey.” This revolution is evident when exploring one of FIFA’s new features in their games — Support Your Club. Prior to beginning the game for the first time, the user is prompted to select the club they support. Based on how well and how often the user plays the game, the club that the user supports gain points and can move up the rankings to become the most popular club in FIFA. Thanks to FIFA, the popularity of European clubs in American has seen a remarkable rise. This growing fan base has lead to significant marketing changes for international clubs in terms of American tours, television rights, and advertisements. During the European club off-season, every major team is traveling to the US and further engaging with their international fan bases while simultaneously promoting their brand. Just this past year, the International Champions Cup was organized that brought eight of the worlds top clubs to the United States to play one another. The tournament was a huge success, monetarily and for the clubs’ images. This is all possible thanks to the EA Sports FIFA franchise.
This map represents the most popular Support Your Club, state by state: Green (Barcelona), red (Man Utd.), blue (Chicago Fire), purple (Philadelphia Union), brown (Timbers).
Just recently, EA Sports released FIFA 14, the 21st soccer simulation game in the FIFA franchise. FIFA 14 is poised to be the highest selling sports video game of all time. If more and more Americans continue to buy these games, expect the popularity of soccer in American to further escalate. From there, who knows that will happen to the American sports culture. Until then, I’ll keep kicking butt with Manchester United.