While the United States still lags behind the rest of the world in its love for the sport of soccer, the gap between the two is shrinking and shrinking fast as recent metrics have shown that the sport is on a tremendous upswing in American culture. The Women’s World Cup final in 2015 drew over 23 million viewers, surpassing both the Stanley Cup and NBA Finals, the championships of two iconic American sports, in viewership. Some might argue that this is simply one game fueled by patriotic fervor, but further evidence suggests that this is not a phenomenon. For example, according to an ESPN poll in 2014, soccer trails only basketball in its popularity among 12-17 year olds. In that same year, it was reported that over 3 million children were registered to play soccer in the United States, a number that tops youth participation in both tackle football and baseball (Reddy). These are only a few of the statistics that demonstrate soccer’s tightening grip on the American entertainment culture, but they all beg the same question: why is this surge in popularity happening?
There are a variety of answers to this question that all hold some merit, but one that has stood out as a definitive catalyst for soccer’s expansion in the U.S. is the FIFA video game series. The percentage of Americans who identify themselves as avid soccer fans has experienced a continuous increase every year since 2009. In this same time span the video game franchise has experienced an exponential increase in its popularity and sales, reaching 2.12 million sales for the FIFA 15 video game (Green). While correlation does not prove causation, it cannot be denied that FIFA has been the motivating factor for at least some of the population to adapt a love for the game of soccer. According to a recent poll conducted by ESPN.com, 34% of FIFA players became avid professional soccer fans as a result of playing the video game and 50% of players developed at least some interest in professional soccer due to their love of playing FIFA. Based upon NBC viewership, these numbers would translate to mean that “approximately 57% of Americans watching the Premier League games on NBC are people that likely would not have had an interest in pro soccer before FIFA emerged” (Green). Obviously these numbers would not completely reflect the real nature of the game’s viewers, but the mere implication they hold is notable because it demonstrates the power and influence that the video game can have on Americans.
The FIFA game series not only acts as an independent promoter of soccer in the United States, but also plays a role in some of the other ways that soccer enters American culture. In a gamble to attract more attention, MLS clubs have gone on a recent trend of bringing former soccer stars from Europe to the U.S., such as Andrea Pirlo and David Beckham, but the only reason that many Americans even know who they are is because they have played as their character in the video game. Furthermore, with the recent addition of the United States women’s national team, along with a few others, into FIFA 16, the nationalist fervor that often results in massive audiences during World Cup season is given life in times when these international tournaments are not occurring.
Overall, the FIFA video game series has had an unbelievable impact in driving the popularization of soccer in the United States. As the video game becomes more popular, so does the game, which in turn makes the video game even more popular in what can only be defined as a positive feedback cycle. It is nowhere near being the only factor contributing to this cultural shift, but its influence on the process, in both tangible and intangible ways, cannot be overlooked.
Green, Adam. “FIFA, the Video Game: A Major Vehicle for Soccer’s Popularization in the United States.” Huffington Post. 4 September 2015. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/andrei-markovits/fifa-the-video-game-a-maj_b_8085220.html (accessed on 28 February 2016).
Reddy, Trips. “10 Data Points That Prove That Soccer Has Finally Made It In America.” Umbel. 18 August 2015. https://www.umbel.com/blog/sports/10-data-points-prove-soccer-has-made-it-in-america/ (accessed on 28 February 2016).
“Women’s World Cup Match Is Most-Watched Soccer Match in U.S. History.” USA Soccer. 8 July 2015. http://www.ussoccer.com/stories/2015/07/08/16/59/150708-wnt-victory-breaks-tv-records (accessed on 28 February 2016).
I just wanted to remark on the unsuspecting power that the FIFA video game has had on so many. For myself, it was the driving force behind my interest in soccer just two years ago, and I can say the same for many of my friends. The game drives passion for a player and for a team, which translates into a true audience for the game. Usually, the cycle works in reverse where the sport drives the consumer to play with their favorite team and player, however, I have found the opposite to be true in the case of FIFA. This phenomena is quite unique, but mutually beneficial for the game and the fans.
I really enjoyed this post! You made great use of statistics in your argument, which I found compelling. I’ve never played FIFA, but I regularly hear about people on campus having FIFA tournaments with their friends or going back to their dorms to play FIFA after class. It doesn’t come as a surprise to me that the popularity of the video game correlates with the popularity of the sport in the US. Good work on making a strong argument for causation–I think this topic is worthy of more research attention going forward.