One of the joys of being a soccer fan in the United States is the opportunity to convert the unbelievers, to watch as someone who was once indifferent or antagonistic falls in love with the game. To love soccer is to know it. You can’t develop a life-long passion for the game without a basic understanding of what’s happening on the pitch. Knowing the rules isn’t enough; I mean having a basic grasp of the tactics that drive the play, being able to recognize what each team is trying to do and how the other team is attempting to stop them. This knowledge sustains our interest during the lulls in the game, keeps our attention focused on the play even though teams don’t score every twenty-four seconds or five minutes or however often you like points put on the board in your sport of choice.
You don’t often get this chance if you follow baseball or basketball or (American) football. Those sports already get so much exposure that practically everyone has given them a chance — in their youth or in college, or during March Madness or the All-Star Game or the Super Bowl — and already knows where they stand on them.
With soccer, however, your potential true believers probably don’t have that same firmly-held set of pre-conceived notions. Even the people who think they don’t like soccer — who tell you they like to use their hands in their sports or that soccer is a game for pansies — likely haven’t watched a competitive soccer game in years, if at all. (This is why the Free Beer Movement works. That and the free beer.) The lack of exposure in America compared to the Big Three sports has allowed them to avoid it. Often, dispelling their prejudices can be as easy as showing them how little the game as played by professionals has in common with the soccer they played as six-year-olds.
For most fans, this higher knowledge comes from having played soccer, usually in their youth. Others garner it from watching a lot of games. This is why World Cup years are big years for American soccer even when the U.S. team doesn’t do all that well; more games equals more opportunity for potential neophytes to discover that they really like soccer. In today’s world, however, there’s a third way, one that requires neither the physical skills required to play nor the time commitment of watching lots and lots and lots of 90 minute games. That way is FIFA.
What makes games like FIFA and Pro Evolution Soccer such effective promotional tools? For one, they can serve as a kind of Cliff Notes to the sport, a handy-dandy guide to the teams and players that form the dramatis personae of world soccer. In a promotional video for FIFA’s 2010 edition, Bayern Munich midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger talks about using FIFA to familiarize himself with some of his team’s smaller European opponents. Three of my close friends, guys who hadn’t played organized soccer since they were seven, started following the game in the real world after I introduced them to FIFA 2002.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, soccer video games are able to multiply a player’s effort. I read somewhere once that Rock Band provides players with 50 percent of the experience of playing live music at only 3 percent of the effort. For FIFA and PES, I’d estimate it’s something closer to five percent of the experience of playing soccer for 0.5 percent of the effort. But it’s an important five percent. You can’t learn to play soccer from a video game, but you can learn how soccer is played: the sophisticated movement required of player and ball in order to create space, the way teams pass defensive responsibilities as the opponents move through different zones on the field, or that slide tackling the goalkeeper from behind while he’s getting ready to punt the ball is a bad idea.
Soccer video games don’t teach how to play the game; they teach you how to watch it. The angle at which you view the pitch is more or less identical in the game and on television. So if you can spot a player’s late run into the box or the hole in the defense for a through ball or the angle you need to take to cut off that passing lane in the game, then there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to do it when you’re watching on TV or in the stands. It’s what my friend Jordan — one of those three who were brought to soccer on the back of FIFA 2002 — calls the difference between active and passive viewing, anticipating what’s going to happen rather than reacting to what does happen.
It’s the active viewers, the ones who recognize sequences like the one above before they happen, who are more likely to be the true diehard fans, those who will watch a game whether it’s Barcelona-Real Madrid or Seattle Sounders-Real Salt Lake or Local High School A-Local High School B. And as FIFA grows in popularity, this country’s going to see a lot more of them.