TV and MLS have played a part in popularizing the beautiful game Stateside, but video games influence on the American soccer fan cannot be underestimated
For Kelvin Garcia, growing up in a Dominican family from New York City meant two sports took priority. As a Latino kid in the Bronx, all I ever played was basketball and baseball, says Garcia, who now lives in Texas. As a boy, soccer was barely on Garcias radar. He remembers working at a sports camp with European counselors during the 2010 World Cup and wondering what the excitement was about. As a basketball fan, he was more interested in whether LeBron was going to the Knicks.
Nowadays, Garcia cannot go a day without talking about his love for Antonio Contes Chelsea and their title chances.
So what happened? How did Garcia a Bronx boy raised on the Knicks and the Yankees suddenly begin a love affair with the beautiful game? The answer is simple. Honestly, its all thanks to Fifa, he says of the long-running video game series, the latest edition of which is released on Tuesday. Without it, I would never have been exposed to soccer and would never have grown to love the game.
After he was introduced to the game by friends at college, Garcia began to appreciate the aesthetics of soccer and its contrast to the high scoring of the NBA or the stop-start of the NFL. I found myself enamored of the simplicity of passing a ball, and that two teams could play for 90 minutes and not score a goal. It was a sport where a single mistake could cost you a match and possibly even winning the title, [such as] the famous Steven Gerrard slip against Chelsea a couple of years ago.
Now there is no question about Garcias sport of choice. I find it easier to watch a soccer match than say a basketball, baseball or football game, because I know in advance how much time I am investing in watching the match, whereas other sports games have so many time-outs and theres no fluidity. This is why I love Fifa, which in my opinion is the best sports video game representation of the actual sport itself.
Fifas influence on the American soccer fan cannot be underestimated. In fact, North America is one of the fastest-growing markets for the franchise, coinciding with the growth of the overall sport in the States. An ESPN poll by Richard Luker stated that Americans who see themselves as soccer fans have grown consistently since 2009 (most notably, 12- to 17-year-olds) and during this same period, Fifas popularity also increased, as their unit sales in the US jumped by 35% from 2010 to 2012, reaching 2.6m four years ago. According to the same report, over a third of people who have bought Fifa became soccer fans after playing the game and 50% became interested in the sport since playing it.
Clearly, there is a strong relationship between the video game and the real-life match experience in the country, but Fifa is also playing a vital role in Americas youth culture, especially in colleges and universities, where students congregate around the games console.
Fifa is the perfect dorm-room game, says Brian Weidy, a recent college graduate from the University of Wisconsin. The ease of playing and the length of matches on the default setting has matriculated out into people picking a club, caring more about the US team, and eventually making them watch soccer on Saturday mornings. Weidy, who has been playing Fifa most of his life, believes that the video games success is also related to the exposure of the sport here in the US on TV. According the Nielsen, the number of networks currently televising soccer matches has grown to about a dozen from five in 2010, and the rise of the Premier League fan has increased to 30 million in the States.
Playing Fifa in college really accelerated my soccer fandom, says Dillon Asher from Los Angeles. Whether it was organizing a Fifa World Cup with eight of my closest friends, or trying to squeeze a game in before we went out, its safe to say a game of Fifa was always on the table. The 22-year-old can also says he was not a soccer fan before he played Fifa. In fact, he doesnt think he could have named one professional player. Now, I am a soccer addict. I saw my first and only soccer game at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena a couple years ago and Manchester United won 7-0 against LA Galaxy.
From a participation perspective, Fifa has also made an influence on young children who play soccer, either in school or just recreationally. I played in a local soccer league when I was five or six but didnt enjoy it enough to continue, says Matthew Celentano, a freshman at Northwestern University. For the rest of elementary school I was in a baseball little league and later a flag football league, but I never quite got into either of the two sports. In sixth grade I started playing soccer again for my school team, and it was at this same time that I began playing Fifa and following Arsenal. It was at that point that soccer became my sport, as I felt a connection to it that I never really felt with baseball or football.
During his school days as a player, Celentano would use Fifa as a soccer encyclopedia, where he would learn not just about different teams and players, but also about strategy and technique. Fifa became his fountain of soccer knowledge, where he applied all that he learned by playing and used it on the field. I think Fifa gives young people in America a platform to learn about the sport in a fun way. Fifa has an incredible database of information about the game, so the more one plays the more he or she learns about the sport and grows an affinity for it.
Despite the fact that there are many soccer fans in the US who have no affinity to the video game and vice versa, something that cant be argued is how Fifa has helped create a new breed of soccer fan: one who recognizes the beauty of the real life experience by learning from its virtual alternative.