May 232012

Supersport, the main (or if you’re serious about it, only) sports network serving South Africa, have some pretty dramatic and self-indulgent advertising, where they have collect dramatic shots from all sorts of sports, slap a over-the-top song on it and basically end off with ‘that’s why you should watch Supersport’. It’s a wee bit strange seeing as only paying subscribers to Supersport will see this, and they have a monopoly on most of the sport South Africans want to watch, but I guess they might as well build up the brand. A few years back, they had a series of football ads with quick fire @OptaJoe like stats, and the repeated phrase, ‘the more you know, the better it gets’, essentially advertising their magazine shows analyzing the weekend’s action.

For any serious football fan, this statement will seem banal. The popularity of websites and twitter accounts that provide detailed statistics and/or analysis bears testament to this fact. We want to know why, how, to what extent, when exactly (and so on) an event or series of events happened. Furthermore, we want to know, prior to the game actually starting, what the head-to-heads are, what the likely line-up will be, what the star’s record is like against this team etc. Context is (nearly) everything. The narrative does not start with the first nor end with the last whistle. The match is but one act in the never-ending saga. And if you know what a match, or events during a match, mean in the historical context, it can be truly tragic/epic/romantic…

Some matches, of course, don’t need any back-story to reach these heights, and indeed every game creates its own reality, such that events in the 80th minute have a history against which it can be interpreted. Writing about, mostly, Newcastle’s 4-4 comeback against Arsenal, Brian Phillips notes:

Every goal ends an old match and begins a new one. That’s the hardest thing to recreate, after the fact, when you read about heroic comebacks: the sheer tremendousness of the goals, the way whatever happened took place in a reality1 that was totally conditioned by what had gone before, and not conditioned at all by the (still-unforeseeable) events to come, which to us are the most famous, and hence most inevitable-seeming, part of the story.

More recent examples2 include that dreadful City-QPR game on the last day of the season, or the painful Barcelona-Chelsea ties in this year’s Champions League. Even if you only saw those games, the narratives inherent in them would be damn near overwhelming. But what if you add the knowledge about Torres’s recent lack of goals, his good history at the Camp Nou, the infamous tie between the clubs in 2009, the fact that the narrative here is all too familiar for Barcelona: when Chelsea knocked Barcelona out in the 2004/05 season, the stats for the first leg which finished 2-1 to Barca looked like this:

26(13) shots vs 2(0)? (And 14(8) vs 12(9) in the second leg, with Chelsea going through 5-4 on aggregate.) Seen in this context, every game represents a finale of sorts, the coming together of multiple narratives, some of which will end, some of which will have shocking twists and some of which will barely be noticed over 90 minutes on the pitch.

It’s because of this that I find it surprising that EA Sports don’t spend more money on creating such a narrative in the FIFA series. Don’t get me wrong, the improvements to the career mode over recent incarnations have been immense. But they seem so bent on making the game ‘realistic’ that they might miss out on making it engrossing, beautiful, dramatic, tragic, unbelievable – all the things that we get from real football. They do spend a lot of money on some strange things, however, like the ‘new’ physics engine, which has spawned numerous ‘fail’ videos on YouTube (my favorite channel is linked to below)

Other than the online aspects, which are great and have their own appeal, and the ‘instant’ satisfaction from jumping straight into a game or a tournament, the ‘flagship of the FIFA series has been its Career Mode (be it as a Pro or Manager). Other than the online aspects, which are great and have their own appeal, and the ‘instant’ satisfaction from jumping straight into a game or a tournament, the ‘flagship’ of the FIFA series has been its Career Mode (be it as a Pro or Manager). It is a game mode that creates narratives, and EA Sports should do more to cultivate it. Obviously, a lot of the narrative only exists in the player’s mind, and one can develop such a story quite substantially (see Brian Phillip’s Pro Vercelli Football Manager series).  But with a few tweaks such a rich narrative experience could be the norm rather than the exception.

For example, by providing a ‘preview’ of big games (derbies, El Classico, semi-finals and finals, etc) with reference to the last few meetings (in game meetings that is), players performances (who scored a hatrick? etc), betting odds, and so on, a game can be placed in a context similar to real football. Or even detailed statistics on players (like in FM, but not that detailed!), or the manager’s record in certain countries, or players who have never gotten along etc etc. Imagine @OptaJoe like ‘tweets’ about your players, or previews/analysis like one would get on The Guardian/ZonalMarking/etc???

I’ll end with the story that inspired this line of thinking. At the start of the 2011-12 season, Plymouth Argyle were in crisis (and in administration in League Two), and they turned to Mr. Manager (my brother and I decided that originality will be kept for our team talks) to help them out. It was a tough season, with little to no budget to work with, a heavy reliance on free transfers and loans and the (small) profits from going a round or two further in the cups than anticipated. But a strong end to the season secured promotion to League One. During this season, we first met a Manchester City side which had seemingly spent even more than in the ‘real world’, and got slaughtered by them in both the Carling and FA cup. But some smart moves in the transfer market, ignorance for our players’ demands for higher wages and old school counterattacking tactics secure another promotion. Most of our stars left us following our promotion to the Championship, and several were released from their contracts, but we were lucky to land a star goalkeeper and decent outfield players for frees. But as the season progressed, we lost key players through injury, our youth scouts were pissing away our money, we got knocked out of all the cups early on (the FA Cup at the hands of City), and despite end-of-season-heroics barely qualified for the play-offs. Miraculously, we scraped through and into the Premier League.

So at the start of the 2014-2015 season, after triple-back-to-back promotions, we were completely out of our league. The board, who are unrealistically reasonable, upped our transfer budget, and we could sign a great forward, midfielder, defender and replacement keeper. We got hammered fairly often, but the draws really cost us, and towards the end of the season a mid-table finish seemed our only hope. The only salvation was our form in the FA Cup, and as the season drew to a close, we had secured safety and a place in the semi-final. Against Chelsea. We had lost against Chelsea twice that season in the league, but somehow thrashed them 1-3 at Stamford Bridge, securing a place in the final. At Wembley. Against Manchester City. Over the course of the last few years we had met them with uncanny regularity in the cups, and had hoped to avoid them this time around, seeing as they had always destroyed us. They had the usual attacking army of Augero, Dzeko, Balotelli, Tevez, Silva and Nasri to choose from, as well as Ibrahimovic and a few other stars. What’s more, we were set to meet them a few days prior to the final in the league. We rested key players and were annihilated.

Can you imagine what the players must have been thinking as they walked out onto the pitch at Wembley? What the press were saying, what the odds were like, what we would have said in the press conference? The final is a scrappy game from the start, with few to no chances, both of us sweating on the touchline, controllers trembling in our hands. It looks dead-set to go to extra time when suddenly, out of nowhere, City area awarded a penalty. (Will we never beat them? Will we never win a title?) That moment, when Ibrahimovic stepped up to take the penalty, was drenched in such narrative potential, the ‘climate of expectation’ was saturated with another defeat to City. Yet somehow, inches from the post, our keeper saves it, our centre back (rated somewhere in the low 60s) hacks the ball clear, and it happens to fall perfectly for our only good player (Hoffer) who beats his marker and is free to run at Joe heart. He slows down, weighing up his options *don’t miss don’t miss don’t miss* but just then his strike partner Haynes (only in the team for his pace) is SCREAMING IN HIS EAR BECAUSE HE IS FREE AND HE DRAWS HEART AND SQUARES AND HAYNES HAS A TAP IN AND HE WILL AND HE DOES SCORE AND WE HAVE WON WE HAVE WON WE HAVE BEATEN THEM.

 It was well past midnight at our parent’s place when we both screamed and jumped off the couch in celebration (they had thought someone was seriously injured!), in a moment incomparable to anything I’ve experienced in gaming. It also galvanized the team, albeit together with a much improved transfer budget, and the 2015-16 season saw us qualify for the Champions League at the expense of City. On a cold November night in Plymouth, we beat the mighty Barcelona 3-0 to virtually secure qualification for the knockout round of the 2016-17 season.

We had achieved so much, had been the directors of such a wonderful story, but very little of it was reinforced by the game itself. Instead, we had to construct it, something which we could do because we could play through the seasons over a short period of time, leaving old wounds and failures fresh in the memory. And of course we are both a bit crazy when it comes to football. But such narrative could be made to arise more naturally from the game.

The ideal sports title provides the gamer with a world that’s deceptively realistic, but then it gives them the privilege of manipulating that world. Being a sports fan is an exercise in anxiousness, because a fan can’t actually do anything to affect what he or she is watching. The ideal title expunges that anxiousness and replaces it, ostensibly, with a sense of responsibility.4

Isn’t it time EA Sports gives us a story worthy or leading, characters worthy of manipulating, a history that demands responsibility?



1 “Reality” is obviously too broad a word here, but “climate of expectation” feels too narrow, even though that’s really the significant thing, isn’t it, when you’re watching a match, what you allow yourself to expect.   (Quoted, with footnote, from Brain’s article)

I should point out this was written before the Champions League final.


4  (Well worth reading)

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