Illustration for article titled iFIFA/i and the Rise of Modern Football

With the hot new FIFA 17 trailer just released at E3, with Euro 2016 in stuttering bloody motion, with Cristiano Ronaldo in fine preening prima donna form, and with European political tensions running vengefully rampant through the stands and threatening to boil fervently over onto the pitch, there has never been a better time to chronicle the rise of modern football.

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Some of you may think that modern football is a sport. An athletic endeavour that requires vast depths of anaerobic capacity and, when lightly grazed by an opponent, a penchant for amateur dramatics. Such an assessment of the modern game would be mistaken. Rather, modern football is a hyper-global money spinning behemoth. It’s a corporation masquerading as a wholesome, healthy activity, while making blood sacrifices at the altar of the brand. As modern football callously goes in search of profit the actual football suffers, loyal fans are cheated and a false representation of the sport is transmitted around the world.

Just as the modern game has superseded the grassroots one, pummelling it viciously into the turf. So too has EA’s FIFA superseded Pro Evolution Soccer as the top draw footballing franchise. FIFA was born with modern football and has epitomised it ever since. It began with the introduction of the English Premier League and the two have become entwined. No other entity has done more than the EPL to push football’s money-making prowess. It appears that the EPL and EA’s FIFA saw football’s profit potential long before the actual FIFA and its corrupt set of money grubbing demagogues.

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Illustration for article titled iFIFA/i and the Rise of Modern Football

Since the dawn of time, since our ancestors gutted their first pig, blew its bladder up like a party balloon and proceeded to stick the boot in, there has been one eternal question: FIFA or Pro Evolution Soccer?

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FIFA always focused on the licenses and slick presentation while neglecting the gameplay. Pro Evolution Soccer focused on the gameplay while neglecting the presentation. It was widely acknowledged that PES was the better game. However, at the turn of the century came a cultural shift, the EPL moved into an aggressive phase of brand management, a new console generation was released, and PES found itself in an alien world which would not tolerate its lack of glamour.

To be a fan of PES was to be a football classicist. To be a FIFA fan was to be a modern, a man of progress and of the shiny and new.

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FIFA looked slick but it was hollow. Once the joy of playing with licensed teams wore off it got boring fast. PES, however, could be played for hours. It saw beyond the chintz and the glamour and saw the beautiful game at its grassroots level. It saw everything, all the strange, weird, wonderful and disparate elements that come together to form the beautiful experience of the beautiful game.

And yet, the uninitiated never felt any of this, but only baulked at the lack of official licenses. Man Blue vs Man Red! Goal scored by Von Mistelroum! What a joke! They missed the point. This is precisely what elevated PES above representation. This is what gave PES life and moved it closer to the heart of football.

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PES’s lack of licence destroyed prejudice, bias and commercial brand influence. It allowed the game to be about THE game. About the individual, about the personal and about the stories which lie at the heart of a fan’s love of football. If I played FIFA as Arsenal the stories have already been told, history is there to be repeated rather than made. If I play PES as North London all bets are off, I’m a pioneer in uncharted waters. I spend less time being crushed by the historical weight of the Western world and more time in the flow state creating beauty.

However, there began a cultural shift at the turn of the century. What came before was now naive. We were now a mature international people. Fun became frivolity. Life became serious and scary. Happiness was replaced as the criteria for a fulfilling existence by money, power, success and respect.

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Before 2000.
Before 2000.
After 2000.
After 2000.
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The EPL took advantage of this shift and began to position itself not as a sports league but as a global brand, an entertainment product to be packaged and sold. Nike became the new league sponsor replacing the traditional English sports company Mitre. Roman Abramovich became the first uber rich oligarch of the EPL era. And as the cost of player wages and transfers sky rocketed teams began chasing coin by staging lucrative pre-season tours in international markets. For the first time, success was found on the balance sheet rather than on the pitch and business became the driving force.

The mature, serious ethos of the new century also transferred to video games. It is perhaps most obvious in the release of the Playstation 3. No longer a fun box, a video game console, but an entertainment centre. This was a mature, super expensive, sleek and sombre black box. Oozing with shiny sex appeal and meant for the modern man and his serious lifestyle and meant to slide seamlessly into his serious uber chic decor. This sleek and sombre black box brought with it sleek and sombre games and, more importantly, much higher development costs than the previous generation.

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The introduction of the new console generation brought the demise of PES and the meteoric and insanely profitable rise of FIFA. FIFA, backed by EA’s deep pockets, had always placed its allure on brand and realism. It was perfectly placed for the new generation. Meanwhile, Konami stuttered and faltered. It struggled with increased costs and began to look increasingly archaic to a public that demanded realism along with the brand and marketing glamour that the EPL and FIFA were now heavily invested in.

FIFA continued to cement its ties with the EPL by providing real-time broadcast graphics while PES didn’t know whether to stick or twist: Continue with its tradition or ape the modern FIFA? In the end, it became an unplayable mess.

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It should be expected that a rise in budget would relate to a rise in quality. On the contrary, FIFA’s affluent sheen and dedication to realism have actually diminished the fun. Yes, the gameplay has improved, with FIFA incorporating much of PES’s prior features. And yes, there is a certain boyish glee produced when one plays as Manchester United at Old Trafford with the actual broadcast commentators. But when it gets down to the actual game itself, the playing football part, something just feels off and frustratingly so. This is not football, this is not the exhilarating thrill I felt when playing PES, it’s boring.

And, as much as I loathe to admit it, this is not FIFA’s fault but is perhaps modern footballs. FIFA is too real and too accurate a representation. Watching a real game, once the ceremonial pomp is finished, once the brooding, emotional, exhilarating advertisements are done, the game itself is mostly an unbelievably boring, sterile and ugly affair. The modern game has lost its flair and its fun, and these things are now manufactured by the corporate machine by way of marketing narrative.

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Illustration for article titled iFIFA/i and the Rise of Modern Football

Here, the Ultimate Team add-on makes my point for me. This card game has become something of a phenomenon for EA. Football fans can’t get enough of it, myself included. Why? Because it’s a fantasy. It dispenses with realism and, just as PES did, gets to the heart of a fan’s devotion to the sport. Gone is the pompous buffoonery of the brand and the player is left to make a team and play football.

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This leads quite aptly to my utter dismay at the recent E3 trailer for FIFA 17. Where we all get to play one long advertisement for the manufactured modern football culture. Football: The vapid reality TV show. How much of the trailer showed actual on the pitch gameplay? Very little. Because the actual sport itself is not important and is becoming utterly boring. It’s all about the brand lifestyle.

And just as the EPL neglects the homegrown fans in search for the lucrative international consumer who doesn’t baulk at $70 for a replica shirt. So too does FIFA search for that lucrative consumer who doesn’t want to play football but rather just wants to look like he does.

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I wonder if FIFA 17’s Alex Hunter will get the opportunity to sleep with his teammate’s wife? Or racially abuse someone at a casino? Perhaps he may mid game turn to the stands and watch in horror as marauding fans rampage across the stadium towards his family?

It would be a bold move by EA if it does, but I seriously doubt it. It wouldn’t be good for the image.

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Carl is currently in NYC trying not to get deported. You can follow him on Twitter, or visit his blog.

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