EA Sports believes this is the year that soccer - or at least their version of it - will finally take over America. They are wrong, of course. This country's knowledge gap won't be closed by one Landon Donovan goal - or box cover.
Every four years, the World Cup reaches its tentacles into the American sports consciousness. Soccer ratings rise, jersey fly off shelves, youth and rec leagues see a slight uptick in enrolment. Then September rolls around, the "real" football season starts and the game slowly fades back into the dark corners of our sports brains to wait quietly for the next quadrennial reboot. Every time, commentators declare that the sport has finally arrived, but they never seem to learn their lesson - that big time soccer has never been more than a summer fling for the United States. What makes EA think that their sports title won't suffer the same fate?
It doesn't have to be that way, but EA has yet to seize what could be its greatest role as an ambassador for sports - educator. Despite all the attention paid to the United States National Team's spine-tingling run through this year's World Cup, most Americans still do not understand soccer. Going to a sports bar a few times a year is one thing, but to truly grasp the complicated nuances of its strategy and rules, you have to play it. (Or devote all your weekends to searching for overseas satellite TV stations. Hope you didn't make plans.) Soccer in this country has a major comprehension problem. Video games could help solve that, but in my experience they don't.
I'm not a soccer or video game expert, but several months ago I purchased EA's FIFA 10, with the vague hope that it would teach me something new about a game that I still struggle to absorb. Playing a game is always the easiest way to learn it and the easiest way to play a lot of games quickly is to do it virtually, right? Unfortunately, many hours later, I remain not-so-blissfully ignorant of the dynamics of both sports games and their doppelgangers.
Immediately after opening the box, I took a half-hour or so to meticulously create my own pro, style his hair and uniform, find the right team and position, and let him loose on the pitch. Then one minute into my first game, he was red carded and sent off. What had he done wrong? Something illegal, I suppose. The game assumes that I know what I did wrong, but I didn't and it was the first of many times I was left scratching my head and wondering, "How does this work?"
What separates a good tackle from a booking? How is a "through ball" different than a "crossing pass?" What does the Coca-Cola Championship have to with the Premier League exactly? What are the advantages of 4-4-2 alignment vs a 5-4-1? I wasn't entirely sure before I started playing and I'm still not now. I suppose it's possible to piece things together from the clues left by automated announcers and flimsy help screens, but it's not supposed to be a mystery novel. Granted, the game has piqued my interest in these topics and led me to conduct a lot of online research to find the answer, but I still have to do the research myself.
That is, when I'm not looking up how to play the "video" part of the video game. Never mind the sport that it aims to depict; I find most EA sports titles to be frustratingly cruel to the beginner. Instruction booklets grow thinner every year, don't they? I'm often left fumbling around online just to figure out how to turn on the most basic features. I still haven't deciphered half the on-screen symbols in FIFA, so I certainly couldn't explain "tactics" to anyone. Thankfully, I'm not good enough to become my team's captain, because I'm sure any team management tricks would be beyond my grasp. As someone without the proper background, the learning curve has felt more like a downward spiral.
It is not EA's job to teach me soccer, any more than it's the job of Monopoly to teach people about Atlantic City real estate. It certainly wouldn't please hardcore fans to see their favourite game reduced to child-like simplicity. Yet, it still feels like a wasted opportunity, because the one thing that's "in the game" that's not in these games is coaching. What good is a practice if there's no one tell me what I'm doing wrong? A video game can't teach me everything, but if it could just teach me something - at least more than what John Harkes teaches ESPN viewers in between replays, which isn't much - that would mean educating a new fan. And a loyal customer.
Some of you may think that these are the complaints of a gaming dummy (or just a dummy) and you'd be right. However, if video game companies want to make new gamers - the same way a sport wants to make new fans - then they better find a way to smarten up people like me. The next version of the FIFA game may sell a record number of American copies, but how many Americans will toss them aside after just a few frustrated spins ... and never come back? The game, like the sport itself, needs to be more welcoming to the uneducated. Until it is, the cries of "four more years" will continued to go unanswered.