Burning the Backlog 4: Soccer flowing through your veins

I’ve been asked to do some really hard stuff in my life. Scantron exams with a pen, read Bret Easton Ellis’ books without falling asleep, listen to Eminem without cringing. […]

I’ve been asked to do some really hard stuff in my life. Scantron exams with a pen, read Bret Easton Ellis’ books without falling asleep, listen to Eminem without cringing. But the hardest thing anyone has ever asked me was to explain the appeal of soccer.

The usual go-to answer of the average soccer fan is: “Watch Messi”. There are very few players that can convert skeptics like Leo Messi, the diminutive Argentine who plays for Barcelona and plays with speed, skill and strategy that have never been seen before in the game.  Hell, one only has to watch this goal (I know, I’m sorry, but it’s the soccer fan’s ritual to link the skeptics until they understand or cut ties.) to understand that Messi is unique not only in soccer but athleticism’s history, period.

But one player can’t possibly explain the appeal of a sport as played by so many different people in so many different ways. I think you need to go back to one of the most basic principles of game design to understand it. And it’s what FIFA 16 gets so right about both video games and soccer.

All games are about flow. Flow is basically the smooth connection between actions. In an FPS, it’s a killstreak. In a stealth game, it’s movement between positions without being caught. In fighting games, it is a combo. Most games, as you can see, reward flow. Bigger combos lead to bigger damage or more powerful attacks. Bigger killstreaks equal more experience. More time uncaught is more time being able to observe the world and learn its details. The way players attain flow in games also speaks to what game designers wish to reward in games. A game like Quake rewards fast action and reflexes. A game like Metal Gear Solid rewards patience and observation.

In soccer, flow manifests as possession. The ability of obtaining and maintaining the ball and then move it around the field in such a way that your ten men can move forward and find themselves in advantageous positions. In a lot of ways, it is a fast version of chess where careful positioning and mind reading are as important as sheer speed. And, more importantly, because you can’t take out your opponents as readily, watching soccer is often about false starts and tried chances.

Soccer is one of the few sports where being a defender is actually rewarding and where the onus of play is on the attacker. Most sports, like basketball and football, reward the man on the attack. Soccer asks the man who wants to score to prove himself to the world. In most games, he’s unable. You see it often, the 0-0 games with lots of chances, none converted. But then you see the players that have already proved themselves, doing the thing that has gotten them the millions of dollars and their names on the shirts and you, hopefully, understand.

The goal of FIFA is that it is designed around the experience of watching good, surprising soccer. You see it around the fact that you have commentators on the game (rather than its outstanding soundtrack) and you see it in the replay. You see it in the fact that getting players to do things that football watchers can only dream of (like bicycle kicks and thorough passes) is just a matter of pressing two buttons.

fifa-break

It’s one of the biggest reminders of how sports and video games go so well together. You will never be as amazing as Lionel Messi. But, with enough observation, of both your opponent and the game in general, you can reproduce the magic that made Messi such a beloved idol. And it’s all in the understanding that soccer is strategy and skill, not just flairs of fancy. It’s all about understanding that the false starts and the ridiculous amounts of strategy are what make the game so wonderful to observe and learn about.

FIFA 16 explains exactly why soccer is so fun to watch and be a part of. It’s a sport that demands not just your physical fitness but your mental fitness as well.  We call it the beautiful sport because the skills that we demand from the players involves them learning skills that are outright unreal. Most soccer players can kick over their own head and can find impossible spaces where they can move as loosely as El Chapo through Mexico. The game translates these aspects of the game to relatively simple commands but doesn’t just let you press a certain button combination to create a beautiful play.

Rather, the game rewards flow and timing. Sure, you can do a bicycle kick. But if you don’t time it right (or aim it right, for that matter), it’s pointless. You can do every single great trick you have seen on the pitch. Abby Wambach’s diving headers and scorpion kicks. But if you don’t know how to position your players on the pitch and how to react to your opponent’s go to strategies, it’s pointless. Granted, most players don’t think about this, which leads to a diluted (and funner since it’s not saddled with constant pauses to address strategic changes and tactic flow) metagame but it’s all there in a game that is carefully crafted.

FIFA 16’s excellent game design is easy to dismiss because video games are often praised not for engaging with sports but rather for subverting them. Popular e-sports are usually games like DOOM or Overwatch, which reward off the cuff skill and have no point of comparison with the physical duty that physical soccer requires or the level of attention to detail that FIFA requires, instead preferring to reward fast reflexes and high risk play. This isn’t meant to undermine but simply to illustrate why games like FIFA see so much less evaluation. They’re seen as unnecessary yearly upgrades on a game that is not really changing yearly so much as by the decade.

But at the same time, the improvements on installment-to-installment basis don’t need to be big so much as reflect soccer’s current reality, in rosters and play style. On top of that, the game design does improve every year, balancing out different features rather than adding. What FIFA does so cleverly is what evades so many other video game sequels: It’s not just about adding to the original game but improving on it and address flaws.

There are many reasons why EA sports’ line of games is less succesful with the “hardcore” gaming demographic but the biggest one might simply be that its choice of “flavor”/content/what-have-you is a sport and sports are anathema to hardcore gaming. It’s a shame, if only because video games (especially team and e-sports) benefit so much from understanding how sports have evolved to address different players, innovations and even health trends. Video games could learn so much from FIFA and the way its design translates the experience of playing soccer into an interactive format while maintaining a balance between the sport’s strategic finesse and the physical prowess that makes strategies happen.