The history of video-game football is a summer blockbuster waiting to be made.
The attempt to recreate “the beautiful game” on computers and consoles, a story spread over two decades, has been an endeavour fraught with twists, turns and intense creative rivalries. But in 2010, one name stands above all else on the virtual football field as the current reigning champion—EA Sports’ FIFA.
In India, the FIFA series of games have the astonishing honour of being more popular than cricket. “It’s the highest-selling game in India, and its popularity increases with every iteration of the game. The latest edition, FIFA 10, has shifted more than 40,000 copies,” says Jayont Sharma, chief executive of game distributors Milestone Interactive. “The game quality is fantastic, and with the popularity of club football, it’s integrated into a lot of gamers’ lifestyle.”
Top of the game: Frank Lampard (far left), Ronaldinho (left) and Wayne Rooney are some of the A-list footballers endorsing EA Sports’ FIFA.
Internationally, FIFA 10 has shipped around 9.7 million copies since its release in October. The series as a whole has shipped around 70 million copies since its inception in 1995, making FIFA more popular than Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon and Michael Jackson’s Dangerous combined.
The game is a rare cross-platform success in India—most football fans are familiar with the game, and Sharma says it’s popular across consoles, from hand-held PlayStation Portables to cobbled-together PCs. The games have also been lenient with system requirements, making them playable even on low-spec laptops and ageing computers.
The FIFA series of games are high-profile titles. They’re made by Electronic Arts, one of the world’s largest game publishers, and feature around 500 fully licensed teams from 31 leagues around the world. In contrast, FIFA’s competitors, most notably Konami Digital Entertainment’s Pro Evolution Soccer series, cannot use real team names, and feature hilariously misspelt variations of real players. The FIFA games are endorsed by a string of football superstars—Wayne Rooney, Ronaldinho and Bastian Schweinsteiger among them.
The ride hasn’t always been smooth for FIFA. The series is frequently accused of favouring graphical prowess over core gameplay, and iterating lazily year-on-year. In 2004, one of FIFA’s cover stars, French striker Thierry Henry, defected to the rival Pro Evolution Soccer camp—a series that was slowly gaining a foothold in the FIFA-dominated market by dint of clever, realistic gameplay. FIFA then went through an existential crisis, rebuilding its gameplay foundations and taking cues from Pro Evolution Soccer’s approach. By the time FIFA 09 was released, the series had started to perfect its new look, and was the first series title to beat Pro Evolution Soccer critically as well as commercially.
In India, however, FIFA has ruled throughout. Apart from personal computers and gaming consoles, it’s also found a new home—the professional gaming circuit. “FIFA is one of the most popular games in the competitive gaming circuit, up there with juggernauts like racing games Need for Speed and Counter Strike,” says Ashish Bhatia of Xtreme Gaming, an event management firm that organizes gaming tournaments. “The average sign-up at a big gaming festival is between 200-300. In some large college festivals, and all engineering colleges in India have one of these, you might even get up to 400 people.” Each of the metros boasts around three-four big gaming calendar events, and Bhatia says there are around 150 FIFA tournaments in a year, “by a conservative estimate”.
“I’ve been playing FIFA since I was 13,” says 19-year-old Lalit Rao, a first-year student at the Delhi College of Arts and Commerce and a Liverpool fan. “I play football in real life, so I love the games. I try and play daily.” Rao is among the top echelons of pro FIFA players in the country. He came second in the 2008 Vixture Gaming Championship, an event held in eight cities that carried a total prize money of Rs40 lakh.
Reuben Pereira, a 19-year-old call centre employee from Mumbai and a Chelsea fan, is another pro. He represented India at the Asian leg of the World Cyber Games, the world’s largest professional gaming championship—winning a silver medal in both 2007 and 2008. Lack of sponsors meant he couldn’t make the trip in 2009, and Pereira is now taking a FIFA sabbatical. “There’s no point putting so much effort into it if I’m not making money,” he says.
One of the year’s biggest FIFA events starts on 25 June—Delhi’s BYOC Summer 2010. Bhatia expects a large turnout. “Very soon, we could even be having FIFA festivals here,” he says.
2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa, the official video game of the football World Cup developed by the same studio as FIFA 10, is available for Rs2,499 on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, Rs1,499 on the PlayStation Portable, and Rs1,999 on the Nintendo Wii.