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The U.S. survived the World Cup's "Group of the Death," and, perhaps even more surprising, millions of Americans tuned in to watch. That devastating 2-2 tie against Portugal? It drew 18.22 million fans, making it the most watched soccer game ever on American television.
If you've stopped by a college dorm room in the past few years, though, you might come to a different conclusion. Over the past decade, FIFA, a soccer video game from EA Sports, has scored a devoted following. Today there are millions of Americans who play FIFA, making it EA Sports' top-selling game in North America outside of Madden — the company's signature (American) football franchise.
And this video game — anecdotally, at least — is turning some Americans into soccer fanatics.
A few weeks back I visited the biggest American soccer fans I know: a group of college buddies who have bonded over their passion for the Beautiful Game. Just a few minutes after I arrived at their dorm room in Cambridge, Mass., the first debate broke out, this one about the merits of a French national teamer named Yohan Cabaye.
“The other day in a game,” one roommate declared, “he forced a goalie to make a spectacular save on a 55-yard half volley.”
“What are you taking that shot for?” another countered.
They sounded like life-long fans. The thing is, they’re not. In fact, just five years ago, some of the roommates couldn’t even explain the offsides rule.
“I probably paid more attention," one friend named Andrew remembered of his high school days, "to arena football, honestly, than I did to soccer.”
That changed when Andrew picked up his first copy of FIFA the summer before he started college. He didn't know about any of the teams, so he picked the first one listed alphabetically: Arsenal. Soon enough he was hooked.
Keeping It Simple
Andrew wasn’t alone. Across the country, Americans were starting to pick FIFA over basketball, baseball and hockey games.
"It's such a simple game to play," explained David Pekush, senior global marketing manager at EA. "Video games need to be two things: They need to be easy to play and hard to master."
FIFA seems to strike that balance: two buttons — pass and shoot — are all you need to get started.
A decade ago, the folks at Electronic Arts didn’t exactly anticipate FIFA’s success.
Pekush remembers going to his first sales meeting 10 years ago to give a presentation on a basketball video game. FIFA was scheduled to follow. But when Pekush’s presentation ended, half the people in the room turned to their Blackberries or left the room.
“Now FIFA is the lead at every single sales meeting we have, along with Madden in North America,” Pekush said.
The way the company has marketed FIFA, Pekush explained, has changed, too. In the past, EA tried to appeal to soccer fans using soccer stars like Landon Donovan. These days, rappers like Drake pitch the game to a more general audience.
“For us,” Pekush explained, “that’s how we’re marketing our game differently is we’re saying, ‘I love FIFA, and you will too, and I don’t have to be a hardcore soccer fan to love it.’”
The thing is, people who play FIFA are turning into hardcore soccer fans.
Back in the dorm room, Alex, controller in hand, spoke about that transition.
"I think the free-flowing nature of soccer as a sport is at once something that makes it seem somewhat inaccessible for new fans who ... don't understand the offside rule," he said, "but then once you understand it and have like a rudimentary understanding of what's going on, the free-flowing nature of it all makes it a better video game and makes it a very enjoyable sport to watch — like you understand why the world is in love with this sport. And I think a lot of my understanding of that is through FIFA."
Andrew, after happening upon Arsenal by chance a few years back, is now a devoted fan of the club and its players.
"It's hard to identify with the players or the teams when you don't know who they are really and you don't know their skill sets," he said. "But if you play enough FIFA, it's hard to avoid that."
While visiting London two summers ago, Andrew even made a point of visiting the team's stadium. It was the offseason at the time, but he hopes to go back.
“I’d love to see a game there,” he said.
Until that day comes, though, Andrew and his roommates will set down their controllers and turn to ESPN for Tuesday afternoon's match between the U.S. and Belgium — along with a few million other Americans.