Tuesday, 29 November, 2022
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EA’s FIFA wasn’t just a PC game. It gave birth to a generation of football fans in India

FIFA title represented a culture around football. Something beyond the 90-minute match, especially when you were thousands of miles away from the roaring arenas.

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On the opposite sides of the centre circle, stand Thierry Henry and Ruud van Nistelrooy, waiting for instructions; “press ‘s’ to pass, to kick-off”. It’s 2002 inside the computer screen, but the calendar says 2004. It’s Arsenal vs Manchester United. It’s ‘football heritage’. Two English Premier League teams at the height of their powers. But the game barely lasts 5 minutes. It’s a demo after all. The freebie CD that comes with an iBall keyboard and mouse set can only contain so much.

EA Sports and FIFA’s split over the $20 billion football gaming franchise won’t mean much to many. But for at least 150 million people who grew up believing that ‘it’ was indeed, ‘in the game’, know why it’s being described as the ‘end of an era’. It means much more for a generation of football fans in India, who, before 2001, were brought up on a steady diet of Bhajji’s off-spins and Sachin’s Straight Drives. It’s the FIFA gaming franchise that brought international club football, especially the Premier League and La Liga, Lionel Messi vs Cristiano Ronaldo debate, to the country.

Remember groups of teenage urban millennials and Gen Zs, who in the absence of their parents, have spent countless hours before the computer screen, playing custom tournaments, or, if you could afford it or had more than generous guardians, played Ultimate Team? Stacks and stacks of hundred-rupee notes disappearing within a matter of hours at ‘gaming centres’ or opening TOTY (Team Of The Year) packs. The FIFA games have been a cultural phenomenon for the 2000s adolescents who just couldn’t get enough.

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FIFA-fuelled rise of club football

While ESPN did start broadcasting Premier League matches in 2001, it was around 2004-05 that the country saw a surge in the game’s popularity. But no points for guessing what this corresponded with. India was witnessing a “watershed era in the history of the Indian PC market” between 2003 and 2006, where the number of desktop computers more than doubled from 9.5 million to 22 million. Also, don’t forget the birth of the glorious Pirate Bay in 2003.

With computers, came the Internet, videos and gaming—all new modes of entertainment. The desi gaming phenomenon coupled with piracy also fuelled a booming business of thelawaalahs, who, instead of selling us vegetables and fruits, offered cheap, virus-filled CDs of films of various genres, song albums and, of course, games. GTA (Grand Theft Auto), NFS (Need For Speed) and FIFA were the staple—fulfilling the adolescent need for violence, innuendoes, speeding sportscars and sports tribalism.

But put aside FIFAnomics for a second. The fact that one could play as world football stars—switching from Ronaldinho to Kaka, to Wayne Rooney and Xavi—all in one team, emulating Galácticos virtually, without consequences, had an unprecedented pull. Add to that, the on-field success and a 12-year-long in-game tussle between Messi and Ronaldo for FIFA’s highest ratings. More than a game, FIFA represented a culture around football. Something beyond the 90-minute match once a week, especially when you were behind the television, million miles away from the roaring arenas. It marked itself as a ‘chill space’—an experience you could immerse in to escape from stress and bond over with others. Who late Gen Zs and Gen Alpha might recognise as popular British YouTube group ‘The Sidemen’—KSI, Miniminter, Zerkaa, TBJZL, Behzinga, Vikkstar123, and W2S—owe the existence of their careers to FIFA.

Nearly two decades later, it’s not surprising to see why the Premier League, for the first time since the competition began 30 years ago, reported generating more revenue from overseas broadcasters than domestic ones. A staggering $7.2 billion. To put the figure in perspective, that’s $600 million more than the United Nations’ requirement of $6.6 billion to stave off starvation for 42 million people across 43 countries.

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It’s all about the money

Perhaps it would be too much to say that we’ve lost yet another valuable cultural artefact to the desire for money, or will it? But it’s certainly not because FIFA had the best interest of the fans at heart. FIFA President Gianni Infantino might have said he wants to give gamers and football fans “the only authentic, real game”, but it’s lost on him that even at its best, the previous titles have been, putting it lightly, sorely underwhelming.

In a post-Super League world, where UEFA has changed its format to accommodate more teams, created the ‘conference league’ and FIFA has looked away from the human rights abuses in Qatar to host the World Cup this year, it feels football institutions and cultures, of late, have been on a desperate bid to grab money wherever they find it.

It’s been the same with EA—the priorities of FIFA games shifted from the much-beloved offline manager mode to online micro-transactions—which shows where the American gaming giant has been lacking. That the game has been stagnant on many counts, barring improved graphics with the Unreal Engine and the introduction of The Journey mode, is a complaint many FIFA fans have been decrying for years.

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Down the PES road?

In the grand scheme of things, EA Sports FC, as the new game is being dubbed, won’t be different from the previous games. Since the company still retains the player and team licenses—thank God—there will be no PM Black White (Juventus) or Man Blue (Manchester City). But for the new FIFA title, it might as well spell disaster. In all probability, it will go down Konami’s ‘eFootball’ (formerly Pro Evolution Soccer or PES) route—a cult classic that self-destructed in a bid to reinvent itself.

“The word ‘classic’ is used too much,” wrote Mean Machines Sega magazine when FIFA was released in 1993, “but anyone who plays Fifa Soccer must concede that this IS football.” Thirty years later, as we bid adieu to our favourite football game that inspired a generation of Indians to watch football, we also remember the times it helped us tune out and unwind.

For Manchester United fans like me, and perhaps the Arsenal fans too, FIFA helps — even to this date, it feels as if the glory days of Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsène Wenger will never end. And the game kicks off.

Views are personal.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

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