Real Soccer

Strategy & Realism in FIFA 14

Commentary - FIFA14

Tim Sheinman is an Educational Psychology post graduate and teacher. He lives and works in London, England. He specialises in group psychology and team dynamics and is an avid, if occasionally frustrated gamer.

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September annually marks season’s beginnings for Europe’s major soccer leagues and with it the release of a new FIFA from EA Sports. The EA Sports motto, ‘If it’s in the game, it’s in the game’, underscores their ambition for FIFA to be the most authentic version of professional soccer and, Sicart explains, “to make the computer game converge with the sport” (Sicart: 2013 p.4). Authenticity is conferred in large part by EA’s virtual monopoly of officially licensed kits, players and club names, as well as presenting matches in a manner synonymous with well funded television sports shows.

These facets of authenticity are highly prized by FIFA’s fans and reviewers. Combined with Consalvo’s findings that 93% of sports gamers identify themselves as sports fans as well (Concordia: 2012), one may suggest that FIFA players utilise the game for “extending their…spectatorship through interactivity” (Stein: 2012, p.15).

In recent years, authenticity has also meant a commitment to FIFA accurately modeling the on field action of modern soccer, moving closer towards realistic simulation. However, FIFA is a necessarily incomplete version of soccer and can only prioritize some aspects of the sport it seeks to adapt.

This article examines the priorities of FIFA’s simulation, how they shape the game and underpin its ambitions for realism. I will suggest that, while FIFA models many aspects of real soccer well, that which it does not adapt–complex strategy and teamwork– undermines its authenticity and contributes to significant gameplay problems.

FIFA as a Simulation

The realism of FIFA was explored by Sicart (2013). His findings from playing FIFA 12 led him to conclude that FIFA’s priorities appeared to be a, “…realistic physical, tactical and statistical simulation of the game” (Sicart 2013).

Respectively, FIFA closely matches its avatars’ physical attributes to that of their real life counterparts, both in looks and mannerisms. For instance FIFA 14‘s Cristiano Ronaldo adopts his distinctive, square on stance when taking a direct free kick. Similarly, Gareth Bale’s avatar, after scoring, automatically wheels away making a heart shape with his first fingers and thumbs, just as he does in real life.

Tactics are represented in the game by a range of formation shapes resembling those found in professional soccer, as well as a set of sliders that can be used to adjust a team’s overall playing style. There is opportunity to create prearranged set plays for corners and close range free kicks. These tactical options represent, to a degree, what may be found in real-life but, as noted by Sicart, “Does not allow for the flexible, touch-and-go soccer that some modern teams advocate for” (Sicart: 2013, p.45).

Concerning Statistics, each player is given a set of physical, technical and mental attributes, between one to one hundred that convey ability in a range of areas. Predominantly these are either physical (speed, strength) or technical attributes (short pass, interceptions). Much less common are mental skills (such as vision) and it is also less clear how these affect gameplay. All of these should be highly familiar to anyone who has played EA’s largest televisual sports games in the fields of Baseball, Basketball and American Football.

Sicart finds that the main way in which FIFA diverges from the real game is in the manner it shifts skills of interpretation to that of procedure. For example FIFA referees calculate, rather than interpret, normally ambiguous situations. Consequently, offsides utilise precise measurements of the striker’s position, rather than decisions that are correct in spirit or possess irregularities. Similarly a FIFA character does not interpret the game in the distinctive manners of their real life analogue. Beyond Lionel Messi’s statistical attributes and physical likeness, FIFA’s Messi does not play the real Messi in the way he occupies space and identifies opportunities.

I contend that FIFA’s other great divergence from real soccer (in contrast to Sicart) is that its tactical and strategic options are actually very shallow compared to modern soccer. Soccer has in recent years become much more strategically sophisticated, notably dominated by very tactically astute, yet physically unprepossessing sides, such as Barcelona and Spain. The unnoticed, chess-like nature of top, professional soccer is noted byThe Guardian’s Secret Footballer, an anonymous practicing player, “You know that pass when you say to yourself: ‘How did he spot that?’ Often he didn’t need to; he knew the player would be there because, the night before in the hotel, he read about the runs he would be making”.

It was contended by Arrigo Sacchi, manager of the successful and influential 1986 AC Milan team, that the point of tactics is to, “Multiply players qualities exponentially” (Wilson: 2008). The strategic control required for such multiplicative effects is not something translated to FIFA. Rather, FIFA’s simulation of soccer is one that focuses on the strength of individual qualities over those fostered through collective endeavor. One may find evidence in the small range of strategic and tactical options open to the player, compared to the vast amount of individual skills moves one may master.

FIFA as a game

FIFA 14’s desire for authentic simulation may exist at odds with its desire for entertaining and engaging gameplay. It may be a common occurrence that complex strategy does not square with mainstream accessibility (consider COD versus Arma). However, I suggest that actually it is the lack of underlying strategic options which has in some ways hindered EA in making a well-balanced game for a general audience and has placed FIFA in a difficult position.

In recent iterations of the game, FIFA has tried to move away from its ‘arcade’ (hyper-real) past and mirror the slow and cerebral rhythms of contemporary soccer. However, it has only done so in a superficial way. For instance, FIFA 14 directly responded to criticism that FIFA 13 featured some players that were too fast, which led to abusive and one-dimensional play. In turn, the developers incorporated the ‘locomotion’ mechanism, slowing players down by making it harder for them to change direction at speed.

Similarly, early versions of FIFA 14 shipped with some aspects of play seemingly overpowered. Players were routinely able to curl in shots from 45 yards, while attacking headers were unstoppable. To balance the game FIFA reduced the power of the controversial actions.

This may seem appropriate, however it was noted by some that the culprit for issues such as overpowered long shots was actually stilted AI, either of defenders or poor goalkeeper positioning. This raises the question of whether it was appropriate to correct such matters by addressing physical attributes. As a result of EA’s patch, the game has become sluggish and congested, due to slow players, poor ball control and inaccurate passing. These three factors were all additions made in order to supposedly better recreate real life soccer. One critic asked, “Has EA sports broken FIFA 14 by trying to fix it”? (Bramwell: 2013)

One may argue, by these acts of rebalancing that FIFA creates something of an arms race between different classes of attributes, rather than addressing deeper issues of gameplay. Given the current set of physical constraints put in place by FIFA’s patch, strength has become a larger facet of the game, privileging powerful, tall sides like Real Madrid. This is also bad for sides like Barcelona, who have very few outstanding physical attributes and yet have won every prize in domestic soccer. Though the real Barcelona’s prowess appears somewhat diminished recently, their decline does not mirror that of their in-game counterparts.

Additionally, FIFA gives the gamer many powerful, low skill moves, which cannot be counteracted. An example is the lofted through ball, which is both easy to execute, often from deep within one’s own defense, and also very hard to consistently defend against. As such, this is a first choice strategy for many players, to use over and over.

Gamers that lack the ability to counteract the long ball or similar easy, effective strategies may feel frustration and boredom, by being constrained from exploring the depths of FIFA’s gameplay. FIFA’s lack of team options may anger not only strategic players that feel limited, but also more improvisatory players, who feel incapacitated by being unable to undo their conservative opponents.

The answer to solving first order optimal strategies, such as the long ball, may not be by addressing physical balance issues. Rather, allowing the player greater flexibility and ease with which to respond strategically should prove more effective and emancipating.

Real soccer teams started to develop strategies to counteract the long ball a long time ago and at the top level it is now thoroughly debunked (Anderson & Sally 2013). Marinho Peres was the captain of Brazil when his team was crushed by Holland in the 1974 World Cup. Speaking about the defeat he said that his expansive, free flowing team was confounded by the Dutch’s disciplined use of space:

The Dutch wanted to reduce the space and put everybody in a thin band. The whole logic of the offside trap comes from squeezing the game. This was a brand new thing for me. In Brazil people thought you could chip the ball over and somebody could run through and beat the offside trap, but it’s not like that because you don’t have time (Wilson: 2008). 

In seeking to mirror the modern game, but doing so superficially, ironically, FIFA has found itself in the 1970s, the land of big players and lofted through balls.

In all these examples one may argue that superior AI will result in such imbalances being reduced. However, I feel that AI is not really the answer in a game that is already heavily automated. Within the FIFA fan-base there has long been rumbling accusations of scripting by the FIFA engine, either fixing or heavily influencing the outcome of matches. This is an issue for wider debate (as well as proper investigation) and without looking to get involved too deeply, I would suggest that the scripting controversy/conspiracy at least is heavily related to the problem of players feeling that they are lacking consistent control of their actions in a game that may arguably take too much out of their hands.

Solutions

So far I have argued that FIFA undermines its authenticity as a simulation and effectiveness as a game, by not incorporating meaningful strategic play. Consequently, it has fashioned a sluggish experience that discourages team play and creativity, while indulging individualistic and low skill/high power approaches.

Possible solutions may include the ability to create pre-made moves or patterns that can be acted on in open play, or even just an option to change formation without pausing. EA could co-opt Madden-like play and have areas of the pitch highlighted like augmented reality on sports television illustrating different lines of attack for runs and button combinations to trigger them. There may also be a system where the player could select from a menu of detailed team commands (e.g. play wider, push up) which are then relayed at the next stop in play, like Soccer Manager. Finally, FIFA could make some effort to teach team play to the gamer, which is not currently covered in any of its tutorials.

To summarize, FIFA seeks to be an authentic representation of professional soccer in the fullest sense. It recreates more superficial aspects of the game, while not adapting the deeper elements of tactics that give rise to the playing styles seen on the world stage. In doing so FIFA undermines its ability to function well as a deep and fulfilling game by creating sluggish gameplay that lacks a sense of player agency. It is only when FIFA properly acknowledges the role of strategy and puts players in control of it, that FIFA will start to feel and play like a real, contemporary game of soccer.

Works Cited

Anderson, C & Sally, D (2013). The Numbers Game. London: Viking.

Concordia University (2012, December 13). Video-game users: Who are sports gamers?.ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 24, 2013

Bogost, I. (2013). What are Sports Video games. In: Mia Consalvo, Konstantin Mitgutsch, Abe Stein Sports Video games. New York: Routledge.

Bramwell, T. (2013). Has EA sports broken FIFA 14 by trying to fix it?.Available: http:// www.eurogamer.net/articles/2013-10-16-has-ea-sports-broken-fifa-14-by-trying-to-fix-it. Last accessed 24th Nov 2013.

Sicart, M. (2013). What are Sports Video games. In: Mia Consalvo, Konstantin Mitgutsch, Abe Stein Sports Video games. New York: Routledge.

Stein, Abraham Daniel. Televisual sports video games. Diss. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2013.

Wilson, Jonathan. Inverting the pyramid: The history of soccer tactics. Machete UK, 2010.