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FIFA tournament shows global reach of gaming and soccer

While COVID-19 has forced many of us back to the console, some never left

Back in 2015, on a cold afternoon in a modified upscale warehouse in Brooklyn, New York, my world was forever altered: A child obliterated me in a game of FIFA. I’d played all my life, to no real renown outside of my college dorm building, but this kid was 12.

It wasn’t a crazy scoreline or loud trash-talking fest. He simply announced at halftime that the 2-0 lead he’d conceded would be erased, and he would win 3-2. He did so swimmingly, while demonstrating a keen knowledge of non-top-flight club rosters all across the map, acquired mainly from the game we were playing.

All of this while convincing his parents to let him hang out in the video game lounge at BlazerCon for the rest of the afternoon. Sure, the kid played soccer, but he had no real desire to see the cavalcade of guests. He just really liked FIFA. His dad asked me if I let him win. I did not.

The EA Sports game that debuted in the mid-1990s is now a passport to the globe. As much as this American preteen’s ability to pronounce “Fenerbahçe” (a Turkish club named for its home neighborhood in Istanbul) correctly might have been surprising, it made sense. Globalization is a force that’s affected soccer more than any other sport — not just on the field, but also on the couch.

This past weekend, that all came together when the Kick COVID FIFA20 tournament featured athletes from around the world, not just soccer players, playing FIFA to raise money for the charity Feeding America. The food situation is getting scary, pandemics aside, and is an evergreen issue. Major corporations are openly admitting that supply chains are getting dicey.

The two-day event was put on by LaLiga North America, Uninterrupted and the Women’s International Champions Cup.

“LaLiga is just growing immensely around the world. And I’ve had a chance to go to El Clásico in Madrid,” said Maverick Carter, co-founder of SpringHill Entertainment and Uninterrupted with LeBron James. “I’ve been to almost every sporting event from the Olympics to Super Bowls, college football championships … US Open, but nothing matches El Clásico.”

Of course, with the International Champions Cup caught in limbo between not putting on its men’s tournament that features league winners competing and still trying to execute its women’s event later this summer, growing the game was also a large motivation for the fun of bringing people together digitally.

“We’ve found it as something that we could really take advantage of,” said Daniel Sillman, CEO of Relevent Sports Group, which runs the International Champions Cup. “In our opinion, the FIFA audience is actually much larger than NBA 2K’s. So we were pondering ways where you can still keep growing the sport. We can keep engaging our fans and, most importantly, what type of social impact can we make in terms of raising money for those in need of food during a time of obviously unprecedented unemployment.”

But the participation of LaLiga, who’s been their partner for some time, is a crucial one, specifically because of how the Spanish Premier League has ascended to glory in the past 10 seasons. A decade back, Lionel Messi was still emerging as one of the greatest Argentinians to play the game as a member of Barcelona, and Cristiano Ronaldo had come to Real Madrid from Manchester United in England. They never looked back.

These days, they’re marketing to the type of fan who grew up in a world where you didn’t have to sit in a smoky bar first thing in the morning to see an international club match. The type of people who play games, but aren’t necessarily going to make a living from it. The type of person who probably speaks Spanish, or someone in their family or household or friend group does. You know, the average American.

“Everybody thinks about the U.S. market as kind of the greatest, and where you get access to the largest sports media market in the world. But I think that very few people understand the complexity of the market as well,” Boris Gartner, CEO of LaLiga North America, said this week. “First-generation U.S. Hispanics have grown with soccer. You don’t need to sell them on soccer, you don’t need to sell them on LaLiga. … And our strategy for that specific demo was just making sure that we were getting the product closer to them and that we were superserving them. Then the next layer is when you look at second-, third-generation U.S. Hispanics.

“I think that if you tell me, ‘What can I do to reach a 60-year-old white guy from the Midwest that doesn’t follow soccer?’ I would tell you that I’m probably not interested in reaching that person, right?”

Which means that adding on, not replacing, is the goal.

“It doesn’t mean that they don’t watch anything else. You know, they follow the NFL and the NBA as much as soccer, but there’s that connection there already,” Gartner continued. “A big percentage of the LaLiga fans in the U.S. were fans because of the FIFA game. And because every time that they went on and played, they were taking a Real Madrid or Barcelona, Valencia, Sevilla, whatever it is, but they were fans of LaLiga and knew exactly all the players and the teams, even to a level that is above average. … And sometimes they hadn’t even watched a live game of LaLiga at all.”

NFL player Chad Ochocinco (left) hosts the Battlefield Celebrity Bracket Challenge in celebration of EA’s Battlefield: Bad Company 2 at MI6 on Feb. 18, 2010, in West Hollywood, California.

Charley Gallay/WireImage

Unsurprisingly, there’s an entire generation of players of both sport and game who made up the tournament’s lineup of not just viewers, but participants. Chad Ochocinco, former NFL All-Pro, was one of them. Ochocinco’s proclivity on the sticks is well known, and he basically self-identifies as a gamer more than anything now.

He didn’t win, but being a part of it was a no-brainer.

“Obviously, that’s what I do every day. It’s what I’ve been doing since season ’98,” Ochocinco said before he took a loss to the Atlanta Hawks’ John Collins. “I would say maybe seven, eight hours in. That’s my hobby. That’s my livelihood outside of when I was playing. If I’m not playing football, I’m gaming. I don’t go out. I travel; when I do travel, it’s for soccer.

“And also those that know me or follow me throughout my career, my second hobby is gaming. It’s just crazy how the worlds are being able to collide together in different avenues and different sports and us being able to come together for a good cause in tournament fashion, and FIFA being the reason why. And that’s dope to me.”

The participants weren’t the only ones bringing a lifetime of soccer and global experience to the table, either. Melissa Ortiz, who played for the Colombian national team, served as a co-host and in-game analyst alongside Jimmy Conrad. She had a blast with the experience, which was outside of her usual setup with teammates she’d played with in college or for Las Cafeteras.

“I grew up in South Florida, but I played for Colombia. And I grew up also in Colombia. So, there’s a cultural difference that I’ve realized, and that is that many American soccer players, female, I’m saying, don’t really get into the FIFA gaming,” Ortiz said. “Like it’s not a big thing amongst teammates. Whereas when I played in Europe, and as well in South America, it was more common. I don’t want to say the entire team would play, but at least one-fourth or half of the team. … I got into it because I have two older brothers, so we would compete over who has to wash the dishes after dinner, over a FIFA match.”

At one point in the livestream, she spoke in Spanish before switching to English to interview Alexander Isak, a Swedish player of Eritrean descent who plays for Real Sociedad. Social distancing stretches farther than you think when soccer is involved.

There was a time when soccer players were othered, as it was in American sports stardom. Unless you were the best of the best, it was relatively unreasonable to expect anyone to recognize a superstar walking down the street in, say, Kansas City, Missouri. That time wasn’t that long ago. Nowadays, a guy wins one measly World Cup and he’s invited to juggle baseball-painted soccer balls at Dodger Stadium before throwing out the first pitch.

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In all seriousness, while the coronavirus has forced many of us back to the console, particularly in soccer, nobody ever left. Shows such as FIFA & Chill moved into the standard gaming and sports content wheel organically because of years of social globalization in general from the soccer world.

How that translates to viewership and fans once we get back to normal is the gamble many leagues, including LaLiga, are taking with no idea of the odds for success. But the long-term investment is certain.

The Kick COVID tournament winner, meanwhile, was a real-life professional soccer player who only really picked up FIFA during downtime from her day job.

“How it started, how I got into it, at least, was I would always be doing recovery,” said Allie Long, U.S. women’s national team and Reign FC midfielder. “I’m like, OK, so that’s how I got into video games. I feel like that’s such a huge part.”

Long talked trash, scored a couple of remarkable goals and walked away the winner. It clearly was worth it. The tournament raised $11,000 and had more than 4 million livestreams.

“I didn’t know exactly what to expect going into the tournament,” Long said with a laugh. “I think it’s really cool to see the connection and especially LaLiga. I watched LaLiga every weekend when it’s on. But I was so hyped and so pumped to be a part of that. I thought it was really special, and it was so fun to connect with people throughout the entire world and be at one place and be able to just have fun.”

Clinton Yates is a tastemaker at The Undefeated. He likes rap, rock, reggae, R&B, and remixes — in that order.