The players have been scanned with the latest 3D technology; each stadium is rendered in such detail that the animating LEDs on the advertising boards are accurate to the specific location. Fifa 15 wants to be the most authentic representation of Premiership football ever conceived. And EA has the mega-bucks licensing deal to achieve it.
On Wednesday, the publisher of the Fifa series of footie sims announced that it had extended its “official sports technology” partnership with the Premiership until 2019. As part of the package, EA gets its branding on match and player performance statistics for the League, and also receives unrivaled access to the teams and players. Fifa 15, then, will feature accurately modeled versions of all 20 stadiums for the first time in the series. The game’s development team has apparently visited each one recording real fan chants and songs which will be imported into the sim.
Capture and commentary
More than 200 players have been through a 3D scanner to get their exact facial likenesses. Broadcast TV-style graphical overlays, including match stats, team sheets and fixture details, will flicker on to the screen – as though you’re watching the real thing. Indeed, there are apparently now 600 emotional reactions available to the in-game player models. When anything exciting happens, the managers will leap and yell from the touchlines. The commentary is detailed enough to pick up on chants and specific moments of game action.
The game even includes the new goal line technology, showing the same screened replays as the Premiership grounds will, illustrating ambiguous moments. It’s like watching a real game on TV. Which begs the intriguing question – what is it that Fifa simulates, the sport itself or the televised representation of that sport?
EA has been carefully shaping its sports sims around broadcast coverage for a number of years. Just as Sky exploded into football coverage in the early nineties bringing video game-like stats, sound effects and visuals, video games have met the television industry half-way. A match in Fifa 15 will begin with a stadium fly-over cam, the Premiership theme tune, the players lining up to shake hands, the commentators gabbing on about the meaning and important of it all. You can click through it all, but gamers are encouraged to feel a part of the “theatre”. On the Fifa site, players are told, “New bench reactions, 10-man goal celebrations and more will keep you engaged in the story of the match.”
Because football is a staged narrative now.
It’s a very subtle shift from simulating a sport to simulating the broadcast ideal of a sport. And it makes sense really. Outside of school, most people only experience football as a spectator event, and with season ticket costs spiraling, that experience tends to be provided by television. The idea of football is now synonymous with a screen; with the detritus of the screened event – so it makes sense for a computer game to simulate that. It’s Baudrillard’s concept of hyper-reality on a mass entertainment level.
The past was a foreign game
This wasn’t always the way. The much loved Sensible Soccer series of the eighties sought to provide a simulated version of football that worked within the confines of a video game. Player movement was super fast, the action pinballed around the limited pitch, the techniques required were insular and specific – it was a sport in itself. Konami’s ISS and Pro Evolution Soccer titles of the nineties and early 2000s provided lots of licensed content, but maintained this sense of pace – the best titles in the PES series knew they were simulations; knew they were different from “real” football.
The worst titles in the Fifa series, the ones roughly between 2000-2008 seemingly abandoned gameplay depth in favour of branding. The joke was, “press X to score with overhead kick”. Fifa is a much, much better game now, but there are chinks of that ideology buried away in its code.
Of course, Fifa 15 will boast myriad gameplay improvements – the ball physics is being tweaked again, shoulder barges are more impactful, AI players more responsive to fast breaks. But the developer, EA Sports, needs to be careful that there is no growing disparity between the “story” of each match – the one told through visual realism and environment effects – and the “simulation”. The 20 authentic stadiums and the 200 facial models are neat extras, but they don’t replace anything. Commentators love to talk about stories and sub-plots playing out on the pitch, but where simulation is concerned, it’s the ball you want to control, not the plot.
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