Join Cameron Kunzelman here at Paste on his journey to become the Sportsman of the Year.
I believe that the core experience of the contemporary sports game is the Build a Pro mode. In the early 2000s, drunk on power, I would create giant college football players who could band together and crush the entire opposing team. I would generate hulking monstrosities for goalies, and I once staffed the Tampa Bay Lightning with the most violent cyclopean obelisks of humans that the piteous Playstation could conjure up. There’s something special about creating a homunculus of destruction that battles with people who are, theoretically, “real.” To pitch a world that cannot be against the world that is might be one of the cornerstones of big-budget gaming, and watching simulated humans being tackled, checked and blocked by inhuman constructs is some of the best entertainment ever generated by human minds.
As an adult, I don’t have any desire for that power fantasy. Or at least I want a different kind of power fantasy. I want the Rudy moment or the Remember The Titans moment. I want to play a sports game while Dave Grohl belts out an ode to heroism, the kind of song that makes even James Vanderbeek seem remotely powerful.
Wood Harris. Shaun Astin. James Vanderbeek. Kirsten Dunst. They’re all heroes of their respective underdog sports classics from my youth, and I will be damned if I don’t live up to the classic Hollywood melodramatic glory that they instilled in me as a young lad.
FIFA 16 is the vehicle for this first foray into my attempt to become the sportsman of the year. My alter ego, who goes only by the moniker “Shinny,” is the shortest possible height for a player that can be generated through the character creation system. He’s also as light as possible. In my imagination, he was born with the right kind of gusto that makes for a soccer player with the most potential upside of any player ever to come into contact with the sport. However, despite being a player who can excel beyond any and all statistical expectations, he chose to be drafted (or whatever, I have no idea how this works in soccer) by Viking Fotballklubb.
Based in Norway, Viking Fotballklubb (henceforth known as Viking Stavanger) appears to be one of the most successful teams in the country. Apparently they haul ass around Norway constantly, and occasionally they play a spot of footy outside of that country to middle-to-exceptional skill. In the world of FIFA 16, a seventeen-year-old Shinny, the most positive soccer player in the galaxy, chose to start his season with Viking Stavanger. The results were astounding.
The opening of the season was difficult. Shinny didn’t really know the rules of soccer, and the recruiter agent paid more attention to his go-getter attitude than his footwork. Shinny spent most of his first game aggressively slide tackling every player on the opposing team who came within fifty feet of the ball, and he paid the price for it. The coach screamed at him from the sidelines, but the audience in that small stadium saw some real heart in the quick-witted, fast-footed Norseman. They hollered quietly, as is the custom, and in those hushed hoops Skinny found his calling.
Shinny practiced between games. He learned how to pass, and more importantly he learned how to shoot. Barely out of high school and without any knowledge of the norms of the sport, Shinny developed his skills as best he could. He realized that the skills of the average FIFA 16 team that Viking Stavanger played against were so close to objectively terrible that executing the simplest moves was a real power play in the face of what appeared to be total incompetence.
Shinny scored three hat tricks in five games. The kid from the backwoods was quickly proving to be one of the best players in the entire world, and the team noticed. The high rollers on the team like Anthony Soares, Kristoffer Haugen and Samuel Adegbenro, each hovering around the million dollar salary mark, were eclipsed by Shinny’s immediate compensation package of $2.3 million. With his scraggly beard and improper hair, Shinny made the dreams of an entire country come true through his team-leading forward scoring skills.
Viking Fotballklubb shot to the top of their league, the Tippeligaen, and dominated all the way from their first game to the Norgesmesterskap, the prized cup of the league. With no teams in their league to threaten them, Shinny led the team through the trial that was the European International Cup. The grueling victory secured, Shinny refused to rest on his laurels, continually getting goals and assists against whatever rando teams happened to step to the fury of Viking FK.
There should be a downfall here. Shinny should be taken down by a drug scandal. Maybe he would get caught in an improper situation fit for the most grody of tabloids. Maybe he gets traded to an excellent team where he languishes on the bench, never truly able to play but still pumping statistics. The glory of the sports game created character is that it does not exist, and through not existing it is no longer bound to the death spiral of intrigue and sadness that seems to haunt all forms of professional sports. Shinny merely gets to be himself, a weird avatar that never experiences pain and who can only get better and more efficient at his chosen sport as time goes on.
His entire existence is captured in the slow-motion shots of teen-centered sports films of a time gone by. Kicking the ball beyond the reach of the goalie is his lifeblood, part of a circuit that never quite ends as long as that controller can be picked up for one more game.
I played as Shinny as he won through the top prize of his country’s soccer league. I made him in my image, or at least in the image of sports images that I have absorbed over my decades as a non-sports person. I took him from nothing, literal nonexistence, to the most important cultural figure in his country. He could probably run for some kind of elected position someday based on this single season of minimal effort. At the end, standing here at the final edge of many brackets, I still have no idea how soccer is actually played, and I am even further detached from how anyone can get so enthused about a sport where a fair percentage of play is structured around people rolling around on the ground faking injuries.
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com. His latest game, Epanalepsis, was released on May 21. It’s available on Steam.