When Catalan midfielder Xavi Hernandez—who plays for the Spanish national team and FC Barcelona—was asked last year to describe how he deals with defenders, he replied:
When he says that playing soccer is like being on PlayStation, he’s not being figurative—Xavi sees the game as a series of systems to be exploited, an algorithm to be carried to its logical conclusion.
The standard FIFA camera gives players a bird’s-eye view of the pitch, making it easy to find open players and progress down the field. Xavi, though, seems preternaturally organized and surgically precise. Barcelona’s style—onomatopoetically nick-named tiki-taka—is a complex web of triangles, timing, diagonal lines, calculus and short passes, all executed perfectly. Barça with Xavi at the helm play the way the FIFA engine might simulate a match.
Aaron McHardy, the senior gameplay designer for the team behind the FIFA franchise, takes Xavi’s invocation of videogame soccer as a compliment, noting that recreating the decision-making process was one of EA Canada’s major goals for FIFA 12. But Xavi’s comments carry weight specifically because he plays for one of the most structurally stringent teams in Europe: Barça, more than any other team, succeeds because all of its players are tuned into its Borg-like strategy, each content to do their part and little else.
This level of self-effacement is uncommon in sports, where outsized egos and personae rule the day. This is equally true in videogames, a medium that highly values self-expression and personalized experiences.
Xavi is tasked with aspiring to the platonic midfielder, but FIFA’s audience must do it for all 11 players on the field in order to be successful. When asked about Xavi’s comments, McHardy describes FIFA as an inversion of real-world soccer: “The way he was saying he’s trying to bide time on the ball … just like he’s on PlayStation, we’re trying to do the opposite. We’re trying to build a game to understand what a pro’s doing, what a defender’s doing in that moment.” Most narrative games feature protagonists who act as ciphers for the player, but FIFA—and its real-world counterparts—demand that its players be able to absorb successful tactics from the game. The relationship has switched. “You really have to make all the decisions that a pro makes,” McHardy concludes.
This devotion to contextual decision-making serves the higher goal of what McHardy calls “authenticity,” which he sees as distinct from the game’s photorealistic graphics and broadcast-style presentation.
“We are trying to mimic the real-world broadcast, but to say it’s just us trying to mimic the emotions that you get when you’re watching a game on TV is, I think, selling us far short,” McHardy explains. “We try to bring all of the nuance a player feels, what’s he’s going through in a match, to the videogame … so that you can get a wide range of emotions, not just held to what you can see on TV.”
EA Canada’s iterative approach to authenticity actually keeps Xavi’s analogy from falling apart. With Xavi anchoring their midfields, both the Spanish national team and FC Barcelona have developed a patient and precise style, by focusing on short, inexorably accurate passes. Teams that don’t lose the ball give their opponents few choices to score, the irony being that Xavi-helmed teams rarely have to score a lot of goals to actually win. I find their tactics cerebral and ineffable; less generous observers think its boring.
Where videogame and real-world soccer diverge is in the premium that FIFA places on scoring goals. Scoring goals is fundamental to winning soccer games, no doubt, but during the mid-to-late aughts, the most successful FIFA strategies boiled down to constant attack, and goals came consistently and easily. Real soccer simply doesn’t work like that, and Xavi’s comparison seems particularly out of touch given that the teams he plays for—and has come to embody—actively seek to stifle such an approach.
It’s possible to chart, like geological eras, FIFA’s attempts to solve its goal-favorable balance problems through its past several iterations. Between, say, 2006 and 2008, the easiest way to score was to “cross” the ball (i.e., a high, arching pass through the air) and then have a teammate head it into the goal. After that, “through balls” became disproportionally effective: instead of passing the ball straight to a teammate, FIFA makes it possible to pass into the space ahead of them, allowing the receiver to accept the pass in stride. This newfound accuracy wreaked havoc on defensive AI, and through balls became the dominant mode of scoring, both online and off.
“I think we’re always conscious of … consistent ways to score,” McHardy says. “And we do look at our game and make sure that it is balanced.” When EA Canada introduced “finesse shots” in 2010—less powerful but more accurate shots, differentiated from the standard shooting mechanic—fans complained that they were too powerful. McHardy notes that these are “the closest thing we’ve ever had to an actual exploit.”
“It was too easy to be accurate with finesse because we know that our goalkeeper struggled with them and understanding the way the [the ball] curled through the air.” The solution was to improve the goalkeeper’s perception and “to introduce more contextual error in the right places.” In other words, FIFA’s issues are systemic, not a shadowy plot to “dumb down” the structural intricacies of soccer.
Over the years, pinpoint passing was given the same attention: “Not everybody can play a perfect through ball every single time. You really need to be the best in the world. … For everybody else, you have to be aware of the context.” Ultimately, “authenticity” requires disrupting the algorithms and calculations that previously led to FIFA’s Xavi-esque precision: “We try to bring those real-world contexts in to give us enough variety in our mechanics so that you don’t get the same outcome over and over and over again,” McHardy says.
When new features were being designed, McHardy says, the team responsible “were concentrating on building these architectures to put all these new modes in the game. Now, we’re seeing the fruits of all their labor. And now, in the last few years, specifically, they’ve had the opportunity to focus a bit more on some of those fundamentals.” It’s not that FIFA is purposefully dumbed down, just haphazardly designed and iterated over time.
“Authenticity”—EA Canada’s attempt to bring context and nuance to the FIFA series—preserves Xavi Hernandez’ assertion that physical and digital soccer might be comparable, but perhaps its most important contribution to the series is that it creates what McHardy calls “an over-arching, cultural experience.”
Soccer culture is largely structural: Teams are promoted and relegated along a giant ladder that stretches from the humblest amateur leagues to the heights of top-flight play. Part of FIFA’s appeal must be the way it incorporates this model into its off- and online modes.
But Barcelona occupies a specific space in Catalan culture, complete with its own vocabulary: fans are cules, the jersey is the blaugrana. It acts as an outlet for the region’s anti-establishment separatism, in contrast to Real Madrid and RCD Espanyol’s perceived kowtowing to the Spanish monarchy. More broadly, Barça represents a homegrown team that concerns itself as much with aesthetics as with results.
Soccer is hard to find on television in the United States without buying expensive cable packages. But with its massive licensing agreements and its ability to re-create an accurate facsimile of soccer, of soccer stadiums and crowd chants, of players and cleats and official Adidas balls—“anything, really, to do with football,” says McHardy—the FIFA franchise acts as a surrogate, allowing fans to tap into whichever cultural values their chosen team might represent.
For Xavi Hernandez, playing in the midfield for Barcelona is “like being on the PlayStation.” For the rest of us, the inverse is true: being on the PlayStation is like seeing the real thing. There’s an undeniable gap, though, and Xavi will have to be limited to similes, limited to like—a metaphor would close that gap a little too much.
Joseph Leray is a contributor to Destructoid and TouchArcade. He lives in Nashville with his three stray cats and supports Paris Saint-Germain. He also tweets.