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The FIFA video game is much more than just a game for MLS. Ever since it was first released in 1994, the FIFA franchise has been one of the most important elements for the growth of US Soccer.
FIFA 15 and its influence in US soccer 

By Pavel Ibarra Meda (@pavel_soccer)

The FIFA video game is much more than just a game for MLS. Ever since it was first released in 1994, the FIFA franchise has been one of the most important elements for the growth of soccer in the United States. Back in the 90's, kids across America showed a higher interest for the video game itself rather than the sport, but over time this has leveled to have an equal importance not only for children but also for adults.

FIFA's evolution

It is thanks to games like FIFA and Pro Evolution Soccer that the sport itself has become more than just  a pastime. It has awoken the passion of the American population, closing the gap between the sports' best leagues and players through a video game at a time when games weren't easily available on TV. 

The recent growth of avid soccer fans in the United States is a faithful example.


Messi vs Manning

Soccer has followed a steady trajectory of growth in the US for the last two decades from the point it hosted the 1994 World Cup. Since 1993 when FIFA was first released under the name 'FIFA International Soccer', EA Sports has sold over 100 million copies worldwide. The sport's popularity continued growing when internet and high definition graphics had a direct involvement in the video game industry. There are 11.6 million FIFA 15 copies expected to be sold by March 2015 and the number rises to 12.1 million copies for the 2016 edition.

FIFA15 is the the most profitable video game in the world with a $3.6 billion annual sales. In fact, FIFA's sales have doubled in the last two years selling 5 million copies (2.4M more than the 2010-2012 period). They are only second to Madden NFL and surpassed NBA 2K this year as the most consumed sports game in North America, but the gap is closing at an accelerated pace.

American football's upper hand over soccer as the most popular sport in America is reflected on video game sales. The latest Madden game sold 4.1 million copies only in America whereas the FIFA game sold 2.12 million in the same period.

Worldwide numbers are another story. FIFA completely outsells Madden: 13.9 to 4.6 million copies. That's a 24-to-1 sales ratio outside North America. Madden didn't even make the top ten in last year's poll of the most sold video games in the world, whereas FIFA ranked number 1 outselling highly anticipated games like Grand Theft Auto V and Minecraft during its first week. (This year's poll will be released on October 1st reflecting the most up to date numbers).

To beat the number 6 highest selling game of all time (GTA V) in your opening week is no easy task and FIFA 14 did it. Take a look at last year's most sold video games worldwide during FIFA 14's opening week.

1. FIFA 14

2. Grand Theft Auto V

3. Minecraft: Xbox 360 Edition

4. Pro Evolution Soccer 14

5. The Last Of Us

6. Disney Infinity

7. Splinter Cell: Blacklist

8. Saints Row 4

9. Diablo 3

10. Rayman Legends


Captain Tsubasa
The phenomenon in which the game's popularity grows as a direct result of external factors is not new to the soccer world. Back in 1983 in Japan, the first soccer anime was aired to the public by TV Tokyo. Captain Tsubasa told the story of  Oliver Tsubasa, a young boy with a natural gift for playing soccer who became the most important and famous Japanese soccer player in history. The series was created by Yoichi Takahashi. The  success was so immense that the series was exported to the rest of the world becoming an instant hit. It was thanks to this series that soccer in Japan became one of the most important sports and one of the most watched and followed ever since. 

During the 90's, the series became one of the most watched in the world, alongside fellow Japanese animation Dragon Ball Z. By the end of the millennium, Oliver Tsubasa was signed by a fictional representation of Spain's FC Barcelona where he met another fictional representation of Brazil's Rivaldo, called Rivau. The story's twist awoke a new interest for kids in Japan and the world to follow European soccer. 

The animated series' success became so big that by World Cup 1998 in France, the Japan National Team reached their first tournament in history. Despite losing all three of the group stage matches it was clear that a new sports era had began in Japan and it was mainly thanks to the vision Takahashi had 17 years prior to this year. The excitement kept building up to never before reached heights as kids throughout Japan started looking at soccer as not only a new unknown sport, but also a past time.

And finally, the Tsubasa effect reached an unprecedented peak in 2002 when Japan co-hosted the FIFA World Cup alongside South Korea and brought soccer to every TV across Asia and the World. 

After Captain Tsubasa's success, the FIFA franchise attempted to create this same effect with their game starting in 1998 when the World Cup was celebrated in France. EA Sports began to use all-pro European based players as cover boys. It wasn't until 2002 that the first American soccer players earned their spot in the cover of the game. Their inclusion sent a clear message- the game had conquered the US audience.


Retro FIFA
Video games have evolved into what we know as online gaming. With the millennial era at its peak, the idea of playing against another person across the world seems to appeal to everyone. You never know -- there may come a day when you could be playing against Wayne Rooney or Messi himself and not even know it. The direct influence of the internet is also a key aspect that EA Sports is attacking in their business strategies to reach millennials, not only in America, but across the globe.

Electronic Arts launched FIFA in 1993. The 22nd annual version of the game, FIFA 15, was released on September 23. The game features more than 600 gesture  replicating real-life situations. It also has improvements on ball physics, and the imprint of every footstep a player makes will appear on the pitch. The game is getting closer to what you see on your TV or at the stadium.

It's also an exciting time for MLS considering Americans are more interested in soccer today than they have ever been and every FIFA 15 game sold in the states is an opportunity for the league to capture a new fan. If only the game included MLS stadiums... but that's a topic for another post. 


Stats on soccer
The growth displayed in the last two years has been key for both EA Sports and MLS in their relentless missions to make their way into every home in the US. Evidence that their efforts are starting to have results is represented in MLS stadium attendance, which has doubled since 2012. This has given EA Sports the opportunity to seek new business endeavors alongside MLS, specially this year when the rebranding took place.

EA Sports organized a launch party for FIFA 15 where they made the promotion of the new MLS logo a top priority,  staging a local video game tournament in which only MLS clubs could be used by the fans. In between every play, the 'MLS Next' logo would appear on the screen to give further promotion to the league This is a key component of the sponsoring strategy EA Sports has prepared for one of the fastest growing leagues in the world.

But this is only the tip of the iceberg. EA Sports have been partnering up with MLS since the beginning of the millennium by using their most popular American soccer players as cover boys for each year's release of the game. Kasey Keller, Ben Olsen, Landon Donovan, Freddy Adu and now, Clint Dempsey, among others, have had the honor to appear on the cover.


 Since 2012, the FIFA franchise has approached American celebrities and athletes from Snoop Dog to Steve Nash to promote their game. Reaching out to those who don't regularly brand themselves as soccer fans - at least not until now anyway - has proven effective as we see both the league and the video game adding to their following. It's become a natural marketing strategy which has paid dividends.

Throughout 2014, the FIFA franchise has surpassed the Madden NFL video game by scoring 87-90.5 out of 100 points among game critics, becoming the highest rated sports video game ranked by experts in the US. NFL scored 75-85, compared to NHL which ranked slightly higher at 82-88 and came second to the the NBA games, which scored 82-90.

FIFA has finally surpassed the Madden franchise in gameplay, but there is still much work to be done in order to capture the audience that still prefers american football over soccer, but the FIFA video game is paving the way for this to happen.

What was once a mere dream in 1995 - during a time when EA Sports and MLS were individually trying to become leaders in their respective industries - is now becoming a reality, both on the field and on your TV screen. 

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