The Beautiful (Video) Game: Confessions of an Xbox FIFA Obsessive

Millions of people play FIFA on PS3 and Xbox. The author was once among the best one-tenth of one percent of those players. He's still figuring out how to feel about that.
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In real sports, loosely marshaled people scramble within a confined space, kicking or hitting or throwing or catching a ball. Sometimes they yell about God, or themselves. Other people—lots more people—watch this scrambling and listen to these various noises. Moments with great visceral force materialize; sub-moments of similar charge happen in the interstices, clustered bits of emotion wedged into circumstance, afterwards or before or between.

Then the second and larger group of people discuss the running around and doing-various-things-to-ball and God/self-yelling work done by the first, and there is partisan speculation and conclusions which are set and unset and reset in stone. We pay for the privilege of seeing this in person, or give hours to it on television or on Twitter or in various bickering conversations. It’s an escape, but also a pocket for aggression and various fantasies and other sublimated things. It works. Video games, even or especially ones about sports, do not work like this.

***

I play a lot of FIFAon Xbox Live, and so do a lot of other people. As it stands currently, over one million people have played at least one game of FIFA ’13 online.Back in high school, my habit started with a game here and there: before bed, after dinner, before homework, many on the weekend. By the second semester of my senior year, triple free lunch periods had slowly devolved into Domino’s 5-5-5 deals and endless FIFAin the company of like-minded friends. That year—FIFA ’08—I had climbed the leaderboard all the way to 73rd in the United States. Or, pending dual citizenship, Algeria’s best.

Friends half-joked that my FIFA ranking was the pinnacle of achievement and the missing piece in my college applications. They were half-serious, though: I was better at a thing than most people, and it seemed like this should matter to someone, somewhere. It didn’t. Rather, it was so distressingly inconsequential, even with the burgeoning cultural relevance of video games and the sprawling superpopularity of soccer, that I kept the pride quarantined and mostly secret. I didn’t care for the inevitable response: ‘Oh, that’s pretty cool. How much time did you waste on that?’ Fair enough, but not a question I really wanted to answer.

There are some safe spaces for this sort of dork-talk, and they are naturally located in various internet nethers. This is not a passion that’s especially public, or commercialized: people don’t wear FIFAt-shirts, at least in the same way that fans proudly align their cause with that of Ben Roethlisberger or Metta World Peace or whomever. Still, that the nexus of passion is located online doesn’t restrain its ferocity; people still care, often too much so. Some infiltrate FIFA’s ranking algorithm through various black hat methods to bump up their spot several notches. Others steamroll etiquette and exploit game glitches. Where there’s competition, boundaries are bottled into suggestion. Games are going to get gamed, online as in life.

***

Video games aren’t some offbeat niche worthy of a few hundred arm’s-length words in a mildly popular magazine; it’s a billion-dollar industry. And in that most young people have played Madden or FIFA or Call of Duty, the activity is highly normalized. It has its own magazines.

But there’s still and inevitably a distance, here. It is impossible to brand a meaning for Lionel Messi’s avatar because that is not actually Lionel Messi. He doesn’t feel as Lionel Messi does, however Lionel Messi might feel. There is nothing to glean and no emotional kinship to warp as our own. This Messi we play with lacks a human condition, nuance in storyline, or even storyline at all. In one way that makes it sport at its most pure: though there is a winner and a loser, the game breathes unencumbered. There are no media-wielded torches or locker room chemistry issues or off-field incidents or questions of effort. There are people playing matches at 100 percent because they are programmed with that sole directive. You won’t see virtual Wayne Rooney dogging it in the seventh minute. In another sense, of course, it’s just a video game: a virtual projection of idle will, imaginary avatars of imaginary things.

To date, I have played 295 matches of FIFA ’13on Xbox Live. In years past that number has routinely crept above 1,000. To put this in better context, know that matches last approximately 15 minutes (six minutes per half), including halftime, pregame lineup changes and inconsiderate game-pausers or intro-watchers. This means I’ve played FIFA ’13 on Xbox Live for 4,425 minutes. That’s 73.75 hours, or 3 days, 1 hour and 45 minutes. Since I purchased the game on its release date, September 25, 2012, 2.09% of my life has been consumed by FIFA.

I have been invited to private tournaments, in-person, underground and online. I’ve gambled on my skills. I’ve been cursed out in Xbox Live text and voice messages. Due to a game quirk in which the headset audio of my opponent can project through my television, I’ve eavesdropped on a crazy person threatening me with “the shotgun in [his] lap.” I’ve been friended—that internet neologism seems oddly right in its half-wrongness, here—by other Xbox Live users because we played a competitive match and the opponent would like to do it again sometime. I have virtual video game friends, and it took writing this sentence down for that to actually feel strange.

I am in no way above crude virtual behavior. I’ve been known, on occasion, to curse back. I will viciously bark at any person who breaks my concentration mid-match. In this way, FIFAand its codified silence champions fits of directionless rage for its players–which, over time, has taught me not to throw controllers or slam the Xbox or kick the television. Instead, I jail the mania by cautiously flinging the controller up in the air and carefully catching it. It’s my stress ball. Deep breaths.

There are other protocols. I turn off the Xbox after two losses in a row, because frustration makes me recede into the worst unhinged depths—think of Dennis Green crowning nobody’s ass, minus the audience. Also because I’ll start to lose: buttons get pushed harder, more chance-y tackles are attempted, and perspective—the ambition to become the world’s best player—succumbs to near-tantrum. If I am to achieve this goal, I cannot afford to let a loss of composure spiral and adversely affect future matches.

I am, I might as well admit, very serious about this. I don’t quit matches, which is a system-gaming thing players do to avoid losses; if there’s any shred of honor in FIFA, I won’t betray it. Goal celebrations are expressly forbidden for the same reason, not to mention that I can’t chance the karmic comeuppance. I also don’t pee during matches. Game pauses only last 40 seconds, which is awfully fast for a sanitary bathroom visit.

Most importantly, I don’t talk about specific FIFAmatches. Not in some cool first-rule-of-Fight-Club sense; more in that no one gives a shit. Same way no one cares about that bad beat you took in poker or the time you dropped 27 points against a hoard of aging 5-10 power forwards in a suburban rec league. Some things belong only to you, for better or worse.

***

Ultimately there’s no way to know against whom you’re playing; at some point in the past few years, I’ve probably maimed the innocent soul of a 12-year-old child trying to escape fractions. Through the headset I’ve heard: crying babies, crying adults, mothers beckoning children to the dinner table, muttered cussing and blitzkriegs of German, Spanish and French. One time a guy demanded my phone number. Also, British people. Lots of British people.

FIFAhas no stadium for its players. No therapeutic high-fives in celebration. No outlets or publicly traded pundits. There’s a bunch of people sitting in stained white t-shirts with snack-greased fingers blaming Cristiano Ronaldo’s bewildering virtual speed or reproaching Barcelona as an unprincipled choice of team. So what if my gamertag is an unheralded sociopath in ancient Greek literature and a coy reference to Achilles? Anonymity is part of the deal, and you are no more than an avatar controlling avatars; check your life-baggage at the EA Sports servers. This makes partaking in mockery of whatever the prototypical FIFAplayer is that much easier.

But of course I am ultimately poking fun at myself. The way in which I obsess swallows every speck of stereotype whole. I play in my boxers. I’ve played for two, three, six, ten hours in a row. I sometimes wear a headset. I yap along with the in-game commentary because I’ve involuntarily cached everything Martin Tyler and Alan Smith (R.I.P. Andy Gray) can and will say. Again, I'm serious about this.

Some time ago, the ends obliterated the means and my FIFA experience, and its purpose, became feudal. If not to rule the peasantry, then why? Countless gamers casually play with friends and online, and there is only pleasure. My FIFAexists in a binary of world’s best or something else, something less, which is to say fun or not fun. There is a grind, winning and losing equally symptomatic of the same unfulfilled potential. But there’s not enough time, really, for me to reach the top. I need more hours, more focus, more. Hundreds more games to even scratch the most secluded perches of elite. So, not that fun, and sometimes a little lonesome.

Maybe this is why FIFA players convene at live tournaments in droves. The official FIFA ’13 tournament, hosted by Virgin Gaming and EA Sports, offers $400,000 in prize money (after online qualification) at Terminal 5 in New York City each April. That it’s only available to PS3 users makes it painfully tantalizing, but the overall framework of a massive, world-encompassing tournament does capitalize on an ever-present truth: though FIFAplayers by and large want to whip the shit out of each other, they would also like to do it in person. Not just for the trash talk and cash prizes and bragging rights, but to notarize the experience.

That’s the scope of what’s out there—people going about their days and playing FIFA in assorted intervals. But for all their ubiquity, the general view of video games is not a good one, still. Intellectual grandstanders grieve for the next generation and concerned parents worry about brain-melt, but mostly that opprobrium is just a bunch of people shaking their heads from various high vantage points. And because they do not sanction the activity, at least not to the degree of real sports, the competitive streaks of its participants are discarded as invalid, or mutant, or faintly pathetic.

But video game slander does not preclude its emotional component. I am still there holding the controller and smashing buttons and chalking it all up to fucking bullshit on occasion. Above all else, this is an intensely personal departure, sitting in a room and competing and succeeding and failing in what can be confused for misanthropy—not that misanthropes don’t seek asylum in the virtual anyway. And so in my public avatar, I am not a FIFA player, but a person who also plays FIFA


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