The popularity of soccer in the United States has grown exponentially in the past decade due to increased media exposure, demographic changes and the proliferation of social media.
But it has been the popularity of EA Sports FIFA, a video soccer game that allows players to "become" their favorite star—regardless of how small or obscure the team—that has had one of the greatest impacts on the way U.S. soccer consumption has changed, according to a new study published in Sport in Society by University of Michigan researchers.
U-M professor and avid soccer fan Andrei Markovits and student Adam Green analyzed data from the video game and sports industries, including media clips, literature and interviews with EA FIFA gamers. They also referenced Markovits' previous research on team sports and culture.
"The game's growth on the fields of the country's suburbs and among its middle class has been nothing short of sensational. We argue that among many decisive factors in soccer's massive consumptive proliferation has been the EA FIFA video games," said Markovits, the Karl W. Deutsch Collegiate Professor of Comparative Politics and German Studies and author of "Gaming The World: How Sports Are Reshaping Global Politics and Culture" and "Sportista: Female Fandom in the United States."
The researchers cite several factors that have contributed to soccer's popularity among American sports fans, starting in 1990 when the U.S. first started qualifying for the World Cup. In 1994, the U.S. hosted the first men's World Cup with average attendance of 69,000 per match, a record that has yet to be broken. Women's soccer—and the U.S. national team's tremendous win of the 1999 Women's World Cup held in the U.S.—also has contributed to the game's expanding fanbase.
Meanwhile, the country's evolving demographics have a part to play. Among Hispanics—the fastest-growing U.S. minority—professional soccer is the preferred sport, with 26 percent preferring the game over American football (18 percent), baseball (10 percent) and basketball (9 percent).
In 2013, NBC started airing English Premier League matches, a significant move that neatly coincided with burgeoning sales of the EA FIFA video game. One of the most competitive European soccer leagues, the EPL counts the largest global following in the sport.
These days, one can easily tap into a match being played in Europe or South America via cable sports networks, major networks and streaming video. Add to this an improved marketing strategy targeting U.S. consumers and friendly European matches held in U.S. stadiums, and you have a great strategy for growth, Markovits says. He notes that this year countries from across the Americas will celebrate and compete in the U.S., which is holding the centennial American cup, Copa America Centenario, June 3-26.
Fan connectivity plays a huge part, too. When the U.S. played Portugal during the World Cup 2014, a mistake by the American defense gave Portuguese winger Luis Nani a golden opportunity to score. American fans instantly took to social media to talk about the play and the soccer star.
"For the first time, millions of Americans participated in the public discussion, revealing a fine degree of knowledge and awareness," Markovits said.
Adds Green: "In all tournaments prior to the one in 2014, most Americans watching the World Cup matches would have had no idea who Nani was."
But most telling of all, they say, is the influence that the EA FIFA game has had on the popularity of the sport. The video game series, initially released in 1993 under the name "International Soccer" in Europe, became a global gaming sensation. Its realistic graphics, extensive list of possible players (no matter how obscure) and gameplay experience have pushed it to the top of the sales charts.
Since 2000, EA has been placing American players on the cover of EA FIFA— a marketing move that has proved extremely beneficial. By 2014, the U.S. held the No. 2 spot in terms of worldwide game sales, behind only the U.K., and EA FIFA has since surpassed the basketball game NBA2k. The soccer game is rapidly closing in on EA Madden, its NFL equivalent.
"Every year, it gets better and better and it is amazing. The likeness is incredible. You choose Ronaldo, it looks like Ronaldo. By all appearances, Ronaldo is a complete egomaniac and in the video, you see this, he behaves like it," Markovits said of Portuguese superstar Cristiano Ronaldo.
So did all of this "virtual" action really benefit the live-action MLS? The researchers say yes. In fact, they argue, in the years since the EA FIFA title debuted, it has performed "a culturally pioneering function in the U.S. that goes against type."
"A video game, not a reality, furnishes a new cultural vehicle that creates a novel lived experience which, in turn, has massively contributed to the changed perceptions of the very real social and cultural construct of soccer in the U.S.," Green said.
For example, in 2015 there was a 112 percent increase of people playing MLS teams with FIFA, compared to the previous year. Also, according to an ESPN poll, 34 percent of FIFA users became men's professional soccer fans after playing the game, while 50 percent of users gained some interest in professional soccer.
What makes this unique, Markovits says, is that EA FIFA game has been key to the development of a soccer culture in the U.S., unlike Europe or Latin America, where soccer has been the preferred sport for ages.
"No other major team sports had experienced the rate of expansion currently being enjoyed by MLS in such a short period of time," he said. "It is safe to say that much of that value can be attributed to Americans being attracted to soccer by a video game."
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Andrei S. Markovits et al. , the video game: a major vehicle for soccer's popularization in the United States, Sport in Society (2016). DOI: 10.1080/17430437.2016.1158473