I have a bit of a confession to make: I haven’t become the huge Orlando Pride fan I wished I would be when the club was announced a few years ago.
I recall streaming the announcement while at work and having genuine excitement for the club. On one level I have a good excuse, graduate school is a huge time commitment and I have struggled to find time for my first love, Orlando City. My interest in foreign leagues and international fixtures has waned as well. The Pride have suffered along with most of my soccer interests. Sure, if you want to call that excuse making, you’d probably have a point.
While I’m willing to accept my own shortcomings when it comes to supporting women’s professional soccer in Orlando, other factors haven’t helped. My budget for spending on soccer tickets, the league's streaming issues, and scheduling conflicts have all provided challenges.
What hit me the other day was something subtler. I’ve had a habit during my graduate studies to play a game of EA Sports’ FIFA as a great break from writing and researching. One game lasts around 15 minutes and it is easy to put down once the whistle has blown in your match and get back to work. EA Sports, to their credit, began including an international women’s cup in FIFA 16. This came due to a petition started by the female Spanish soccer player Vero Boquete.
While I’ve enjoyed playing the women’s international cup games, foundationally it sits on an island inside the game, operating almost as a mini-game. The inclusion of the National Women’s Soccer League teams, including the Orlando Pride — or other professional teams from around the world — would boost the game beyond measure. Here’s why:
Soccer video games are one of the major ways I’ve learned about the game. I’ve learned about players and leagues from all around the world. I’ve set up crazy tournaments and built improbable dream teams. Soccer video games have given me strange allegiances to English non-league clubs and an appreciation for the team badges of the Korean K-League, and an indebtedness to the youth systems of the Dutch Eredivisie. Understanding the larger world of soccer through video games has made me friends with cab drivers in foreign cities, new immigrants here at home, and, once, a crazy Croatian man who tried to kill me driving through the streets of Zagreb in a Yugo he called “the Little Chechen.”
Placing women’s leagues into that larger world of soccer can and would increase the appreciation and understanding of players, leagues, and teams. Much like the first game that included Major League Soccer teams, playing this league helped me become less skeptical and embrace the domestic game. I fully understand that the NWSL and other women’s leagues don’t have the following of most men’s leagues, but the chance to expand that knowledge only helps build the game.
One crucial reason a lot of people are a bit blind to women’s professional soccer is because it is hard to see. If you aren’t looking for women’s soccer, you might not see it. The Olympics and Women’s World Cup make their appearance, and American soccer fans genuinely get behind the U.S. Women’s National Team (even if U.S. Soccer doesn’t). Players like Mia Hamm, Alex Morgan, and Abby Wambach have become American heroes and household names. At the same time, that visibility simply doesn’t translate when compared to the rest of the sports landscape.
Placing women’s leagues into games like EA Sports’ FIFA franchise gives a new level of visibility to female athletes, especially those hard-working and talented athletes that play a notch below the Alex Morgans and Martas of the world. While this visibility is useful to a man wanting to better understand the women’s game, it is critical for young women wanting to learn more about the players and leagues.
I don’t mean to put the blame squarely on EA Sports. They are at the front of the discussion because the FIFA franchise is the benchmark. I could have easily pointed to my desire to want to include women’s leagues in the Football Manager series, but in the U.S. FIFA is the game most people play. EA Sports should be given credit for listening to the initial petition and including international women’s teams. Any request for playable women’s leagues comes because of that inclusion. Understanding production schedules are challenging, I feel like women’s leagues in FIFA 2020 is a very reasonable goal.
There are plenty of critics who will say the league’s smaller fan base doesn’t warrant inclusion into soccer video games. Once the game grows, then and only then, should full inclusion be considered. To this I’d argue these are false equivalents. Video games helped grow the men’s game in the United States. After the dissolution of the first NASL, the only way you could even understand soccer in America was through video games.
Before MLS came along, the FIFA games actually included teams representing U.S. cities with entirely fictitious rosters. Something I saw at the time as both fascinating and a huge slight to the real leagues and teams in the game at that point. If FIFA can build the game for a fake men’s league in the early 1990s, it can certainly add a fully playable version of a real women’s league by 2020.
Watch this space for my next demand, that EA Sports brings back classic teams from FIFA 2000!
What do you think? Do you want to play as the Orlando Pride in FIFA 2020? Do you learn about teams, leagues, and players from FIFA and other soccer video games? What could the NWSL do to make you a true fan? Comment below or connect on Twitter: @KevinIsHistory .