A one-bedroom apartment in the Yorkville section of Manhattan is an unlikely venue to glimpse the shifting mechanics of American sports fandom. The living room is sparsely furnished; a 42-inch television rises proudly above a video game console. Empty pizza boxes ornament the floor. A sagging couch sits in front of an empty Dirt Devil box doubling as a coffee table.
Russell Lovelady, a bespectacled 23-year-old host, fires up his Xbox and returns to the couch. Clad only in a pink T-shirt and a pair of boxers, he packs a dip of chewing tobacco and prepares to do battle with his friend Joey Scarborough. The men met as fraternity brothers at the University of Alabama, but the image of innate Southerness they convey is shattered the instant the immense television glows with the home screen of EA Sports FIFA 2012 video game. With a flurry of dexterous controller-clicking, the two men assemble their teams with the cold, calculated eyes of professional soccer scouts.
Scarborough's pedigree makes him an unlikely soccer aficionado. Coming of age as a self-described "blue-blooded baseball-loving American male" in Pensacola, Fla., he viewed soccer as a peripheral pursuit.
The game kicks off, and we are transported from the Upper East Side to the Calderon Stadium in Madrid as Scarborough's Atletico host Lovelady's Tottenham Hotspur. As they play, the combatants reminisce about their conversion to soccer, which occurred unexpectedly in a frat house across the street from the Crimson Tide's legendary Bryant-Denny Stadium. "Our housemates were rural Alabamians," remembered Lovelady. "Two of them played the game on the house television and one day, I picked up the controller and experienced the kind of thrill I imagine people must have had in the 1950s when they heard rock-n-roll for first time. My life has not been the same since."
Both men were soon playing an average of three hours a day. "When we first came to school, most of us used to think soccer was a communist sport," admitted Scarborough with a smile. "Before we knew it, we were getting over tough breakups by going on nine-hour FIFA binges online."
The video game became a gateway to the real thing. Scarborough opted to become a Chelsea fan. "I quickly found myself scouring the internet to follow soccer ... in the time I used to dedicate to NBA basketball," he said. His voyage of discovery was not a solo mission. "Our entire campus quickly became littered with guys pairing the traditional Southern garb of camouflage hunting pants with a red-and-black-striped AC Milan Jersey."
A quiet national revolution
The Alabama experience is illustrative of a quiet national revolution. Social scientist Rich Luker, the creator of the ESPN Sports Poll, recently pronounced soccer to be America's second most popular sport for those aged 18-24. Luker attributes the change to the quantity of world-class soccer available to Americans on cable television, the Internet, and via teams from England and Spain traveling across the continent to brand-build during preseason. The confluence has created what he terms a "context of greatness" through which Americans can, for the first time, consistently connect to the ongoing storylines of the global game.
Of all his findings, one caught Luker by surprise: the role soccer video games have played in stimulating a passion for the real thing. "For the longest time, I believed video games and fandom of sport were not connected," he said. "But games like FIFA have done more to advance the popularity of soccer than I have seen with any other sport."
If Luker's findings are correct, American soccer's ground zero is EA Sports Digital Laboratory, a 450,000-square-foot facility spread over two city blocks in Burnaby, British Columbia, a suburb of Vancouver. The lab is akin to a veritable United Nations of football populated by representatives of 18 nations from Argentina to South Korea whose love for the game they create is all-consuming. Clusters of employees unwind after a torrid workday by holing themselves up in a conference room to noisily compete on their product.
A programmer mistakenly interrupts the scene, entering the room with his visiting son, a 7-year-old who is visibly astonished by the chaotic scene. While grown men battle over a computer game as if their lives depended on it, the programmer awkwardly informs his wide-eyed son, "This is where Daddy works ... and this is what Daddy does all day," while quickly ushering him back into the hallway.
"Soccer has a massive future in America," proclaimed Matt Bilbey, the amiable Englishman who, as general manager of EA Sports football franchises, is responsible for the alchemy of turning America into a soccer-loving nation. "The 2014 World Cup will be broadcast from Brazil in prime time, cable television stations are investing massively in the sport, and the USA national team is getting strong enough to make me believe they will be competitive at the World Cup over the next 10 years."
"When we first came to school, most of us used to think soccer was a communist sport. Before we knew it, we were getting over tough breakups by going on nine-hour FIFA binges online."
-- FIFA gamer Joey Scarborough
Bilbey's opinion is grounded in statistics. Few men understand the nation's budding love affair better than the man who has spent 18 years overseeing the development of the FIFA franchise, transforming it from a crudely rejigged version of the developer's NHL game into a $5 billion franchise so deeply authentic it has been used to correctly predict the winners of the 2010 World Cup and this past MLS season.
"We have more research on what motivates people to watch football than anyone in the world," said Bilbey. The narrative he has uncovered validates the story that played out in Scarborough's Alabama fraternity house. "We analyzed passive interactions with soccer and compared them to interactive experiences with the sport," he said, "and while there can be no substitute to seeing Barcelona at the Nou Camp, the American audience enjoys interacting with our game more than watching soccer passively on television."
Bilbey points to the franchise's explosive growth in America as proof. The country has become EA's second-biggest territory, eclipsing Germany and trailing only England. His executives had recently returned from explaining the power of their brand to Manchester United. "We told them they connect to their fans for just 90 minutes a week on game day. We retain that connection for several hours every day," he said.
The widespread popularity of the 2010 World Cup forced the sport past a tipping point. Bilbey believes the tournament's blanket coverage helped make the sport accessible and aspirational. "For the first time, it gained social currency and became something our broadest potential audience was proud to talk about," he said. All EA Sports needed to do was to get them playing their game.
"Wayne who ...?"
"Our challenge was to learn how to market a sport which has for decades been this country's sport of the future," said Jamie McKinlay, a smoothly effusive Australian who is EA Sports senior director of global marketing. "We had already engaged a passionate core audience who loved the game, and a large Hispanic following, but to connect to the massive general sports audience who had a fleeting interest in soccer after the World Cup demanded we try something new."
Their efforts initially stalled as they latched onto a global marketing campaign featuring an all-star ensemble of footballing talent including Manchester United's Wayne Rooney, Barcelona's Andres Iniesta and Juventus' Giorgio Chiellini. McKinlay learned the hard way that as much as his target audience had savored the World Cup experience, they knew next to nothing about the actual players. "To market the product globally, all we had to do was tap into the world's natural passion for football and link it back to the game under the motto ‘Love Football, Love FIFA,'" he said. "In America, that connection did not exist."
A solution lay close at hand in the form of a vocal celebrity following that had attached itself to the franchise. An eclectic cast including Seth Meyers, Steve Nash, MLB All-Star Tim Lincecum and Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson had randomly proclaimed their love for the digital franchise. Johnson even informed reporters upon becoming the cover star of the NFL game "Madden 2013," "I'm not the best at Madden; I play rarely. I play the real thing. I'm more of a FIFA guy ... more of a soccer guy."
EA Sports set out to exploit this cult following in their 2012 campaign "United States of FIFA," crafting a commercial that toned down the actual soccer and played up Nash, Meyers and others, enjoying the act of playing their game. The ads were positioned against NFL and NBA broadcasts, as well as "Saturday Night Live" and "Family Guy."
"We promoted the social value of the product," McKinlay said. "The message we were trying to deliver was if you want to play the greatest sports game on the face of the planet, you had to buy FIFA." It worked and has been repeated for 2013 in a campaign which features Snoop Dogg, Lionel Messi and Andrew Luck. As McKinlay revealed, "We cast a big net and finally cracked the general sports market which has become 60 percent of our audience."
Back on the Upper East Side, Scarborough and Lovelady are living proof of its impact. "This game destroys everything an average American has been taught to feel about soccer," says Scarborough. "It made me realize the power of netting a single goal, which feels like scoring 12 touchdowns simultaneously."
As he speaks, he rifles home a long-range shot, causing his opponent to grimace. "That goal hurt," Lovelady admits, "but I have experienced worse. There is nothing more debilitating than being destroyed by a stranger online than hearing their mom in the background calling them for dinner."
As they set up their next game, Lovelady says, "The sad part of playing FIFA is I realize this is the closest I am ever going to come to being a world-class soccer star."
Joey quickly agrees. "It makes me wish I had never quit the sport when I was 9."
Before they prepare to re-engage in battle, Lovelady puts down his controller and experiences a moment of clarity. "If all of us hadn't, maybe the U.S. might have won the World Cup by now."