FIFA, the astoundingly popular video game that shares a name with the governing body of the footballing world, exploded from humble beginnings. EA Soccer, an originally small offshoot of its parent company, began developing ‘FIFA International Soccer’ with a modest budget of just $30,000 a month, or roughly $50,000 in today’s terms. To put the game’s growth into perspective, FIFA 16’s development costs were close to $30,000,000 per month.

EA always intended for its sports games to be as realistic as possible; so much so that it was part of their slogan. Upon booting up FIFA 18, millions of fans around the world will expectantly find the EA Sports logo accompanied by the well-known phrase “it’s in the game”. Few are aware, though, that this a shortened version of “if it’s in the game, it’s in the game”.

Over the years, and via a battle with Pro Evolution Soccer, FIFA has developed into a seemingly realistic representation of football, right down to the frustration it can cause.

We have all been there – pointing at the post-game stats after losing a game to an annoyingly smug friend, complaining we had 17 shots to his three and that, even worse, 12 of them were on target. It was just luck. This time, the game was not on our side.

We have learned from football in real life that the best team doesn’t always win. Unlike basketball or hockey, the beautiful game is low-scoring, which gifts lady luck a more starring role in football than she receives in other sports. It is logical that this should translate to its video game counterpart, then. If it’s in the game, it’s in the game.

It is hard, though, to know the true extent to which FIFA replicates real football when its inner-workings are as private as they are. One such example of this issue was the ‘momentum scandal’ of FIFA 17. Some of the game’s more obsessed fans delved into the actual code of its PC version, finding reference to mechanics within it that would stabilise a match depending on which team was dominating.

The ‘adaptive difficulty’ function increases the difficulty for the playing team if they scored within the first five minutes, and decreases the difficulty if they are losing by two or more goals. Whether these functions are active in various game-modes (e.g. online multiplayer in Ultimate Team or the single-player Career Mode) is unclear, but FIFA players have long complained about the perceived presence of dramatic momentum effects in the game.

Is FIFA a realistic model of football, or a model of our unrealistic conception of football? The distinction is subtle, but important. The so-called adage that “2-0 is the most dangerous scoreline” may be the inspiration for some of the game’s momentum functionality, and yet it is laughably misguided.

In the 2011/12 Premier League season, for example, 95 per cent of the games in which a team took such a lead were – shockingly – won by that very team. The same cannot be said about FIFA games, where even a three-goal lead is awkwardly vulnerable.

It is remarkable how often what we think about football is wrong, and nowhere is this more true than when it comes to goal-scoring. In FIFA 18, ‘finishing’, one of a plethora of player ‘skills’ that are ranked from 1-100, ranges from Lionel Messi’s score of 95, the best in the game, to Kostas Manolas’ ten.

Those who play the game will know how important the stat is when it comes to managing to turn a shot into a goal – even though you are ‘in control’ of a player, you can press the buttons for a perfect finish and still miss due to the variance introduced by this rating. This seems intuitive, but is it?

Marek Kwiatkowski, a football analytics consultant with particular interest in the topic of finishing skill, thinks not. “Analytics shows that who the chance falls to is much less important than we tend to assume,” he explained to Football Whispers.

“People have always believed that finishing is a genuine skill but, except in truly exceptional cases like Leo Messi or Luis Suárez, we're only now close to proving its existence conclusively with data, at least as far as publicly available research is concerned. This difficulty is due to the fact that the player effect is small compared to that of the player-independent circumstances of the shot like location or type of assist.”

FIFA is not uniquely misunderstanding the importance of chance-getting in goalscoring, it is simply reflecting our own colloquial misconceptions.

‘Positioning’ is a player skill in the game. But a player’s ability to make intelligent runs is often eclipsed in importance by ‘pace’, which renders real-life stars like Thomas Müller, Gonzalo Higuaín, and Edinson Cavani unusable, while otherwise unremarkable speed-demons like Ahmed Musa, Seydou Doumbia and Gabriel Agbonlahor have been some of the best performers in recent FIFA editions.

As EA continue to attempt to market FIFA as a legitimate e-sport, the trade-off between being a realistic simulation of football and being a good video game is becoming increasingly apparent.

The things that make football so appealing as a sport – its randomness and complexity, the fact that Southend United can beat Manchester United in the FA Cup if the stars align sadistically enough, and its varied tactics – are both impossible to model perfectly and the opposite of the ethos of currently popular e-sports, where the emphasis is on better players winning and openly available game mechanics.  

Given that FIFA informs how millions of people view football, especially in North America, where an interest in the sport is as likely to have come from the video game as the other way around, how it chooses to approach these dilemmas will have profound implications.

For example, if the post-match shot totals previously referred to were complemented by an ‘expected goals’ sum that indicated the amount of goals the average FIFA player would have scored from the shots that each team had, it would become intuitive to a generation of football fans.

If ‘positioning’ were a more important stat when it came to goalscoring, and elite strikers, who may nonetheless be physically slower than some of their peers, made intelligent runs that got them more chances, our actual dialogue about goal-scoring might move beyond ‘confidence’, ‘physicality’, and ‘finishing’.

Whether FIFA 18 replicates, innovates or insults our conception of football, what is ‘in the game’ is of higher importance than ever before.

FIFA