Just be yourself

Thom Gibbs on footballers’ love affair with video games

On Manchester United’s impeccably marketed, sickeningly luxurious and unimaginably profitable summer tour of the US the squad were kept busy. Rafael da Silva caught salmon at Seattle’s Pike Place fish market, Patrice Evra and Park Ji-sung were taught how to make deep dish pizza in Chicago and the squad visited the floor of a glass-blowing factory, with Alex Ferguson the only visitor who looked remotely interested in being there.

After-hours activities took a less esoteric turn, as illustrated by a number of behind-the-scenes videos showing the players relaxing. “Relaxing” in this case took the form of footballers playing a virtual version of the sport they make their living from, often controlling sprightly digital representations of themselves. It’s not for me to tell anyone how to spend their leisure time, least of all anyone with as many Twitter followers as Rio Ferdinand, but it does seem curious that modern footballers have such a love affair with the FIFA series.

The candid clips are like a workplace instructional video about entry-level footballer banter. In one Wayne Rooney brags about his superiority on FIFA 11 when teamed with Rio, Patrice Evra makes a lot of contextless noise and Dimitar Berbatov enters the room, has a suave and uninterested look around, and is dispatched to wake up Nemanja Vidic for his turn. The school-trip feel is best illustrated in a different video featuring the Da Silva twins sat quietly next to each other on a coach engrossed in Mario Kart on their Nintendo DSs.

Other teams have their own gaming fiends. John Terry hosts an annual Pro Evolution Soccer tournament at his house for the Chelsea squad, Darren Bent has publicised his Xbox gamer tag so fans can play against him and there are surely some Football Manager addicts out there, although I would intuitively guess these are lower-league players rather than the top-flighters enjoying FIFA’s shiny licensed glamour.

It should come as no surprise that this generation of players seem infantilised in this way. They’re the first to grow up with video games and the sector has developed with them to make its products viable for adults as well as children. More money has been spent on games than films (both cinema and DVD) in this country since 2009.  

The frighteningly compulsive appeal of the best games has proved dangerously tempting for some footballers. Sports psychotherapist Steve Pope said: “We were travelling with one player who had played a video game for seven hours on the coach. He hadn’t taken any fluids on board and hadn’t eaten. He’d then gone to his room and missed the Friday evening talk and meal.” One can only imagine the gaffer’s level of fury. David James once cited all-night sessions on Tomb Raider as a reason for a particularly poor performance for Liverpool.

Wayne Rooney and Jack Wilshere will adorn the cover of this year’s edition of FIFA, but the situation is confused by the knowledge that both are avid players of the game. The stars paid to market the game are also its consumers. It wasn’t always this way. Footballers used to lend endorsements to games they surely had no interest in playing.

O’Leary Manager 2000 for the Game Boy allowed you to step into the Leeds manager’s shoes, presumably with a “living the dream” option which allowed you to offer Seth Johnson a new contract worth £35,000 a week. In the memorably titled Peter Shilton’s Handball Maradona on the Commodore you took on the role of a goalkeeper. All the thrill of pressing left on your joystick as you attempt to make saves! Best of all for questionable endorsements was Chris Kamara’s Street Soccer – a game which allowed you to play five-a-side games. On top of a skyscraper.

Still, Kammy probably wasn’t spending much of his downtime with his own awful game. It doesn’t come close to the existentialist horror of playing a game that mimicks your work. How many binmen while away their evenings on Garbage Truck Simulator? (This game exists, its blurb begins: “It may not be the most glamorous job in the world…”) Obviously football is one of the most glamorous jobs in the world, but it still seems surreal that top-level athletes are relaxing in the same way as stoned university students.

From WSC 297 November 2011