Andrea Pirlo famously admitted to spending the afternoon playing video games before winning the 2006 World Cup with Italy in Berlin.
“After the wheel, the PlayStation is the greatest invention of all time,” he proclaimed in his autobiography.
Fast forward ten years and football games have evolved – driven by an obsession with accuracy and realism.
But games like FIFA are no longer just mirroring real life – they’re actually starting to influence the way professional footballers play the game.
FIFA developer EA SPORTS has for a long time employed thousands of data collectors who painstakingly analyse and create databases teeming with intricate player statistics.
“We record and study how the players move on the pitch, the precision of their passing, how they take a penalty, their headers, and even the physics of the ball,” EA SPORTS producer Gilliard Lopes Dos Santos told FIFA.com.
But now something interesting is happening when it comes to the relationship between the video game and the sport.
“We’re living in an age when the real and virtual influence each other,” said Lopes Dos Santos.
“Bizarrely, we often see that footballers learn things from video games. It’s a permanent two-way process.”
Mind the (virtual) gap
As Germany defender Mats Hummels explained to FIFA.com: “Obviously, a professional footballer can use his own experience to manage certain situations in the game. Conversely, some people maybe use what they learn in FIFA when they find themselves on a pitch.”
This certainly came in handy for Parma goalkeeper Marco Amelia, who in 2008, saved a penalty from Ronaldinho before proclaiming: “It was just like playing against him on PlayStation. He had the same run-up. It was very strange.”
It’s not the first time in-game player behaviour has inspired action in real life.
Arsenal youngster Alex Iwobi revealed to the New York Times that FIFA helped him improve parts of his game.
The winger was particularly fond of Aiden McGeady, who despite being far from a world-class player in real life, was a formidable force on FIFA.
“He had one turn that I would go out into the garden and practice,” Iwobi said.
Lionel Messi – the first PlayStation footballer
After Arsenal’s Champions League loss to Barcelona in 2010, Arsene Wenger said of Messi: “He’s like a PlayStation. I think he can take advantage of every mistake you make.”
The comparison is hardly surprising, Messi has always had a close relationship with football video games.
Arguably his style of play set the tone for the dominance of PES’s gameplay in the early 2000s, given that he was used for majority of their motion capture process.
And he’s obsessed with gaming. His team-mates report the Argentine would spend up to three hours a day after training playing football video games.
He even takes the Barcelona tactics from the training ground on the TV screen, using possession to frustrate his opponents.
“I love playing PlayStation online with people who don’t know who I am,” Messi told SunSport.
“When the match is complicated I keep the ball in defence.
“I play from one centre-half to the other and the opponent gets angry. I do it to kill time on the clock.”
How ratings affect player behaviour
As the gap between the real and the virtual closes, bonds between players and their digital representations become tighter.
Stats are no longer just random numbers, but are now calculated with an almost scientific-like methodology.
In-game avatars now provide an accurate and objective view on how players compare across all attributes – from speed and strength, to free-kick accuracy, passing and dribbling ability.
Consequently, professional footballers care more now about their FIFA rating than ever before.
So much so that The New York Times reports some agents have even called up EA to beg for upgrades for their players’ ratings.
Retired French midfielder Edouard Cisse revealed on FIFA.com: “I even know of players who’ve changed their own stats in the game, but if a team-mate finds out… it’s pretty embarrassing!”
When FIFA 17 arrived a couple of years again, then-Chelsea player Michy Batshuayi publicly expressed his disappointment to EA after receiving what he thought was an uncharitable passing rating. He tweeted: “59 passing… so weak”.
Some went one stage further.
Manchester United’s Romelu Lukaku, for example, used a ratings snub as fuel to continue improving in real life.
As every aspect of players’ games are put under the microscope, FIFA scores have clearly become a real motivator to drive and improve performance on the pitch.
We saw with the El Tornado move introduced in last year’s game, and the Ratings Rfersh period, that EA SPORTS is already incentivisng players to improve real-world performance, if only to better their in-game avatar’s ability.
Given the focus on hard data and statistics, and the seriousness with which EA’s numbers are treated, it’s surely only a matter of time before a player is signed on the back of their FIFA rating.
After all, a few years ago, Sports Interactive – the team behind Football Manager, reached an agreement with Prozone Sports to provide data to leading clubs to help identify talent.
What is abundantly clear is just how synonymous FIFA has become with the real game – from the EASPORTS-branded match statistics to the Sky Sports-style FUT pack walkouts, the boundaries between the two worlds of gaming and professional football are becoming ever more blurred
We’ve always thought of managers, agents and now footballers themselves as the main powerbrokers in football – are gaming developers about to become major players too?