By Tom Simmonds.
News broke last week that female footballers would be represented in the new edition of the Fifa video game franchise, when Fifa 16 launches on September 25. There were a few short-lived experiments at the turn of the century, but this represents the first big opportunity for gamers to control pixelated female players. Why has it taken until now for this to happen?
The most obvious answer is that with the Women’s World Cup due to kick off shortly, Electronic Arts, the company behind the Fifa game franchise, will have made a hard-nosed marketing decision based on data. The immediate marketing opportunity that Canada 2015 represents will almost certainly have played a part in dictating the roll-out time of this innovation.
The data is certainly there to suggest the UK market was ripe to accept this change. Participation in women’s football continues to grow, with 1.76million women and 860,000 girls over five playing football in England as of early 2015. With crowds at WSL games up 30 per cent to an overall average of 726 nationwide in 2014, there is a youthful and growing audience who are eager consumers of women’s football. This represents a very lucrative emerging market to be exploited. When you add this potential audience to the already more established markets for women’s football, such as the USA and Germany, it is clear that this is a commercially-focused decision in at least some regards.
This is not to say that this move, however small it might seem, is bad for women’s football. It is not. Perhaps the biggest reason for the women’s game having a diminished profile in the UK in comparison to the men’s equivalent is the disparity in promotion that the men’s game enjoys. Bringing women’s football into popular entertainment spin-offs like the Fifa games will only help promote it further, and enable it to gain a greater market share.
What this development also reflects is a recognition that accepted norms regarding gender-specific toys are now being seen as increasingly outmoded by progressive parents. When Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, in his characteristic ‘retrograde is the new renegade’ fashion, said “let boys be boys and let girls be girls” late last year in response to a campaign to abolish gender specific aisles in Australian toy shops, he placed himself in diametric opposition to developments such as the one EA have made.
Abbott’s superannuated ‘blue for a boy, pink for a girl’ grandstanding does reveal something as to why football games of all stripes have been almost exclusively male-centric thus far. On one level, you have the age-old received wisdom that football is for boys, and not for girls; this antiquated thinking is very much present in the fabric of make-believe football too. These games, be they action-based or management simulations, where human beings are distilled down to sets of arbitrary numbers, are essentially electronic versions of toy soldiers and games such as Risk and Top Trumps, which have been historically targeted at boys.
If you couple this with how culturally pervasive and invasive men’s football has become in the UK since Sky procured the English Premier League’s broadcasting rights in 1992, it is perhaps no surprise that women’s football has been an afterthought to marketers in all fields, not just in gaming.
Being able to control computerised versions of Steph Houghton and Abby Wambach is not an advance on a par with equal prize money and recognition for male and female sporting achievement. What it will hopefully do is help to play a role in placing women’s football into the consciousness of elastic-minded children who will make up the future playing cadre and support base for the women’s game.
Will the presence of female players in FIFA 16 enhance your enjoyment of the game?
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