I've been a football fan for as long as I can remember. I even played, back in the days of my youth. But I'd never comprehended the game of football as such. I understood playing my particular position (defensive end) meant abusing my superior physical size to crush smaller kids until their eyes got watery every time they lined up opposite me. I understood the rules. I understood passing, running, touchdowns, field goals and so on, but the game itself had never really clicked in my mind until John Madden Football '93 for my beloved Genesis showed up under the tree one year.
While the BOOMs and WHACKs got old, Madden '93 provided a useful instruction in the essence of football. I came to understand formations and the advantages of each, why one situation called for a run and one called for a pass, and the differences between the 4-3, the 3-4, the nickel and the dime defenses. Madden was not a graduate-level education in the sport - not when my lead running back had something like 5,000 yards and my second running back had 3,000 in one particularly memorable season - but it was a start, a way to learn the game behind all the large men in strange uniforms stomping around a grassy field.
Our course was set by a chance event, a Bill Simmons column that turned into "Hey, we should totally do that," and when the chatter was done, Joe and I were newborn fans of the strange and bizarre world of the English Premiere League. As a note for our foreign readers, watching soccer here in the States is roughly equivalent to watching ice fishing or lawnmower racing. You may, if you're lucky, be able to get three-day-old games on obscure cable channels at 4:00 in the morning - and here I'd like to thank my TiVo - but the American soccer fan in our neck of the woods is largely limited to the internet for reading about the game, and finds it difficult to actually see the game, which makes it hard to understand the game. Joe could babble about Wayne Rooney, and I could rage against Glenn Roeder, but we couldn't actually pick them out of a police lineup. We couldn't even be sure they actually existed, if not for Youtube.
We began to pick up tiny bits of information from reading and the occasional games we were able to catch. Football Manager helped me understand what some of those bizarre terms (physio?) meant, as well as devouring entire weekends as I plotted the destruction of David Beckham, but we were still struggling to come to grips with this strange new game. And finally, we turned to EA once again, opening our wallets for a joint copy of FIFA 07. I like to think John Madden was involved somehow, perhaps in a spiritual sense, as I returned to the land of my sports birth.
What surprised me was not that I was using a videogame to learn the subtleties of a sport. What surprised me was that this was not a novel idea. I'd thought it was a quirk of fate, something that happened because I played way too much Madden. In fact, what was surprising was how much sense it made. And it worked. With FIFA, a lot more things made sense. As before, I learned the uses of various formations, what all the positions did, and the feel and flow of the game itself. While we're lucky to catch one game a week in the real world, FIFA means a Friday evening can be burned away shouting at each other as players charge across the virtual pitch and the mysteries of the game reveal themselves.
That's not to say it's perfect. Once we discovered that the AI-powered keeper defended the goal like the kid just getting playing time so his mom doesn't shoot the coach, it was easy to find holes in the game. I've found that driving straight at the goal and throwing a little juke completely baffles all defenders and leads to ridiculous scores like 27-3. And it suffers from the usual trademarks of EA's AI (e.g.: mysteriously catching up for no reason out of nowhere and blatantly cheating when it does so), but at the same time, it can normally put together a somewhat respectable game of soccer.
And while neither of us have quite figured out how to defend goal kicks yet, as the wisp-thin manual essentially provides "I HOPE YOU LIKE SOCCER!!!!!" as guidance, I like to think we're learning, slowly but surely, to embrace our newfound pastime. And instead of EA TRAXXXXX, we get Europop, and there's something to be said for that.
And, somewhere, John Madden tilts his head and whispers ...