EA Sports is a near monolithic force in video games but I still felt a little sorry for them after the week they just had. But not too sorry.
No, really. We'd agreed to an embargo so I knew, privately, what FIFA 16 would be announcing on Thursday as I read, on Wednesday, about the numerous FIFA officials detained on criminal charges in an unprecedented anticorruption operation. Bringing women to the FIFA series may be a long-overdue inclusion but it's one for which the game's developers in Canada deserved a bit more of the spotlight. Instead, FIFA was the biggest four-letter word of the week, tarnishing this milestone as well.
Of course, some don't think it's much of a milestone at all.
FIFA 16's rather limited inclusion of women's soccer speaks for itself. No, it's not full partnership, even allowing for women's soccer's limited presence and history next to the men's game, but it is a start. And for what is being presented it's not a tokenized treatment either.
Slapping female avatars on player models with animations, ratings and physics modeling all designed for men would be a disaster. There are real women's soccer stars in here, their images scanned into the game the same as male players, their actions and expressions motion-captured as well. It takes not only an effort to develop playable women avatars and differentiate their skills appropriately, but also money to compensate these athletes for their likeness, and the legal work to do so properly. Men's pro leagues, more established, have more streamlined processes in the latter case especially.
There are valid criticisms of substance, though, when the addition of women involves just 12 national teams, none professional, which wipes out out any idea of a season-long campaign mode. Women have no inclusion in the Ultimate Team cash cow either. That said, of all criticisms leveled against EA Sports — and for sure something about this feature would disappoint someone on the Internet — I was puzzled most by criticism of the fact women's teams can't play men's in the game. This wasn't a problem when EA Sports UFC introduced eight female fighters last year and kept them from fighting 90 other men on the roster.
It matters less that the U.S. Women's National Team can't play Man U or Man City than the fact the Women's World Cup, which starts next weekend, will be over and done by more than two full months once FIFA 16 launches in September. That is a serious lack of relevance that few have mentioned in discussing or criticizing this new feature. This would be like Madden NFL 16 adding five Canadian Football League teams in a title update 11 weeks after the Grey Cup. So what?
More importantly, women have no presence in any career mode. I'm not a father, but I do have two cousins who have played Division I women's soccer in college, and this is where I'd stop myself before clapping my hands to say "Hey girls! Great news!" The only mode involving women's soccer that is more persistent than a one-off match will be a tournament that, with a maximum of 12 teams, would have no more than three rounds. If a young woman — or anyone intrigued by women's soccer — wants to stage a season and keep stats for her favorite team's aggregate play, she'll have to do it the way boys did 30 years ago — scheduling a season manually against a rotation of the same 11 sides and recording the results with pen and paper in a three-ring binder.
Play a career with women's teams? You'll do it the way boys did 30 years ago. Pen and paper and a three-ring binder.
We can argue about the infrastructure (and its cost) needed for a women's career mode, or to deliver a fully staffed, fully branded Women's World Cup game, whether as a side mode or a digital edition, much less packaged goods. In the end, what we have in reality still looks like it could have been a part of this series long ago, at least in time for fans of either gender to be playing along next weekend. This is the one month out of four years when women's soccer is a mainstream event and even appointment television. The console generation change is irrelevant, argumentatively; the FIFA series has now published two games on new hardware.
Where I get off the bus, though, is when people — many of whom neither follow sports nor play their video games — complain about the fact women's teams cannot play men's in FIFA 16. For me, that criticism highlights the reductive and often gotcha nature of the discussion of diversity and inclusion in popular media, video games in particular. The one thing EA Canada said they did not want to do — and I believe them — is simply slap a female avatar onto models, animations and ratings that were built for men. That would be crass and lazy and it doesn't lift a finger to acknowledge that women's soccer plays a different game, stylistically, from men.
Sure, if EA is only introducing a dozen women's teams with no career modes, one might reasonably argue they could at least let them play against any men's side in the game. It certainly would expand the options for play. Yet it also obligates EA to rate women's soccer players relative to men, and come up with some justification for those measurements. The outcome will appear either sexist or patronizing, so good luck spinning any of that, in either direction.
There are fantasy scenarios in a lot of sports video games that don't take place in real life. But this is not at all like the impossibility of playing one team against itself in a one-off match. It forces EA into taking sides in a gender argument that polite, well adjusted people see no useful reason to engage.
Why hasn't US Soccer pitted its men against its women? Wouldn't that sell a bunch of tickets?
Honestly, though, if playing top women's teams versus top men's sides is such a meritorious idea, then why call on a video game to lead the way, and not FIFA in real life? Why demand EA Sports construct a video game to pit women against men, to create an inevitably unsatisfying judgment, when there are more than 200 women's and men's teams in the NCAA's Division I rank, none of whom have faced off yet.
Why hasn't US Soccer played its men's national team against its women? Wouldn't that sell a bunch of tickets? If gender-separated team competition rates this kind of throwaway opprobrium, why should EA Sports be the one tsk-tsked for reflecting it in a video game, instead of the sanctioning bodies who enforce it in real life?
FIFA 16's women's teams constitute a start if not a breakthrough, and EA Canada's developers deserve credit for bringing a dozen women's teams to the game as much as their leadership deserve skepticism for taking so long. We'll see how meaningful this really is in FIFA 17 next year, when there's no Women's World Cup to glom onto for marketing purposes. How will this mode, if it is a mode, advance? What additional teams will join the lineup? Will women get a career?
Those questions are more worth answering than whether women can beat men in soccer.
Roster File is Polygon's news and opinion column on the intersection of sports and video games.