It's In the Game: FIFA 19 Brings Real World Gender Inequality to Your Screen
I don't deserve to control the players on the United States Women's National Team. Watch them play for just a few minutes, and it becomes clear that they are truly elite athletes at the top of their sport. Watch me play for just a few minutes, and you'll marvel at the realization there is no sitter so easy it can't still be blasted over the bar.
Every game I play as the USWNT does them some minor cosmic disservice. The good news for me is there's nothing I can do to disrespect them in-game even a fraction as much as FIFA 19 already has.
The Real World Fight
If you're just a casual sports fan, or not much of one at all, there are probably just a few things you heard about the United States team set to vie for their second straight World Cup title on Sunday morning.
They hung a baker's dozen on Thailand, and celebrated like the arrogant Yankee snobs that they are.
They are unapologetically egotistical about their place atop the sport, with defender Ali Krieger going so far as to say the second best team in the world is the 11 players on the bench at the start of any USWNT match.
They are captained by an unpatriotic winger who has knelt for the anthem and responded to a question about a White House visit by making it clear that she would not be going "to the fudging White House," and she did not say fudging.
These are the easy hot-takes trotted out by lazy sportswriters paid to talk about the Women's game once every four years, but disinterested in actually understanding it beyond a surface level. They are far from the whole story.
A Battle for Equality
In reality, there is a lot more than meets the eye when it comes to the women who will be taking the pitch to defend their world title this weekend. The reality is Krieger is likely not all that far off about the quality of the United States bench, and Rapinoe has spoken eloquently about how she protests because she is patriotic and believes that America is great but can be even better.
Sure, the 13 goals put past Thailand seem like overkill, but in the first match of a tournament where the first tie-breaker is goal difference, letting up only to see Sweden not do the same had to be a real consideration.
As for celebrating every last one of them, sure, there's the simple and sufficient explanation offered by Rapinoe when asked about criticism of their celebrations:
I mean, it’s like, we’re at the World Cup, what do you want us to do? This is the biggest stage, the biggest moment.
Scoring a World Cup goal is the culmination of a dream they've likely held since they were young girls. That's cause for celebration.
But there's more there, as well. After the game they stressed the reason they celebrated with the bench is because this is the reserves' World Cup, too, and the eleven players on the pitch wanted to share that glory with the twelve who weren't but still helped them get there.
Finally, there was the unwritten target of their passion -- United States Soccer. Not the concept, but the organization which acts as the governing body of the sport and the overseer of both the men's and women's national programs. The players are currently locked in a heated dispute with the association, having agreed to enter mediation following the tournament just days before it kicked off.
At the root of the issue is the matter of pay. The women's team is far and away the more successful program. While they will compete to extend their existing record of three World Cup wins, the men haven't reached beyond the quarterfinals in over half a century, and missed out on their last World Cup after failing to manage even a draw against international minnows Trinidad & Tobago.
And yet, if two players participated in all 20 mandated friendlies each side must play in every year, the one who did so for the Men's team would earn more money for going 0-20 than the one who played for the women's team would if she claimed win bonuses in all 20 matches.
While in the past disparities have been brushed off citing increased income from the men, times have changed. The Men's team drew nearly 20-times as much game-related revenue in 2011, but over the last three years the Women's National Team has actually earned over $1 million more than their male counterparts. Not only does the surplus argue in favor of better pay, it also shows the significant growth potential from investing in the Women's program.
So, the players are mad. When you throw in additional complaints such as the tendency to book them to play on dangerous artificial turf at significantly higher rates, it's easy to see why. When they stepped out there to lay waste in their debut it was about getting a great result, sure, but every goal no doubt felt just a little nicer with the added declaration that they're still here, and still incredible.
But this is a video game site, so you may be asking, "What does any of this have to do with FIFA 19?"
The Same, But Not Equal
While EA can be accused of being a bit slow to adapt to the growing popularity of the Women's game, national programs have been present in the simulation for several years now. While the numbers are significantly limited, that can be to some degree excused by the very real limitation on how many federations are willing to invest properly in their real world programs. By adding the World Cup DLC to FIFA 19 and including all 24 nations, it is a step forward.
A very small one in a race where they will need some big leaps to catch up to what's right.
At first blush, the World Cup this summer got the same treatment as the World Cup last year. As the tournament drew near a special, free update was released to allow you to play your own version of the World Cup. That's great!
Only that's not actually what was released.
Sure, you can play a World Cup Final, branding and all. Sure, you can play a groups-then-knockout tournament. What you can't do is play a tournament which culminates in a World Cup Final, because the branding is available only in a one-off match.
What you certainly can't do is recreate the World Cup, because of the bizarre decision to only allow for a 12-team event, half the size of reality.
Even this choice could be overcome if it wasn't compounded by a further glaring omission. Resolute in my desire to recreate the tournament proper I decided I would simulate the first three groups, then play a tournament with the next three which included America, and finally use the game's custom tournament options to build the 16-team knockout those six groups yielded.
There is no option to use Women's teams in any of the various styles of custom tournament. All you can do is alter the one 12-fudging-team variety.
Because I'm a crazy person I gave real thought to doing the above then starting additional tournaments for the round of 16 and save scumming my way to finally having the proper final-8 that yielded before I realized that was too much even for me, a guy who keeps a custom spreadsheet of league tables in order to watch highlights and track results without fear of spoilers.
Even for me, that was a bridge too far, and there is no good reason why it should be that much work to recreate the tournament that the entire update is supposed to represent. It wasn't this hard in FIFA 18 when you could play the entire Men's tournament in the right venues, with the right teams.
The Little Things Will Also Get You Down
While the topline failure to do the simple job of creating a 24-team tournament to play through is frustrating enough on its own, much like the real world fight for sporting equality you find more annoying details the deeper you dig.
Several teams in the game don't have licenses with EA, meaning they are stocked with computer-generated players. Some of the top moments of the last month of an excellent World Cup come courtesy of players who find themselves replaced by generic randoms.
Want to take over Christiane Endler and recreate her otherworldly heroics in the second half against the United States? Sorry, you're as out of luck as Christen Press was as she watched fantastic effort after fantastic effort get clawed away by the Chilean netminder. Endler is not there.
How about taking a spin as all-time Legend Marta, who provided the inspirational moment of this and all World Cups when she stared down the cameras following elimination from her last World Cup and pleaded with the young girls of Brazil to keep their passion alive? Nope. She's gone, too.
Even the event itself falls victim to the generic curse. If a licensing disagreement was to blame for not securing the rights for more than a single game, it would be frustrating but still excusable had EA shown even the least bit of effort in making the tournament that they do have feel important.
Instead, you get a generic trophy for winning the Women's National Tournament, I kid you not. Congratulations to the US Women's National Team for being declared Women's National Champions, a title which sounds like it is theirs by default.
Would it have been so hard to call it the Global Cup, or even just the International Tournament? It's not that the name matters in the gameplay, it's that such a simple, lazy oversight shows how little effort or thought was put into the adaptation.
The good news is this is FIFA we are talking about, so they'll have another chance to redeem themselves, and due to the scheduling quirks of international tournaments, that chance will be next year with the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. While the Men's tournament at the Olympics is a glorified youth cup, that's not the case for the women. It's another major contest with all the world's best players. If EA want to start making amends there is a simple solution -- a fully cloned tournament to play out in FIFA 20. And at just 12 teams, we may actually even get it.
At the end of the day, FIFA, like all sporting simulations, prides itself on its ability to accurately represent the real world game it is based on. When it comes to the way Women's soccer is often treated with disinterest at best, or utter disdain at worst, by the regulating bodies responsible for overseeing it, it's fair to say that EA proved to be depressingly good at achieving that goal.