The most effective way of transforming a new generation of people into sports fans might not have anything to do with live sporting events. Five years ago, I knew next to nothing about the world of international soccer. However, in just weeks I knew all the players on dozens of teams around the world. I could identify teams’ strengths and weaknesses, and had a solid understanding of soccer strategy and the different styles and tactics teams employed. So what changed? I had started playing FIFA 11, then the most recent installment of EA Sports’ FIFA series of soccer video games.
Soccer wasn’t the only sport I learned primarily through playing video games. I remember playing through franchise mode on MLB 2k5, learning the starting lineups and for every MLB team, and what pitches each pitcher could throw. Around the same time I picked up FIFA, I also became addicted to EA Sports NHL 11, becoming a big hockey fan really for the first time in my life. In fact, I attribute why I don’t follow the MLB and NHL as seriously as I used to in large part to the fact that I don’t play the video games anymore. As someone who’s clocked in countless hours playing sports video games, from Madden to NBA 2k to the games listed above and even old NCAA football and basketball, golf, tennis, and NASCAR titles, I believe greatly in the power of gaming to grow sports in popularity.
Video games are unique from other forms of media because of the control given to the player. This decision-making creates an extremely fun and engaging experience. When I play a game of Madden, for example, I can choose my team and jerseys, and the same for my opponents. I can set my skill level and other settings, and make any changes to my team’s depth chart. In-game, I choose formations, call plays, and decide who to throw to and where to run with the ball. For people unfamiliar with football, this represents a great opportunity to learn and understand the basics of the game- including penalties, play calling in different situations, clock management, and more. The competitive nature of video games gives players the desire to continue playing and improve their skills. While their main concern is having fun while getting better at the game, they’re really gaining a deeper understanding of the sport.
Another great aspect about video games is that they aren’t limited to being a single-person experience. Groups of friends with the same game will be competitive, practicing to get better before challenging each other to games. This social mindset creates communities of gamers with a shared passion for a certain sport. Not only can they play by themselves or with friends, but also in an online context. I became a highly competitive online FIFA player, focused on trying out different formations with different teams, testing what worked and what didn’t, while also studying the actions of my opponents- analyzing their actions to predict their future decisions. Madden does a great job of this as well. To become a successful online player, you have to constantly be thinking. It requires putting together your own offensive and defensive game plans, and creating strategies for different situations. It also requires a high level of adaptability- changing your game plan in response to in-game outcomes. You need to recognize which defenses you’re coming up against and adjust your playcalling accordingly. If you find yourself being pressured by blitzes, you may spread or pinch your offensive line, designated a running back or full back to become an extra blocker, or run screen plays to free up space. If your opponent keeps passing to a specific player or route, you need to make the necessary adjustments to slow them down. In doing so, you learn a great deal about how actual coordinators think.
These ideas apply to all sports games, just with different specifics dependent upon the sport being played. Playing video games makes you smarter not only in a sense of learning players, teams, and who’s good, but also in understanding what it takes to win games. While gaming, players naturally find certain teams and players they either like the most or perform the best with. This translates into a following of these teams and players in real life, making the transition into real-world sports. Additionally, gamers will be interested in following sports because the outcomes of actual games affect the ratings given out in video games. While watching games, video gamers will become anxious to try out new moves they see, or play with exciting players.
The combination of the competitive, addictive nature of video games with the opportunity to foster a strong understanding of sports attracts millions of players already, and will only continue to in the future as games become even more realistic. The ability to be in control of your favorite athletes and be involved in professional sports when games aren’t on translate to stronger affiliations during professional sporting events, and give potential for the growth of professional sports for generations to come.