There isn't much mystery to the way the world's best soccer gamers approach their craft.
NEW YORK – Michael Ribeiro played soccer all his life. Growing up in New Jersey, he said he was aiming for a college scholarship when a knee injury wiped out his chance of making something serious of his playing career.
Luckily for him, his playing experience on the real-life field helped him out on a virtual one.
“If you know the game in real life, it will translate to FIFA,” Ribeiro told SI.com from the floor of the 12th FIFA Interactive World Cup (FIWC), the world championship for EA Sports’ FIFA video game. Ribeiro was one of 32 participants in the event, drawn from around the world, most of whom had some level of experience actually playing the sport simulated on the screens in front of them.
If you know anything about soccer, you know that 32 fans, players, or coaches gathered from around the world in a room together will never produce a unity of opinion about the way the sport is meant to be played. Soccer is simply too much of a blank slate, upon which any philosophy can be effectively applied.
So why, then, did almost everyone at the FIWC play FIFA the same way?
“The basis of the game is always what you know about soccer, “ Ribeiro explains. “But at the same time, it is a video game, so there’s always exploits.”
In other words, FIFA isn’t Guitar Hero, a game one can master without even knowing how many strings a guitar has, much less how to play them. Rather, it seems that the best FIFA players are the ones that successfully blend their knowledge of the real-life sport with their mastery of the peculiarities of the game.
Tricky thing is, those peculiarities can change from year to year.
“I’d be lying if I didn’t say that some years some things are slightly out of balance one way or the other,” said Aaron McHardy, a gameplay producer for FIFA. “In FIFA 14, finesse shots were probably a little too effective. In FIFA 15, sprinting with the world’s fastest players was probably a bit too effective. In FIFA 16 our intention was to create the most balanced game we’ve ever had.”
That they may have done. But even so, as Ribeiro said, there are exploits. One of them, judging from its overwhelming popularity at the FIWC, is the use of a 4-4-2 diamond formation (which most players spoken to called a 4-1-2-1-2). Observing the group stage and knockout rounds of the tournament, it was impossible not to notice how nearly every game had both players set up in this way, regardless of which teams the players had chosen (more on that later).
“It creates the most triangles,” Ribeiro told SI.com in between games. “Speed and multiple strikers are the thing this year.”
But who decides what ‘the thing’ each year is? Ribeiro’s assertion would indicate it’s the game designers, but McHardy rejected this theory, saying that the designers at EA Sports “don’t really focus on which tactics work as much as creating an environment where you can figure out what tactics work.”
“Us deciding what the most successful tactic in football is is overstating our boundaries,” he continued. “There have been wars over that very topic, so who are we to decide that?”
That’s when the influence of real-life, on-field soccer once again comes to the fore. FIFA players want to play the same way the world’s best real-life teams do. A 4-4-2 diamond, even if it isn’t the setup used by those real-life teams, offers the best avenue to do so.
“Everybody’s playing like Barcelona does in real life,” said David Bytheway, a former FIWC participant who is now among two of the first professional FIFA players to be employed by a real club (in his case, Wolfsburg). “So many people, they watch Barcelona in real life and they say ‘Oh, I want to play like that’ so then they take those lessons into the game and they know what to do.”
Barcelona rarely scores by simply lumping the ball into the box and hoping a forward gets a head on it. Even on corner kicks, the Blaugrana are more likely to play it short, then try to work a chance with dribbles and their trademark short passing.
At FIWC 16, players hardly ever crossed the ball from open play; balls carried to the side of the penalty box usually got passed back, then re-circulated. On a corner kick, most did nothing other than knock it short, then dribble up the endline looking for an opening.
Is this all a function of Barcelona’s dominance? Or is this another unrealistic exploit built in to the game?
Enabling this style, according to McHardy, was a conscious decision from the FIFA developers. But Barcelona had nothing to do with it.
“[Crossing] is something we did change from previous years. We thought it was a little too powerful, but we made the change because we feel like it’s a better balance for the game,” he said. “We don’t really want to dictate in one specific year that there is one over-arching way to play. Who wins is who uses their style best.”
It also helps to have the best players, a fact most FIWC players seemed to be aware of when it came time to choose teams. Brazil and Argentina were the overwhelming favorites, and at times it seemed as if every game going on in the FIWC involved both of those two South American powerhouses, or at least one of them and another team (usually Portugal). The reasoning, for once, is fairly simple: These are the teams that have the best players in the world.
That reasoning may also be flawed.
“It isn’t a simple numbers game, and it’s hard to convince our fans and players that it isn’t,” McHardy said. “If everybody’s using the same team, then there’s probably going to be a most effective way to set up that one team. So that sort of gets painted across the entire game. The challenge that we face is convincing people to step away from automatically taking the teams that have the highest numbers, because they’re not necessarily the best. It’s all about picking the team that is the best to play the style you want to play.”
If there’s a shining example in support of this, look no further than the 2016 FIWC champion, Mohamed Al-Bacha, who won the tournament (including a thrilling final) playing as France. When asked on FIFA’s live stream why he chose the team, Al-Bacha simply said it was the one that allowed him to play the game like he wanted to play. He won the final after switching to a 4-2-4 formation in a desperation move that yielded a last-second goal. But before all of that, he made it through the group stage without conceding a goal.
“Defense wins tournaments,” said Ribeiro. “That’s true in both the game and in real life.”