LONDON — Before his first few appearances as a teenage striker for Arsenal, Alex Iwobi used to cast his eye over the names of the opposition team, trying to identify his direct opponent.
In most cases, he would find himself up against a player he had never faced. His manager, Arsène Wenger, and Arsenal’s coaching staff would offer counsel, but in lieu of experience Iwobi also would turn to another trusted resource.
“I’d look at his name,” he said, “and then try to remember how good he was on FIFA.”
For millions of soccer fans across the world, video games — primarily the record-high-selling FIFA series from Electronic Arts, but also its rival series Pro Evolution Soccer and the more cerebral Football Manager — act as both a gateway drug to soccer and, later, another way of satisfying an established addiction.
FIFA’s various iterations alone have sold more than 150 million copies worldwide, according to Forbes. By some measures, it is the most successful sports video game franchise in history, even without including the latest installment, FIFA 17, released last month. Pro Evolution Soccer has more than 80 million copies in circulation, while the Football Manager series ranks as one of the best-selling on PC.
Players rank among the most ardent devotees of all three. The Italian midfielder Andrea Pirlo has proclaimed that “after the wheel, the PlayStation is the best invention of all time.” Zlatan Ibrahimovic wrote in his autobiography that he “could go 10 hours at a stretch” playing soccer video games early in his career. John Terry used to host Pro Evolution Soccer get-togethers for his Chelsea teammates on the eve of each season.
Victor Vázquez, a former teammate of Lionel Messi’s in Barcelona’s youth sides, remembered Messi “playing for three hours without a break” during marathon tournaments. Messi’s Barcelona teammate Gerard Piqué, another graduate of the city’s famed academy, La Masia, said he still played FIFA “while traveling, in the hotel, with the team.”
And two years before Manchester United made him the world’s most expensive player, the French midfielder Paul Pogba was seen playing Football Manager during the 2014 World Cup. He was managing Chelsea, and had signed himself.
Like most of his generation, Arsenal’s Iwobi, 20, grew up with video games. He played soccer, too, of course, both as part of his formal sporting education — with a youth team near his family home and then, from age 9, at the Gunners’ academy — and as part of its informal equivalent, the technical, intense matches on the five-a-side field in the East London neighborhood where he grew up.
Both informed the player Iwobi would become. If his academy coaches refined his talent, instilling discipline and dedication, he attributes his close control, for example, to playing in the five-a-side “cage,” where any mistake is pounced on by “bigger boys who want to bully you off the ball.”
His taste for video games, though, should also be credited with playing a role. As with Pirlo and Nesta, Iwobi’s favorite team in FIFA was, as a rule, Barcelona — thanks to Ronaldinho, the Brazilian playmaker with the vivid imagination and the mischievous grin. “He had all these tricks, things even he wouldn’t try in normal life,” Iwobi said.
He also had a soft spot for Aiden McGeady, an altogether less remarkable Irish winger. “He had one turn that I would go out into the garden and practice,” Iwobi said.
It was the same with Ronaldinho. Iwobi would spend hours trying to bring to life the tricks his idol could do only in virtual reality. Mastering them helped him in the cage, and then in his career.
Soccer video games have spent much of the last 20 years in an arms race for authenticity. FIFA and Pro Evolution Soccer study the movements of players to make their simulations as lifelike as possible; Miles Jacobson, the creator of Football Manager, sends out early copies of his game to 1,500 players to beta-test, while “the access we are given to clubs” means he and his team can incorporate new developments rapidly.
The reaction to them among professionals suggests they are succeeding. Chelsea striker Michy Batshuayi last month complained on Twitter to the producers of FIFA 17 that his passing statistics were not high enough, while Jacobson said that he regularly had to deal with players — or their agents — asking for their assessments to be bumped up just a little. The games, they believe, reflect the real-life sport.
As Iwobi suggests, however, they increasingly do more than that: They are not merely representations of the game, but influencers of it. Iwobi is not the only player who believes that what he does on the field has been influenced by what he has seen rendered on a screen.
Ibrahimovic said that he would “often spot solutions in the games that I then parlayed into real life” as a young player. Mats Hummels, the Bayern Munich and Germany defender, has suggested that “maybe some people use what they learn in FIFA when they find themselves on a pitch.”
Wenger’s assertion several years ago that Messi was a “PlayStation footballer” was meant more as an explanation than an insult: Messi does things that seem to belong on a pixelated screen because that is, in part, how he has learned to see the game. Just like Iwobi, his conception of what is possible and what is not was forged by fantasy.
Video games’ impact, though, does not stop there. Pirlo suggested in his biography that Pep Guardiola’s lionized vision of soccer stemmed from computers: his “gentle programming of players” is pure “PlayStation,” Pirlo wrote.
Perhaps the most significant impact, though, may be away from the field. “Data is the bedrock of everything we do,” said Duncan Alexander, the head of British content for the data provider Opta. “It’s behind everything, from getting an Uber to doing your online shopping.” Increasingly, soccer is no exception.
Most elite teams now employ data analysts who provide a raft of metrics for coaches to digest, much of it based on initial figures from Opta. Slowly — and secretively — their work is growing ever more sophisticated, and ever more important to the clubs they advise.
The rise of the analysts — a seismic shift for soccer, an inherently conservative sport — may owe a debt to the success of Football Manager. As Alexander observed, many of the people working for clubs or for external advisers grew up “in the 1990s, when Football Manager was becoming popular.” Even if they did not play it, they were at least familiar with the language it spoke.
“The chronology between the popularity of the game and the use of numbers in soccer,” he said, “is broadly similar.”
Jacobson has witnessed that firsthand. “There are people working for Champions League teams who started out working as scouts gathering data for us,” he said. Several managers regularly get in touch to elicit the developer’s verdict on possible targets.
Last year, ProZone, an analysis company, launched a scouting program called Recruiter, combining its own and Football Manager’s treasure trove of data, to formalize that connection. Other scouting software programs, including Scout 7 and InStat, provide much more “sophisticated” analysis than Football Manager, according to Alexander, but their format would be easily interpreted by anyone who has played the game.
“Fifteen years ago, nobody was using data,” Jacobson said. “It is amazing, how prevalent it has become. I would like to think we played some part in that.”
As FIFA and Pro Evolution Soccer did, Jacobson and his team at Football Manager set out to reflect reality. They have succeeded, instead, in helping alter it.