On both sides of the pond, titles featuring the Beautiful Game are top sellers on consoles like the PlayStation and Xbox, and there are countless popular football-themed mobile apps and free-to-play online games in the market.
As much as gaming helped football reach new audiences, the sport has also had an impact on the gaming industry itself, shaping new genres like fantasy sports into lucrative segments of the industry. Fantasy sports, an online method of play that allows gamers to create and manage their dream teams, is on course to generate revenues of $9.34 billion (USD) by 2024, with the football (soccer) vertical being the most popular across the globe.
Meanwhile, the iGaming sector – a close relative of fantasy sports – has undergone massive growth in the past few years and football now features heavily in everything from sports betting opportunities to themed online slot games like PokerStars’ Stars Lineup.
But it hasn’t always been this way. There was a time, a few decades ago, when football games were considered to be very much a niche market, with early prototypes of football console games disappointing gamers and development companies alike.
It’s long been forgotten since, but one of the very first proper football video games released to the unsuspecting public was Mattel Electronics’ game imaginatively named Soccer. Making its debut all the way back in 1978, the game featured the North American Soccer League and came as a standalone handheld gaming device (a precursor to the Game Boy, if you will).
In comparison with several other gaming verticals at that time, football-themed game development progressed slowly. Pele’s Soccer was released on the Atari in 1980, complete with an ad campaign featuring Morecambe and Wise and Trevor Booking, but it did very little to improve on Mattel’s earlier attempt. It did, however, kickstart the licensing trend that is ubiquitous in the genre today.
The biggest development happened as the decade was about to draw to a close. After witnessing the slow-building success of Tehkan’s World Cup arcade game, one-man game developer Dino Dini was inspired to release his own series of games, Kick-Off. By the time Kick-Off 2 game came around in 1990, technology had advanced so much that in-game goal replays became possible.
With the 90s came fierce rivalry in the football gaming market. Dini had a monopoly on the market for a good few years. However, in 1992 Sensible Software launched Sensible Soccer, which started a back-and-forth that would consume much of the decade. Dini released a revamp of Kick-Off in 1993 – Goal!, SEGA unveiled World Championship Soccer and its sequel on the Mega Drive, and EA Sports began its ascent into the genre with FIFA International Soccer.
As it turns out, the last ones to launch became the most successful, and as a new wave of consoles from tech giants Sony entered the market, EA would become synonymous with football games in the form of its FIFA mega-franchise.
21st Century games
Nowadays, of course, the football gaming market is almost exclusively dominated by the FIFA franchise, which has featured Cristiano Ronaldo on its covers for several years. It’s the biggest selling sports franchise of all time in the history of video games, with a total of 260 million copies of its various editions having been sold across the globe. Each new FIFA release sets the standard for the industry as far as gaming innovations go, and the popularity of features like Career Mode and Manager Mode has, in turn, helped pave the way for the genre’s other major players, namely Football Manager and Pro Evolution Soccer.
As far as the future of football games goes, things are heading in a much more immersive direction. The newest edition in EA Sports’ franchise, FIFA 21, promises to deliver superior graphics that will provide the most “authentic character behaviors ever seen in sports gaming”, as well as complete immersion via haptic feedback. Although Virtual Reality tech isn’t quite at the level needed just yet, it probably won’t be too long before football video games become immersive simulations, which would allow gamers to experience life on the pitch as their favorite football heroes.