Where’s the World Cup video game this year?

By Nick Kariuki

Thousands will travel to Canada this summer to watch 24 national soccer teams compete across six cities for the World Cup title.

In the sports video game world, industry leader Electronic Arts Inc. takes the opportunity to release a new title of its licensed “FIFA” franchise. That means a game with all the latest rosters, visuals and simulated atmosphere in the future tournament venues.

Sorry. There won’t be that kind of game this year, either as a stand alone title or downloadable content to the already released “FIFA 15” title. Why? Because it’s a Women’s World Cup year.

In the sports game market, stand alone women’s sports games and add-on content remain underrepresented. High-profile appeals have been made by athletes, sports fans and gamers, with varied success. It doesn’t help that the stumbling block is the very first step women’s sports games just aren’t marketable. But should that prevent game developers from trying?

EA is the world’s No. 1 publisher on Sony and Microsoft’s latest generation consoles. The company announced a net revenue of $1.4 billion for its third quarter that ended Dec. 31. The company is also the biggest sports games publisher in the world, with regularly released games in major sports such as soccer, football, basketball, mixed martial arts and golf.

Other publishers that regularly produce sports games are Konami Corp. and Take-Two Interactive Software Inc.

“It’s so unfair that girls can’t see their role models in a video game.”

– Verónica Boquete, Spanish Women’s National Team

Current examples of games that feature female athletes from EA’s sports brand are the “EA Sports UFC” for mixed martial arts, its golf simulation series (formerly headlined by Tiger Woods and set to have Rory McIlroy taking over in the newest iteration) and the last four entries of its “NHL” ice-hockey franchise. Take-Two’s “WWE 2K15” game also features female wrestlers.

Moving toward equality education

(Verónica Boquete/Courtesy)

Verónica Boquete, captain of the Spanish Women’s National Team, plays for German club FCC Frankfurt in the Women’s Bundesliga. The 27-year-old attacking midfielder has also played for clubs in Spain, the U.S., Russia and Sweden and was the first Spanish player to be nominated for the women’s Golden Ball. She has 24 goals in 34 appearances for the national team.

While playing for Tyresö FF in Sweden in 2013, Boquete came across a Change.org petition by  13-year-old soccer player Rebekah Araujo from Highland, Maryland. It appealed to Electronic Arts to include female players in its “FIFA” franchise. Boquete wrote in an interview through email that she was inspired by Araujo’s petition letter and decided to write her own. While Araujo’s was written in English, Boquete’s appeared in Spanish.

Boquete doesn’t play or like video games, but she believes that they are a great way to teach valor and “make boys, girls, and parents understand that women can also play soccer.”

(Verónica Boquete/Courtesy)

La Voz de Galicia reported that the initial response was 20,000 signatures within the first day. Signees included Spanish national team captain Iker Casillas and Barcelona midfielder Andres Iniesta.

Boquete wrote that the response she received was that it was a great idea. People thought that “it’s so unfair that girls can’t see their role models in a video game.” They also believed that it will help in moving toward “equality education.”

Boquete’s and Ajauro’s petitions remain some 2,500 signatures short of the goal of 50,000 at the time of this writing. While Boquete was disappointed that the world couldn’t come together to make this big change, she was happy the story gained media attention. EA was informed and the petition showed that a lot of people were interested in having women in “FIFA.” She said she remains optimistic that it will happen soon.

The latest statement from “FIFA” came on Sept. 11, 2014 when lead producer Sebastian Enrique responded for Play Magazine. “People ask us for a lot of things every year, including female teams and even including ‘FIFA Street’ within the ‘FIFA’ game as a five-a-side mode,” Enrique said. “And that’s good – I want people to tell us what they want in the game.

(Verónica Boquete/Courtesy)

“It’s always a matter of balancing what we want to build with what we can build… We always need to make sure that what we can build and what we include ends up being the right package and so far women’s football hasn’t made the cut.”

EA could not be reached for comment about the World Cup game for this year.  Neither could Konami or Take-Two.

A surreal feeling

(Lexi Peters/Courtesy)

Alexis Peters remembers the night her father Tim was driving her home a hockey tournament when she was 14. She started to think about why girls weren’t in EA’s licensed “NHL” video game and asked her dad about it. He told her he didn’t know and that she should write a letter about it. Peters laughed off this response.

Peters, now 18 and living in Buffalo, New York, has been playing hockey since 5th grade and travel soccer since 4th.  She plays video games every now and then. She wrote in an email that she is a “die hard hockey fan.”

She was taught to fight for what she believes in by her grandfather Martin Peters, who passed away a few months ago. He taught her to never give up and supported her brave decisions like the the one she did next.

As soon as Lexi got home she found herself writing the letter her dad suggested. She wrote about the growing popularity of girl’s hockey and how playing as a female character should be in the “NHL” game. Her father helped her a little with the letter and they sent it to various people in EA Sports’ management.

(Lexi Peter/Courtesy)

The first letter that Peters got back was an apologetic no and she forgot about the issue – for awhile. One or two months later though, she was checking her email before bed when she saw one from EA Sports. The email told her that they had reviewed her letter and brought it up in a meeting. EA agreed that female characters should be included in the game.

Additionally, they wanted to use her face as the default female character.

So Peter’s became the first female player in EA’s “NHL 12” game. She had to send photos of different angles of her face to EA Sports and she thought that the developers did a good job making the character look like her. The company sent her a dozen copies of the game as well. She described seeing herself in a video game as a “surreal feeling.”

In the next year’s version of the game, EA included two female professional players into the game: Canadian Hayley Wickenheiser and American Angela Ruggiero.

“I feel like it was a great honor.” Wickenheiser, a five-time Olympic medalist, said in an interview. “It’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever had happen to me in my career for sure and it kind of says that women’s hockey has been put on the map in a way be being involved in the game.”

Female characters have appeared in the “NHL” franchise since.

(Hayley Wickenheiser/Courtesy)

In the two months after “NHL 12” was released Peters was in the media spotlight, doing around two or three emails a day. She made it into Hockey News’ 2011 list of 100 people of power and influence at No. 100. She also featured in the 2014 and 2015 Gamer’s Edition of the Guinness Book of World Records.

One of her favorite memories though was at another hockey tournament when a group of girls were looking at her and laughing. She couldn’t figure out why they focused on her until one girl finally came up and asked if she was Lexi Peters. When she confirmed that she was the girl laughed and told her she wrote a school paper on people making an impact like Peters.

“It really hit me there. Like, wow, people really did know about this!”

– Lexi Peters

Making do with a ponytail

(Jesse Duban/Courtesy)

Jesse Duban, known in the game-streaming community as Jesse or Fangs, is a 27-year-old “FIFA” YouTube content creator. She has been streaming herself primarily playing FIFA on the video sharing website for around two-and-a-half years. She is one of the few female FIFA streamers in a profession that is largely represented by male gamers. In late February she passed half a million subscribers, a fan-base which she described as primarily gamers, internationally based and between the ages of 10 and 17.

At the early stages of growing her YouTube following and learning more about international soccer, Fangs had to deal with criticism from viewers based mainly her gender. She said that it has gotten less with her growth in the streamer community, but it’s still present

“They say tons of sexist comments about me,” Fangs said. “That happens on a day to day basis. I had to set up a moderator that blocks out all these different words so they can’t say it.

Fangs has had to make do when creating a character for herself in the game because of the lack of a female option. “I always have to make my dude have a ponytail because there’s no girl,” Fangs said.

Despite these instances of gender discrimination, Fangs believes that women’s sports games would be welcomed and enjoyed by both her viewers and her network of “FIFA” streamers.

“If you ask any guy who plays ‘FIFA’ they would think it would be cool to play with an international women’s soccer team just because it would be interesting.”

“I always have to make my dude have a ponytail because there’s no girl.”

– Jesse “Fangs” Duban

Fangs said that adding female team’s to “FIFA” would have to be as an expansion or as downloadable content, rather than as a full fledged game. “I feel like if you started out with an expansion you don’t have to do too much different in coding in your own game to change and add on a feature,” She said. “That’s an easy way to get it in your market to see how many people purchase it.”

“You no doubt would have a far easier time expanding a game like ‘Madden’ to add female football players to it rather than building your own version,” Weaver said when asked about adding women as downloadable content. “In fact, I think that’s the only way I’d think we would see it. I don’t think that you would see a studio that would start from scratch to make a female sports game. I think you’re only going to see incremental steps of this that come from the other established franchise.”

Fangs notes that she promotes a third-party company that sells the “FIFA” in-game currency at lower prices than EA does, a common practice among “FIFA” YouTubers. Both the promotion and the coin selling are counter to EA’s terms of service, and the company has taken measures to control against this, including occasionally banning the accounts of YouTubers like Fangs. More recently, EA completely overhauled its in-game market with a price-range system. The change has been met with mixed reactions in the games community. The level of advertising for coin sellers by YouTubers appears unchanged.

Just common sense

In the 2014 sales, demographics and usage data survey by the Electronic Software Association found that women represent 48 percent of the gaming population. Breaking down the demographics further, women ages 18 and above make up 36 percent of the population, significantly more than the 17 percent that boys 18 and younger account for. Much of this comes down to the advancements of gaming on platforms such as mobile and Facebook.

“As soon as more women had a device that they could game on, they

(Ron Weaver/Courtesy)

were gaming on it,” said Ron Weaver, technical production director at the Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy, part of the University of Central Florida. “It wasn’t because they were disinterested in games or that there weren’t games out there that would appeal to them.”

Though the role of mobile devices and social media has increased the number of women gamers, it’s wrong to assume that women were not interested in the more traditional console platforms. Another major factor was that the game production side has and, though female involvement is increasing, continues to be represented by a massively male majority. An obvious consequence of this is that content and appeal of games produced has tended to skew towards male interests. “Because there are too few women game developers then there will not be as many games developed well for women. That’s just common sense.” Weaver said.

[field name=”Genderingaming”]

The gender gap in video gaming has closed substanially in the last five years, from 20 percent in 2010 to just four percent in 2014. (Electronic Software Association, Nick Kariuki/Medill)

In the game development process, the first step is analyzing the market to project how much money can be made in that arena. That dictates what kind of investment in money and time, if any, needs to be made to continue with the development process. It’s at this stage where most of the thoughts about incorporating female sport falls short.

“The real problem is that most gamers don’t understand the amount of time and effort, the size of the teams that’s required to build the games that they play,” Weaver said. “They don’t tend to think of the of the 200-person teams that are out there, on two-and three-year schedules and dozens of millions of dollars that go into these kind of titles.”

Risk avoidance

Game companies are businesses and have to stay profitable to survive. So the incentive is low to break away from proven successful formulas and take the risk with innovative concepts or additions that don’t look like they are going to pay off.

The success and prominence of the sport is also a factor. Football and men’s soccer games are the biggest sellers because football and men’s soccer are so popular. While women’s sports have managed steadily growing awareness and popularity over the years, it still doesn’t come close to mainstream men’s sports.

“Of course they’re going to target the places where the most money is being made. If women’s softball was the No. 1 sport, $10 billion, I guarantee you there’d be more than one game that be aimed at, because there’s money there.” Weaver said.

“To me that’s good and bad. It’s good in the sense that I don’t think it’s some form of blanket discrimination. I don’t think that anyone innately doesn’t want to make female sports games but at the same time the bad side is that if we only only ever follow the money then certainly women’s are going to be underrepresented in sports and games because their underrepresented in sports.”

Valuing female athletes in all corporations

The attention paid to women’s sports is growing. A study conducted by KantarSport for soccer’s governing body FIFA found that the average in-home global audience of the 2011 Women’s World Cup in Germany increased 17 percent to 13.2 million compared to 2007 tournament in China.  In the U.S., an average audience of over 1.3 million tuned in for the tournament, with over 14 million watching the final, where the Americans lost in penalties to Japan.  For comparison, the average U.S. viewership for the 2014 men’s World Cup in Brazil was 4.56 million,

“I think it’s about valuing female athletes in all corporations, investing in them and televising more events, female games,” said Hayley Wickenheiser, one of the first two female professional hockey players to be represented in a video game. “More visibility will lead to more interest which leads to more fans and that’s the big thing.”

In August 2014 the role of women in the gaming industry came into focus in the “Gamergate” culture war. Prominent female figures in the industry were subjected to a barrage of misogynistic attacks and threats under the guise of protesting the state of ethics in video game journalism. In the controversy, the traditional identity of the “gamer” – young white males – has come under challenge from the growing role of alternative voices, including women, which are becoming  increasingly decisive in the industry.

For now, Weaver said that the greatest difficulty facing the launch of women’s sports and female athletes in more video games is the fact that it remains difficult to justify the financial returns it will bring after analyzing the market. Though attempts have been made to include women in sports games, they are few and generally counterintuitive to the industry’s current conventions for game development . With the continued growing prominence of both women’s sports, women in the gaming industry and female gamers, hopefully this will result in games becoming a more justifiable investment.

“It’s certainly the case that games created just for women, played by women have been massively on the rise, and we’ve seen the percentages even out as far as people who play games and what people consider to be gamers,” Weaver said. “There’s the next step where that won’t be just a male-dominated term. That wall is still crumbling and I think that as those walls crumble we’ll start to see more that sports can represent women better in games and will do more of it.”

Photo at top: Verónica Boquete plays for the Spanish National team, as well as German club FFC Frankfurt. Boquete has petitioned Electronic Arts for the inclusion of women players in their successful FIFA World Cup video games.