The upcoming American release of long-running soccer videogame FIFA 16 will feature a World Cup winner on its cover as well as some dude named Lionel Messi. EA Sports announced on Monday that US Women’s National Team forward Alex Morgan would become the first woman to appear on the cover of the venerable soccer franchise. Christine Sinclair and Steph Catley will achieve the same feat on the Canadian and Australian covers, respectively. Human snooze button and male footballer Jordan Henderson will appear alongside Messi on the English cover even though his nation’s women finished third at the World Cup, a feat Henderson is unlikely to ever equal.
— EA SPORTS FIFA (@EASPORTSFIFA) July 20, 2015
The inclusion of women on FIFA covers represents more than a superficial change in how the game is marketed. Before this summer’s Women’s World Cup, EA Sports announced that twelve Women’s National Teams would be included in the games latest iteration. This is hardly the holy grail of representation—FIFA 16 will include a small fraction of the world’s professional female soccer players—but it is progress for soccer’s dominant videogame franchise, a franchise that has heretofore been unisex. “We needed to have tools and technology in place that could differentiate between men and women,” FIFA series head David Rutter told The Verge earlier this summer. Now EA appears to have those tools, which is great, and hopefully they will be used more in the future. That said, the long wait for this technology to materialize does little to suggest that the inclusion of women in FIFA has always been an institutional priority. Here’s hoping it is now.
As the glow from this summer’s Women’s World Cup final—the most-watched soccer match in American history—fades, the question of how to extend that momentum looms large. The state of women’s soccer as a professional endeavor in America (and to different degrees elsewhere) is sufficiently precarious that converting a fraction of the World Cup’s audience into supporters of the domestic game would make a very serious difference. (Male leagues also stand to benefit from knock-on effects, though in many cases are less dependent on them.) This is why the US Women’s National Team’s extended victory lap—a celebration in Los Angeles, New York City’s first ticker tape parade for female athletes in sixty years, showing up at the ESPYs and Nickelodeon Teen Choice Sports Awards—matters. The gains of the past month need to be consolidated. One can hope that seeing Alex Morgan, who plays for the Portland Thorns FC of the National Women’s Soccer League, on the cover of FIFA 16 this September will serve as a reminder that women’s soccer exists outside of the World Cup and Olympics.
This is but one of the reasons that representation matters. Beyond economic concerns, representation also serves to define that which is possible. For years, the covers and features of soccer titles, with the notable exception of Mia Hamm Soccer 64, have defined the sport as being fundamentally male. The cover models have varied slightly in stature and musculature, but that’s about it. Men could look at these covers and optimistically see their future selves—women, not so much. Our cultural idea of who can be a soccer player should be more expansive than just the Messis, Ronaldos, and Ronaldinhos of this world; it should also include the likes of Célia Šaši?, Carli Lloyd, and Louisa Nécib. The cover of FIFA 16 is an overdue step in that direction.
That is not to say that the more inclusive covers and features for FIFA 16 are perfect. The exclusion of national teams from Africa and Latin America is troubling, to say the least. (Who wouldn’t want to play as Cameroon’s Gaëlle Enganamouit?) Moreover, whereas male athletes are allowed to represent themselves above all else, FIFA‘s covers are asking a select few women to represent all of women’s soccer. This is not a problem unique to the videogames: female soccer players generally have fewer opportunities to cash in on their position yet are asked to do more with their images to serve the collective good. It would be nice to live in a world where female athletes didn’t have to carry such large symbolic burdens, but at least videogames are now starting to offer opportunities to monetize their rare and undervalued skills. EA’s description of FIFA 16’s gameplay also does little to suggest that there is more to women’s soccer than the World Cup. Whereas a plethora of men’s leagues will feature in the game, women’s teams will only be able to meet up in international competitions. Seeing as domestic leagues would very much like to convert World Cup audiences into regular followers and have limited coverage on television, their inclusion in FIFA could make a real difference. Hopefully that will one day come to pass.
But make no mistake; the inclusion of Alex Morgan, Christine Sinclair, and Steph Catley on FIFA 16’s covers is progress. The ability to play as a select few female soccer stars is also progress. The infrastructure to keep women’s soccer growing between major international tournaments remains a work in progress, and Monday’s news is nothing if not progress.