Soccer: From FIFA to fandom

By Columbus Alive
From the October 4, 2012 edition

Turns out “It’s in the game” gets people into the game.

A recent ESPN.com article called “How video game is changing face of soccer” credited EA Sports’ series of “FIFA” video games for converting soccer neophytes into full-blown fanatics, particularly among males aged 18-24. The story spotlights Alabama college students who discovered “the beautiful game” through the video game; they ended up feverishly following English Premier League club Chelsea or matching their camo pants with an A.C. Milan jersey.

That phenomenon extends to Ohio, where the Crew is seeing an influx of supporters whose passion for soccer was fueled by the “FIFA” video games. When Columbus faces Sporting KC in a crucial home game Sunday, the crowd will be dotted with “FIFA” converts.

Brian Harris is one of them. A 25-year-old senior at Cincinnati Christian University, Harris never paid attention to the Crew growing up in Groveport. He remembers feeling perplexed when, during a study abroad trip, students in Ireland raved about top European soccer teams.

“I didn’t really have any interest at all,” Harris said.

When people in his dorm started playing “FIFA,” it caught on as a daily bonding ritual. Harris began to grasp the rules, including head-scratchers like offside. He checked out a few English Premier League matches on TV and got hooked. Soon, his Irish buddies recommended he investigate Major League Soccer so he could get the game day experience in person.

“MLS season started up and I said, ‘Well, why don’t I watch a few games and see if I like it?’” Harris said.

He traveled to Columbus for the Crew’s home opener against Montreal and has returned five or six times since. He expects to be a regular at Crew Stadium once he’s back in Columbus full-time.

“FIFA”’s influence extends to high schoolers too. Just ask Ben Clark, a 16-year-old junior at Upper Arlington.

Clark was oblivious to soccer when he started playing “FIFA” at his brother’s house two years ago. He quickly latched on to English Premier League club Arsenal and began following the team in real life and playing pickup games with his friends. Clark now attends several Crew games a year and watches the rest on TV.

“(‘FIFA’) kind of sparked my interest to go to Crew games and see how fun it is,” Clark said.