Even though Brazil is everywhere right now, with promotions running in every conceivable ad space to remind us that the FIFA World Cup is both imminent and important, here in Vienna it really is a long way to Rio. While the Coke ads show emotion, partying, and every now and again some football, the reality of a World Cup is actually quite different in a country that has not qualified for the tournament. What happens is you get all of this buildup, and then…. some football, and more promotions telling us how we are supposed to be feeling. Here in Vienna, there is genuinely a lot of interest in the World Cup, hence all the promotions and new TV’s in bars, and why we will find it difficult to find a bar stool on many match days, but the truth is that not many actually care about what happens at the World Cup. Austria is not in the competition, and Ireland isn’t either. I am very interested in the World Cup, yet I do not really care who wins, it is just for entertainment. You know, like a US election. Now, this is not another rant complaining about Vienna, for in this case, it is not her fault. It is because there is a disjoint between how we are sold the buildup (based on emotion), and what actually occurs (drinking and watching ads on TV). All the promotions are by multinational corporations who do one ad for the whole world, and don’t care who they hurt. Their biggest markets (US, Japan, UK, Germany, France, Australia etc.) have all qualified for the World Cup, so everyone else can just shut up and buy a Big Mac as if they too were at the same party as the big boys. So, the question arises: is it possible to get an actual World Cup experience here in Vienna, just like in the Coke ads, with people feeling things and everything? Continue reading
Last week a media frenzy erupted in both England and Germany as former-German international football player Thomas Hitzlsperger revealed in an interview in Bild magazine that he is gay. If you haven’t heard of it, it probably means you are not a member of either of the dichotomous interest groups of football fans or the gay community. To anyone outside these two groups it is quite possible that the significance or relevance of the incident is confusing or nonexistent, yet to sports fans and the gay community it is quite a big deal indeed. Hitzlsperger wasn’t the best or most famous player in the world, but he was a fan-favourite because every ten games or so he would fire an absolute cannon of a shot from outside the penalty area with his left foot, earning him the nickname ‘Der Hammer’. His was a name you would only hear every few years, never making headlines or securing lucrative promotional deals. Even so, he played at the highest level in Germany and England for over a decade, and played for his country at the World Cup and European Championships (admittedly at a time when there was a dearth of talent in the German National Team). There are hundreds of Thomas Hitzlspergers littered throughout the big football leagues of Europe, yet still, on January 8th 2014 he became the most high-profile footballer in history to come out publicly as a homosexual. He had retired from the game four months previously. To this date, no active professional footballer in a major European league has ever come out publically, yet the concensus in both England and Germany is that Hitzlspergers’ announcement would be a step towards this. The media frenzy surrounding The Bi-Curious* Case of Thomas Hitzlsperger is not about the former footballer himself, but about which current, active footballer that he inspires.
I would imagine that many people reading this by now are wondering what the big deal is, why don’t players just come out? There are 25,000 professional football players in major European leagues, they are all men, and while estimates of the percentage of gay men in the average population vary between 1% and 10% this still leaves a lot of professional footballers firmly in the closet. Add this to all the retired players in the history of the sport and the number is quite substantial. The potential selection bias must be dealt with: the stereotype that gay men don’t play sports, nor aspire to become professional athletes. This argument is simply ridiculous, and is conducive to an argument stating that homosexuality is unnatural. Elite athleticism is an admired and lucrative profession. It requires dedication, sacrifice and torturous hours of training, with potential rewards of universal adoration and millions of dollars/euros/pounds. It is no different than acting, singing, writing or any other highly public professions at which openly gay men and women have excelled in at the highest level possible. If there is a lack of openly gay men playing professional football in Europe, which is the most popular and financially rewarding sport in the world, this must therefore be an issue within football itself, and by abstraction within sport itself. The issue is that there are many gay footballers, and sportsmen and sportswomen, but they are afraid to come out in that environment.
The most obvious reason for this is that professional footballers at the elite level have to perform on a weekly basis in front of several thousand hostile fans. Players get the most awful abuse thrown at them by opposition fans. David Beckham had to endure half a decade of songs being sung about his whore of a wife (their words) from the terraces. Recently Jack Wilshere (one of Englands prominent young players) was cautioned by the football authorities for lashing back at sections of the crowd who were insulting his newborn child. Black players are routinely abused in stadia, particularly in Italy And Russia, with sections of the crowd throwing bananas at players and chanting like monkeys. Mario Balotelli is an Italian of Ghanian decent and one of the Italian national teams brightest stars, yet had to leave Italy to play elsewhere so he could develop properly away from this caustic environment. Anyone who is in anyway ‘different’ or in the public eye is mercilessly attacked, mostly in the hope that the abuse will affect the players’ mentality, that he will lose focus and therefore become less of a threat for the team supported by the chanting fans. Often it is a compliment to the abused player that he is getting attacked since it implies that the opposition fans regard him as dangerous to their team, yet still it requires a particular mental strength to dust off highly personal insults and focus on the task at hand. The difference with homosexuality is that the player has a (not necessarily easy) choice to hide the fact that he is gay. A reasonable, objective argument for why gay players don’t come out is that they simply don’t want the added pressure of dealing with crowd abuse and prefer to focus on the game. This is a highly naive argument however, as it assumes that any crowd (let alone a crowd of partisan, drunken, working class football fans) is composed of reasonable individuals. Homophobia is undoubtedly highly embedded within the sporting culture, and the first active players to come out publically will feel this wrath. Attitudes will change over time, but the first openly gay players will be mocked and singled out for abuse by sections of the crowd wherever they go.
Why is all this important, though? Most people reading this will not have met any gay men with any interest in football whatsoever, so it seems like a very niche issue. Robbie Rogers, a young American player who retired, came out, and subsequently came back from retirement in a lower level (non elite, the American league), was asked about Hitzlsperger immediately after the German player came out. While growing up, Rogers had highly admired Hitzlspergers style of play, and said that if he had known that the player was gay it would have made a big difference to him. He would not have felt so isolated in such a homophobic environment as his choice of profession, it would have instilled him with confidence and belief that a gay footballer could succeed at the highest level. Football was Rogers’ way of fitting in with his peers, a way he could forget the shame, doubt and fear that came with knowing deep inside that he was different. I can only assume that there are countless other gay kids out there who love only to play sports, yet feel that their sexuality will ultimately come into play at some point and ruin their career.
At a basic level, it is about role models, someone similar to you who you can relate to and possibly aim to emulate. Lionel Messi, who only yesterday ceased being the Worlds’ Greatest Player Ever, has inspired a generation of tiny skinny kids in the playground that they too could compete with the bigger kids in the yard. Cristiano Ronaldo, who replaced Messi yesterday by winning the Ballon d’Or, has hopefully convinced the kids in Madeira that there actually is a way off that godforsaken island, and that there is an alternative to serving drunk British tourists more alcohol day in, day out, for the rest of their lives. The first openly gay elite footballer is coming out soon, and while it will be a cross for that man to bear, his sacrifice will have an enormous effect on subsequent generations of players who know that they can achieve their potential, regardless of their personal lives.
*I am letting myself away with this awful joke simply because he only discovered he was gay very recently.
I have gotten into the habit of writing my blog entries on Thursday evenings. Generally if I haven’t posted by Friday morning, there won’t be an entry that week because I am away or busy or just couldn’t think of anything to write about. This week however I felt compelled to break this rule, as the reason I didn’t post anything yesterday is also the topic of this weeks entry. I meant to write it yesterday, but something distracted me for so long that by the time it was over it was past midnight and I would have been up until 3am on a schoolnight doing spelling corrections just for my own personal deadline. And to paraphrase Sweet Brown, no one has any time for that.
The reason I was so distracted until so late was because yesterday, Thursday January 31 at 11PM GMT, was the deadline for completing player transfers in the winter transfer window of European football. (I realise with that sentence that I am losing a lot of people right now who have no interest in sports, but if you people stick around there will be some stuff here for you too). In European football leagues, there are two main transfer windows. The summer window lasts for three months, from the beginning of June until the end of August. Outside of these times it is not possible to sign a player from a European league, unless it is in the winter window, which just lasts for the month of January. The main European Leagues run from August until May, which clearly means that the winter window occurs right in the middle of the playing season. Therefore it is the only opportunity for a struggling team to turn its fortunes around by reinforcing its squad and spending heavily on new players in January.
An entire month seems like plenty of time to achieve whatever transfer goals a team may have, however in practice it does not work like this. Agents, negotiations and even actions by the players themselves mean that in every winter window, most of the business gets done on transfer deadline day. Transfer Deadline Day™ is thus overhyped beyond belief by newspapers, rolling news TV channels and online media. For the entire month of January, sports journalists constantly hint at what might happen before the window closes, and in the past week, all have closed in on speculating what might happen before Thursday at 11pm. As usual, Sky Sports News in the UK devoted an entire day of programming, complete with a doomsday clock counting down the hours and minutes until the window closed. So Transfer Deadline Day™ is obviously a big deal for sports journalism if it gets this amount of coverage. They would not cover it like this if they didn’t think people would be paying attention. Those few who have no interest in sports and yet are still here may now be asking: “why is this deadline day so important to demand all this attention?”. And it is a valid question.
The easiest way to understand fans of a particular sports team is to think about it as a kind of fanatical brand loyalty (indeed, fans are fanatics). Football like all professional sports is an industry, and Manchester United is a brand, no different from McDonalds or Coca Cola. We all know people who prefer Pepsi to Coca Cola or Burger King to McDonalds, and these people may argue incessantly about why their preference is correct. The difference between this brand loyalty and that of football fans is that a Pepsi guy will not obsessively track Coca Cola sales statistics on a weekly basis in order to see how Pepsi are doing in comparison. As I said, this is the easiest way to understand football fans, however like all marketing theory it is highly simplistic.
A much more potent analogy would be to think about the difference between shareholders of a company, and its stakeholders. Everyone reading may know that shareholders are basically those who have a financial interest in the performance and existence of a business enterprise. On the other hand, stakeholders are a much more vague group of people. A stakeholder is anyone who is affected by the existence of a business enterprise. For most large businesses, this usually is narrowed down to the inhabitants and environment of the areas where the business operates. A few years ago during the BP Oil Spill, BP suddenly found that they had a lot more stakeholders to account for than they ever wanted, and those stakeholders will be part of BP for a long time to come. BP is an exception however, as most businesses do not really have to think about their stakeholders too much on a regular basis.
When you enter the business of professional sports though, the stakeholder issue suddenly becomes very important. Obviously the fans of a team are its primary stakeholders. Fans of Liverpool or Barcelona get little financial gain from their team doing well. The benefit of Liverpool winning for most fans is purely emotional. It is surprising and nonsensical for non-sports fans to hear, but it can also be the difference between being in a good mood for a week or a bad mood. These stakeholders also do not suffer in silence. Message boards, blogs, podcasts and obviously Twitter are media platforms which bring all these stakeholders together to inspire debate and often forge consensus about what is happening with their team. These fans also search regularly for news articles written online about the fate of their team.
Online journalism is still in its infancy hoever, and it is often very difficult to see the difference between a professional and some guy just out to generate user hits and therefore online ad revenue. The big English teams have millions of fans all over the world, and therefore transfer news for these clubs, no matter how vague, will get an extortionate amount of hits. If it is reported by a legitimate-sounding news source that a big-name player is coming to your club, you will read it, share it, and promote it on Twitter. Twitter however is a tool that highlights information that is popular rather than important or true, and therefore football transfer news is a perfect candidate for assimilation along with celebrity deaths and declarations of love for Justin Bieber. Twitter is noise, with a small amount of relevant information packed away somewhere, and no one knows where. During Transfer Deadline Day™, this noise is built up to a roar, with rumours abound, sources being shared, and big names being dropped in relation to the most marketable international football teams. So football fans stay on Twitter, dreaming and hoping, while also simultaneously tuning in to Sky Sports News Deadline Day Coverage in the vain hope of something actually happening in the real world.
I support Arsenal, which is one of these big clubs that internet entrepreneurs exploit in order to gain web traffic. Yesterday, the louder voices of the Twitter Noise were shouting that Arsenal were going to sign David Villa, one of the best strikers of the past decade, and also Stefan Jovetic, a young Montenegrin who is one of the rising stars of the European scene. In the end what kept me hooked and prevented me from writing last night were not the rumours online about these dream signings, but a persistent, growing voice within the Twitter Noise about a young Spanish defender who was apparently talking to Arsenal about a move. At 11pm last night, Ignacio “Nacho” Monreal signed for Arsenal, from Malaga, a man who I had never heard of until 8 hours previously. Yet just the thought of one of these incessant rumours coming true was enough to have me monitoring Twitter feeds and Sky Sports News until the window of the Winter Transfer Market slammed firmly shut. And it gave me a surprising amount of joy, as all last-minute signings do, no matter the quality of this player that still I know nothing about. Drama and tension exist in environments that are limited, not infinite. Excitement comes from those things that may not have happened, but did so just in time. This is the essence of what it is to be a stakeholder in a football team. We know it will all happen again in a few months with the summer transfer window, but in sports you constantly have to live in the present, as this is what the media is currently screaming in your face and is therefore the most important thing in the world. For now.
Maybe it had something to do with the proliferation of Lana Del Rey ads hawking cheap Scandinavian casualwear around every U-Bahn station, but all last week I had Video Games on my mind. At the end of September EA Sports released the newest version of their football simulation franchise, FIFA 13. Since the moment of its release, there had been a certain degree of inevitability as to when I would buy it. I generally stay away from buying video games, as they have a tendency to suck me in and take over my life, but I have bought the past two iterations, FIFA 11 and FIFA 12 so it is fair to say I am hooked into EA’s franchise cycle. After arguing with myself for a week about the decision to buy, and checking around various places in town to purchase it (seriously, if you buy games in this town, shop around: prices vary by as much as €20), I finally got around to it last Friday. I’m always annoyed with myself once I hand over the money to pay for the new FIFA, after all, what’s new? Surely a football game is a football game, and technology can’t have progressed so far in just a year to create a completely new gaming experience. Yet I hand over the money anyway, yearly, just like millions of others all over the world. Games in the FIFA franchise regularly outgross the biggest summer Hollywood blockbusters, even the good ones. EA Sports must be doing something right.
FIFA’s 11, 12 and 13 are very similar gaming experiences. They allow the user to take on the guise of a real football team, with the actual real-life players, each with their own unique attributes and appearance. The real-life aspect of FIFA is most important, as it’s the main reason it has eventually run out the winner in a battle between it and rivalling football video games franchises. The EA FIFA franchise owns the rights to everything: every team, every player, every league, every stadium that matters, FIFA owns the exclusive right to it. This leaves the other competing franchises looking cheap and lacking realism, as they often have to resort to giving real-life teams different names with different players. Realism is what FIFA aims at, to make it seem as if the game you are playing could be a real football game broadcast on television, complete with crowd reactions, instant replays and intelligent TV commentary describing the action. This is consistent with all of the FIFA titles, on an annual basis; they strive to make the game as close as possible to a real life broadcast. So every year the graphics are enhanced, the players play and react more realistically, and the commentators learn a few more clichés. Every four or five years there is a major change in gameplay, but apart from this the titles are almost interchangeable.
There are different game modes of course; many choose to play against the computer, while most that have an internet connection play online against similarly ranked opponents from all over the world. I only play online, against strangers and also against friends who have the game (as well as the same games console). I have been buying football games for nearly twenty years, but only since online play came into my life have I bought one every single year. Online play implies a network, and a network always entails network effects.
A network effect occurs when the enjoyment you receive from a product does not depend solely on how you use this product yourself, but depends on how this product is used by the network as a whole. To understand network effects, you only have to think of how you joined Facebook for the first time: was it because you wanted to, or was it because all your friends were there, and the email notifications of tags and invites kept piling up, forcing you to accept this new social behemoth? Facebook itself doesn’t do much: your network does. Network effects are also the main reason we all have mobile phones, as everyone we know has one and now being reachable while on-the-move is a necessity. Network effects are also the reason why everyone reading this can understand me, despite the fact that a large percentage of you don’t have English as a native language. English isn’t the best language out there, it just has the largest and most influential network, always provoking and bullying non-members of this network into joining it.
The FIFA network effects are quite subtle. Depending on when you buy the new game, you have up to a year to enjoy the most up-to-date football video gaming experience on the market. You can meet online and play against (literally) millions of others, mastering the game in the process. Then the next FIFA appears, with incrementally advanced gameplay and a few more peripheral game modes. However, the main thing about FIFA as mentioned previously, was always the realism. You start to look at your old FIFA game, and compare it to a broadcast experience. In the space of just one year, teams at the top level of European football change dramatically in terms of personnel, and suddenly you start to see your game as being out-of-date. Players have moved from team to team, new younger players have emerged; new teams are in the big leagues. This is just an aesthetic aspect however; the gameplay should be the same, despite the discrepancies between the team you play as and that time in real life.
This is true, the gameplay is exactly the same. The thing that has changed is the ease of finding an opponent in the online mode. Whereas in the previous year, a match would be made within seconds, suddenly it becomes more difficult to find a player of a similar level to you. The matching process could take a minute, and you often will end up completely mismatched against someone vastly out of your league. This problem only increases with time. A lonely, sparse network is not a network at all, it is just a sad PlayStation user firing a shot in the dark, hoping someone sees it and joins in. The rest of the network has gradually moved on to the new FIFA, more realistic than ever, with enhanced gameplay and up-to-date squads. The decision therefore presents itself: stop playing, or buy the new one.
You still want to use this heroin, but suddenly it isn’t as good as it used to be. It was more fun with your (often anonymous) friends. In actual real life, you hear them talking about how good the new heroin is, and start to resent your old, mouldy, caking heroin. So the choice comes down to quitting heroin (which by now you are suffering from several withdrawal symptoms from) or purchasing the new heroin for another fix. After a few iterations, you will realise that this happens yearly, once the new version is released. Therefore in order to get the most possible enjoyment from any FIFA game, you need to buy it as close to its release date as possible. I only buy one video game a year, so I don’t resent EA Sports too much for what I truly appreciate, from a marketing perspective, as one of the world’s greatest product cycles.
Retrospective edit, 07/02/2015
I ended up keeping FIFA 13 for two years, as I only buy one game a year, and the year of FIFA 14 also released GTAV, so there was no question which one would win there. I often went back to FIFA 13, and was always shocked at how persistently the network deteriorated. Finding an opponent was extremely difficult, and the in-game economy of FIFA Ultimate Team had suffered from ridiculous inflation. I bought FIFA 15, and saw no real improvement in gameplay, merely in the network.