Jan Tian is very blunt about his skills as a soccer player.
Growing up in China, he had a passion for the sport but often found himself a step behind. What he lacked in pace, he made up for with his ability to mentally process the game, taking a big-picture view of everything that was happening on the pitch.
“I’m not a super good player, so I had to use my brain because I don’t run as fast as other people, I’m not highly skillful,” Tian said. “The only way I could compensate was to figure out what to do and what not to do.”
That skill helped him create what would go on to be the biggest sports video game franchise in the world.
Back in 1993 while working for Electronic Arts, Tian was the lead programmer for FIFA International Soccer, the company’s first soccer video game. Through multiple iterations, the game evolved into EA FIFA, the best-selling sports video game franchise of all time.
Tian was in charge of designing the game’s artificial intelligence, which controls where the players should be on the field at any given time.
With its pixellated graphics and plodding gameplay, FIFA International Soccer was a far cry from the slick production of the modern EA FIFA franchise.
Current EA FIFA executive producer Aaron McHardy says he hasn’t played the old school versions of the game in a while, but the DNA of today’s franchise can be seen in those early games that Tian worked on.
‘If you talk about just what happens on the pitch, I think we’ve had a philosophy of trying to make the game as free-feeling as possible and as responsive as possible, where it always feels like you, the player, is in control,” he said.
“We sort of had this philosophy where we want to make the game kind of a carte blanche for you to tell your own story of what happens in the 90 minutes that you’re playing, and give you the tools to be able to recreate football as you see fit.”
“We wanted to create a game that allowed you to do all those things and I think we’ve been building on that and going deeper and deeper with our gameplay technology over the years to try and achieve that and still add more and more depth and subtleties of the game.”
Vancouver was the unlikely birthplace for the FIFA franchise as Canada is one of the few countries where soccer is not the most popular spectator sport.
An early prototype was developed by two designers in England — the birthplace of soccer — but EA executives decided to give the project to the more experienced team in Vancouver.
Today, flags and soccer jerseys from around the world hang from the ceiling of the section of EA’s 400,000-square-foot Burnaby campus that houses the FIFA team, a reminder of the video game’s global impact.
According to EA’s most recent quarterly results, more than 45 million unique players engaged in FIFA 19 and FIFA 18 on console and PC during the last fiscal year.
McHardy says around seven billion matches were played on FIFA 18, and 17 billion goals were scored.
FIFA 19 sold more copies than any other console game in Europe last year.
While there is plenty of interest in the game in Canada, McHardy says he really feels the game’s impact when he is overseas.
McHardy notes that the game is so popular among pro footballers that it has had an influence on the sport itself. EA FIFA 12 introduced Skill Games, mini-games that allowed gamers to test shooting and passing abilities.
“We then saw players in the real world playing our skill games and coming up with their own, and putting videos on the internet of them playing their version of a skill game or a recreation of one of our skill games,” he said. “We made them and now we’ve inspired them to play with them in the real world.”
The EA FIFA franchise may also have turned some gamers in the U.S. into soccer fans. According to a 2012 poll conducted by ESPN, 34 per cent of respondents who played FIFA went on to become a fan of the sport after playing the video game.
No detail too small
With that much attention comes scrutiny and a seemingly insatiable appetite for new features.
The game has evolved from an arcade-style game into a fully immersive experience available on multiple platforms. In addition to traditional gameplay, there’s a career mode that lets gamers manage all aspects of their favourite club, and a story mode, which spins a detailed narrative about fictional players and their rise to fame. Other features include FIFA Ultimate Team and the Global Series, a massive online tournament that features competitors from more than 60 countries.
Like Tian, McHardy knows how to think the game. The Vancouver native was a promising soccer player with his sights set on playing professionally in Europe before an injury cut his career short.
He got hired at EA and worked his way up through the ranks until he became the game’s executive producer.
McHardy says EA’s obsession with adding new features is matched by its obsession with detail. Their desire to recreate every detail of the game has kept pace with years of technological advances that have allowed for huge leaps in graphics and AI.
Countless hours of work can go into something as seemingly straightforward as how a soccer ball bounces.
In early versions of the game, the ball was little more than a blurry black-and-white dot. Designers now consider dozens of factors when animating how a ball moves on the soccer pitch.
“We have to have the intelligence to pick the right animation for the right circumstance every single time,” McHardy said.
“The level of detail we go to to get the physics correct on the ball, so that when it interacts with the player — whether it be his foot or his head, or whatever part of the body he’s using — it behaves correctly and behaves believably; that alone is years’ worth of work that has gone into trying to make that accurate for the game.”
While producers obsess over the smallest minutiae to make the game as realistic as possible, they also can’t make the game too authentic. EA FIFA matches have a default length of 10 minutes and often feature more drama and goal-scoring than real-life matches that span 90 minutes.
In addition to providing updates throughout the year, the team at FIFA also has to ensure that each new edition of the game is bigger and better.
McHardy knows it can be a delicate balance. Each new release needs to have enough new features to keep customers wanting to buy the latest edition. Too much change, however, could turn fans off.
McHardy says staff constantly comb through message boards and social media for feedback on how the game can be improved.
They sometimes hear from soccer players themselves.
One infamous example involved veteran Arsenal goalkeeper Petr Cech, who wears a padded helmet during matches after suffering a serious head injury in 2006.
In a scene in FIFA 18’s career mode, Cech sits in an office with his agent wearing a suit, collared shirt, and his trademark padded helmet.
A screen grab of the glitch went viral and Cech shared the image on Twitter.
“It’s wrong guys,” he wrote. “I’d wear a tie.”
The EA team quickly fixed the glitch. An updated patch showed Cech without the headgear and wearing a red tie, a nod to the veteran goalkeeper’s Twitter joke.
Sometimes players don’t have such a good sense of humour when it comes to how they’re portrayed in the game.
EA has an army of scouts who rate thousands of real-life players on attributes such as pace, shooting, dribbling and defence.
Some players complain that the game doesn’t accurately reflect their skills.
McHardy says they occasionally hear complaints from players, but “more times than not players will come and say, ‘Hey, I think you got me a little faster than I really am.’ So we get it both ways.”
Who is Janco Tiano?
Tian said early on in the game’s development it was clear it had the ability to inspire passion in hardcore soccer fans and casual fans alike.
An early prototype looked something like the old-school video game Pong with nothing more than lines representing players and a white dot for a ball.
When colleagues played the game for the first time, they went wild.
“We go so into it that people were standing on a table cheering,” Tian recalls.
A senior executive saw staff react to the game and, thinking he had a winner on his hands, moved up the timeline for the release of the game, saying it had to be ready by October 1993 for a Christmas release.
It was a stressful time for Tian but he did have a bit of fun. The first edition of EA International Soccer didn’t have the rights to use names of real soccer players or teams so they had to create fictional ones, including a young Brazilian striker named Janco Tiano, who was named after Tian.
Over the weekend, EA released a trailer for FIFA 20, which is set to be released in September. The trailer introduces FIFA Volta, a new mode of gameplay that claims to take the sport “back to the streets with the authentic culture, creativity and style of the small-sided game.”
The company also announced new changes to gameplay, including enhanced AI and ball physics.
Ahead of any release, McHardy has to choose his words carefully during interviews. He knows that anything he says will be analyzed by the game’s rabid fan base, the same way producers of a popular TV show like Game of Thrones might have their interviews dissected by fans in search of spoilers.
“We don’t want to overpromise something to our fans that we don’t know when we’re going to deliver it,” he said. “So we do have to be careful about what we talk about looking forward. But rest assured, FIFA is going to be here because we know that the world is speaking to us every single year and wanting to play the game.”