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  • Writer's pictureJoe Campos

Player Development Through Gaming

If you've got soccer-mad children, odds are they love playing FIFA. My two boys certainly do. Hands-down, its the most popular video game in our house. It's not even close. But we also have a nice yard where the boys can practice and play real soccer as opposed to the virtual game. As parents, we all know that video games can be addictive and time-sucking, and we bristle at the thought of our kids turning into trolls staring blankly at screens when they could be outside getting fresh air, exercise and real skills.

I admit to being somewhat impressed by the skills and strategies they use while playing FIFA. OK, really impressed. They are certainly developing into talented manipulators of virtual soccer players. The downside is that I am struggling to keep up with them. They are only 10 and 11 years old, and my "A" game is no longer enough. They thoroughly dominate me in FIFA.

Could all that video game time actually be helping our kids become better real soccer players. Perhaps! And if the science is correct, then the answer could be "Definitely!" Unless soccer as a sport is completely virtualized, there will never be a substitute for real world soccer training. What FIFA can do, however, is deepen our kids' connection to this global game, and that can have really interesting benefits for real world player development. I know this is true from years of watching my own kids' experience in the physical and virtual soccer world. I can attest to an increase in their passion and knowledge of the game, and I have witnessed how they actively transfer observations from the gaming world into functional training in the physical world. In other words, they try things in the backyard that they've seen in the video game.

FIFA is probably the most comprehensive and precise sports video franchise game every developed. Nearly every aspect of the game is covered in stunning detail. EA Sports puts a great deal of effort into ensuring the most faithful reproduction of players' appearances, skills, mannerisms and, perhaps most important for kids, their personal goal celebrations. EA Sports films many of the players in studio to capture their unique styles and movements. Uniforms match real life, famous stadiums are expertly replicated and game play that becomes smoother every year ensure a completely immersive experience for gamers of all ages.

The realistic gameplay keeps kids playing, but its the comprehensive and global soccer environment FIFA recreates that allow kids to play in their own context with the option to play from the perspective of a player or team in another country. Through FIFA, kids learn about about all the top leagues around the world the top national teams and, of course, the top players. FIFA intentionally presents the game comprehensively, with the international structures of soccer as the framework for the game.

But the real secret to FIFA is the unbelievable amount of control players are given over individual skills, passing, tactical formations, substitutions, set piece strategy and even team attitude and mentality. Step overs, scissors, Maradona's, roll overs, through passes, defensive channeling and slide tackling are just a few of the skills gamers have at their disposal. And while the game is in progress, a team's mentality or focus can be changed on the fly from attacking to defensive or vice versa.

Tactical systems can also be changed during a game. This is particularly helpful if, for example, you are an aspiring Carlo Ancelotti coaching Real Madrid. In his most recent book entitled Quiet Leadership, Ancelotti, a talented coach who is known for favoring 4-4-2, faced a dilemma with Cristiano Ronaldo who prefers playing on the left in a 4-3-3. His solution was to play 4-4-2 when out of possession and 4-3-3 when attacking. His team knew how to adjust their formation on the fly. Watching my kids playing FIFA, I notice they are extremely aware of the pros and cons of various systems and change them often during a game based on the score, time remaining and the qualities and attributes of the players on the field. And yes, they play Real Madrid in a 4-3-3 until they need to adjust to a more balanced or defensive system to preserve a lead!

As coaches, we've all had occasion to tell players that an important part of developing an understanding of the game is to watch top-level professional matches. Watching real soccer matches is a critical part of a complete development experience. I believe FIFA is helping players become better viewers of televised or live matches, and in turn that is making them smarter about the game. While playing FIFA, kids can delve into formations, systems of play, strategies for opposing different formations and how to defend against or neutralize top players. Lately, I've found myself sitting next to my sons at Sounders FC matches listening to them tell me about the systems of play and strategies being used on the field, and how they might do things differently if they were managers. When they bring their FIFA-playing friends to the games, I hear similarly insightful comments from them. Interestingly, they use FIFA's player rating system in their analysis. "I would not play a slow 80 rated player as an outside mid." "We need another 90+ rated striker in the 18." "I would not play Brad Evans in the back four in a 4-3-3. He needs to play midfield in a 4-4-2." Now, I know kids can have such thoughts or insights about a real match without playing FIFA, but not with the level of insightful details I've heard. I assure you, FIFA is quietly (or not so quietly, depending upon your TV's volume) teaching our kids a deeper understanding of the game.

And its not just youth soccer players who are enjoying FIFA. The pros love FIFA as well! Andrea Pirlo, the mercurial Italian midfielder who played for AC Milan, Juventus, featured in Italy's national team for many years and now plays for New York City FC, wrote in his autobiography, "After the wheel, the Playstation is the greatest invention of all time." Of course, Pirlo was playing FIFA on his Playstation. In fact, by his own estimate Pirlo thinks he's played 4 times as many video game soccer matches as real ones.

Several years ago, the New York Times reported how Red Bulls forward Conor Chin plays FIFA at least an hour a day as part of his personal training regimen. At the time, Chin thought FIFA was directly improving his on-field performance. As Chin put it: "It gets your soccer brain started that day. Each virtual player mimics the way a player moves, the way they shoot, the way they pass the ball in real life. You really get to see and experience the players’ style of play. After I face a guy on the field, you can see how very similar the movements and actions are in the video game.”

It's not clear that playing FIFA helped Chin's real world career. Shortly after giving the interview to the New York Times, he was waived by Red Bulls, signed by Real Salt Lake but released two months later and played a bit in the NASL and then in the USL. I don't know if he is even playing professionally at this point.

What Does Science Say?

Taking a deeper look at the benefits of video gaming in general, science is increasingly telling us that purposeful gaming can help develop more creative and intelligent soccer players who are also fast decision makers. It turns out that the best soccer players are ones who excel at "executive functions," specifically creativity, visual tracking, task switching, working memory, and emotional control. According to German scientist Dr. Jan Mayer, "It's a kind of mysterious quirk: elite soccer players are better at all of those things than you or I could ever dream of being."

It's all about speed of thought, spatial awareness and overall perception. What sets top soccer players apart from every other player is their ability to completely analyze a situation, solve it and execute the solution quicker that anyone can think of stopping them. At Eagleclaw Football Academy, we believe it is critical to develop spatial awareness, higher rates of scanning and overall perception. We teach this primarily through our Player IQ Development Program using a unique tool called SmartGoals. Through our Player IQ Development Program, we have seen dramatic and measurable improvements in scanning rates and decision-making, but this is real world training with technologically advanced tools. Could playing FIFA increase speed of thought and decision-making as well?

Dr. Mayer thinks so and he is serious about this stuff. So much so, that German professional club TSG 1899 Hoffenheim hired him to help develop a system to improve the speed of thought and decision making of their players. In collaboration with SAP, they built the Helix, a 180 degree 3-dimensional oversized video game! The screen presents player with a curved wrap-around screen. A training session starts with stationary computerized players on the screen. The digital players then start to move and the real player must track their movements and correctly report something they've been asked to track. To make a session even more realistic, the Helix will play stadium sounds at different levels make concentration more challenging.

In 2015, Germany's national women's team benefitted from Helix training. Check out the video below!

So, is it really possible that playing FIFA will help develop better soccer players? The answer seems to be yes, if we are focusing on the right aspects of development. Scanning rates, perception and quick decision-making are abilities that seem to improve by playing FIFA. FIFA can also help kids gain a deeper knowledge of tactics, systems of play, and professional teams and players around the world. Of course, playing FIFA will not develop a player's technical abilities and many other skills and traits a player needs to be successful. However, a little bit of time spent playing FIFA is probably beneficial and will certainly fuel your kids passion for the game.

Professional Gamers?

FIFA's massive popularity is having a profound effect on the sport in other ways. Believe it or not, professional soccer clubs are now forming eSports teams. Yes, this is real! Professional soccer clubs are forming teams of gamers (yes, gamers) who wear the club's shirt and compete in FIFA gaming tournaments around the world. FC Schalke and West Ham United were among the first to form e-sports teams.

This summer, Spanish giants Valencia CF became the first Spanish professional soccer team to launch an eSports team. The team was announced at a press conference at Valencia CF's stadium, the Mestalla. The club's General Manager for the eSports team, Sergio Benet, said “for us it is a challenge and a big responsibility to defend the Valencia CF colors in the virtual gaming competitions. We will do our best to be up to the task and one of the best teams in eSport.” Shortly after announcing its first team. Valencia quickly followed up a month later with an announcement that it had acquired another team of gamers. An official page on Valencia's website reflects its commitment to eSports teams competitions.

From The Real World To The Virtual!

FIFA's impact is truly massive. It's more than just a phenomenon. Unbelievably, FIFA is causing professional soccer players, at the top of their game, to walk away in order to guessed it, FIFA! Just last month, 27 year old Brazilian professional player Wendell Lira announced he was quitting professional soccer to concentrate on eSports. The announcement came just 6 months after Lira won the prestigous Puskas Award for scoring the most beautiful goal of the year. He beat out finalist Lionel Messi and as well as another candidate, Carli Lloyd. After winning the Puskas, Lira took on Abdulaziz Alshehri, considered to be the best FIFA player in the world. Lira crushed him 6-1!

To be clear, I am not advocating our kids pursue a career as a professional soccer video gamer. (I'm still stunned that is a thing!) I do believe, however, that a moderate amount of time playing FIFA can positively affect a player's overall development as a player, But time spent playing outside outside with ball is vastly more beneficial and kids should spend much more time playing outside than playing FIFA. And I'm not just saying that because my kids are killing me in FIFA and I still have some advantages outside.

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