Dark, ominous clouds are packing above BJK Inönü stadium. Bright lights appear against the night’s sky and a thunder rumbles from the stands. Thousands of voices group together in a booming chant, rolling down to the pitch and echoing through the streets of Istanbul. As the glow and smoke of the roman candles slowly drifts apart, the faces of the fans become visible and we see the passion and anticipation in their eyes. In the city of the Haga Sofia and the Blue Mosque, where gallons of blood flowed through the Bosporus before it was seized from the Byzantine Empire, the spirit of war relives. Besiktas faces off against Trabzonspor and the crowd goes wild.
It requires but a smidge of imagination to paint this picture in your head when you select these teams in FIFA 2016 and take to the field bound to throw down a spectacular game of digital football. However, many a fan of Electronic Art’s successful franchise will never see this theatre of war. We have a PlayStation 4 at work to play games during coffee- and lunch breaks; the only game everyone ever wants to play is FIFA 2016. And that would have been bearable if it weren’t for the fact that everyone always picks the same two teams: Real Madrid and FC Barcelona, occasionally exchanged with FC Bayern or Paris Saint Germain. This is not a coincidence of course: statistically those are the strongest teams in the game, and that’s based on their real life status.
These teams are the most successful and the most well known. Because people don’t care about character and romanticism. The roaring cauldron of a stadium in Istanbul or a rainy city in the English midlands matters little to them. They don’t see the charm of Nottingham Forest grinding towards a victory against Blackburn Rovers; they only see those stars that indicate the strength of the team in the game. Neither do they ever witness the atmospheric shots of the stadium as the game gets ready for a face-off between AS Livorno versus Palermo, because their thumbs hammer down on the X-button to skip every cinematic.
At work I am part of a small movement against the use of the elite and for the advancement of less popular teams and thus more originality and emotional connection instead of superficial number crunching. Pick a team not based on how many stars they have but because they’re from a city you enjoyed a great holiday, because they have a beautiful jersey or a striker with an unusual name.
Why do so many of my colleagues not enjoy this? It’s probably a combined set of influences. Common conformism and herd behaviour as well as avoidance of emotional complexity. Simply put, it’s easier and safer to stay in one’s comfort zone and do what everyone else does. And defining your preference by defined absolutes like a number or a rank is easier to defend than a feeling about a club’s heritage or culture. And there is of course pride and vie; eagerness to compete and win, especially when it’s within a company of only men. Men want to win and show they’re the best and to maximize their chances they pick the best.
Here we also return to my earlier statement that the in-game statistics reflect the status of said teams in real life. Real Madrid and Barcelona are the most popular teams also outside FIFA video games. The disgusting commercial circus called Champions League is the most popular competition in the world and former little known teams like Paris Saint Germain suddenly became popular because of foreign investments that landed them better players.
So, cult football is little appreciated in- and outside the confines of console and PC. That’s obviously what makes it cult, I guess? Some people like big, shiny and popular things and others enjoy the obscure, folksy and alternative. No big deal, might be the easiest way out of this question. But there is also a deeper, more complex side to this.
Chauvinist competitiveness and macho bravado is a culture that can intoxicate anything it comes in contact with. A big part of the cultural hegemony of capitalism is chauvinism. It’s the pride and the unwillingness to retrace one’s steps that’s giving this system its momentum. Men too narrow minded to adhere to the voice of reason. Capitalism is a meta-variant of the nihilist view of “live fast, die young” mentality that so many members of society are affected by. Wealth, consumerism and vanity is considered a merit and a status symbol. No wonder that teams like Real Madrid or PSG are associated with a rich lifestyle, mainstream popularity and vanity. And in contrast, if you are looking for leftwing politics, solidarity with marginalised groups and alternative culture, you have to look in the lower leagues. These tendencies work in symbiosis; they both are a product of and a cause of this divide. And it will remain that way unless we enforce change in equally both ways.
Because chauvinism also opens the gate to xenophobia and misogyny. The two Turkish teams, albeit being not even that obscure or cult – are referred to as “silly teams” and are being comically berated during the match. Picking less common teams is considered funny and a match between them is supposed not be taken serious. It also allows lots of vaguely racist remarks about “them Turks” – and winning the match is now less of an achievement because it’s “just Trabzonspor” and not a top tier side. And let’s not even get started on women teams. We played a match with them once; a flurry of misogynist jokes surrounded the entire virtual ninety minutes.
Diversity and inclusion in videogames is a reflection of the state of many marginalised groups in society. It’s a hard process to change it and it’s going to be met with resistance and hardship. But the only way to make it happen is to keep going forward.