Racism in soccer officially ended last week.
Or at least, that's the message officials for FIFA, the sport's global organizing body, seemed to give Friday when they announced that they'd dissolved their anti-racism task force, declaring its "temporary mission" a success. Ironic, considering that the very next day, racist taunts at a Scottish Cup match got so out of hand that a black player begged to be taken off the field.
This is either awkward or perfect timing for the release of the world's most popular soccer video game, FIFA 17, which officially dropped this week. This year's installment of EA Sports' blockbuster series contains a brand-new interactive story mode called "The Journey," where you play as a young man from London named Alex Hunter as he begins his career in the English Premier League.
When you start the story, you're given a limited set of choices: You can choose your team, and you can choose your position, but you can't choose your race. Your character is black.
Some people aren't happy about that last bit. Even before the game's release, comment sections of articles about "The Journey" invariably had a few comments complaining about the character's race. It seems that a lot of people are having trouble identifying with a black protagonist.
I don't have much sympathy for that dilemma. I'll admit that after a youth spent as the only black dude on the soccer pitch, I found the idea of guiding a guy that looks a bit like me into the Premier League intriguing. It's not like EA has done away with the series' standard Career Mode that lets you customize your experience — "The Journey" is just a nice bonus mode for those who want to experience a more involved story. Also, the fact that I'm not a fat Italian plumber never stopped me from enjoying Super Mario as a kid.
Either way, I was curious. So over the past few days, I became part of the Hunter clan and immersed myself in the story.
In short, it's pretty good. Safe, but good. Unlike NBA 2K16, which we'll come to in a moment, there's nothing identifiably black about the story. The protagonist, played by real-life actor Adetomiwa Edun, comes from a working-class background, but that's not particularly tied to his race (strictly speaking, Alex is mixed-race, with a black mother and a white father). His neighborhood buddy-turned-rival, Gareth Walker, is white, and seems to have had a similar upbringing. If anything, Alex might be more well-off than Walker, considering that Walker seems to rely on Alex's mom to drive him to games and tryouts.
In fact, the storyline seems to studiously avoid racial incidents. If the EA writers had wanted to, they could have depicted Alex dealing with racist taunts like the ones that happened at the aforementioned Scottish Cup game. Perhaps the tweets from soccer fans between matches could have been peppered with a racist slur or two, like the 4,000-plus racist posts that Liverpool striker Mario Balotelli endured last season.
Those kinds of subtle details wouldn't be out of place in a soccer drama aiming for realism. Part of the reason the cancellation of FIFA's anti-racism task force was so offensive was that racism has been so virulent in the soccer world, even when it isn't overt. Despite the UK player field being roughly 25 percent BME (Black and Minority Ethnic), a recent study found that out of 552 available coaching jobs in all of the country's pro soccer programs, only 23 went to minorities. Another report found that black players are often placed in the forward goal-scoring positions but are not trusted in the more analytical position of center field — much like quarterbacks in American football.
EA won't give specific statistics on the demographics of the more than 100 million people who have bought a copy of a FIFA game since the series' inception, but it's safe to guess that the gamers are similarly diverse to the audience of the Premier League, which counts billions of viewers across the globe. Those core fans are probably aware of the darker side of soccer.
But perhaps the reality of discrimination is a burden for another game to take on. Instead, FIFA 17's story sticks to widely relatable themes — family, friendship, betrayal. But if the aim is to make the game relatable, why not just let people make the character look how they want?
I asked Matthew Prior, the creative director for EA Sports, why EA didn't allow players to choose the name and appearance of their protagonist.
"We did play around with idea of letting you change your character," he told me. "But there's a number of reasons we didn't do that. We wanted to take the story very seriously. We want it to be as immersive as possible. If you change the name, the match commentators can't speak about you, the dialog starts to get generic."
When I brought up the fact that some people were upset about the character being black, he sighed. "Yeah, I've heard that," he said. But he maintained that he was focused on crafting a good story that reflects what soccer in the UK looks like nowadays (see, for example, rising stars Marcus Rashford and Dele Alli, both of whom EA consulted with during story development). Once people play the game for themselves, he said, the complaints will disappear. "It's all about the story," he said.
And if he had let people create their own player, he wouldn't have been able to tell the story he wanted. FIFA 17 opens with a scene of Alex as a 10-year-old soccer wunderkind, watching his parents fight on the sideline and wondering why his father won't even congratulate him for winning the city championship. Alex's grandfather, a former soccer legend himself, comes in afterward to cheer him up. This brief sequence lays the groundwork for Alex's relationship with his family, which is crucial for the rest of the story.
"How can we introduce your mum and dad when you're a kid if you've created your own avatar?" Prior said. "We take this as seriously as a movie. It would ruin the story."
Narrative consistency is an issue the basketball sim series NBA 2K ran into last year, in its Spike Lee–created story mode. Aside from the hokiness of the script, the game also hamstrung itself by trying to have it both ways — allowing players to create their own avatar but then shoehorning that avatar into a visually black world. Your main character is assumed to be black, with a black family (including a twin sister) and black friends. But the game let you choose your appearance freely, which made for some pretty awkward visuals if you decided to be white:
This year's installment, NBA 2K17, sidesteps that issue by simply removing the player's family. The story really only picks up in your college dorm room, where you immediately learn that your father died when you were a kid. Your mother never shows her face — she only interacts with you via phone conversations and text messages. When you text with people, your character uses yellow emojis. It's about as race-neutral as a basketball story can be.
That didn't stop people from getting upset.
Just as with FIFA 17, people were complaining about the game's "blackness" even before NBA 2K17 was released. When the developers announced the story mode feature on their Facebook page, including the surprise announcement that the actor Michael B. Jordan would appear in-game in a supporting role, people began whining about race in the comments.
One commenter, who one would assume is otherwise a fan of the NBA and the NBA2K franchise, complained that it "kills the immersion" to be forced control a character with a "black" voice.
Another: "One day they will realize that white boys play [in] the NBA too."
When FIFA the organization announced that it had disbanded its anti-racism task force, one of the people who was most concerned was British pro midfielder Paul Mortimer. As a black player, he's dealt with racism on and off the field, and since retiring in 2001, he's become increasingly involved in soccer activism. He currently works with the anti-racist group Kick It Out, which has been calling for transparency in FIFA's racism task force, and also works with youth groups, many of whom are gamers.
Mortimer said he thought the black character in EA's game was "a bold move."
He hasn't played the game himself, he told me. "But I talked to the boys here who played it, and they told me about the story." They also told him about the backlash, and he said he wasn't surprised. He said he was less interested in the intricacies of the story in the game world and more curious about how the story of "The Journey" is unfolding in the real one.
"Let's see how people explain it," he said. "If they say they don't want to have a black character, see how they explain themselves. Then you'll start learning about people. They'll have to think about it. That gets the conversation out in the open. We've got to talk about it."
And perhaps that's all we can expect from a soccer simulator. When I asked Prior about the choice of a black player as the "face" of the story, he was hesitant to discuss any social implications. Instead, he talked about how popular the game was in the UK. "The only thing that outsold us last year was Adele's album," he joked. Giving this massive audience a fair representation of soccer, as it should be, was his primary motivation.
FIFA 17 might be a bit naïve in its treatment of race, but no more so than any other major game title. Again, only days ago, soccer's organizing body proved to us that it is still struggling to address racism in in the sport. If FIFA 17's contribution to that issue is to quietly insist that a black boy's experiences can be universal, that's not a bad move.