A virtual game with universal appeal
Since it first launched over 20 years ago, the EA Sports FIFA series has enchanted millions of video-game players across the globe. Unsurprisingly, its fans include a long list of professional footballers, drawn to a fun version and natural extension of their own lives, but many leading names from other sports have also fallen under its spell.
Take Teddy Riner, for example, who recently won his second Olympic gold medal at Rio 2016. The greatest judoka of all time enjoys little more than a lengthy FIFA session with friends to unwind. "It's simple," he told FIFA.com. "When I play FIFA on Playstation, I always take Real Madrid, and my top scorers are Benzema and Cristiano . I don't play much, but I love to have a go when my friends are over. I enjoy racing and football games, seeing as there's no judo simulation (laughs)."
Like Riner, Usain Bolt has long held a stranglehold over his own discipline, and the Jamaican sprinter is another adept of the game – though, if anything, even more of a fanatic. "It's a passion he's had since he was very young," explains Gael Leiblang, who has directed a documentary about the fastest man on the planet. "When he was 14 or 15, his coaches had to go and fetch him from the arcades in the north of the island. Video games allow him an escape. He gets to be in his own little world. Plus, he loves football. He plays FIFA with Yohan Blake before competitions."
A change of scenery
The idea that FIFA helps athletes escape the pressures of their own sport and take pleasure in something else is one that rings true for French basketball player Nando de Colo. "When I'm on holiday, I prefer to play football to basketball," he explained to FIFA.com. "It's the same when it comes to video games. I don't really like playing basketball games. I play it enough throughout the year to not have to get stuck back in when I come home in the evening (laughs). When I'm with friends, family or team-mates, I enjoy playing a few FIFA matches."
The 2015/16 Euroligue MVP is not one to get carried away, however – unlike his France team-mate Tony Parker. The San Antonio Spurs point guard is widely known as a gaming enthusiast with a special penchant for sports simulations, including FIFA, a passion that began during his childhood. "As I grew up with two brothers, there was no way there'd be just one of us playing and the other two watching," he said. Meanwhile, NBA legend Kobe Bryant is another huge fan of the sport and last year filmed an advertisement with Alex Morgan to promote the women's football section of the game – one of the major innovations of the 2016 edition – with the former Lakers stalwart contesting some intense bouts with the Stars and Stripes forward.
Controller in hand, NFL star Victor Cruz is another sportsman who regularly takes a break from his own chosen discipline to pursue his love of football. A high-profile guest at the launch event for FIFA 13, he even got stuck into a memorable one-on-one with the rapper Snoop Dogg.
The virtual game has likewise seduced American swimmer Michael Phelps, the most decorated sportsman in Olympic history. "When I play, it's usually sports games," he said. "I'm very competitive in everything I do, so when I play it gets very intense. When I play a FIFA tournament, we get a few guys together and no matter what day of the week it is, we sit down and play as many games as we can. It's great fun, but it gets very tense towards the end when we're playing the final matches."
Rivalry and friendship
Even when moving virtual players around a screen, champions never lose their competitive edge. As a two-time FIFA Interactive World Cup winner, Bruce Grannec has seen more than a few in action. "During FIFA events, I've come up against players from the French tennis and basketball teams and also Christophe Lemaitre¸ who knows what he's doing," the player nicknamed 'The Machine' told FIFA.com. "The one who impressed me the most was Gael Monfils. You could tell he was passionate about video games and, above all, a real competitor. He stayed late into the evening because he absolutely wanted to beat me at least once, and he actually ended up getting a draw."
Of course, the pride of the Electronic Arts stable is not just a crucible for unforgiving contests where only victory counts. The game can bring people together too, allowing athletes who lock horns all year round to relax together. That was certainly true of tennis aces Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray, who became friends thanks to the world's most popular football game, which they regularly play online. "I remember one day being sat on the couch next to Andy and he suddenly began laughing and celebrating," recalls the Scotsman's mother, Judy. "I was taken aback, so I asked him what was happening and he told me he was playing against Rafa, who was in Mallorca."
One thing is certain: all these celebrated athletes and gamers around the world are now waiting with bated breath for the release of FIFA 17 on 27 September. And with the latest edition set to introduce even more new features and improvements, the game is sure to entice plenty more enthusiasts in the months to come.