The representation of women’s sport in video games and why it matters

EA Sports… it’s in the game.” Those words, dramatically announced by an American voiceover artist, will be instantly familiar to anyone who played one of the company’s video games in the 1990s and 2000s.

The slogan was a shortened version of the original “If it’s in the game, it’s in the game”, a mantra which told players they could expect the most realistic digital recreation of a given sport possible on the hardware at the time.

It meant cutting-edge graphics, broadcast-style presentation and officially licensed teams, players, kits, stadiums, and leagues. But, unfortunately, this exhaustive approach did not extend to women’s sport. Female athletes and competitions were treated by many publishers as an afterthought or ignored entirely.

There were some exceptions, such as individual sports like tennis, and arcade and party-style games that didn’t require significant changes or licensing agreements. But few were interested in adding authentic female athletes and competitions to their simulation games.

‘Mia Hamm Soccer 64’ was the first soccer game to feature a female cover athlete, but it was essentially a reskin of ‘Michael Owen’s World League Soccer 2000’ that hoped to cash in on the US women’s national team’s victory at the 1999 Fifa Women’s World Cup. Namco’s ‘Anna Kournikova’s Smash Court Tennis’ was also notable, but this was an arcade tennis title which also included Pac-Man as a playable character and exploding tennis balls.

National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) clubs are now playable in FIFA 23 (Image credit: EA Sports)

It’s not hard to identify the reasons for this disparity. For a significant period of time, gaming has been a male-dominated industry that predominantly developed and marketed games for men. Few, if any, were convinced that women’s sport would appeal to this player base and drive sales and would therefore not countenance the additional effort or expense required.

This attitude became more problematic as video games attracted a more diverse audience and became a more influential engagement channel within sport – especially among younger fans. Far from a trivial matter, exclusion meant invisibility.

Equal representation is still some distance from being achieved, but the past decade has seen significant progress in addressing the imbalance. Publishers have acquired licences, created dedicated modes and modified code and game engines to accurately reflect the world of women’s sport.

While undoubtedly good PR, it also makes financial sense. Women’s sport has never been as popular or commercially successful, while 46 per cent of video game players identify as female, according to a study by the Entertainment Software Association (ESA). Given the industry is now believed to be worth US$222 billion a year, it’s an opportunity that can’t be ignored by publishers.

It’s in the game… now

As the market leader in sports video games, EA is now far more committed to ensuring women’s sport is “in the game”. Far from ignoring female athletes and competitions as it might have been accused of doing two years ago, the publishing giant considers women’s sport as crucial to digitally recreating the world of any sport in its flagship series.

It has added LPGA tournaments and golfers to its ‘PGA Tour’ series, women’s international hockey teams to ‘NHL’, female referees to its ‘Madden’ National Football League (NFL) simulation, and female fighters to its officially-licensed game based on the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). But it is soccer, and the multi-billion dollar FIFA series, where EA has had the greatest impact.

More than 20 years after the first FIFA game hit the shelves, 12 women’s international teams were added to FIFA 16 in 2015. The move followed a petition by Spanish national team captain Vero Boquete, although EA said it had been working towards the inclusion for some time as part of a wider strategy

Andrea Hopelain, senior vice president of brand at EA Sports and a former college soccer player, tells SportsPro that the company is committed to ensuring the words “if it’s in the game” don’t ring hollow.

“It might seem recent, but actually we’ve been investing in women’s sport for quite some time now – almost the better part of a decade,” she says. “We first launched women’s soccer in FIFA 16 and since then we’ve been gradually increasing our investment in our representation of women for several reasons.

“There’s a massive audience of those who play sport but also those who play games, and the [intersection] of those two audiences. And at EA, almost half of our audience are women.

“We really believe in representing sport authentically in its best form and representing the entire community of those who watch, play or are interested in sport. We’ve been putting our words into actions and you see that cross the breadth of our EA Sports portfolio. Not just through things like cover art but through [specific modes].

“It’s been important for us to not just represent women and women’s sports but to do it right.”

Doing it right

‘Doing it right’ means doing more than making simple cosmetic changes. Hopelain says one of the reasons it has taken a while to build out its women’s soccer proposition is because of the changes that have to be made to what can be an incredibly complex game engine. 

“As someone who grew up playing and has watched a lot of soccer, I can tell you there are a lot of nuances to the female game,” she explains. “It would be a complete disservice for us to think about just sticking a female’s head on a mans body and say ‘oh yeah, we put women in the game’.”

“We have invested really significantly in technology over the last couple of years to get to build a female skeleton that is, through machine learning, much more aligned to the female form, our body movements, and how we play the game.

“We’ve invested significantly in research, partnering with Copa90 and our interns from Beat the Bias and did a 200-page research report on the nuances of women’s football as an educational tool for both ourselves and our developers, and for the broader world of sport. It shows the history of the women’s game and some of the unique challenges and differences that should be celebrated.

“It has been a multi-year journey and although I wish we could have been able to get to the depth of women’s play sooner than we did, I am so proud of the work that the team has done to get it right.”

A more thorough approach doesn’t mean just a better quality product, but can also drive up standards on the pitch. FIFA has become so realistic, both in terms of how the game is played and how individual players behave, that several male players claim to have used it to prepare for matches. Similarly, FIFA’s influence is so vast that youth coaches have said academy players are recreating things they’ve seen in the game.

As someone who grew up playing and has watched a lot of soccer, I can tell you there are a lot of nuances to the female game. It would be a complete disservice for us to think about just sticking a female’s head on a mans body and say ‘oh yeah, we put women in the game’.

Andrea Hopelain, Senior Vice President of Brand, EA Sports

Power of the platform

But the greatest value still remains in fan engagement. One of the reasons EA split with Fifa after three decades was because it felt FIFA had outgrown a traditional licensee relationship to become a platform in its own right and needed more freedom than the agreement afforded.

Rights holders no longer see video games as a quick cash grab, but as a genuine platform for growth that extends beyond direct licensing revenue. While there is a desire to be fairly compensated for their intellectual property, most clubs and leagues recognise the ability of EA Sports’ platform to engage younger audiences and expand the reach of commercial partnerships.

Exclusion means not having access to this network.

“The special thing for us is the role EA Sports plays in developing and growing the next generation of fans,” says Hopelain.

“We have arguably the youngest audience in sport and the most interactive audience. For Gen Z and Gen Alpha, gaming is their first form of entertainment. They’re discovering leagues, clubs, and athletes through our games. We have a significant opportunity and leagues and partners see the role that we play in [engaging] the next generation of fans into sport.

“We create an access point that is much more democratic than many other forms of sport. If you consider that we’re on mobile and console, we can reach pretty much any consumer in the world with a screen. We’re reaching more than 350 million players a year in our ecosystem. That democratisation of access, whether it’s mobile or female and whatever socio-economic background, means we can reach anyone, anywhere and deliver sport to them.

“We see our role as developing and being a platform for the next generation of sports fans.”

Women’s World Cup 2023 predictions are an example of how including the tournament can engage fans (Image credit: EA Sports)

Stepping up for the Women’s World Cup

The ability of EA’s platform to bring new audiences to women’s soccer will be in evidence this summer, with a post-release update to FIFA 23 bringing a fully playable version of the 2023 Fifa Women’s World Cup.

FIFA 23 is noteworthy not just as the last game in EA’s series to be named after world soccer’s governing body, but also as the publisher’s biggest commitment to women’s soccer to date. FIFA 23 is noteworthy not just as the last game in EA’s series to be named after world soccer’s governing body, but also as the publisher’s biggest commitment to women’s soccer to date.

It’s the first entry to feature a solo cover star in the form of Australia and Chelsea striker Sam Kerr, who appears on alternate box art to Kylian Mbappe, and has added women’s club sides for the first time through partnerships with the FA Women’s Super League (WSL), National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), and Uefa Women’s Champions League (UWCL), among others.

However, the Women’s World Cup is the headline inclusion given the tournament’s ability to reach soccer fans and FIFA players that might not otherwise engage with the women’s game. The mode features the same authentic presentation, squads and fixtures as the equivalent men’s mode, and is a huge opportunity to tap into a wider audience.

“It really is a big moment,” Hopelain says. “This is a mode that’s deeply integrated into FIFA 23 at a moment when we’ve invested heavily in women’s soccer.

“We couldn’t be more excited at having all the rights in place and having so many women players in the game. It’s a beautiful opportunity for us to spotlight those players and celebrate this tournament.

“Any World Cup is a great funnel opener in terms of engagement. With gaming being Gen Z and Gen A’s first form of entertainment, [the new mode] allows them to watch a match and then they can play in our game. It completes the circle.”

Wider moves

EA is not alone in this pursuit of equality. 2K Games added the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) to its titles in NBA2K20, offering a dedicated single-player career mode called ‘The W’ the following year. It has also offered alternate covers featuring WNBA stars, with New York Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu adorning a special WNBA edition of NBA 2K24. Meanwhile, women are a prominent feature of the WWE 2K series. Tennis games also have a long history of including licensed women players.

Management games are a different breed. They aren’t just fan engagement tools but have the ability to change the way fans think about the sport and even influence how it is played. Few video games have proved as influential over the sport they are based on than Sports Interactive’s ‘Football Manager’, which is in effect a digital twin of soccer powered by a vast database and artificial intelligence (AI’) algorithms.

The series has been widely credited with accelerating the analytical revolution within soccer, driving tactical awareness among fans and making what is a global sport feel that much smaller. But it’s real legacy is in data collection.

When Sports Interactive first started adding real players and leagues to its simulation, it assembled a global network of researchers who would provide squad lists and ratings for various physical, mental and technical attributes. Given soccer was a relatively late adopter of data analytics, Sports Interactive possessed the world’s most advanced database of world soccer.

Combined with its fabled game engines, the game was able to predict the sport’s next superstars years in advance. So when life started to imitate art, soccer used Sports Interactive’s data as a starting point, with many user interface elements and features incorporated from the game into professional scouting tools.

Football Manager women motion capture

Sports Interactive is spending millions of dollars to include the women’s game in Football Manager (Image credit: Sports Interactive)

A women’s data revolution

While some of these developments will also have been applied to women’s soccer, there are still no female players, clubs, or leagues in Football Manager. That won’t be the case for much longer. In 2021, Sports Interactive committed to a “multi-year project” to include the world of women’s soccer into its game.

It’s a huge task that requires assembling a global research network, updating the game engine, reworking huge amounts of code, and taking into account the unique factors of women’s soccer – from transfers and contracts to pregnancy and menstrual cycles. But Sports Interactive believes it’s a worthy endeavor, committing millions of dollars to making it happen.

“There’s no hiding that there’s currently a glass ceiling for women’s football and we want to do what we can to help smash through it,” Miles Jacobson, studio director of Sports Interactive, said at the time. “We believe in equality for all and we want to be part of the solution. We want to be a part of the process that puts women’s football on an equal footing with the men’s game.

“Longer term, as the women’s game grows in popularity, the financial rewards may come, but at the moment we’re embarking on this journey because we know it’s the right thing to do.”

It was confirmed last month that women’s clubs and international teams would be included in Football Manager from next year, with Jacobson outlining some of the challenges associated with making it a reality.

‘The facts are that we’ve made really good progress in many areas, including research, the match engine and translation,’ he wrote in a blog post. ‘But there are other areas that haven’t made enough advancements, a lot of which are legal issues. The women’s game deserves to be the best it possibly can be when it is released – and the new graphics engine will help deliver that.’

Inclusion will see yet more people interact with women’s soccer and gain a better understanding of its nuances, while also catalysing data gathering and analytics efforts off the pitch.

“We believe in equality for all and we want to be part of the solution. We want to be a part of the process that puts women’s football on an equal footing with the men’s game.”

Miles Jacobson, Studio Director, Sports Interactive

Much more to do

Increased representation of women’s sports and female athletes in video games demonstrates how both the world of sport and gaming have transformed over the past 30 years. Glacial progress has transformed into rapid momentum – but that doesn’t mean there isn’t more to do. Many modes focusing on women’s sports are less comprehensive than their male counterparts, indicative of both historic disadvantages, technical and legal challenges, and current priorities.

Indeed, it took EA Sports eight years to add club sides to FIFA. Now they’re included, a major step forward would be the addition of a proper career mode for women’s soccer, although inclusion of female players in EA FC’s hugely popular Ultimate Team mode is a start. The addition of new licensed leagues and the presence of several past and present female players on the cover of EA Sports FC offers a strong suggestion that there will be plenty of activity around women’s soccer in the game. 

Speaking of covers, it would also be a massive statement of intent if EA FC or NBA 2K went to market with just a female athlete as its main cover star, not as an alternate.

It’s also true that some sports still lack representation. In some instances this is because of publisher disinterest but also because of a lack of action or professional structure among governing bodies. EA Sports says it is constantly looking at sports where it can make a difference, with Formula One and its recently launched F1 Academy for female drivers cited as an example of future interest.

Equality in sports gaming also relies on wider gaming industry initiatives. More women involved in video game development and publishing will help address the male-dominated culture that perpetuated long-term inequalities and there is plenty that can be done to make gaming a more welcoming leisure pursuit for women.

According to a study by Sky Broadband, half of women gamers in the UK have received abuse online, a figure which rises to 75 per cent among 18 to 24-year-olds. One only has to look at the negative comments that have greeted news of some the initiatives mentioned above to see the prevalent sexism.

In the digital era of sport, video games are just as important as media coverage when it comes to engaging younger audiences and representation matters. The good news is there is no suggestion that this is a trend that shows any signs of slowing down, especially as women’s sport reaches new peaks in popularity.

The exclusion of women’s sport from electronic entertainment has long been difficult to justify on moral grounds. Now, ignorance is also commercial negligence.

This feature forms part of SportsPro’s Women’s Sport Week. Click here to access more exclusive content and sign up to the SportsPro Daily newsletter here to receive daily insights direct to your inbox.

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