World Cup fever, and the value of sports games

Thanks to playing some “FIFA World Cup 06″ via an assignment from our sports department, I now have a greater appreciation of what many people call the Beautiful Game.

Because at the beginning for me, it was ugly.

First off, a video game about futbol is a game that really can’t be played like anything else. Most ancient soccer titles focused on just running around, firing the ball at the goal and scoring in bunches (this happened when you had two trigger-happy players with no concept of defense — it was like playing basketball with your feet).

Today’s soccer games won’t let you get away with that stuff — try it and you’re on the business end of a 5-1 smackdown (thanks, Portugal).

I’ll get to the actual review of the game in print and on All Games Interactive, but for me, this assignment also epitomized one of my favorite things about sports games: Educational value. I’m serious. Aside from perhaps playing the sport itself, few things provide as much insight into a sport as a good game. Plus, you don’t get some of the baggage that comes with playing live sports.

First off, let me say that going out and playing something is a unique experience that teaches people of all ages a variety of lessons — some good and some bad. However, simply going out and playing a sport doesn’t mean some of the potential benefits of playing and understanding a sports video game should be ignored.

In my case, it was about learning. The only soccer players I really knew about were the ones that grazed the mainstream spotlight, like Landon Donovan or Freddy Adu. Oh, and David Beckham, thanks to that movie with a nubile Keira Knightley and the girl on ER.

So, to gain a modicum of understanding of who the world’s stars were, I did what any futbol ignoramus/game player would do: scan the FIFA rosters and see who the really high-rated players were. Then I would do research on them. (bios, nuggets of scouting reports, nothing too intense) Then, I watch them play. THEN — you try to see if you can do things the same way in the video game.

All of these are important — otherwise you might end up doing what I call “Jordaning” the game. In the old EA hoops games (Bulls vs. Lakers, Lakers vs. Celtics), you could just give the ball to MJ and have him dominate all day. He’d practically score all your points. Same thing with Bo Jackson in Tecmo Bowl — hand him the ball and watch him pile up 500 yards and 10 touchdowns. The soccer equivalent of the Jordaning mentality would be taking control of Ronaldo (rated in the 90s in FIFA) trying to weave through seven or eight guys, and then attempting to score.

I’m sure there are some freaks out there that can actually do that, but the average person (like myself) just ends up getting the ball taken away and scoring absolutely no goals whatsoever. I actually like that — a decent sports game requires some knowledge about how the sport is played. Not the RULES — but how to actually play something correctly. Some might throw their hands up and say, “Screw it, I don’t want to learn.” Others might say, “OK, how is this supposed to look?” And voila — you’re learning new things about a sport.

That’s what happened with FIFA. I had to learn how to play this game and as a result, having a lot more fun with it. I understand the value of passing angles, setting up plays (sort of), corner kicks, all that stuff. I know a little bit about why people praise guys like Zinedine Zidane of France or Adriano of Brazil.

I know that David Beckham isn’t even the best player on his team. He’s good, but I also learned that “bending” a shot is something most soccer players know how to do. If you just went by the movies and highlights, you’d think bending a shot was Beckham’s exclusive mutant power, something no one else could do. Wrong.

I’m far from a master — or even an apprentice — but I have a better understanding about how everything is supposed to unfold when it’s done the right way. That all starts with a well-made sports title.

And if you’re playing the Beautiful Game — well, looks matter.