Technology

The journey

Both were born in the 1990s. Both have developed at a rapid rate with the eyes of the world upon them. And now, with both of them at the top of their game, FIFA and Kylian Mbappé have come together in the ultimate fusion of football and gaming

WORDS Steve McCaskill

Imagine it’s 2018. Time magazine are putting together a feature on next-generation leaders. They need someone suitable for the cover. Would a politician work? No. An author, perhaps? No. What about an artist? No. Well, sort of, but with a pitch for a canvas and feet that create masterpieces.

Two years later, Kylian Mbappé’s creative output shows no signs of waning – and he’s still gracing covers as a result of being the defining figure of an era. Not Time, but a sign of the times: FIFA 21. The Paris Saint-Germain striker’s presence on the game’s cover confirms him as the standard-bearer of a new age: Generation Z. If you’re not up to date on Gen Z’s characteristics, the key things to note are that it comprises teens and young adults born since the mid-1990s and that they have never known life without technology.

Generation FIFA, meanwhile, is the cultural phenomenon produced by football-loving children who have grown up with the game becoming football-playing adults who feature in the game. Life imitating art imitating life. And Mbappé at the forefront.


“I have learned that the biggest stars and the greatest players are the most humble ones, the ones who respect people the most,” said the 21-year-old in that interview with Time. Which must mean that this World Cup winner, Champions League finalist and serial Ligue 1 champion is one of the good guys. One who has turned potential into power and pace. Who has seen his gift become goals. Who has gone from sitting with a controller in his hands to becoming king of the FIFA universe.

Mbappé, representing a new breed of digitally native footballer, has had his entire development documented on camera, on social media and now a video game series so realistic that it influences player development and how the sport is played. Even the French forward’s famous crossed-arms celebration was stolen from his brother during a multiplayer session. “I’ve been playing this game since I was a kid and I am honoured to represent a whole new generation of footballers,” he said of his place on the FIFA 21 cover.

Where it all began

For all that Mbappé’s coronation represents, being on the cover wasn’t always such a big deal. While the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Thierry Henry have performed the role in the past, the first players to appear were David Platt and Piotr Świerczewski. This duo didn’t feature on the box art of FIFA International Soccer because they were the most widely recognised players in the world at the time, but simply because the image used came from a match between England and Poland.

This was a video game crafted by a relatively small group of developers and producers. But what separated FIFA from the digital adaptations of football that came before it was a focus on realism that permeated throughout the visuals, animations and audio. Despite only being released in the December, the game was the bestselling title of 1993. A franchise was born.

The commitment to realism hasn’t wavered, with new features and refinements introduced every year since. But over the past decade, huge technological advances and the rise of online gaming have transformed the title. For example, FIFA 21 has a new dynamic attacking system, a revamped career mode that adds increased depth and a database of more than 30 officially licensed leagues, 700 teams and 17,000 real players.

The greater computational capabilities of modern consoles have allowed for the introduction of analogue dribbling, tactical defending and team chemistry. The visual enhancements mean that the game looks like the real thing too.

On the FIFA 21 cover (above); playing against Manchester United this season (above right); EA’s Vancouver HQ (right)

Looking the part

Today FIFA is the work of hundreds of developers, artists and researchers, and at the heart of this vast operation is EA’s Vancouver campus. The facility opened in 1999 and has been expanded several times since to house advanced development studios, a full-sized outdoor football pitch, a cinema, a community garden (sought-after plots are available via a lottery every spring) and arcades, which offer shuffleboard and pinball among other things.

The campus is also home to one of the world’s largest permanent motion-capture facilities. With more than 1,600m² of stage space, the studio allows EA’s team to capture a player’s movement and technique in full flight. EA’s Real Player Motion Technology then uses something called ‘pose trajectory matching’ to marry up these parameters to every frame of animation, so that the game feels fluid and realistic.

Meanwhile, a dedicated team visits clubs around the world to scan player likenesses, so that their faces, measurements and emotions can be used in the game. Each scan is performed by a rig comprising 18 cameras and 16 custom lights; the photos are fed into software that creates a 3D model for a digital artist to edit and tidy up, ready for the animators.

Inclusion in the game is regarded as a personal milestone and some players even petition for their likenesses to be updated. “You can see [the game] becoming more and more real – I really liked that,” says İstanbul Başakşehir defender Rafael of his scan. “Of course, you can’t make everything perfect because players change their hair a lot.” 

If it’s in the game…

The statistical operation is equally meticulous – and debated. A network of trusted observers provide data for everyone in the game, which in turn influences the popular perception of the real guys on the pitch. Fans passionately contest these rankings, especially a player’s overall rating out of 100.

“We don’t ever see the data as perfect; refining and improving the accuracy of the database is a continual process, with changes made every day of the year,” explains Michael Müller-Möhring, head of data collection and licensing. “The performance of players in-game is determined by their individual attributes. The overall rating isn’t a comprehensive indication of the quality of a player and it could never suit the wide range of types of players in each position. It’s only a formula.”

Players themselves also take notice and sometimes ask for changes. Rafael is giving that approach some serious thought, having been unimpressed with his ratings compared to his twin brother. “Fabio was a little bit better than me – that’s not possible! My speed was slower than his; he had better passing [stats] than me. I haven’t called [EASports] to change it yet but I’m going to!”

If Rafael does decide to pick up the phone, he’ll be wasting his time. While some stats are estimates (it’s tricky to assign a value for free-kick accuracy to a player who never takes free-kicks, for example), Müller-Möhring says that the team will never compromise their database to indulge such a request. “We won’t change attributes because a footballer feels unfairly or incorrectly rated.”

Oh, and in case you were wondering: Mbappé’s pace rating of 96 is the joint highest in FIFA 21.

“I’VE BEEN PLAYING THIS GAME SINCE I WAS A KID AND I AM HONOURED TO REPRESENT A WHOLE NEW GENERATION OF FOOTBALLERS”

Changing role

Footballers have always played FIFA to pass the time on away trips; Rafael notes that former cover star Wayne Rooney was a big fan during their time together at Manchester United. Porto’s Brazilian midfielder Otávio is another keen advocate. “I play the game whenever I have some free time,” he says. “Players in FIFA have the same skills as in real life – if you get Neymar, he’ll do the stepover just the same.”

But the game has become so realistic that players are now learning from it. Everton forward Alex Iwobi researched opponents using the game when he was at Arsenal, while Borussia Dortmund defender Mats Hummels has said that FIFA has helped him to visualise new ways of playing. Retired Italian goalkeeper Marco Amelia once saved a penalty from Ronaldinho after noticing similarities between the Brazilian’s real run-up and the digital version.

FIFA’s long-term impact could be even greater. Youth coaches say that prospects are using the game to try out new strategies or skill moves, while video-game mechanics such as mission structures and superpowers are now used in training sessions. The game has also inspired a new breed of digital coaching tools powered by virtual reality and motion controls, which gained particular traction during lockdown.


The third way

It used to be that there were two main ways of experiencing football: playing the game and watching it. But FIFA has put itself firmly in the mix. According to a 2018 survey, supporters in the UK aged between 16 and 24 engage with the sport in three primary ways: a third interact by watching live games, 17% play video games and 14% play the real thing (the list also includes things like watching documentaries and reading transfer gossip). Meanwhile, an ESPN poll in 2014 found that a third of football fans in the US were attracted to the sport because of FIFA and half said the series had increased their interest.

Like that man Mbappé, FIFA has a cultural impact that transcends football. The game’s soundtrack is one example: it provides a massive boost in sales for the artists who are featured. Fan noise from the game is another, having been used by broadcasters to enhance the TV viewing experience during the pandemic. However, as the lines blur between the virtual and physical, it’s important not to let digital disputes spill over into the real world. “I try to pick myself all the time,” says Rafael. “But my brother’s not good, I put him on the bench. Just joking!”

But here’s something that’s no joke: Generation FIFA is here to stay. And like the boy from the Parisian suburb of Bondy who rose to become one of the most thrilling players on the planet (and a video-game cover star to boot), the only way is up.

Want more? Read our full interview with Jack Downer, a street footballer who specialises in panna, here.

Imagine it’s 2018. Time magazine are putting together a feature on next-generation leaders. They need someone suitable for the cover. Would a politician work? No. An author, perhaps? No. What about an artist? No. Well, sort of, but with a pitch for a canvas and feet that create masterpieces.

Two years later, Kylian Mbappé’s creative output shows no signs of waning – and he’s still gracing covers as a result of being the defining figure of an era. Not Time, but a sign of the times: FIFA 21. The Paris Saint-Germain striker’s presence on the game’s cover confirms him as the standard-bearer of a new age: Generation Z. If you’re not up to date on Gen Z’s characteristics, the key things to note are that it comprises teens and young adults born since the mid-1990s and that they have never known life without technology.

Generation FIFA, meanwhile, is the cultural phenomenon produced by football-loving children who have grown up with the game becoming football-playing adults who feature in the game. Life imitating art imitating life. And Mbappé at the forefront.


“I have learned that the biggest stars and the greatest players are the most humble ones, the ones who respect people the most,” said the 21-year-old in that interview with Time. Which must mean that this World Cup winner, Champions League finalist and serial Ligue 1 champion is one of the good guys. One who has turned potential into power and pace. Who has seen his gift become goals. Who has gone from sitting with a controller in his hands to becoming king of the FIFA universe.

Mbappé, representing a new breed of digitally native footballer, has had his entire development documented on camera, on social media and now a video game series so realistic that it influences player development and how the sport is played. Even the French forward’s famous crossed-arms celebration was stolen from his brother during a multiplayer session. “I’ve been playing this game since I was a kid and I am honoured to represent a whole new generation of footballers,” he said of his place on the FIFA 21 cover.

Where it all began

For all that Mbappé’s coronation represents, being on the cover wasn’t always such a big deal. While the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Thierry Henry have performed the role in the past, the first players to appear were David Platt and Piotr Świerczewski. This duo didn’t feature on the box art of FIFA International Soccer because they were the most widely recognised players in the world at the time, but simply because the image used came from a match between England and Poland.

This was a video game crafted by a relatively small group of developers and producers. But what separated FIFA from the digital adaptations of football that came before it was a focus on realism that permeated throughout the visuals, animations and audio. Despite only being released in the December, the game was the bestselling title of 1993. A franchise was born.

The commitment to realism hasn’t wavered, with new features and refinements introduced every year since. But over the past decade, huge technological advances and the rise of online gaming have transformed the title. For example, FIFA 21 has a new dynamic attacking system, a revamped career mode that adds increased depth and a database of more than 30 officially licensed leagues, 700 teams and 17,000 real players.

The greater computational capabilities of modern consoles have allowed for the introduction of analogue dribbling, tactical defending and team chemistry. The visual enhancements mean that the game looks like the real thing too.

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On the FIFA 21 cover (above); playing against Manchester United this season (above right); EA’s Vancouver HQ (right)

Looking the part

Today FIFA is the work of hundreds of developers, artists and researchers, and at the heart of this vast operation is EA’s Vancouver campus. The facility opened in 1999 and has been expanded several times since to house advanced development studios, a full-sized outdoor football pitch, a cinema, a community garden (sought-after plots are available via a lottery every spring) and arcades, which offer shuffleboard and pinball among other things.

The campus is also home to one of the world’s largest permanent motion-capture facilities. With more than 1,600m² of stage space, the studio allows EA’s team to capture a player’s movement and technique in full flight. EA’s Real Player Motion Technology then uses something called ‘pose trajectory matching’ to marry up these parameters to every frame of animation, so that the game feels fluid and realistic.

Meanwhile, a dedicated team visits clubs around the world to scan player likenesses, so that their faces, measurements and emotions can be used in the game. Each scan is performed by a rig comprising 18 cameras and 16 custom lights; the photos are fed into software that creates a 3D model for a digital artist to edit and tidy up, ready for the animators.

Inclusion in the game is regarded as a personal milestone and some players even petition for their likenesses to be updated. “You can see [the game] becoming more and more real – I really liked that,” says İstanbul Başakşehir defender Rafael of his scan. “Of course, you can’t make everything perfect because players change their hair a lot.” 

If it’s in the game…

The statistical operation is equally meticulous – and debated. A network of trusted observers provide data for everyone in the game, which in turn influences the popular perception of the real guys on the pitch. Fans passionately contest these rankings, especially a player’s overall rating out of 100.

“We don’t ever see the data as perfect; refining and improving the accuracy of the database is a continual process, with changes made every day of the year,” explains Michael Müller-Möhring, head of data collection and licensing. “The performance of players in-game is determined by their individual attributes. The overall rating isn’t a comprehensive indication of the quality of a player and it could never suit the wide range of types of players in each position. It’s only a formula.”

Players themselves also take notice and sometimes ask for changes. Rafael is giving that approach some serious thought, having been unimpressed with his ratings compared to his twin brother. “Fabio was a little bit better than me – that’s not possible! My speed was slower than his; he had better passing [stats] than me. I haven’t called [EASports] to change it yet but I’m going to!”

If Rafael does decide to pick up the phone, he’ll be wasting his time. While some stats are estimates (it’s tricky to assign a value for free-kick accuracy to a player who never takes free-kicks, for example), Müller-Möhring says that the team will never compromise their database to indulge such a request. “We won’t change attributes because a footballer feels unfairly or incorrectly rated.”

Oh, and in case you were wondering: Mbappé’s pace rating of 96 is the joint highest in FIFA 21.

“I’VE BEEN PLAYING THIS GAME SINCE I WAS A KID AND I AM HONOURED TO REPRESENT A WHOLE NEW GENERATION OF FOOTBALLERS”

Changing role

Footballers have always played FIFA to pass the time on away trips; Rafael notes that former cover star Wayne Rooney was a big fan during their time together at Manchester United. Porto’s Brazilian midfielder Otávio is another keen advocate. “I play the game whenever I have some free time,” he says. “Players in FIFA have the same skills as in real life – if you get Neymar, he’ll do the stepover just the same.”

But the game has become so realistic that players are now learning from it. Everton forward Alex Iwobi researched opponents using the game when he was at Arsenal, while Borussia Dortmund defender Mats Hummels has said that FIFA has helped him to visualise new ways of playing. Retired Italian goalkeeper Marco Amelia once saved a penalty from Ronaldinho after noticing similarities between the Brazilian’s real run-up and the digital version.

FIFA’s long-term impact could be even greater. Youth coaches say that prospects are using the game to try out new strategies or skill moves, while video-game mechanics such as mission structures and superpowers are now used in training sessions. The game has also inspired a new breed of digital coaching tools powered by virtual reality and motion controls, which gained particular traction during lockdown.


The third way

It used to be that there were two main ways of experiencing football: playing the game and watching it. But FIFA has put itself firmly in the mix. According to a 2018 survey, supporters in the UK aged between 16 and 24 engage with the sport in three primary ways: a third interact by watching live games, 17% play video games and 14% play the real thing (the list also includes things like watching documentaries and reading transfer gossip). Meanwhile, an ESPN poll in 2014 found that a third of football fans in the US were attracted to the sport because of FIFA and half said the series had increased their interest.

Like that man Mbappé, FIFA has a cultural impact that transcends football. The game’s soundtrack is one example: it provides a massive boost in sales for the artists who are featured. Fan noise from the game is another, having been used by broadcasters to enhance the TV viewing experience during the pandemic. However, as the lines blur between the virtual and physical, it’s important not to let digital disputes spill over into the real world. “I try to pick myself all the time,” says Rafael. “But my brother’s not good, I put him on the bench. Just joking!”

But here’s something that’s no joke: Generation FIFA is here to stay. And like the boy from the Parisian suburb of Bondy who rose to become one of the most thrilling players on the planet (and a video-game cover star to boot), the only way is up.

Want more? Read our full interview with Jack Downer, a street footballer who specialises in panna, here.

Imagine it’s 2018. Time magazine are putting together a feature on next-generation leaders. They need someone suitable for the cover. Would a politician work? No. An author, perhaps? No. What about an artist? No. Well, sort of, but with a pitch for a canvas and feet that create masterpieces.

Two years later, Kylian Mbappé’s creative output shows no signs of waning – and he’s still gracing covers as a result of being the defining figure of an era. Not Time, but a sign of the times: FIFA 21. The Paris Saint-Germain striker’s presence on the game’s cover confirms him as the standard-bearer of a new age: Generation Z. If you’re not up to date on Gen Z’s characteristics, the key things to note are that it comprises teens and young adults born since the mid-1990s and that they have never known life without technology.

Generation FIFA, meanwhile, is the cultural phenomenon produced by football-loving children who have grown up with the game becoming football-playing adults who feature in the game. Life imitating art imitating life. And Mbappé at the forefront.


“I have learned that the biggest stars and the greatest players are the most humble ones, the ones who respect people the most,” said the 21-year-old in that interview with Time. Which must mean that this World Cup winner, Champions League finalist and serial Ligue 1 champion is one of the good guys. One who has turned potential into power and pace. Who has seen his gift become goals. Who has gone from sitting with a controller in his hands to becoming king of the FIFA universe.

Mbappé, representing a new breed of digitally native footballer, has had his entire development documented on camera, on social media and now a video game series so realistic that it influences player development and how the sport is played. Even the French forward’s famous crossed-arms celebration was stolen from his brother during a multiplayer session. “I’ve been playing this game since I was a kid and I am honoured to represent a whole new generation of footballers,” he said of his place on the FIFA 21 cover.

Where it all began

For all that Mbappé’s coronation represents, being on the cover wasn’t always such a big deal. While the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Thierry Henry have performed the role in the past, the first players to appear were David Platt and Piotr Świerczewski. This duo didn’t feature on the box art of FIFA International Soccer because they were the most widely recognised players in the world at the time, but simply because the image used came from a match between England and Poland.

This was a video game crafted by a relatively small group of developers and producers. But what separated FIFA from the digital adaptations of football that came before it was a focus on realism that permeated throughout the visuals, animations and audio. Despite only being released in the December, the game was the bestselling title of 1993. A franchise was born.

The commitment to realism hasn’t wavered, with new features and refinements introduced every year since. But over the past decade, huge technological advances and the rise of online gaming have transformed the title. For example, FIFA 21 has a new dynamic attacking system, a revamped career mode that adds increased depth and a database of more than 30 officially licensed leagues, 700 teams and 17,000 real players.

The greater computational capabilities of modern consoles have allowed for the introduction of analogue dribbling, tactical defending and team chemistry. The visual enhancements mean that the game looks like the real thing too.

On the FIFA 21 cover (above); playing against Manchester United this season (above right); EA’s Vancouver HQ (right)

Looking the part

Today FIFA is the work of hundreds of developers, artists and researchers, and at the heart of this vast operation is EA’s Vancouver campus. The facility opened in 1999 and has been expanded several times since to house advanced development studios, a full-sized outdoor football pitch, a cinema, a community garden (sought-after plots are available via a lottery every spring) and arcades, which offer shuffleboard and pinball among other things.

The campus is also home to one of the world’s largest permanent motion-capture facilities. With more than 1,600m² of stage space, the studio allows EA’s team to capture a player’s movement and technique in full flight. EA’s Real Player Motion Technology then uses something called ‘pose trajectory matching’ to marry up these parameters to every frame of animation, so that the game feels fluid and realistic.

Meanwhile, a dedicated team visits clubs around the world to scan player likenesses, so that their faces, measurements and emotions can be used in the game. Each scan is performed by a rig comprising 18 cameras and 16 custom lights; the photos are fed into software that creates a 3D model for a digital artist to edit and tidy up, ready for the animators.

Inclusion in the game is regarded as a personal milestone and some players even petition for their likenesses to be updated. “You can see [the game] becoming more and more real – I really liked that,” says İstanbul Başakşehir defender Rafael of his scan. “Of course, you can’t make everything perfect because players change their hair a lot.” 

If it’s in the game…

The statistical operation is equally meticulous – and debated. A network of trusted observers provide data for everyone in the game, which in turn influences the popular perception of the real guys on the pitch. Fans passionately contest these rankings, especially a player’s overall rating out of 100.

“We don’t ever see the data as perfect; refining and improving the accuracy of the database is a continual process, with changes made every day of the year,” explains Michael Müller-Möhring, head of data collection and licensing. “The performance of players in-game is determined by their individual attributes. The overall rating isn’t a comprehensive indication of the quality of a player and it could never suit the wide range of types of players in each position. It’s only a formula.”

Players themselves also take notice and sometimes ask for changes. Rafael is giving that approach some serious thought, having been unimpressed with his ratings compared to his twin brother. “Fabio was a little bit better than me – that’s not possible! My speed was slower than his; he had better passing [stats] than me. I haven’t called [EASports] to change it yet but I’m going to!”

If Rafael does decide to pick up the phone, he’ll be wasting his time. While some stats are estimates (it’s tricky to assign a value for free-kick accuracy to a player who never takes free-kicks, for example), Müller-Möhring says that the team will never compromise their database to indulge such a request. “We won’t change attributes because a footballer feels unfairly or incorrectly rated.”

Oh, and in case you were wondering: Mbappé’s pace rating of 96 is the joint highest in FIFA 21.

“I’VE BEEN PLAYING THIS GAME SINCE I WAS A KID AND I AM HONOURED TO REPRESENT A WHOLE NEW GENERATION OF FOOTBALLERS”

Changing role

Footballers have always played FIFA to pass the time on away trips; Rafael notes that former cover star Wayne Rooney was a big fan during their time together at Manchester United. Porto’s Brazilian midfielder Otávio is another keen advocate. “I play the game whenever I have some free time,” he says. “Players in FIFA have the same skills as in real life – if you get Neymar, he’ll do the stepover just the same.”

But the game has become so realistic that players are now learning from it. Everton forward Alex Iwobi researched opponents using the game when he was at Arsenal, while Borussia Dortmund defender Mats Hummels has said that FIFA has helped him to visualise new ways of playing. Retired Italian goalkeeper Marco Amelia once saved a penalty from Ronaldinho after noticing similarities between the Brazilian’s real run-up and the digital version.

FIFA’s long-term impact could be even greater. Youth coaches say that prospects are using the game to try out new strategies or skill moves, while video-game mechanics such as mission structures and superpowers are now used in training sessions. The game has also inspired a new breed of digital coaching tools powered by virtual reality and motion controls, which gained particular traction during lockdown.


The third way

It used to be that there were two main ways of experiencing football: playing the game and watching it. But FIFA has put itself firmly in the mix. According to a 2018 survey, supporters in the UK aged between 16 and 24 engage with the sport in three primary ways: a third interact by watching live games, 17% play video games and 14% play the real thing (the list also includes things like watching documentaries and reading transfer gossip). Meanwhile, an ESPN poll in 2014 found that a third of football fans in the US were attracted to the sport because of FIFA and half said the series had increased their interest.

Like that man Mbappé, FIFA has a cultural impact that transcends football. The game’s soundtrack is one example: it provides a massive boost in sales for the artists who are featured. Fan noise from the game is another, having been used by broadcasters to enhance the TV viewing experience during the pandemic. However, as the lines blur between the virtual and physical, it’s important not to let digital disputes spill over into the real world. “I try to pick myself all the time,” says Rafael. “But my brother’s not good, I put him on the bench. Just joking!”

But here’s something that’s no joke: Generation FIFA is here to stay. And like the boy from the Parisian suburb of Bondy who rose to become one of the most thrilling players on the planet (and a video-game cover star to boot), the only way is up.

Want more? Read our full interview with Jack Downer, a street footballer who specialises in panna, here.

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