How FIFA Games Changed Our Tastes in Music
An analysis of the soundtracks in the world’s most beloved soccer video game, from Blur to drum ’n’ bass.
This article originally appeared on Noisey Italy.
Anyone who, like me, has suffered through years of continual, relentless defeats at FIFA, complete with countless last-or-second-to-last placements in the rankings in tournaments with friends, knows all too well how frustrating it is to be faced with the last week of September, when the newest version of the game is released. Well, FIFA 18 has finally come out, and history, my fellow failed gamers, is repeating itself.
The first two matches, which took place at the home of one of my FIFA-nerd friends (they, it's worth mentioning, are evil), surrounded by other, just as fanatical friends, resulted in a double defeat: 2-1 and 6-0, respectively. Now, since it's never too late to take up cricket, I wanted to focus on one peripheral aspect of the game which, over time, has taken on an increasingly central role – the soundtrack.
Over the years, FIFA has become (and still is) a major catalyst for music, one that facilitated the diversification of tastes in a time when distinctions between genres was still a bedrock of music criticism – and of the social dynamics between adolescents. It was a game that steered music trends starting in the hodgepodge early 2000s, thus enabling the hybrid cross-pollination of one genre into countless subgenres (as was the case with trance and its spinoff, EDM), and finally landing, albeit for purely capitalistic motives, in the great harbour of globalised music.
Before I analyze the playlists of its current and past editions, I should start by saying that for many people, FIFA is not merely a game. FIFA is a state of being, a vessel of angst, a hierarchical organizer of the social ranks of your own crew. It's an addiction. FIFA is the anchor from which you can never stray too far, despite the repeated defeats, broken friendships, and controllers flung against the wall (if you've never broken a controller in a fit of FIFA rage, you can leave this little gathering of failed nerds immediately).
FIFA also opened the door for music to enter my life. Between one match and the next in the indoor arenas of FIFA 98, those first "woo-hoos" from Blur invaded my ears and the ears of hundreds of thousands of other kids, transforming a simple piece of college rock into an insurmountable classic and one of the fondest memories a modern 30-something can have.
And we haven't even mentioned the 16-bit FIFA… nah, just kidding. We won't talk about that.
The soundtracks in previous editions of FIFA, from the Nintendo 1994 version to the 1997 debut in the first PlayStation, were recorded by Electronic Arts Sports itself and seem diametrically opposed to the modern-day sprinkling of indie and electronica. These were sounds so ragged that re-listening to them, even twenty years later, hurts. Really hurts. The first five tracks alternate between full-on grunge (it was still that time) and guitar riffs so brutal they'd make Joe Satriani blush.
Next came FIFA 99, with Italy's own Christian "Bobo" Vieri gracing the cover of the Italian release (still a rookie striker back then), as well as the unnatural concept that was the European Dream League, a bizarre cross between the Champions League and a normal championship between the best European teams. Nostalgia run amok. That was the year of the trance-electronica boom.
Upon starting up the game, you'd hear the Dub Pistols Sick Junkie remix of "Gotta Learn" by Danmass, immediately followed by Dylan Rhymes' "Naked and Ashamed," prime tracks for recreating a trance atmosphere, Trainspotting style. Then, the crown jewel: Fatboy Slim, with their big beat number "The Rockafeller Skank," came pulsating into the gameplay options and line-up change screens, disrupting – but not too much – the excitement of a game that had clamorously evolved since its previous edition.
FIFA 2000 took the predominantly electronic slant of those versions and added a brief digression into pop, which in successive years would gradually gain more of a foothold. In those years, the song-ranking programs like Top of the Pops were going strong, and MTV still pretty much had the global monopoly on on-screen music.
And yet with the arrival of digital sharing platforms, something was shifting, and EA Sports knew it. The choice of tracks like "It's Only Us" by Robbie Williams or "Sell Out" by Reel Big Fish was no accident. Pop music could give the game not-insignificant added value, especially now that pressure was rising from competitor Konami with the release of ISS (or Winning Eleven, as it is known in Japan) for PlayStation.
With the new millennium came numerous small modifications to both the playability and the musical selection of the game, which only enriched it further. Remember, for instance, when the games would end if there weren't enough players on the field? I sure do: FIFA 2001 literally came in with a hard tackle, both in the video game market (along with PlayStation 2) and at the legs of its adversary.
This was the version that introduced the intentional foul, which, at least for me, changed the whole scope of the game: Forget scoring goals, just try and cripple as many opposing players as possible. This mod was the most useful way to vent my repressed pubescent sexual urges on whoever was unlucky enough to play me.
Also in this version, electronica won out over every other genre, going from Moby's evergreen
"Bodyrock" to the electro-funk of Utah Saints. Then came the first dubbed tracks, which in FIFA 2002 were curated by DJ Tiësto himself, followed by R4 and BT, with the one little exception – though it was still electronica – of the Soulchild remix of "19/2000" by Gorillaz.
Years passed, technologies advanced, and genres mutated: while Avril Lavigne's "Complicated" was flooding the airwaves, Electronic Arts and other video game production companies increasingly turned their attention toward drum 'n' bass and hip hop. Consoles were gaining capacity and speed, so there was more space for music, too.
From that point on, track lists kept growing, reaching 28 tunes in FIFA 2004, and including almost every genre in circulation. The choice cuts that year featured the unforgettable, glorious amalgamation of The Dandy Warhols, DJ Sensei, and "L.S.F." by Kasabian; then over to Kings of Leon, Caesars, Goldfrapp and Radiohead (yes, the song was "Myxomatosis"); finally arriving at The Stone Roses and the lovesick Tribalistas. All, incredibly, on the same version.
Though it was late in the game compared to FIFA, those were the years when Konami, too, embraced the philosophy of the peripheral and launched its counterstrike: The sound design on Pro Evolution Soccer also began to revolve around music rights and the artists who would have to be compensated for them. Hence Kasabian's arrival on its payroll, opening PES 2005 with "Club Foot."
Up to that point, the sound of PES's soundtracks had been for the most part recorded by Nekomata Master, the moniker of Naoyuki Sato, a writer and producer for Konami since 1999. It would be a few more years before the company understood the strategic importance of introducing, in addition to its original samples, tracks by international artists in their respective main menus. So beginning in 2009, a gradual course change commenced with "People Power" and "Do It Again" by Anderson Shelter. These were followed in 2010 by The Chemical Brothers (with killer tracks "Midnight Madness" and "Galaxy Bounce"), Stereophonics with "A Thousand Trees," and – my wake-up alarm for years – "Dakota"; but also Keane, Kaiser Chiefs, Hoobastank and DJ Shadow.
From then on, its playlists would be arranged in more or less the same way as FIFA's – a heterogeneous mix of genres with international artists and bursts of techno/trance here and there.
2005 was also the year of FIFA Street, that perverse experiment made by people who clearly had a problem with soccer, for people with an equally clear problem with soccer. This problem, however, did not extend to the music. The soundtrack of the first FIFA Street was a hot one: Waves of tropical sounds and reggae rhythms that married perfectly with the utterly surreal atmosphere of the game. Also contributing to this fantastic landscape of sub-equatorial sound was Fatboy Slim, with "Jin Go La Ba."
Getting back to the classic FIFA 2005 (and while we're on the subject, let me just remind you of a few of the players: Kaka, van Nistelrooy, Shevchenko, Henry, Del Piero, Fernando Morientes, Ronaldinho, Owen, Zidane, Beckham, and His Majesty, captain Francesco Totti), on top of the aforementioned Brothers and Sandro Bit, there was also Flogging Molly and Franz Ferdinand, demonstrating how EA's artistic direction sought to respect the peculiarities and demands of an increasingly globalised music scene, on both geographic and economic levels. In other words, they were covering their asses.
From then on, the music selection would lean more toward pop-rock, firmly distancing itself from the exclusively electronic sound of the earliest years, but leaving no other popular genre behind. For example, a few days ago EZ released the official playlist of this year's version: 39 tracks, for a good two and a half hours of highly variegated playback. From Run the Jewels to ODESZA, from The National, xx, and Alt-J to Slowdive, it's a kitchen-sink playlist that shows, once again, how music can enrich the gaming experience and drive musical culture for generations old and new.
Now excuse me, because me and my Paris Saint-Germain team are due for an umpteenth thrashing. If you ever wish to re-immerse yourself in memories of your youth, now lost forever (just accept it), I'll leave you with a playlist, selected by yours truly, with the best tracks from the last two decades of a game that has left its mark on childhoods around the world. And remember: FIFA nerds are evil, especially when they know how to pull off a rabona.
Follow Noisey on Twitter.