On Tuesday, FIFA '16 was released, and for the first time in 22 years, the best-selling EA Sports franchise features women soccer players. EA has taken just about every opportunity to brag about how they painstakingly used motion-capture on real women's players to create spot-on virtual likenesses—something that had been done for the men's players for over a decade.
FIFA '16 is far from the first women's soccer video game to hit the market, however. In 2000, the now-defunct publisher South Peak Interactive released Mia Hamm Soccer 64 for Nintendo 64. It was the first game to feature female athletes exclusively, without a single male player in the game. The game was released specifically in American markets, and sold a relatively high 42,886 copies (for comparison, Earthworm Jim, a popular contemporary title, sold 76,000 copies).
At the time, the U.S. had just hosted the 1999 FIFA Women's World Cup. America won, Brandi Chastain whipped off her shirt to reveal a sports bra, and the country ate it up. At the same time, America was also in the throes of the Spice Girls' "Girl Power" pop feminism movement and the advertising for Mia Hamm Soccer 64 followed suit.
With a Disneyfied riot grrrl song in the background, singers asked players if they were "chick enough," while words flashed on the screen, advising, "Next time someone tells you, 'you play like a girl,' tell them 'thank you.'"
South Peak bought the rights to the project at what seemed like an opportune moment. "It was a time when soccer moms came about, and when kids were just really interested in soccer," said John Schutts, the lead producer on the game.
South Peak had a limited time frame to make Mia Hamm Soccer 64: in addition to capitalizing on the success of the Women's World Cup, there was also the upcoming Electronics Entertainment Expo (E3) and the 2000 Sydney Olympics, where Hamm would captain the women's national team.
So in 12 weeks, programmers and animators hastily built off an engine originally designed for Michael Owen WLS 2000, a game for the same system sold in Europe. Whereas WLS 2000 used motion-capture for its male athletes, Mia Hamm Soccer 64 was hand-animated.
"We compared it to shots of women running sideways, and stuff like that," said Mark Greenshields, the lead programmer on Mia Hamm 64 and current CEO of Firebrand Games. "But essentially, it was get it done and make it look as good as you can."
One of the bigger challenges for his team, Greenshields said, was extracting code designed for male video game characters and repurposing it for women.
"We didn't have time to do it perfectly, but obviously Mia Hamm is a very small, slight, very fit woman," said Greenshields. "She's not 6'4" and 250 pounds. If I recall, she was 5'2" and maybe 95 pounds."
"The main difference was making sure that when they moved, they actually looked like women," said Greenshields. "Because women and men run differently, y'know, despite what a lot of feminists care to claim—men and women are different. We're different physically. We move in a different way. Our skeleton has slightly different structure. We're basically the same, but you watch a woman walking down the street and a guy, you know it's a woman—forget the shape of the butt or anything else—they move in a particular way."
Greenshields said that, at the time, there weren't too many women who worked on video games. Mia Hamm Soccer 64's developer team was indeed all-male. In an industry that to this day is criticized for its narrow portrayals of women—seemingly always relegated to damsels in distress or fembots in bikinis—a game about female athletes grounded in reality was practically revolutionary.
Reviews ran the gamut. "Unlike all other soccer titles on the N64, this one doesn't feature loads of testosterone sweaty men—more like loads of testosterone sweaty women," said IGN in one review. Another IGN preview referred to the avatars as "more shapely women characters."
Melanie Mroz, one of the marketers for Mia Hamm Soccer 64, found that selling the game to retailers such as Walmart, GameStop, and Blockbuster wasn't easy.
"From a sales standpoint, retailers were reluctant, based on it being a female soccer game," said Mroz.
But its relative success proved that titles starring women weren't doomed to fail.
"At the time, bringing awareness or supporting [female gamers'] efforts in that space was meaningful, because it hadn't been recognized by the gaming community at that time," said Mroz. "[_Mia Hamm Soccer 64_] was a milestone at that point. It meant a couple of things for gaming, because there was more of a female gaming space than other publishers were leading to believe."
Now, at the end of another Women's World Cup cycle, EA Sports has finally included women in FIFA '16, even featuring Alex Morgan on their cover. While women's player ratings are based on a different scale from the men and there are no mixed-gender teams, extensive work went into making sure that female players arrived in the most realistic way possible.
In an interview with Forbes, Nick Channon, a senior producer of FIFA, responded to a question about why it had taken so long for EA to integrate women into the game. "The biggest challenge was how to scale the body," said Channon. "Now we are looking at shoulders and hips. It's allowed us to create much more variety in body types so we can create great representation of female bodies."
He also didn't fail to mention the difficulty of executing the hair, susceptible of falling into the uncanny valley between reality and virtual reality. "It just doesn't look right if you're not animating [the ponytails]," said Channon. "If we want to bring women in in a very authentic way, it felt something we needed to do."
At the time that Mia Hamm Soccer 64 was released (with its own lack of hair movement), IGN had recognized the shortcomings of what was considered to be cutting edge technology at the time. "It really doesn't matter if this game features men or women players, since you'll never really tell the difference in terms of both visuals and gameplay."
So perhaps FIFA '16's efforts to integrate realistic representations of female players weren't entirely in vain, even if they arrived late. Despite its flaws, Mia Hamm Soccer 64 had at least taken a stab at putting women in the game 15 years prior.