Cristiano Ronaldo and the stars of world football will jam out on FIFA 22 starting Oct 1. (Photo viaSimon Stacpoole/Offside/Getty Images)
GAMING & ESPORTS

EA Sports’ FIFA: How Soccer Found its Sound

For more than 20 years, the FIFA video games have introduced fans around the world to the world’s emerging superstars — in music.

On Christmas Morning 1997, fans of the Beautiful Game around the globe unwrapped copies of EA Sports‘ latest killer app, FIFA: Road to World Cup ’98. Peeling off the plastic, a young David Beckham adorned the Nintendo 64 cover art and the cartridge contained access to everything from Ronaldo’s revered dribbling moves to Thierry Henry’s consistent kicks.

As fans from Tokyo to Torino to Tulsa waged an internal conflict over whether to play as their home country or an overseas favorite, a wave of audio suddenly electrified their anticipation like a monsoon of Mountain Dew as suspenseful drums and anxious guitar riffs gave way to a wailing, ‘WOO-HOO!’

No, this wasn’t “We Will Rock You,” and you can bet it wasn’t an old favorite from The Rolling Stones.

Rather, it was “Song 2,” a single from Britpop darlings Blur that debuted on UK radio only months before FIFA ’98 first released.

Relatively foreign — literally and figuratively — to the global audience of grade-schoolers, teenagers, and college students plugging in the game for the first time, the amped-up track from the boys from Blur (whose frontman later co-founded FIFA soundtrack favorite Gorillaz) instantly spoke to the specific energy of soccer in that moment, one that featured the World Cup returning to Europe in a matter of months and the turn of the millennium dawning in just two short years.

Soon enough, football clubs like Italy’s Juventus, England’s Liverpool, and Australia’s Western United FC would all play Blur’s famous FIFA theme song at their home stadiums any time their team scored a goal.

Instantly, EA Sports and its FIFA soundtracks weren’t just on to something — they were creating something.

EA’s ambition proves true in 2021 as the franchise has rolled out the playlist for FIFA 22 just ahead of the game’s official release on Oct. 1.

Less like NOW That’s What I Call Music! and much more like FADER for footballers, the playlist has the same energy when it comes to introducing a global audience to — not so much the latest and greatest tracks — but rather the ones that are next.

“My team and I have been doing the FIFA soundtrack since 2002,” EA Music President Steve Schnur told Boardroom. “It was always about a collective and connective energy. It was about the ‘oh-my-lord’ moments that come from discovering something that was not only going to change your life in the year ahead, but literally be something that you’d reflect on for the rest of your life.”

Profound? Yes. However, Schnur doesn’t just sell this idea of discovery through FIFA. He lives it.

Case in point: In the early 2000s, Schnur traveled all the way to London to hear an American band that was gaining traction in the UK. That band happened to be Kings of Leon, whose single “Red Morning Light” quickly headlined FIFA 2004, making a sonic splash similar to Blur years before.

The placement catapulted a Nashville outfit called Kings of Leon from indie radio into stadiums through both matchday music and full-on arena tours.

Needless to say, gamers and musicians took notice.

“It’s not hard anymore to convince the next great band to want to be in FIFA,” Schnur said. “Initially, I had to go out and travel a lot of miles to convince bands that being in FIFA was a good thing. A few people got it, but a lot didn’t.”

In 2021, everyone gets it. Furthermore, people are now traveling to Schnur for a chance to get a song in each year’s edition of FIFA.

Because of this, the popularity around FIFA has made curating the soundtrack all the more meticulous and important. Schnur realizes that in this day and age, fans not only discover music through video games, they discover sport, as wild as that may seem. This in turn makes games like FIFA the foundation for dreams of being an athlete, gamer, or even a musician.

“It’s an aspiration based off a virtual experience,” Schnur said. “You’re probably learning to love the sport through a video game and that relationship with the sport has a sound you grow up with it.”

That sound is exactly what Schnur and his team are working on diligently. The responsibility to influence culture is not lost on anyone in the EA Sports music division, and it’s exemplified on the sprawling 122-song soundtrack to FIFA 22, which marks its worldwide release Oct. 1

“I have a team that’s just ridiculously good and on the pulse of everything that will be coming ahead,” Schnur said. “We’re talking about thousands of songs that we go through to get to that 122. It’s not like we looked at 130 and cut eight. Whether it’s 122 or 22 doesn’t matter. We have to acknowledge humbly that every year, it is one of the most anticipated curated playlists there are.”

While Schnur works out of Nashville, his team is tracking talent to create a soundtrack that speaks to an entire world of football fans. Naturally, the artists reflect that range.

This year’s playlist highlights everyone from West London rapper AJ Tracey to Scottish synth-pop trio CHVRCHES to English indie rock outfit Glass Animals. They’re joined by domestic acts like boy-band-meets-hip-hop group BROCKHAMPTON and lyric-led duo Run the Jewels, who first appeared on FIFA airwaves in 2017.

Elsewhere on the sonic spectrum, electronic mainstays like Swedish House Mafia and DJ Snake appear along with The Chemical Brothers, who make a spirited return after contributing to early installments of the FIFA franchise.

And while those may all be names you know, it’s always more about the names you don’t.

Yet.

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“We want to pull people into what they don’t know yet,” Schnur said. “Music is global. Somebody from Japan might fall in love with something from Italy. What FIFA does is flattens the globe, so to speak. There’s music from France, Israel, Australia, the US, the UK, and so on and so forth.”

This fall, fans around the world will discover new music from distant regions. It’s what FIFA was about in 1997 and that’s still the case in 2021.

Similar to peeling off the plastic on FIFA: Road to World Cup 98, the next Blur or Kings of Leon will invade homes through the all-new FIFA 22. Whether playing the video game or attending a game, those new songs will penetrate soccer practices through the sonic senses the same way orange slices are tied to taste buds.

“It’s the sound of a sport,” Schnur said. “The people in the stands and the players on the field are the people who matter and should determine what the sport sounds like. As long as we adhere to that point of view and it’s not a corporate venture? Then we’re good and we have soundtracks like this that continually change the sound of the sport.”

Two decades ago, the FIFA franchise was able to bring Blur and its edgy excitement into stadiums ranging from Italy to Australia.

With FIFA 22, the new artists gain the same power to push culture and influence world football through virtual discovery all the way to pitch pandemonium.

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