Is the evolution of the FIFA game soundtracks a reflection of our changing views of masculinity?

Is the evolution of the FIFA game soundtracks a reflection of our changing views of masculinity?
Lad rock is out, emotionally vulnerable pop is in, but what does the changing face of the musical accompaniment to one of the world’s most popular game franchises tell us about contemporary masculinity? Ali Shutler investigates.

There’s no escaping it, The Beautiful Game has become even more beautiful in recent years. High profile shows like Welcome To Wrexham have highlighted the generation-spanning communal power of supporting your local football team, Ted Lasso has explored mental health and racism against the backdrop of a plucky relegation battle, while the ongoing success of the England’s Women’s Team continues to inspire fans, new and old.

It's all a far cry from what the sport used to represent. Football was the beating heart of what it meant to be a man in the ’90s - loud, brash and a bit violent. Saturday and Wednesday matches were the focal point of the week, with footballers and their bad behaviour celebrated by the media. Despite the grubbiness, the whole thing was aspirational and hugely popular.

Unsurprisingly, the male-dominated world of video games also wanted a piece of the action. FIFA International Soccer launched in 1993 for the Sega Mega Drive and went on to sell 500,000 copies in its first month. A surprise hit, future editions featured licensed players, teams and, starting with FIFA 98: Road To The World Cup, an enviable soundtrack. Those early, turn of the century, editions featured the likes of Blur’s ‘Song 2’, Kasabian’s ‘L.S.F.’ and Fatboy Slim’s ‘Rockafella Skank’. The sort of swaggering anthems that could be bellowed from football terraces.

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FIFA games (or EA FC as it’s been known since 2023) remain as popular as ever. In total, the 31 games in the franchise have sold over 325 million copies, with EA FC 24 the biggest selling game in the UK last year. While the gameplay has largely remained the same, with graphical updates and an ever-increasing roster of teams the big draw to buy the latest edition, the soundtrack has shifted massively. Rather than guitar-driven indie bangers by the likes of Kasabian, The Stone Roses, Kings Of Leon and Oasis, FIFA 23 featured the likes of pop superstar Rosalia, dance revivalist Nia Archives and rapper Kojey Radical. Of the hundred songs featured, it’s only really Sea Girls’ ‘Falling Apart’ and Chappaqua Wrestling’s ‘Full Round Table’ that feel like “classic” FIFA Anthems. Does this evolution mark a change in ‘masculinity’? Or is it savvy marketing?

Today, you can’t load up a video game with some sort of musical crossover. The hugely popular Fortnite has its own Guitar Band-inspired game-mode, with Billie Eilish, Lady Gaga and The Weeknd all getting involved while fans are just as interested in who’s going to be on the Grand Theft Auto 6 soundtrack as they are as to when the game’s actually going to be released. Back when FIFA started using licensed music though, they were very much breaking new ground. “If I am totally honest, I had no idea about gaming,” says Norman Cook, aka Fatboy Slim, whose track ‘Rockafella Skank’ was featured on the FIFA 99 soundtrack. “I don’t even remember being asked about it, but I would probably have just shrugged and said, ‘why not?’, cos I like football.”

He soon had kids too young to go clubbing introduced to his music though, as Fatboy Slim became one of the first of countless artists to feel the benefit of the “FIFA effect”. “The crossover between pop music and football has been clear to me since I went to my first game in 1972 and Charlton Athletic fans were singing their own take on ‘Son Of My Father’ by Chicory Tip,” explains Norman, who grew up going to Crystal Palace games before moving to Brighton. He’s now director of the town's football club, Brighton & Hove Albion. “Obviously the vibe on the terrace has always been very masculine and at times aggressive but that was not always reflected in the musical choices,” he continues, name checking Pet Shop Boys’ “gay anthem” ‘Go West’ and Gala’s eurodance track ‘Freed From Desire’ as match day favourites.

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“The makers of FIFA must employ some very clever people who are clued up on what is happening in pop culture,” he says. “Their use of ‘Rockafella Skank’ was very early in my career, before I had become mainstream. Those people have their fingers on the pulse and reflect and influence the mood of their customers,” he adds, suggesting that the evolution of the soundtrack comes from wanting to remain at the cutting edge of culture. “Queer music has often led the pack in pop music and long may it continue to do so.”

Sea Girls’ bassist Andrew Dawson has been playing FIFA games since the noughties, drawn to the challenge of taking a struggling league 2 team all the way to lifting the Champions League trophy, while the soundtracks have been really important in shaping his taste in music. “It was always a great way of discovering new music, particularly more guitar focused bands,” he explains. Getting ‘Falling Apart’ into FIFA 23 was a really big deal for the band as well. “​​We always saw the soundtrack as a big marker of recognition and we always strived to be included. We’ve worked with Football Beyond Borders and sponsored the Muswell Hill AFC Men and Women so it’s great to have our passion for football realised in such a significant full circle way.”

Lyrically, the music of FIFA has become less “You're fit, but my gosh, don't you know it?” and more emotional and reflective. Glass Animals’ ‘Heat Waves’, which, with over 2bn plays is the most streamed FIFA song of all time, is macho escapism delivered with a self-aware grin and was written about the death of a dear friend. It helped the sweater-wearing, Oxford-based band become one of the biggest guitar groups in the world.

For vocalist Dave Bayley though, he was never worried about introducing their tender, emotionally driven indie rock into the world of FIFA because he never saw the games as macho. “I always associate the games with playing them with my brother, and the love I have for him.”

“Those soundtracks had to appeal to everyone, and they’ve become increasingly thoughtful”

Dave Bayley, Glass Animals vocalist.

A self-confessed nerd at school, Dave was more comfortable playing football via video games than getting involved in the actual sport. “I played with my friends, who were all a bit awkward as well but the jocks all played FIFA together as well. Those soundtracks had to appeal to everyone, and they’ve become increasingly thoughtful,” he explains. “It’s been an honour to be a part of them.”

The absolute power of the FIFA and EA Sports FC soundtrack can’t be understated either. Work begins on each instalment at least a full year in advance, with a spot on the soundtrack introducing artists to a whole new audience, and the increased interest, streams and potential ticket sales that come with it. It’s no accident that the only time 2024’s Coachella audience looked remotely interested during Blur’s performance was when they played ‘Song 2’.

“I have one rule for my EA Music team: If it’s on the radio, it’s too late,” says Steve Schnur, worldwide executive of music and marketing at EA, who has been heading up the FIFA soundtracks since 2002. Rather than playing it safe, their annual mission is “to find, secure and deliver the best new songs, hottest new artists and most exciting new music trends that will move the global needle for the year to come.” No wonder the soundtrack has evolved so much in recent years.

Instead of focusing on the sort of songs that can be chanted at games, “all the music we love comes from artists and composers whose work elicits an emotional reaction in us,” says Steve. “In life, art, and game soundtracks, that’s the only trigger that truly matters. When I first took over EA’s music department over 20 years ago, I knew that sports game music needed to start reflecting what the next generation wanted to hear,” he continues. Our soundtracks no longer reflect culture; they’ve become culture.”

You don’t need to look far to see how the broader culture around music has shifted over the past two decades. Across social media and at gigs, an entire generation of women have started reclaiming the macho world of metal as part of the #Girlypop trend, performing cute dances over brutal anthems from bands like Slipknot. “I fucking love it,” Corey Taylor told me last year. “I know it doesn’t make a lot of our old-school fans happy, but they’re just grumpy pricks. To me, anytime our music makes anybody smile, dance, or let go of the bullshit in their lives, that’s what it’s all about.”

At the same time, EA Sports FC has steadily increased the spotlight it’s shone on the women’s game, with the 2024 edition of the game featuring a dedicated women’s Team Of The Year, five fully-licensed women’s leagues from across the globe alongside a number of iconic female footballers as playable characters. “According to recent studies, 40% of all sports participants are female, while women gamers comprise 46% of the 3.2 billion global gaming community,” explained Steve.

Despite these positive steps forward, the attitude at stadiums for men’s matches seems stuck in the past. But first, a quick history lesson. Football has been played for hundreds of years by both men and women but during the first World War, women’s football really began to thrive. In the peacetime years that immediately followed, 150 female teams existed in the UK with some drawing crowds of up to 45,000 people. However in 1921 organised women’s football was banned by the Football Association. “The game of football is unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged,” they said in a statement. That ban was only overturned in 1970, but the idea of women not being able to play football has persisted.

Football became the playground of working class men but, as its popularity grew across the world, big business got involved. It’s now a multi-billion pound industry, with high-level sponsorships and broadcast rights deals that cover every corner of the game. Instead of championing local business and shared passion, the top flight of English football seems to be more concerned with making as much money as possible, with those same working class communities slowly being squeezed out.

“Our soundtracks no longer reflect culture; they’ve become culture.”

Steve Schnur, worldwide executive of music and marketing at EA

“It is this weird juxtaposition,” says Jamie Osman, co-host of the They Think It’s All Sober podcast, which straddles the worlds of music, football and sobriety. “Football does seem to be losing its traditional identity. It has always been a place where men have been allowed to be men,” he continues. “But now we’re in a world where men are being held accountable for things, which is incredibly positive and long overdue, but it does mean that young men who are still trying to find themselves can end up feeling like the world is against them,” offers Jamie. “So when people like Andrew Tate or Ed Matthews offer them a voice and a sense of identity in an online echo chamber, it’s not surprising they’re taking it, even if it’s this hyper-toxic masculinity.” Jamie goes on to note the irony in music, masculinity and football. “Whilst there is only one openly gay footballer, all of the lads in the terraces have been singing songs to the melodies of queer artists since the 80's.”

“I’ve been going to games since I was four and it’s always been an escape for me. You can sit next to a stranger for years, and you’ll share more hugs, tears and joy than any other person you’re close with.” It’s the same with FIFA, with gamers making small talk between multiplayer matches and getting a chance to vent, even if they’re not totally aware of it. “Football is this real silent community for men,” says Jamie. “It’s so positive, but it can also be incredibly toxic. There still needs to be a cultural shift, and maybe that starts with people being more vocal about things,” says Jamie, and Andrew agrees: “Things are definitely changing for the better, with men able to be more open and honest about their mental health, which is great to see.” Everyone agrees more work needs to be done to break down the barriers, and music is a great way to trojan horse a change in outlook. “If people are more easily able to access music that helps them process their emotions, provide some sort of catharsis or feel like they are being represented, that can only be a good thing.”

“EA has long been the pioneers and leaders in diversity and inclusion in sports games, and our approach to soundtracks will remain the same and then some,” promises Steve, wanting his games to continue to shape culture. “That’s a pretty amazing legacy to have. And I will always love the challenge of evolving it.”

Dave believes Glass Animals’ shift from lad rock to something more eclectic, flamboyant and emotionally tender is a reflection of how traditional masculinity has changed. ”Look at the recent match between Usyk and Fury. Boxing is incredibly masculine, but you also had Tyson Fury talking about his mental health. I hope there’s more of an openness nowadays.” That shift has inspired Glass Animals music as well, with new album ‘I Fucking Love You’ the most vulnerable, revealing music the band has ever put out.

The FIFA soundtracks have undoubtedly reflected the way music and culture has shifted over the past two decades. Thanks to streaming, the tribalism of genre is a thing of the past while artists being more open, more direct about things like mental health and sexuality has helped remove some of the stigma. Masculinity has changed as well, but it’s a more gradual, abrasive shift with that evolution experiencing some real growing pains in recent years. The more ideas and outlooks that are introduced into football and other playgrounds of masculinity, the less daunting that growth will seem.

A version of this story will appear in Huck 81, which is coming soon.

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