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Virtual soccer now a World Cup fan's best prediction tool

FIFA, the video game, has become strikingly lifelike, turning it into a World Cup fanatic's simulation playground.

FIFA 14. EA Sports

Thursday marks the kickoff of the 2014 World Cup, signaling the start of a global guessing game about which two teams will appear in the finals of the 64-match tournament.

But any would-be Nostradamuses out there, be warned: If past is prologue when it comes to this quadrennial spectacle, a host of uncontrollable outcomes will point the fate of the world's biggest sporting event toward a surprise finish.

That won't stop soccer fanatics from prognosticating, of course. And now they can take advantage of a variety of high-tech tools to assist in making their predictions.

In particular, they can try their luck making a different type of forecast, called virtual simulation, to play out the World Cup in all its potential variations. They can do this with the help of video games under the helm of Electronic Arts' increasingly sophisticated and lifelike FIFA franchise. In FIFA, players not only step into the roles of players, but they also can tap into the series' realism and statistical foundation to test their brackets, simulate future bouts, and sometimes, even rewrite history for their personal enjoyment.

Starting on June 12, the series' latest main installment, FIFA 14, will let players fire up the game and jump right into a World Cup kickoff mode. The game will feature matches that coincide with that day's real-world tournament showdowns -- accurate down to the rosters, player positions, and even weather conditions of that day's matchups.

EA understands that -- contrary to the fantastical capacities of more traditional video games -- players want FIFA to be as realistic as possible. Indeed, FIFA became one of the most established gaming brands in the world by offering an interactive simulator that lets users experiment with a tightly controlled playground while inching ever closer to photo realism and mechanical perfection.

Striving to match the beautiful game

FIFA has long since ousted its EA Sports (American) football companion, Madden, in sales and worldwide reach. FIFA 2012 remains the industry's highest-earning sports game ever. FIFA 13 sold a staggering 4.5 million copies in five days, qualifying it as the most successful sports game launch in history. As of last year, the franchise had earned EA more than $6 billion since 1993.

How to explain FIFA's dominance? The series' formula -- like the game it simulates -- is a simple yet elegant focus on the basics. With each annual installment from EA, players are given an experience not drastically different, but tweaked and refined in a way that doesn't tire. Because the game captures a snapshot of that year's soccer landscape, each FIFA version constitutes a slice of soccer history running on a sophisticated interactive playing field that lets you, say, relive the glory days of Brazilian superstar Ronaldinho or play as a 21-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo, now a legendary 29-year-old Portuguese star.

EA Sports

But to say that each game is just a near-identical iteration with updated team rosters undermines the technical labor going into the underlying foundations of FIFA. It was EA's behind-the-scenes statistical database-building and the face- and motion-capture technology that began ushering in a new generation of high-fidelity sports game with the launch of the previous generation of game consoles, around 2006.

With FIFA, those elements are key to the realism and its success as an iterative franchise, but also precisely why the game is becoming so accurate. It all starts with stats.

"We have a big team that's spread all across the world. We call them the database collection team. They're responsible for gathering all the up-to-date stats and plugging them into the game," said Kantcho Doskov, a veteran EA Sports animator and game play producer for the FIFA series. Located in Vancouver, Doskov is part of a roughly 200-person team at EA Sports responsible for taking those stats and building the virtual environments, players, and game play fundamentals around them.

That's no small feat. The number of FIFA stats is staggering. There are six base stats -- pace, shooting, dribbling, passing, defending, and heading. In deeper dives, there are over two dozen more, including acceleration, short passing, volleys, acceleration, balance, and sprint speed. There are even mental stats, like vision and aggression, that dictate how the players' artificial intelligence profile manifests in in-game behavior. All the stats are "heavily scrutinized" by the FIFA team, Doskov said, and continuously updated in an overarching player profile that attempts to be as realistic as possible.

Argentinian forward Lionel Messi, considered by many to be the best player in the world, is the highest-ranked player in FIFA 14. Screenshot by Nick Statt/CNET

And the stats are not just used to compare players. The numbers are what get plugged into FIFA's physics engine and dictate exactly how hard a kick is, how fast the ball then moves, or what it takes for a player to beat another to a ball through a mix of their competing sprint speed, acceleration, reaction time, stamina, and agility.

The most fascinating element is in the way in-game players change over time and how that's represented in FIFA. Because the stat collection is much like digging a deeper hole year after year, the player profiles become more accurate and well-rounded, able to monitor more subtle shifts in aspects like speed and shot power that are illustrated on the real-world pitch.

"The way Wayne Rooney runs is most likely the same style that he did five years ago. But perhaps the way he's able to shoot the ball is not as good anymore or better. We have tons and tons of attributes and trades, and as the seasons progresses, we update the player stats, and that affects how well they play in the game," Doskov explained.

FIFA's stats system is so revered by gamers -- who use it to dictate recruiting in the game's team-building career mode and to help win arguments over which player is better than another -- that real-world soccer stars with hurt egos often scrutinize EA for its choices. Of course, many are avid fans of the series themselves.

"There are instances where players say that they're faster in real life than they are in the game," Doskov said. "We go to the teams and scan their faces, and usually during those times, they'll ask us the question."

A database of faces, for the good of the game

Face scanning, as Doskov puts it, sounds a little dystopian. But rather than a tool of government surveillance, it's one of the many integral elements in EA Sports' body- and motion-capturing arsenal that has raised FIFA's fidelity to new heights.

Each year, as FIFA gets more popular, soccer stars begin to lower their defenses and agree to go through with the multicamera capturing process. The result is facial features and body renderings that you can easily mistake for a television broadcast -- with eyes, ears, and hair precision sculpted, and shoulders, legs, and torsos propositioned perfectly, and all moving accurately according to each player's stat profile and specific style.

As the cover star for FIFA 13 and FIFA 14's global editions, Argentinian forward Lionel Messi has received the full face- and motion-capture treatment for the games. EA Sports

It's not just for show. Beyond face capturing, EA's visual focus also trickles down into how the players move on the field. "Moving on to next-gen and having all that extra memory to play with, we can have hundreds and hundreds of new animations. Having all that extra room allows us to create much more variety in the types of kicks and run cycles and headers," Doskov said. With motion capture, those capabilities are more fully utilized.

"We went to England to capture Gareth Bale," Doskov added. Bale, a 24-year-old Welsh up-and-coming superstar who plays seasonally for Spain's acclaimed Real Madrid club, is known as much for his speed as he is for a David Beckham-level of free kick prowess.

"The way he does his free kick, the way he runs...He's one of the fastest players in real life," Doskov said. Motion capture "allows us to get a level of authenticity in the motions that we can't usually get."

With last year's FIFA 13 and now FIFA 14, the technology is even going beyond human beings, to soccer balls.

"Now we're doing a lot of work, partnering with Adidas, to get more realistic ball physics into the game -- seeing how the ball reacts when it hits the ground, how it spins off the feet after a shot or pass or dribble or first touch," Doskov said.

"Every year I'm amazed at how realistic it [FIFA] is," so much so that it's no surprise, Doskov said, that rumors and stories have existed for years of coaches and players warming up on game day -- and scouting the opposing team -- with a few FIFA matches, simulating and effectively attempting to predict that day's outcome.

Doskov also likes to think FIFA has become more than entertainment. It's a tool that's just as good at predicting outcomes with its underlying physics and algorithms as it is a database of the world's best players, young and old, prominent and overlooked. "I'd say it's as good as any scouting systems out there," he said.