Human peacock-stroke-footbot Cristiano Ronaldo is probably the best football player in the world, and has been for many years now. Which is why Ronaldo, in all his preening glory, is not only this year's FIFA 19 cover star but was to play some role in The Journey, the game's newish campaign mode centring around the football career of Alex Hunter.
Now, Ronaldo's only gone and buggered off to Juventus for a synapse-shattering £99.2 million English pounds, a fee that arguably reflects his talent but is also astonishing for a player who's 33 (mind you, Ronaldo is so dedicated he's probably capable of staying in top flight football till he's 40). And what I immediately thought was, oops, hope EA hasn't printed those FIFA 19 covers yet...
Now that's no biggie, the game's not being released till September 23rd and I'm sure someone at EA is beavering away on a nice new shot of Ronny in his Juve clobber as we speak. The bigger issue, however, may involve something that's harder to change, which is that The Journey has set up Ronaldo and Real Madrid as a key element of Alex Hunter's story.
In FIFA 18 one of the key story beats – and this is your spoiler alert – is an early encounter with Real Madrid, after which Alex and Ronaldo swap numbers. This soon leads to the prospect of Real Madrid signing Hunter, who puts in a transfer request and becomes a hated figure at his club. Unfortunately everything goes wrong, the proposed move is a bust, and after various tribulations hopping around more mid-tier clubs, this chapter of The Journey closes with a cliffhanger.
Hunter is having dinner with his family when he gets a call from a high-powered agent called Beatriz Villanova. After an entire campaign centred around Hunter screwing up his career by going for a move to Real Madrid, the carrot she dangles is thus: "frankly if you were my client you'd be a Real Madrid player right now." Things are looking up for Hunter, and that's the end.
To be clear, what I'm about to write is speculation and not insider knowledge. But it seems obvious to me that FIFA 18's version of The Journey was setting up FIFA 19 to finally deliver the Real Madrid arc for Alex Hunter. Ronaldo is one of the players who features in the cutscenes, and is of course presented as the footballing icon and example he is. Who knows what direction the FIFA developers chose to take with The Journey this time, but I'd be surprised if there weren't at least a few key moments involving Ronaldo at Real Madrid.
Hunter to Juventus? Replace Ronaldo in key scenes with another Madrid great? How do you solve a problem like real life? This is an amazing example of just how enormous and reactive FIFA has become as a product, and that goes for EA Sports games more generally. From the early days of once-a-year entries they have moved on to the online updating of rosters and now the modern versions' packed and constantly updated variety of modes.
What FIFA's recent direction of travel indicates is that it understands football fandom is about far more than what happens on the pitch. The Journey is one of the results of this, constructing a story-led single player campaign for a sports game using the kinds of program filters and personalities that fans are familiar with. Crafting the fairytale of a superstar lifestyle, and making that as important a part of FIFA as the matches.
In other words, Ronaldo's move to Juventus may have caused the FIFA development team serious behind-the-scenes issues. That's both a bigger problem than it used to be (EA Sports has had issues with cover stars transferring before, but that just means issuing a new cover) and reflective of how intertwined real-life football and the FIFA games have become. The virtual world now moves in lockstep with events we watch play out on our television screens, and who would bet against FIFA 19, at the time of release, using Ronaldo's move to its own benefit both in-game and out.
It's funny but, over the years, I've come to appreciate more and more how EA Sports has been built, the quality of the products it turns out, and how the core concept behind them is something special to EA as a company. It's a slogan I've been seeing for decades now, and the 16-bit synthesised voice plays through my mind whenever I see it. You look at the Ronaldo move, and the limited time FIFA 19 has to react, and you know they'll pull through. Because if it's in the game then, these days more than ever, it's in the game.