“I’ve been playing FIFA competitively since 09 but it's only as of about January this year I learned to control my aggression towards it,” says David Bytheway. Bytheway, a competitive FIFA player from Wolverhampton, reached last year’s FIFA Interactive World Cup final in Rio De Janeiro, but fell at the last hurdle to Denmark’s August Rosenmeier.
The game finished 3-1 with Bytheway squandering a first half lead, compounding the disappointment of missing out on not just the $20,000 prize money, but also an invitation to the 2014 Ballon D’or - FIFA’s prestigious real life world player of the year awards ceremony.
When Rosenmeier netted the third goal just 14 in-game minutes from time, the match was all but over. The jubilant Dane lept from his seat, roared in a fit of triumph, and thrust a fist into the air. He sat back and let out a sigh of relief. He knew he’d done enough. Bytheway, on the other hand, stared straight ahead. He crossed and uncrossed his legs, glanced momentarily at his opponent, then fixed his gaze back on his screen.
“When you're side by side with someone you always want to keep your anger under control,” explains Bytheway. “You don’t want to let your opponents know you're starting to get frustrated - some players can sense that and make it worse by talking you out of the game.”
In 2014, a staggering 1.9 million players entered the FIFA Interactive World Cup. Needless to say, reaching the final two is an achievement in itself and winning would’ve been the perfect precursor to Bytheway’s 21st birthday celebrations the following day. Instead, he went home empty handed. Although it’d be easy for him to dwell on his defeat, he now looks to future competitions in the hope of going one better. It’s just a game, he assures himself, which is a simple but effective adage to live by.
Bytheway’s awareness regarding his conduct in-person seems natural. Social scenarios tend to govern our behaviour for fear of being viewed in a negative light, should we act untowardly. Losing the plot whilst sat next to someone is far less likely than, say, playing at home online, and seclusion in familiar surroundings has the power to stir powerful emotions in players as demonstrated here and here and here.
Bytheway admits he was always able to telegraph his past mood swings, but was helpless to prevent them. He knew it was affecting his life outside of FIFA, that he wasn’t a nice person to be around in the aftermath of defeat, yet it wasn’t until he gave himself a lasting injury that he recognised something had to give.
“I knew I needed to change [my behaviour] when I punched a wall,” he says. “I now have permanent damage to one of my knuckles which isn't great. It also got to the point where I'd have a massive outburst of anger then think to myself: I'm 22, why am I acting like such a child?”
Dr Daniel Wann is a professor at Murray State University in Kentucky who specialises in the psychology of sport fandom. He suggests aggression in real life sports fans stems from a strong connection with a team, to the point where it becomes part of their identity.
If something important to you fails, suggests Wann, you in turn feel a sense of personal failure. Where this differs from video games is that a real life sports fan has no control over their favoured team’s performance.
“In some ways aggression can be magnified to fans because the reality is they can’t do anything about it,” Wann explains. “The fan is sort of a helpless pawn as they’re watching this thing that they care so much about go down the drain. That can be very frustrating.”
Perhaps the correlation between real life sports fandom and playing sports simulators is stronger than first meets the eye, though. As far as identity is concerned, competitive FIFA players almost always commit to one team. They’ll pore over tactics, formations and swear by idiosyncratic tweaks away from default settings. When the chips are down, certain substitutes are introduced - relied upon to reverse misfortune. There’s a routine. A distinct plan of action. A ritual, almost.
Although FIFA offers players direct influence in each game, it’s exactly that: influence, not control. FIFA, like other football simulators, cleverly frames play via the guise of live television coverage, meaning only one in-game player - normally the one in possession of the ball - can be controlled at any given time. Autonomy in the game, then, is governed by a mechanic, which in essence relates Wann’s suggestion, that anger equals lack of control, to both real and digital play.
“WIth FIFA I can understand why so many people get frustrated as it is such a luck based game,” says Bytheway. “Some pros would often go as far as to say its around 60 per cent skill, 40 per cent luck. Losing to a piece of luck is what sends a lot of people over the edge.”
Furthermore, Wann suggests that when you contextualise these odds within the bounds of the online spectrum, players are far more likely to act aggressively in defeat - safe in the knowledge that their opponents don’t know them or can’t witness their resultant behaviours. This wall of anonymity, or rather the security it facilitates, is something Wann and his Murray State colleagues have investigated at length.
Their studies have shown that if given the opportunity to participate in unscrupulous behaviour without getting caught - ie the perpetrator would remain anonymous to the victim, without negative consequence - a large portion of sports fans would happily do so.
“We’re always amazed at just how high those numbers are,” says Wann. “We get between 30 and 40 per cent of individuals who admit a willingness to engage in these anonymous acts of aggression - to trip the opposing team’s best player; to break the leg of the opposing team’s coach; to harm another fan for the sake of the team - and certainly the numbers are higher when the individual cares more about ‘their own’ team.
“What’s going on here is the psychological and sociological phenomenon known as de-individuation, where if you think that no one knows you are the person acting you’re far more likely to think that, well, since [you] can get away with it, some of the societal stigmas, norms and pressures go away. Essentially it feels like there’s not as much to worry about anymore and people tend to get a bit more violent in those situations.”
This idea is certainly reflected in wider society - the London riots of 2011 a pertinent example - however it is especially prevalent online, as Wann continues: “Certainly in online forums, at least with verbal aggression when no one knows it’s you, there are a lot of theories and there’s a lot of data out there that would suggest that you get peak levels of aggression in those instances.”
As for Bytheway, a much simpler explanation lies at the heart of the matter. I ask him why he thinks football simulators are capable of stirring such dramatic and heightened emotions in players.
“I think the answer to this one is pretty simple,” he says. “No one ever wants to lose. It's a game that makes you want to win every match and brings out the competitive side of even the most reserved people.”
And he’s got the scars to prove it.