'FIFA 18' offers a playable woman character in story mode for the first time

"FIFA 18" gamers were treated to a surprise in getting to play as Alex Hunter's little sister, Kim. Courtesy of Electronic Arts

Women playing sports is nothing new, but making female sports teams playable in video games is a different story. Video game publisher EA Sports is just beginning to scratch the surface with integrating women into sports video games. "FIFA 16" made headlines with the integration of 12 women's national teams into the game, and "NBA Live 18" followed suit this year by creating a WNBA team game mode.

"FIFA 18," which was released in late Sept. on PS4, PS3, Xbox One, XBox 360, and the Switch gaming systems, offers an added bonus to its "The Journey: Hunter Returns" story mode.

In this mode, gamers take the field with the fictional Kim Hunter -- the American little sister of established character Alex -- as she makes her debut appearance with the U.S. Women's National Team. It marks the first time that a playable female character appears in such a story mode and deepens the commitment to women in the "FIFA" franchise.

"There are a lot of women gamers out there, and it's important that we represent the women's side of the game," Matt Prior, creative director of "The Journey," said in a phone interview.

The first edition of "The Journey" debuted in "FIFA 17" where players took control of Alex as he tried to make a name for himself throughout his rookie season in the English Premiere League. Season two takes a deeper look into his backstory, revealing that Kim is, in fact, his half-sister.

Kim, like her brother, is a talented soccer player. She makes her senior debut in an international friendly between the USWNT and Germany. It is a moment that comes as a surprise because until taking control of Kim, the only playable character in "The Journey" is Alex. Immediately, the difference in gameplay can be felt.

"The women's side of the game is very important to us, so we were looking for how we could incorporate that," Prior added. "Kim came out of that."

The women's game in FIFA is built on USWNT data. When inputting the women's national teams in "FIFA 16," the development team gathered motion capture data from a number of players on which they built new sets of animations. Prior to acquiring these data sets, the only way to put women into "FIFA" would be to overlay women's bodies on the men's animations, which would not have met the development team's authenticity standards. "It feels different because it is different," Prior said.

Kim's character represents the growing consideration of the experience of female players of EA Sports titles. More opportunities to play as women in the suite of EA Sports titles have cropped up over the last five years, but the options vary from game to game. For example, "NHL" has had the option to create a woman since 2012, and "UFC" allows players to choose a female champion to take through her career. "FIFA" and now "NBA Live" have added women in play now modes. "Madden," however, lags behind with no women at all. That makes sense regarding the sport, but it is not possible to create a female owner, GM, or coach, which are barriers that are slowly evolving within the NFL in real life.

"We are starting to get to a place where we are including meaningful integration of key women players and features that are appealing to female gamers, but I feel like we are just scratching the surface," EA Sports GM Cam Weber said. "A very meaningful portion of our gaming community is girls and women. We need to grow our games to build features, functionality, and design that will appeal to that audience."

Weber estimated that at least one-third of EA Sports gamers are women. That is a sizeable chunk of the sports gaming fan base and one that EA Sports is committed to growing. One of the ways that will surely happen is through an expansion of features that are attractive to female gamers.

"We will make a broader impact when we go beyond just including women's teams in the games and giving them deeper career experiences," Weber said. "It would be great for a young girl to play through a career and live out that fantasy of being a female professional athlete in the world."

Kim Hunter is a great step in the direction of not just having women available, but creating an immersive experience for all gamers, including women. How women are represented will vary in future titles. The sports and, consequently, the games, are different. Who knows if there will be a WNBA career mode in "NBA Live 19" or if Kim Hunter will return in "FIFA 19." Women in sports titles, however, are here to stay, and there are more exciting opportunities on the way.

"If you want to engage women and you give them a surface level experience, that might get them excited today, but what about next week?" Weber said. "What's going to keep them playing?"