'FIFA 16' to include women's teams, a first for EA Sports

Alex Morgan didn't play video games when she was growing up, but she knows how EA Sports' venerable "FIFA" franchise has helped drive the sport of soccer into the mainstream of the United States.

So she was ecstatic with the news that "FIFA 16" will include women's teams, marking the first time EA Sports has included women in its soccer video game. The "FIFA 16" release date is Sept. 22. EA made the announcement on Thursday, timed to capture the energy of the 2015 Women's World Cup in Canada, which kicks off next month.

"As much as I enjoyed video games, I was always running from soccer to basketball to softball practice," said Morgan, the star U.S. forward who is hoping to lead the Americans to their first World Cup title in 16 years. Morgan told ESPN that once she got to college, the "FIFA" game caught her attention.

"My boyfriend -- now my husband -- and his roommates played 'FIFA' constantly," Morgan said. "It sort of introduced me to the world of international soccer and helped me learn about players and teams."

Morgan is hoping that the game can raise the profile of the women's game.

Considering that the iconic title is one of the most successful video games ever made, it's not a stretch to suggest that it could end up being as important to the growth of the women's game as anything that happens on the field this summer.

A 2014 ESPN Sports Poll found that 34 percent of "FIFA" gamers became fans of professional soccer after playing it. Half said they became more interested in the pro game after playing the virtual version.

"Women's soccer isn't on TV as much as men's soccer, so this is going to give female players more exposure," said Morgan, who, along with U.S. teammates Sydney Leroux, Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan, visited EA's motion-capture studios in Vancouver last month to help put the finishing touches on the project.

"When they approached us, it was a no-brainer."

Overall, 12 nations will be represented in "FIFA 16": the U.S., Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, England, France, Germany, Italy, Mexico, Spain and Sweden.

But getting women "in the game," to borrow from EA's well-known slogan, didn't happen overnight.

Because a new version of FIFA is released every year, producers are constantly trying to improve it. Changes are typically based on available technological advances or meant to mimic innovations actually happening within the sport itself (such as the introduction of goal-line technology for the 2014 men's World Cup).

Feedback from fans is also considered. And since females make up 48 percent of the video game-playing public in the U.S., one of the most popular -- and loudest -- suggestions was to include women's squads.

"There were a number of different petitions circulating online saying women should be in there," said David Rutter, the game's lead producer, who admitted that the grassroots effort caught their attention.

"We've been talking about it seriously since 2009. The problem was, we weren't at a point then where the graphics would've been able to clearly articulate visually the differences between men and women. It wasn't just an ethical and moral question that needed to be answered -- it was a technical one."

So instead of releasing an inferior product prematurely simply to appease fans, EA took the long view, focusing on getting the nuances right. This meant making sure that animations were proportioned properly and that they moved accurately. Long hair presented another new challenge.

"We haven't spent a lot of time and effort over the years on hair, because it's not really as important in the men's game," Rutter said. "But when you've got a large number of players with long hair, you have to make sure that you're doing that part of their physique justice."

An EA crew also traveled the world to meet with teams and take 3-D images of players' heads, just as the company has done for men in the English Premier League.

The action is realistic, too, as the speed of shots and passes was adjusted to reflect the more methodical aesthetic of the women's game. The early reviews are encouraging.

"It's super-authentic," said Rapinoe, who was given a sneak peek in Vancouver, which happens to be where the World Cup final will be played on July 6.

"Looking at players from other teams, I can tell who they are. They didn't just put female heads on top of these bulky make bodies. They put in the work to make it special."

Not that that kept Rapinoe from lobbying staffers for a higher rating for herself -- even if, like Morgan, she admits she's never been a huge gamer.

"But I might become one," she added, "now that I can play myself."

Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC.