Why we hired a gaming writer to cover our football clubs

Harry Kane’s virtual performances are of interest to millions of gamers

Late last year, Reach announced plans for its ‘Football Project,’ bringing all of its regional football writers and editors into one team, with new roles created too.

One of those roles was that of gaming correspondent, providing stories about clubs Reach covers which will interest gaming fans. Editor (football) Jon Birchall reports on the creation of a unique role in regional journalism

Jon Birchall

Alex Hunter from Clapham will be remembered as one of English football’s most celebrated exports of the early 21st century, with millions of supporters in the UK and many, many more worldwide. He also isn’t real.

The Career Mode protagonist of the FIFA game series for the last three years, who console players look to guide to glory through their Playstation or XBox, is actually played by Adetomiwa Edun, a Nigerian-born British actor who you may have seen appearing in Doctor Who or Disney’s 2015 adaptation of Cinderella. 
 But it is Hunter whose name has now become synonymous with a true footballing phenomenon. When looking at Google Trends last year, I saw more people searching for him than Alex Ferguson, Manchester United’s legendary manager. Again, he isn’t real.

FIFA, the computer game series which originally launched in 1993, has changed what football is for a generation of young supporters

Last Saturday afternoon saw over 320,000 fans brave the cold to visit Premier League grounds including Anfield, Old Trafford and St James’ Park. In the Championship there were another 215,000 people cheering on the likes of Aston Villa, Nottingham Forest and Stoke. FIFA 19’s estimated first week sales? 4.3 million. In the fortnight before Christmas — three months after the game was originally released, more people in the UK bought FIFA 19 than you would be able to fit into Wembley. Twice.

Career Mode, Ultimate Team and Team of The Week have become part of the vernacular for football fans who love the sport both on the pitch and through the screen. The game’s creators, EA Sports, have long had the logo: ‘It’s in the game’. For many, FIFA is the game.

And it is not solely through dizzying sales figures in which you see the impact of the FIFA behemoth on football and its fans. In the autumn of 2017, ComRes surveyed 1000 young football fans about their relationship with the game as part of the BBC’s Price of Football survey. When asked how they engage with the sport, only 37% replied with actually playing in a team. 44% responded with Betting. The highest response rate — 61% — was for playing console or PC games.

What, then, does this mean for sports journalists and our industry at large? One option is to let this phenomena exist outside of our self-imposed parameters and indeed, for many, this makes sense. Our outstanding football correspondents at Reach cover their clubs across multiple platforms, attending matches home and away and breaking stories in and around the game, from manager sackings to tactical analysis. FIFA, Football Manager and the many other games fans care about don’t quite fit into this weekly cadence.

And yet, local sports coverage has continued to grow and improve over the last five years or so thanks to an obsessive approach to the coverage our fans care about, going deeper into what a football club is and what it means to our communities.

Through live blogging U21 matches, weekly video updates on stadium developments, in-depth podcast interviews and tracking Companies House for the latest financial insight into our clubs as businesses, we are pursuing a strategy of tracking every possible element of what football in the abstract can mean to a fan. It was with this in mind that we recently recruited Nathan Bliss, an extremely talented journalist with a phenomenal knowledge of not only console gaming, but of the community of gamers of which many live in the towns and cities we cover, supporting the same real life football clubs.

The ComRes research referenced earlier shows a young, diverse community actively engaged in an element of football which we have been too slow to serve. More young women engage with console gaming (51%) than they do actively play in a team (29%), while BAME respondents to the survey were more likely to engage with gaming (70%) than white 18–24 year olds (58%).

Only 24% of the young fans surveyed access football news through print newspapers, compared to 74% finding the content they want through social media. These numbers become starker when split by female fans. If we as an industry want to reach out to our communities, we fundamentally must change.

As I have written before, a journalist’s patch is determined by the audience they intend to serve, so why not serve them as much quality content about the thing they care about most — their football club, and be sure to do it more comprehensively, with more quality and more dedicated resource, than has ever been the case? That, in turn, drives loyal readers, watchers and listeners — the most valuable commodity available to a digital publisher with a revenue model dependent on people who come back to us day in, day out.

‘Going after clicks’ is what critics will often say about a strategy like this. A click, people conveniently seem to forget, is a person. A reader. To them I ask why on Earth wouldn’t we want more people enjoying and engaging with what we do, as we strive to cover our clubs in greater detail than ever before? Our audiences and their expectations change every day — as newsrooms we need to care about that and respond accordingly.

Alongside Nathan we have also recruited experts in football tactics, scouting and finance, further bolstering our ability to cover our clubs unlike anyone else or like ever before.

In 2019 we want to make local football coverage the best it has ever been. Game on.