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(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Real Salt Lake defender Chris Schuler's (28) reacts to his second goal with Real Salt Lake defender Nat Borchers (6) and Real Salt Lake forward Joao Plata (8) during the first half of their matchup as Real Salt Lake leads D. C. United 3-0 Saturday, August 9, 2014, at Rio Tinto Stadium.
Sean P. Means: Real or Real — The ups and downs of video-game sports

By Sean P. Means

| The Salt Lake Tribune

First Published Aug 29 2014 01:01 am • Last Updated Aug 29 2014 11:24 am

Here’s a scoop you won’t read anywhere else: The coach of Real Salt Lake is about to get fired.

No, not Jeff Cassar, the coach of the real Real Salt Lake team. Cassar’s job is secure — or as secure as any coaching job in professional sports — because RSL is right now near the top of the table in the Western Conference of Major League Soccer.

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I’m talking about Sean Means, the hapless manager of the Real Salt Lake team on my FIFA 13 video game. That guy’s in big trouble, because his version of RSL hasn’t won a match in weeks and is in last place in the West with only a few games left in the season.

I haven’t really played a sports-related video game since my teenage arcade days, when I bruised my palms spinning the trackball on the Atari Football game. It’s been a steep learning curve.

When I got FIFA 13 as a Father’s Day gift, I naturally wanted to try it out as my favorite team, Real Salt Lake. The first results were not promising; I lost my first match, to the Colorado Rapids, 9-0.

My gameplay was so inept that I made RSL’s Nat Borchers accidentally score an own-goal for the Rapids. I felt like writing Borchers to apologize.

After a few spins playing random games, I started to get the hang of it. I even could score a goal occasionally, and surprised myself the first time I ventured outside MLS by beating the perennial English powerhouse Arsenal.

Being an earlier edition of the game (it was released in 2012), I’ve had to adjust to the fact that some of my game’s players no longer wear claret-and-cobalt. The game still has Fabián Espíndola, Jámison Olave and Will Johnson as RSL starters — though in real life, they are playing for (respectively) DC United, the New York Red Bulls and the Portland Timbers.

My next step was to get deep into the game by launching into "career mode."

For the uninitiated, "career mode" on games like FIFA 13 — such as the long-running Madden series of NFL-licensed games (which, like the FIFA series, is made by Electronic Arts) — lets the player go through an entire season, either as a player or a coach/manager. The player deals with the ups and downs of playing game after game, including injuries, roster changes and other details.

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As manager of my own RSL, I faced an immediate dilemma: My star midfielder, Javier Morales, demanded a transfer. So I lost Morales to a Spanish team, but my RSL was able to pocket a $3 million transfer fee.

As I played, I quickly discovered that my defense was awful. I had trouble figuring out which buttons to push in the right sequence to make a successful tackle or to keep attackers from swarming my goal. The losses mounted, and my RSL sank in the standings.

As my midseason losing streak stretched on, my lineup looked like a M*A*S*H unit. First Johnson tore a knee ligament, and so did Espíndola. Then Tony Beltran broke his tibia, and Luis Gil blew out his ankle. In my last game, Ned Grabavoy’s knee buckled in the first three minutes — and he’s out for the rest of the season.

In a reversal of reality, though, my Álvaro Saborío has been healthy most of the season — while the real Saborío may finally return from a broken foot next month.

Desperate to fill holes in my squad, I started buying players on the transfer wire. Now my RSL bears only a partial resemblance to the real team. I still have Nick Rimando and Kyle Beckerman, who now share the field with Italian defender Luciano Zauri and French striker Sébastien Grax.

In the past few days, I’ve finally started to figure out how to play this game. I’ve only lost one of my last four games. I didn’t win the other three, but I got three ties — and if being a soccer fan has taught me anything, it’s that sometimes a tie is as good as a win.

Playing FIFA 13 also has affected how I watch the real thing. When I watch a match on TV, I find I’m much more appreciative of the passing game, and how a team can build up an attack and patiently wait for an opening in the defense.

The effect video games have on the real game can’t be denied. Watch an NFL game today and you notice remote-controlled cameras hovering above the field. They capture bird’s-eye views of the action that fans first saw playing Madden.

Even real players get caught up in the fake action.

"Football players are incredibly in tune to where they are in the Madden rankings," said Mike Tanier, writer of the "Walkthrough" blog for the website Football Outsiders, in a recent interview with NPR’s "Only a Game." "[Carolina Panthers quarterback] Cam Newton will sit and talk endlessly about his rankings, so you know he’s playing the game."

And, like us nonathletes, the pros use the games for a little wish fulfillment. "[New York Jets quarterback] Michael Vick will talk about how he never plays as himself. He plays as [New England Patriots quarterback] Tom Brady, because he wants to be a pocket passer," Tanier told NPR.

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