It was about two years ago that I embarked on the long road to turning West Ham United into a champion. In real life, I figured my beloved Hammers would never hoist the Premier League trophy; but in the world of FIFA 15, they could poach the best players in the world and win every title under the sun.
It wasn't easy - not the least because I decided early on that I didn't want to restart a single game - but I was eventually triumphant. In my career mode's sixth season, my team lifted the Champion's League trophy to complete the quadruple. As I watched my virtual players leap around joyously on the stage, I thought to myself, "Shame this can only happen in a videogame."
Turns out I was wrong. Amazingly, wonderfully wrong.
Yesterday, Leicester City completed a Cinderella run for the ages and captured the Premier League trophy after Tottenham Hotspur drew against Chelsea. For Leicester, a team that was pegged for relegation before the season, it's an accomplishment that defies description. American sports fans have been trying to find a way to put this victory in a context they can understand, but they can't. This is quite simply the greatest underdog story in modern sports history.
That's because in the world of international soccer, teams like Leicester City simply don't win league championships. The English Premier League is not like, say, NFL, where a middling team can sneak into the playoffs and ride a hot streak into the Super Bowl. The EPL season is a 38 game marathon running from August to May that by its very nature favors the strong over the weak. In the grinding crucible of the weekly schedule, plus midweek matches in tournaments like the FA Cup, teams like Leicester City can't help but be reduced to powder. And that's before you take into account that the financial deck is decisively stacked against the smaller clubs, even with all the TV money that has lately flooded the Premier League. Teams like Manchester City can afford to vacuum up premium talent and stash them in the reserves, where a Leicester City is at pains to find even just a few hidden gems who can turn into difference makers.
To be sure, the Premier League has been fertile ground for upstart teams of late. Compared to the leagues in Spain, Germany, and Italy, which are routinely dominated by just a couple super teams, the EPL's title race is comparatively wide open - which is to say that five or six teams are in the mix for a championship rather than just one or two. But it's top heavy all the same, and only those who support a team like Arsenal or Manchester City really feel like they have a chance to win year in and year out (okay, maybe not Arsenal... I kid, I kid). For a team like Leicester, just avoiding relegation to a lower league is usually a victory.
That's why Leicester's championship is so momentous - it flies in the face of everything we've come to expect from the Premier League. It's not even like Leicester was a particularly stable club. Before the season even started, they fired their manager after a scandal involving Thai prostitutes (seriously). Their roster consisted of misfits like Jamie Vardy - a striker who played on teams like Stocksbridge Park Steels and Fleetwood Town before joining Leicester. Before their promotion to the Premier League, Leicester had mostly bounced around League One and the Championship. They were the definition of relegation fodder. And yet, they are lifting the Premier League trophy over stacked teams like Tottenham, Arsenal, and Manchester City.
In the real world, it's a truly remarkable underdog story - so remarkable that feels like something straight out of a videogame. Not even a sports movie would dare venture into such ridiculous territory as Leicester City winning a championship. This is the stuff of a sports game career mode, where even the worst teams can be contenders. Everyone who has ever spent a significant amount of time with a sports sim has won a championship with their favorite team - it's what you do. MLB The Show even had a commercial along those lines a couple years back.
In FIFA, Leicester has undoubtedly won the championship hundreds, if not thousands of times. In Madden, the Cleveland Browns can be a dynasty. Like every other simulation, sports sims are wish fulfillment first - a chance to take the reins and show the idiots in the front office how it's done. And when the confetti falls and you see virtual representations of your favorite players raising the trophy, you can feel a little bit of that thrill of success that is so elusive when watching sports.
For soccer fans, it's a peek into a world they will most likely never see. As a Vikings fan, I can imagine a hypothetical scenario where my team doesn't fail in the most agonizing way possible and actually wins a Super Bowl (okay, stop laughing). For a Swindon Town supporter, a sports sim is literally the only way they will ever see their team play under the bright lights of the Premier League, much less win it all. International soccer is a painful grind with almost no upward mobility. If you're the aspirational sort, then Football Manager and FIFA are the only real release from reality.
And actually, Leicester City winning the Premier League championship is so improbable that it even feels a little outside of the scope of FIFA to reflect. In the hours leading up to the title-deciding game between Tottenham and Chelsea, I fired up FIFA for the first time in several months and decided to play a round as Leicester. Looking over their roster, they seemed decidedly ordinary - a handful of players with ratings in the low 80s, most with ratings somewhere in the 70s. Even FIFA can't quite capture Riyad Mahrez's sublime ability to create chances, or Leicester's blinding speed and skill on the counter.
The secret, of course, is that you're meant to bend reality in sports sims. It doesn't matter that Jamie Vardy is just above average in FIFA 16 - in the hands of a skilled player, he's a dynamo. During my run with West Ham in 2015, I repeatedly won the goal scoring trophy with a player named Mauro Zarate, who had above average speed and flair but not much else. He isn't even on the team anymore. But in my game, I made him an absolute monster. Player skill trumps all. In the hands of a talented player, even Messi and Barcelona will cower against a team like Sunderland (though probably not the Houston Dynamo - there are limits).
Watching the real Leicester City twist supposedly superior teams into knots, it felt as if videogame rules suddenly applied to real life. Jamie Vardy wasn't just some castoff, he was one of the best strikers in the league. Even against the best teams, it felt as if Leicester could score almost at will. At times, I felt as if some unseen player was controlling Leicester. God, maybe. It was just too incredible to be real - over the course of nine wild months, fantasy had become reality.
Fans in Leicester have no doubt dreamed of this moment, convinced that it was only possible in the world of FIFA or Football Manager. Now that it's real, downtrodden fans around the world will no doubt think, "That could be me." I know that's what I'm thinking. This may be a once-in-a-lifetime run - a 5000-to-1 roll of the dice that somehow hit - but it's enough that I'm daring to dream.
Now if you'll excuse me, I think I'm going to go start a new career mode in FIFA.