The Designated Player: Snoop Lion vs. Alan McInally (the Wide World of FIFA ’13)

Owing to the short-sightedness of the American publishing industry, I am now free to share the four-word pitch for my children’s book: Snoop Lion does things.

Snoop Lion is brushing his teeth.
Snoop Lion is watching a man pump gas.
Snoop Lion is looking at the app icons vibrate on his iPhone screen because he’s had his finger in the same position for the last three hours.
Snoop Lion is sketching Frank Yallop.
Snoop Lion is eating an apple.

Anything Snoop Lion does is interesting. This is a universal truth.

Let me backtrack a moment. I’m at the launch event for FIFA 13 in New York, at SPiN, the Susan Sarandon–affiliated table tennis venue/nightclub that may or may not be fashionable (like I’d know). Snoop Lion, as one of the stars of the promotional video for FIFA 13, is guest of honor at the launch. He has shown up late and is now “doing things.” One of the things Snoop Lion was already doing was being a big FIFA fan, or at least as demonstrably big a fan of FIFA as he is of, say, Post-it Notes, neoliberal critiques, or Magnolia (Snoop Lion does many things — demonstrable shows of enthusiasm he does not do). But we have reliable evidence that Snoop plays the EA Sports FIFA series a lot, follows the teams in real life, and, as we learned this week, he likes Ronaldo’s hair.

As per the premise of my unaccountably rejected children’s book proposal, I’d like to convey the full awesomeness of Snoop Lion doing things, but as I furtively follow him round the club (“Snoop Lion is looking at the color of a chair”; “Snoop Lion is pretending not to see a model in a Vancouver Whitecaps shirt”), I’m running up against the limits of my vocabulary, the wistful knowledge that once upon a time I used to do things (sort of), and the pressure of trying to sketch impressions of events that my readers rightly feel would be better represented by them standing where I am.

In short, I am Alan McInally.

McInally, for the uninitiated, is the ex-Scottish footballer and current British broadcaster whose disembodied voice now occasionally appears during FIFA 13 gameplay to announce scores and incidents from other notional games, in an eerily calm version of his real-life eternal battle with spontaneous combustion on Sky Sports’ Soccer Saturday.

Standing near the end of a Ping-Pong table watching Snoop Lion play at the other end, glimpsed through a forest of phones held aloft, I am on the one hand determined to capture this moment through words alone, and on the other hand beginning to feel some of the roiling terror McInally must feel on Saturday afternoons when Everton gets a corner, on a screen only he can see, and the cameras cut to him, while millions wait for him to describe what happens next:

“There’s a boy … it’s … oof … his head … has he got a head to it? No … it’s come down … there’s a foot in … it’s cleared. Still 0-0.” All spoken while staring fixedly downward, like the last wallflower at the Young Farmers’ disco.

It’s hard to imagine two more disparate characters than the poet laureate of the LBC (now with added reggae), Snoop Lion, and the bluff figure of McInally, yet they are brought together in the universe of EA Sports, where Snoop is an unlikely face of the latest incarnation of the FIFA series, and McInally has been introduced as a new element of the game — let’s call it jock ex machina — whereby his Soccer Saturday persona is inserted in audio form into the flow of the game to give updates on scores in other games. It’s a nice enough addition — though as I hope to demonstrate, I don’t think it goes far enough.

Since retiring from being the big man up front for Kilmarnock, after troubling defenses on behalf of Celtic, Aston Villa, and Bayern Munich, among others (and famously not particularly troubling the Costa Rica defense for Scotland in Italia ’90), McInally ambled onto the scene of the still nascent Sky Sports coverage of British football, nailed his feet to the studio floor, and began excitedly describing things that were allegedly happening elsewhere. Nearly 20 years later, he’s still there on Soccer Saturday, trapped in a suit like it’s a bail condition and occasionally bellowing suppressed offscreen GOOOOOAAAAAOOOOOFFFFFFYA’s, to indicate that he’s ready to bring us news of a drop ball at Reading.

Soccer Saturday is an unlikely British TV institution that was initially born out of creative necessity and ended up making a compelling virtue of the restrictions it worked under. When Rupert Murdoch made his initial play to use sport as his “battering ram” (as he once infamously phrased it) for developing the pay TV model, the agreement he was able to reach with the newly formed Premier League for extensive televised rights to live games still had a residual protectionist clause in the interests of the gate receipts of participating clubs, namely that the Saturday 3 p.m. kickoff time should remain sacrosanct and games at that time not be subject to live coverage. To this day, while those of us who live in the U.S. may have developed a rather recent sense of entitlement about seeing what soccer we want, when we want it (anyone who ever frantically hunted all over a major American city for a two-day-old English newspaper to find a score may have raised an eyebrow at the apparent luxury problem of the recent beIN TV furor), nobody can tune in to British TV and legally watch a live English Premiership game on a Saturday afternoon at 3 p.m.

To get past this impasse, Sky introduced a live show consisting of four ex-players sitting behind a desk watching games, marshalled by the fantastically suave Middlesbrough separatist Geoff Stelling, whose wry asides and breadth of lower league trivia happened to mesh perfectly with the barely harnessed id of his co-panelists. Every Saturday between 3 and 5 p.m., the ultra-controlled Stelling would oversee his stable of muzzled ex-athletes as they yelped and barked their way through the afternoon’s action, which, as the central device of the show, they were watching on screens that we the audience never got to see. The pitch of “Imagine the wooden box scene in Belle de Jour, but replacing Catherine Deneuve with “Champagne” Charlie Nicholas,” could hardly have looked less promising, but it turned out to be a stroke of genius. Nicholas, McInally, et al. worked not because they were perfect invisible conduits of the action, but because watching them struggle to convey it was theater in and of itself as they wrestled with everything around them: the frustration of no longer being out there themselves, an ex-athlete’s body locked in a death-roll with its long-suffering tight British suit, and above all the fact that they would often have to be coaxed through an apoplectic rage at the award of a dubious goal kick, by a host who good-humoredly stopped just short of saying, “Use your words.”

“Going to have to interrupt you there because there’s been a goal at St. Mary’s … Alan Smith?”

As I say, it shouldn’t work, but it does. Something about the format of the show suggests that every time they’re called on they’re summoning and shaping the events themselves, about to be overpowered by the forces they’ve unleashed — forever damned to speak in tongues about a decent chance at Aston Villa. Far from feeling like a pale shadow of actual events elsewhere, it’s an event in itself.

So when I heard that McInally was showing up in something like this role for FIFA 13, I was excited. Soccer Saturday had long functioned as a prototype for the current disorienting experience of following my Twitter feed on a Saturday morning in New York. I’ve become used to the hyper-globalized clamor of Twitter being a ubiquitous part of my soccer-watching experience, particularly during Premiership games (when it seems the crème of the MLS Twitterati are casting their eyes a few time zones East), and so I could see the logic of some symbolic third-party voice being thrown into the FIFA mix to mimic that mediated experience of the modern American soccer fan — always needing to be simultaneously elsewhere. And who better than a Soccer Saturday stalwart to provide that voice?

But the usually ebullient McInally seems uncharacteristically subdued in this particular world of let’s-pretend. I’ll be happily playing the game in a scenario where, for example, the Chivas USA side I’ve adopted are putting eight past San Jose and playing keepy-up in front of Chris Wondolowski when he tries any of that Goonie nonsense. Suddenly McInally’s voice will appear to dejectedly say “Penalty at Collurardoh — and it’s there. 2-0.” And rather than heightening the reality of the experience, it doubles down on the artifice of it all, and just reminds me that I’m a grown man with responsibilities, who’s currently trying to figure out if a formation change might make a difference the next time that 12-year-old in Sydney wants to talk smack. The last thing I need to be reminded of is that there’s a functional, socially adequate world outside my window when I’m thinking of gearing up for a few hours of Ultimate Team before I get to work, at say, 4.37 p.m.

Take away McInally’s actual live stream and it’s like giving Deneuve a non-buzzing box, or the Pulp Fiction cast a briefcase that doesn’t glow. There’s no real animating force to transform him, no real stake for what’s happening, so you just feel sorry for the fact that a runner somewhere had to put a sheet of Dutch pronunciation guides in front of him and say, “You’ve still got to do the Eredivisie, Alan,” or the very real possibility that in the recent past a middle-aged Scotsman spent four hours in a studio trying to pronounce “Gspurning.”

Let’s be clear: I like the game and I want McInally’s presence in it to work. But as it is, I keep wanting to tell his voice, “Not to worry, just take the afternoon off, Alan. I’m 13-0 up here and I’ve set the level to ‘amateur,’ so you telling me Montero’s scored two against the Galaxy is totally academic. My goal difference is +790 and I’ll be doing this all season. Enjoy yourself.” Imagining he’ll then say, “Cheers, big man!” and we’ll have some banter about metaphors we each would have used at the height of our respective games.

So as I stare at Snoop Lion doing things in a Manhattan basement, and begin to feel that twinge of empathy with McInally, two things occur to me:

1. When FIFA 14 appears, we need motion capture for Alan McInally. The news he delivers is arguably less important than the sight of it passing through its big Scottish medium. We need to see the full séance, not just the transcript. To rob us of the sight of him inheriting and processing events from elsewhere is the same as showing a list of trivia answers and calling it Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? — it misses the fact that we want to watch people making life-changing decisions in front of us, for our entertainment. At the very least we want them to be visibly dumbfounded by reasonable offside decisions.

2. To really exploit the potential of this game, Alan should not be describing fake soccer matches to somebody playing a fake soccer match. He should be describing Snoop Lion doing things.

Hear me out.

To take a random example of Snoop Lion doing things, here, as best I can summon it, is how Snoop Lion plays Ping-Pong:

Snoop Lion plays Ping-Pong like he’s in The Matrix. At no point does he appear to face the table. Rather, he stands sideways and sways. At one point at the launch event, I swear his paddle is lying flat on the table while Snoop leans backward and forward with his hands in his pockets to continue the rally. We’re treated to the sight of Snoop Lion playing Connor Lade at Ping-Pong — adding further fuel to my conspiracy theory, aired in this column before, that Lade is not a soccer player but an ongoing evil physics experiment designed to mess with my depth perception. Snoop Lion is 7-foot-4 inches taller than Connor Lade, and he’s at the other end of the table. So to my now horribly foreshortened perspective, Snoop Lion appears to be swaying on the edge of a vertiginous cliff as he plays. Markus Holgersson stands close by, also watching shyly in awe — he, too, is chastened by Snoop Lion’s adventures in physics. Snoop is indifferent to our wonder. Now Snoop Lion is standing with his back to a plate of hors d’oeuvre.

How much happier would Alan McInally be if he had that to describe? And how much happier would you be if instead of reading out imaginary scores, Alan was responding in real time to Snoop Lion doing things? This much happier. I’m showing you how much happier he and you would be, but you can’t see because nobody’s motion-capturing me. See?

You could carry on playing your Jon Busch career mode till the wee small hours, content that you were receiving the only updates that matter in this world (“Snoop Lion is at the deli counter … ”), while simultaneously being sure that you were never going to hear anything that would remind you that at some point you should stop playing. You’d ask yourself, “What would Snoop Lion do?” Snoop Lion wouldn’t stop playing.

I don’t want you to think I’m down on the game. The graphics are excellent; the ratings marginally better this year for the MLS players, who are somewhat long-suffering in this regard; the gameplay, particularly the variables in ability to control the ball according to the skill level of the player receiving it, is exponentially more realistic than previous versions; the online experience is becoming an ever more porous part of the gameplay; the details are better updated with each edition of the game. It’s another step forward for an EA team that each year seems to find a new chunk of game engine round the back of the Xbox.

Looking around the room at the launch, kids and adults alike are happily engaged with what has slyly become a cultural phenomenon here in the U.S. I can see A$AP Rocky playing against the U.S. cover star for the game, Tim Cahill; I can see members of the New York Red Bulls playing as the New York Red Bulls against the New York Red Bulls and thus faced with the alien but somehow deeply familiar proposition of working out how to give up a 1-0 lead against themselves; I can see Victor Cruz’s entourage roving the room and Susan Sarandon adjusting impossibly large sunglasses in the gloom; and of course I can see Snoop … doing things.

For now it’s the ersatz electronic version of soccer represented by FIFA 13 that’s bringing this improbably eclectic group of people together, but if that development continues to play its part in the spread of the world game in America, then hey, bring it on. Just let Alan McInally watch.

Graham Parker (@kidweil) leads the U.S. and MLS soccer coverage for the Guardian. He also writes for Howler.

Filed Under: Cristiano Ronaldo, Graham Parker, MLS, Snoop Dogg, Snoop Lion, Soccer