NWSL players in FC 24: Part trash talk, part introspection

For Erika Tymrak, the banter that comes with playing EA FC is half the fun. Maybe more than half, in fact. When she scores on her opponent who discovers he's playing against a woman, there is a high level of incredulity.

"It is usually a dude, and I'll score a banger or do something, and then I'll start talking a little smack," the Orlando Pride midfielder tells ESPN. "And the first thing they always say is, 'Oh my God. Are you a girl?' Every single time."

Recently, Tymrak took the smack-talk up a level. One recent foe went so far as to ask how Tymrak knew so much about soccer.

"I was like, 'Oh, the girl I just scored with?' And he was like, 'Yeah?' I was like, 'I'm her.' He couldn't believe it," she says. "I still don't think he believed me."

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It's a scenario that, until two years ago, wasn't possible for NWSL players. Then Electronic Arts, the maker of EA FC (the game franchise formerly known as FIFA) decided that starting with the 2023 version of the game, women players on club teams from around the world would be added. This was a huge expansion after having added women's national team players in 2016.

The numbers in terms of adding players from women's teams are impressive. According to an EA spokesperson, as of early October, 44% of the Ultimate Team squads that players used in online matches -- teams that essentially allow gamers to build their own squads -- have featured "at least one women's [soccer] player in the starting XI." That's around 357 million Ultimate Team squads.

In the first 24 days following the release of FC 24 on Sept. 29, three different women's leagues -- out of the five available -- cracked the most-used leagues ranking, with the Women's Super League in England ranking sixth, Liga F in Spain ranking eighth and the NWSL in the U.S. ranking 10th. (The Premier League ranked first overall, with LaLiga in second.)

"I really like it. It's super cool to see the women's game in [EA FC], and just how far we're progressing and getting women's teams involved and stuff like this," says Racing Louisville midfielder Jaelin Howell, who grew up playing the video game with her brother. "People around the world can play our characters, and I think it really shows the progression of how far the women's game has come."

That growth hasn't necessarily spread throughout the NWSL player pool. The players interviewed for this story feel that there aren't many throughout the league who play the game. For San Diego Wave midfielder Taylor Kornieck, even the temptation of having a PS5 at the training facility often isn't enough to get her teammates to take the EA FC plunge.

"We don't really want be seen playing games instead of watching film," quips Kornieck, who actually does play the game, along with heavy doses of Fortnite.

But there has been a slow burn in terms of getting more players into the game, or in some cases getting back into the game. Kansas City Current defender Elizabeth Ball remembers playing with her brother growing up, with humbling results.

"He'd crushed me every single time, which kind of made it hard for me to get on board to start playing again. I'm so bad," she says.

Now she's teaching teammate Kristen Hamilton on the video game's finer points. Certainly the fact that there are female players in the game is drawing more NWSL competitors in. And the reality that NWSL players can play as themselves is, for them, mind-blowing.

"I think it's so surreal," Ball says. "I think playing in a video game as myself is one of the crazier things. I know AI and all that's coming, but for now I'm like, this is one of the cooler things that I've ever seen or done. I grew up playing this game, and I was playing with Ronaldo and Messi and Ronaldinho and all these incredible players that I looked up to. So to be playing as myself in one of the biggest games ever is insane."

Granted, there are other ways for the NWSL's players to get invested in EA FC without actually playing -- namely the ratings. Each player has an overall rating, as well as six major categories: pace, shooting, passing, dribbling, defense and physicality. Underneath those are a total of 29 sub-categories. Each of the seven players interviewed for this story knew the ins and outs of their own ratings, as well as those of their teammates.

The disparity between the game and reality is a consistent topic of discussion, especially among teammates, even as new iterations have come out. OL Reign goalkeeper Laurel Ivory notes that Reign defender Lauren Barnes' pace rating of 75 was well above that of Reign defender Alana Cook's rating of 56, which left her borderline stunned.

"Bless Lu's soul, she's one of the best defenders in the league, but like, she's not fast, you know what I mean?" she says. "She has other strengths that [make up for] her speed, but it feels like whoever's rating them just like actually doesn't watch."

Tymrak noticed a similar discrepancy between herself and teammate Ally Watt.

"I think Ally Watt had the same pace as me, which was hysterical," she says. " So I would always be like, 'Well, according to [EA FC], we're the same pace.' Ally Watt is one of the fastest humans I know. I think they finally upgraded her card to now she has one of the top pace [ratings] in our league -- definitely deserved on her part."

Indeed. Watt's pace is now 84 compared to Tymrak's 73.

The ratings lead to some epic banter, as well as some self-deprecation. Ball notes that her pace rating is 41. She senses that it's the worst in the NWSL, though a quick search reveals that this isn't quite true. There are four players ranked worse than her in the pace category -- not that this makes her feel much better.

"Forty-one pace is brutal," she says on a Zoom call with Hamilton. "I'm slower than our keeper, which is devastating."

Upon hearing this, Hamilton senses an opportunity to pile on, and does so with aplomb amid some laughter.

"She's slower than all the keepers in the league, not even just on our team," she interjects about Ball. (Hamilton is right. All the players ranked lower than Ball are center backs.) "Now it's a running joke on the team that she's a 41 pace, and we're like, 'Oh, you're running your FIFA pace today.' I mean, it's so absurd."

The rankings do lead to some introspection, too. While chatting with ESPN, the topic of Kornieck's defending -- or the lack of it; her rating there is 51 -- comes up, and one can almost see the U.S. international nodding her head in agreement over the phone.

"I think it's a little wake up call for me, to be honest," Kornieck says. "Once I saw it and I was just reminiscing on my play, I am like, 'You know what? These are actually more accurate than I thought they were.' But, hey, it's something to work for, so those will get higher soon."

Not everyone was displeased with their ratings. Tymrak noted that her player is adept on the dribble, which she thinks fits with how she plays.

"I was really happy that they gave me that -- just because I would say my dribbling is my greatest strength," she says.

The beauty of the Ultimate Team portion of the game is that in terms of personnel, formations and tactics, anything goes. Tymrak admitted that in her Ultimate Team she had Messi as the No. 10 but then, she says, "I gave him the boot and put him up top because I was seeing myself as the playmaker of the team." Kylian Mbappe is on her team too.

There are some aspects of the game that are more cutthroat, as Ultimate Team allows players to trade for other players. So has Tymrak ever traded one of her teammates or friends? Given that, except for a two-year hiatus, she's been in the NWSL from the beginning, there are plenty of former teammates who might fall afoul of "Trader Tymrak" the GM.

"I am going to plead the fifth on this one," she says. "No hard feelings. It's just for the betterment of the squad."

Another hot topic for NWSL players has been how the players look within the game.

When the NWSL, the NWSL Players Association and EA reached an agreement to add all of the league's players to the game in March, there was plenty of criticism about how the players looked. Sydney Leroux tweeted at the time: "I know you expect women to just be thankful and grateful that you've given us a little sliver of publicity, but please stop wasting our time. Some of us are bald." (The lack of hair wasn't limited to NWSL players though -- for a time, Darwin Núñez was also depicted as being bald. These graphical snafus have since been fixed.)

Racing Louisville defender Carson Pickett plays with a limb difference, and says she felt that she was represented accurately for the most part, but she is mindful that not everyone had the same experience.

"Honestly, I would almost rather not be in it because I feel like there was a lot of people who it was disrespectful to," she says. "And I know that there's people that were actually quite upset by it, and I can imagine how that would feel. I think representation in the game really does matter a lot, and I do feel for them because that is something that if you're going to be in a game that people are playing all around the world, you want to actually look like how you look because that's a representation of yourself."

The game wasn't perfect in its depiction of Pickett either, she adds, but she feels they handled her limb difference well.

"I think there's definitely some things that it didn't really look like me, but I feel like my arm, because that is something that could be quite difficult, I actually feel like they did a pretty good job with that," she says.

One hope is that more fans will connect with the women's game as a result of playing FC 24. Tymrak recalls how after a road game in Washington, D.C., she and teammates Kylie Strom and Megan Montefusco went out for a meal, and were recognized by the bartender due to being in EA FC.

"He didn't even recognize us as Orlando Pride players," Tymrak says. "He recognized us. He's like, 'I play with you guys on FIFA all the time.' And it was just so funny. That's how he recognized us. He probably wouldn't have recognized us without that."

That recognition can have a downside, however, even if it's limited to the digital realm. Pickett noted how she's gotten some "extremely hurtful" DMs because of something that happened in EA FC from people who had her on their team.

"Obviously you have to take it with a grain of salt. It's a video game and I'm not actually losing for your team kind of thing," she says. "But I mean, just some of the things people have said, I just can't [imagine] saying it to somebody."

EA is constantly updating the video game, and Ball has noticed that there are more hairstyles and skin colors now, the better to portray the league's non-white players. (Ball says it was a notable that many players who felt they didn't look like themselves in the game were people of color.) Kornieck would like to see the addition of Career Mode for women players, which allows players to craft a story about a player or manager. (EA has not made any announcements as to whether these modes will be added.)

After Saturday's NWSL Championship, in which Gotham FC beat OL Reign, and retiring U.S. national team legends Ali Krieger and Megan Rapinoe played their final clubs games against each other, EA added "End of an Era" cards to the game in their honor.

Tymrak, who has been playing video games since she was 12, senses progress has been made.

"I think [EA] has done a good job integrating it and progressing it," she says. "I'm excited to see what they do in the future with cards and being able to get different packs and stuff."

Maybe in the future, there will be a rating for trash talk. If there is, Tymrak will probably be near the top of the list.