Tim Howard plays the part for 'FIFA 15'
Just like 22 million Americans, David Pekush marveled at Tim Howard's otherworldly performance last month in the United States' 2-1, extra time loss to Belgium in the knockout stage of the World Cup.
But as senior marketing manager of EA Sports' "FIFA" video game franchise, Pekush also saw an opportunity. For years, "FIFA" fans -- unlike global soccer's embattled governing body, the electronic diversion that shares its name has millions -- have been clamoring for improvement in one area more than any other: goalkeeping.
As is the case with EA's other iconic titles such as "Madden NFL" or "NBA Live," "FIFA" has become unbelievably realistic in recent years to the point where at first glance, it's sometimes hard to differentiate between a high-definition, televised contest and the computerized simulation.
From jersey-number fonts to players' facial features to the way Cristiano Ronaldo stands over a dead ball outside the box before unleashing a free kick into the side netting, the company's motto -- "It's in the game" -- has never been more accurate.
But goalies, by Pekush's own admission, may have been the rare aspect neglected. "The most fun part of the game is scoring goals, and there's been more focus on the fun," Pekush said in a recent phone interview. "But the game has become so real over the last few years, and there's such a focus on authenticity, that we needed to make sure we had that."
So this year's principal aim has been on innovating and adding more features to the one position not controlled by the gamer; unlike outfield players, goalies operate automatically. Doing so also happened to require having a top-end backstop agree to travel to Vancouver and be put through a four-hour workout inside the motion capture laboratory at EA's headquarters, where over 100 cameras would record every kick, dive and stop.
Some of the game's leading lights have been "mo-capped" in the past, a list that includes Gareth Bale, Ronaldinho and Wayne Rooney. But no keeper who had played in a World Cup or in an elite circuit such as the English Premier League, where Howard stars for Everton, had ever participated.
Pekush knew who he wanted, but with the Sept. 23 "FIFA 15" launch date looming, recruiting Howard had to happen quickly if he was to happen at all.
"There's such a small window for guys that are playing in the Premier League," Pekush said. "I reached out to Tim's agent literally 12 hours after the Belgium match and asked if there was any chance to do something by the end of July. Three days later, we had a deal. We couldn't believe we got America's new hero to come to Canada."
Howard had scheduled a family vacation in Florida earlier in the month, but he was able to squeeze in a trip north a week before his Aug. 3 return to England. It was the first time he'd touched a ball since the Americans were eliminated in Salvador, Brazil.
"I jumped at the opportunity, although I know I'll be a little sore tomorrow," Howard told ESPN FC on July 25, the day of the shoot. "Goalkeepers always get the short end of the stick, so the fact that they're revamping the position and asking me to help was pretty special."
Vancouver Whitecaps forward Kekuta Manneh worked with Howard during the rigorous session, in which he was asked to replicate reaction saves, one-on-ones, punching and long-distance kicking. "Real-live, real-time game stuff," Howard said.
"What was amazing," said Pekush, "was they would show Tim video of the stops he'd made against Belgium match and in other World Cup matches, and he would try to recreate those. It's invaluable having a world-class guy like that doing the motion capture."
The end result, according to EA, will be goalkeepers that "look, move and think like their real world counterparts." But Howard, hardly the video game freak many of his younger U.S. teammates are, is hoping his contributions to "FIFA 15" won't make scoring too much more difficult -- especially when he grabs the controls and faces off against his 8-year-old son.
"When we play, usually I'm [Cristiano] Ronaldo and my son is me," said Howard, 35. "Given my day job, I want to score goals and have a little glory."
"It's fun being Ronaldo for an hour."
Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.