“Get in the kitchen, don’t be playing this game.”
Even with skills that allow her to wipe the floor with the vast majority of FIFA’s male-heavy player base, it usually doesn’t take long for predictable sexist abuse to ring around Lisa Manley’s headset.
The 24-year-old can confidently claim to be one of England’s very best at the popular football video game, having pivoted from the real-life sport after a serious knee injury ended her hopes of a professional career.
“When I had to have surgery, I put a lot more time into FIFA and got a lot better at the game,” she says.
“It sounds a bit silly, but you can use your knowledge from the pitch in the game.”
In another life, she could have been one of the Lionesses who made it to the World Cup final.
She first started playing football when she was just five and caught the attention of Fulham and Chelsea, one of the most successful teams in women’s football.
Instead, she’s one of the e-Lionesses, yet still representing her country on the global stage.
Abuse ‘not changed’ despite success
Earlier this year, representing England, she was among the best at a FIFA e-sports tournament in Zurich – and her talents have seen her attract an audience of millions across platforms like Twitch and TikTok.
Fittingly, her campaign in the Swiss city ended with being dumped out on penalties in the quarter-finals.
Not that her success has translated to much newfound respect in the notoriously toxic realm of online gaming, one where strangers with microphones are never shy to dish out abuse.
“There’s a lot of sexism,” she says.
“Men get a lot of hate online too, everyone does in games. But it’s never the same sort of thing: ‘you shouldn’t be playing this game, you should be in the kitchen’ and worse than that.
“Even though my name’s out there, it’s not really changed that much.”
For many women and girls who play games, the solution is often doing so in silence – no microphones or webcams, identifiable usernames, and certainly no streaming.
Research for Sky found almost half of women have faced abuse or harassment when playing online, rising to an evermore depressing 75% for those aged 18 to 24.
FIFA’s historic rebrand
Just as the Lionesses have helped take women’s football truly mainstream, there’s hope the digital version of the often-not-so-beautiful game is about to follow suit.
For the first time since it debuted in 1993, developer EA Sports has ditched the FIFA branding – a name millions associate more with gaming than football’s governing body – and gone with EA Sports FC.
Forget Twitter becoming X, this may well be the year’s biggest rebrand.
We should certainly all spare a thought for those poor shop assistants left to explain to the confused mums, dads, and grandparents why “the FIFA game” isn’t visible on shelves next week.
‘Most inclusive’ game to date
But never mind the new name, an even bigger change is coming to the game itself, as football’s biggest female stars join their male counterparts in Ultimate Team.
It has long been the series’ most popular, and lucrative, mode.
It allows players to build their dream squads using trading card-like mystery packs, before taking them online to compete against the world.
And this year that dream could include Lionesses captain Leah Williamson playing in a centre-back pairing with Liverpool’s Virgil van Dijk; a strike force of France goal machine Kylian Mbappe and Australian forward Sam Kerr; or Mary Earps saving penalties from Erling Haaland.
EA Sports’s Andrea Hopelain says it makes this year’s game “the most inclusive and diverse” to date.
‘People want to play as their heroes’
Female stars have been in FIFA since 2015 but have only ever felt like a token gesture, restricted to minor modes players overwhelmingly don’t bother with.
As EA Sports pursues an even bigger marketing campaign than usual to promote its rebrand, Manley says it’s “the perfect time” to put women front and centre.
“After the World Cup and the Euros, there are a lot more females wanting to play the game,” she says.
“Women’s football has more people watching now – men, women, children. I started playing FIFA because of football and it goes hand in hand.
“People want to play as their role models and their heroes.”
Of course, the gaming community can be home to more man babies than most, and a quick YouTube trawl exposes many such “fans” criticising the decision.
Some have tried to claim it goes against what they see as an “authentic” football simulation, ignoring it’s already one which allows for such unlikely feats as Tottenham Hotspur title wins.
Marie-Claire Isaaman, chief executive of Women in Games, which campaigns for a gaming industry, culture, and community free from sexism, says EA’s move is a “huge step forward”.
“It is an important statement to make, both to the gaming community and to the gaming industry itself,” she says.
“When not playing the game physically, it’s not unreasonable for girls and women to want to play virtually.”
‘We need more female role models in e-sports’
It certainly feels like a watershed moment, with Football Manager announcing it will add women’s football next year.
The notoriously in-depth and addictive series is developed by British studio Sports Interactive, and is one of the country’s most popular sports games.
Isaaman says whether it’s football or any other genre, “representation in games matters”.
Like Manley, she’s hopeful more women and girls view e-sports as a genuine career option, especially given the enormous earnings potential at the top of the field.
“We need more female role models in e-sports and streaming,” she says.
“But these women and girls are putting themselves in positions where they are likely to face abuse.
“That’s the reality, sadly.”
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‘Trust the process’
Manley expects abuse every time she plays, either from opponents or in comments on her streams and videos.
Game publishers are clearly aware of the issues women face, with Call Of Duty introducing an AI tool to monitor hate speech and Microsoft leaning on similar technology to protect players on Xbox.
Manley thinks it will still take time to improve, but sees greater prominence for women in traditionally male-focused games like FIFA as a vital step on the road to acceptance.
“In two or three years time, it won’t be ‘why are women in the game’ – people will just be having a buzz after getting Leah Williamson or Sam Kerr in Ultimate Team,” she says.
“Hopefully it works both ways, and them being in the game will push more people to watch Women’s Super League.
“Trust the process – it will become the norm, and people won’t expect anything different.”