Ever wanted to celebrate a goal with a backflip, recreate a Canada vs. USA hockey rivalry game, or see Sue Bird back on a basketball court? Thanks to video games, now you can.
By Elisha Gunaratnam
Sports video games are similar to actual sports in one major way: They overwhelmingly focus on men over women. Until recently, despite the presence and popularity of female athletes across a variety of sports, it remained rare to see female athletes and leagues in major sports video games.
However, this year is a special year for women’s sports in the world of video games; Sarah Nurse became the first female hockey player to be featured on the cover of an NHL video game, Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi were featured on one of the covers of NBA 2K23, and FIFA 23 not only added several women’s leagues for players to compete with, but they also put Sam Kerr on the cover of the game.
For EA Sports, the journey of bringing women to the forefront of their games began ten years ago. In 2012, NHL 12 introduced its first female character in the NHL video game series after 14-year-old Lexi Peters penned a letter to EA Sports asking why her brother could make and play with a character that looked like him, but she couldn’t do the same. “It is unfair to women and girl hockey players around the world, many of them who play and enjoy your game,” Peters wrote. “I have created a character of myself, except I have to be represented by a male and that’s not fun.” Her letter eventually made its way to NHL 12’s lead producer, David Littman, who was so touched by it that he immediately tried to figure out a way to make Peters’ wishes come true. “Lexi’s letter was a wake-up call,” he said. “Here’s a growing audience playing our NHL game and we hadn’t done anything to capture them.”
Despite the introduction of female characters in NHL 12, it took until NHL 22 for players to be able to play with women’s International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) teams. Thankfully EA Sports didn’t wait as long to make its next move toward improving representation in their NHL series. In 2023 Sarah Nurse made history as the first female hockey player to be featured on the cover of an NHL video game.
Sam Kerr also made history this year as the first female soccer player to be featured on the cover of a FIFA video game. EA Sports also introduced Women’s Super League (WSL), Division 1 Féminine and Women’s Champions League teams to FIFA 23.
When FIFA introduced female characters to the game in 2016, many people thought it was a risky move considering the game’s core demographic: young men. Christine Sinclair and Alex Morgan were featured on the covers of regional copies of FIFA 16, and the game went on to become one of the best-selling titles of the year.
The increase in female representation in video games has not been exclusive to hockey and soccer games. In recent years, NBA 2K has begun releasing special editions of their games, each with unique covers. Last year, the first WNBA edition came out, commemorating the WNBA’s 25-year anniversary, and featuring Candace Parker on the box art. EA Sports decided to not make this a one-off thing and released a WNBA edition of NBA 2K23. This time, “the Greatest Duo,” WNBA legends Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi shared the cover.
WNBA players have been featured in various editions of NBA 2K since 2018, but being the cover of NBA 2K‘s newest annual installment is one of the high honors in the professional basketball world. It’s also a proven move for 2K to sell more units—if a fan sees that their favorite basketball player is on the cover of the new game, they might be a little more willing to leave behind the previous year’s edition.
In 2020, women accounted for nearly 41% of all gamers in the United States. And in Asia, which accounts for 48% of the world’s total gaming revenue, women now make up 40-45% of the Asian gaming population. Putting female athletes in video games and investing in women’s sports is not an act of charity; it’s a smart business move. This is largely because the impact of the rise of women’s sports in video games extends beyond female fans and gamers. As Sarah Nurse said,
“It’s the little boys, to be honest, because obviously, little girls, they’re so excited because they’re like, ‘Oh my God, you’re on a video game cover.’ But seeing little boys recognize me and be like, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re so famous. You’re the one on the cover,’ has been pretty cool because once the boys recognize the value of women in sports and understand that women in sports are impactful and here to stay, that’s what we’re going to see change in the game. So it’s not only impactful for little girls to see their heroes, it’s also impactful for little boys.”
Featuring women’s sports in mainstream video games could have massive implications for the growth of leagues like the WNBA, PHF, PWHPA, NWSL, WSL, and UWCL. Women’s sports do not receive nearly enough coverage in the media, and video games might just help give female athletes the attention that they deserve.