“FIFA vs EA: Navigating an Uncertain Video Game Race”
As he was re-elected as the president of football governing body FIFA today (March 16), Gianni Infantino talked of plans for the footballing body to continue the FIFA video game franchise – previously developed by Electronic Arts, who had licensed the rights from FIFA – themselves, saying that information was coming “very soon” and that FIFA 25, 26 and 27 “will always be the best egame for any girl or boy.”
It’s not a total surprise. EA and FIFA had a very public breakup year when they both went public about their grievances with the other party. EA claimed FIFA wanted double the reported $150m (£131m) license fee in exchange for the naming rights and the ability to officially include the World Cup. FIFA remained quiet on their reasoning, although wanting a bigger chunk of the £1.15b EA pulled in from FIFA Ultimate Team, according to the publisher’s 2020 earnings, seems like an obvious reason.
The split was a bit like when a couple in your friendship circle split up: the sides sniped at each other across the media, before EA finally announced that they wouldn’t make another FIFA after FIFA 23. They would instead be releasing EA Sports FC, a football game designed by the FIFA team but with EA owning the whole lot. Infantino, speaking on behalf of FIFA at the time, said “The FIFA name is the only global, original title,” and added “I can assure you that the only authentic, real game that has the FIFA name will be the best one available for gamers and football fans.”
FIFA 23. Credit: EA Sports.
Whether you saw it coming or not, the news that the footballing body will be developing its own titles moving forwards, effectively continuing EA’s franchise without the seasoned soccer developer’s involvement, will see several raising their eyebrows. While the goal isn’t unreasonable, the football governing body is soon going to find themselves struggling just to find people that can make a AAA football title for modern consoles. It’s mostly a matter of technical prowess.
Football games were everywhere around the time of the Sega Mega Drive and later the Sony Playstation. FIFA’s first entry dropped in 1993, and everyone was trying to capture the joy of digitally punting a football. But as games became more expensive to make and the competition became fiercer, the field began to thin out. By the time we got to the PlayStation 3’s launch in 2006, it was largely a two-horse race – with FIFA and Pro Evolution Soccer the only titles worth playing.
And a further 17 years later, EA’s FIFA is pretty much the only football game out there. EA has developers with years of experience making football games, they’re good at it, and it’s a team of people that live and breathe football.
FIFA 23. Credit: Electronic Arts.
Which is bad news for FIFA (the governing body) because whoever FIFA (the governing body) hires to make FIFA (the game), they won’t be developers who’ve been working on FIFA (the game). Very few other studios are actually shipping footie games these days.
So it begs the question – who is going to make this new franchise? While many developers would, no doubt, be keen to get a money hose as profitable as the FIFA franchise, being able to make a football game with the mass appeal of EA’s FIFA attempts is no easy task, especially starting from scratch.
There’s no doubt that this can be overcome. People can learn by doing and within a few years there’s no doubt that the team making this new incarnation of FIFA will have squared away their production pipeline, and acquired the tools they need for the high-fidelity AAA game that players are expecting from the name. But it won’t be easy.
‘FIFA 23’. CREDIT: EA Sports.
This task gets much harder if FIFA genuinely decide to go it alone, keeping all ownership for themselves. This feels unlikely because why would the international football governing body want to also become game developers? That would mean learning how to manage a studio and everything that comes with it, so I’m going to assume that a development partnership will be announced in the near future.
However, I think I know how FIFA 25 will go down. That’s because this has happened before in sports games. Championship Manager publishers Eidos famously parted ways with the game’s original developers, Sports Interactive, who retained the engine, database and staff used to develop Championship Manager. The new series they created didn’t have the name recognition, but Football Manager is a management simulator that’s still popular today.
Eidos meanwhile kept the Championship Manager title, bargaining on the fact that people would stay loyal to the brand and its name. But even with talent including David Rutter – who went on to head up the FIFA series at EA for many years – the new team, Beautiful Game Studios, struggled to create a game that captured the same magic of Sports Interactive’s baby. Both critical reactions and sales were middling at best, before Eidos accepted defeat and ceded the field to Football Manager a few years later.
FIFA 23. Credit: EA Sports.
Competition is crucial to encourage everyone involved to bring their A-game. While each FIFA title has brought meaningful improvements, the lack of success for Konami’s competing eFootball (formerly PES) brand means there are no challengers to keep EA honest when they launch EA Sports FC. I’d love to see new opposition getting involved, but I think FIFA may not understand the scale of the undertaking they are looking into.
Of course, there’s no denying the FIFA name has clout for casual gamers who may not play much else each year. For them, going onto the PS Store or walking into a supermarket and seeing the word FIFA on the cover is probably enough to get a sale.
Not having the word FIFA on your cover comes with some downsides too, which is something EA is sure to notice when they release their new-look footie game in the autumn. That lack of brand recognition will almost definitely translate to lost sales, in addition to the fact many players will just be unaware of the circumstances.
FIFA 23. Credit: EA Sports.
Infantino has a history of making bold and outlandish claims when speaking to press. Today was no different: outside of his claim for FIFA to develop their own titles, the 52-year old also compared his first FIFA presidency campaign to the Rwandan genocide recovery. World Cup fans will struggle to forget as Infantino turned a 45-minute press Q&A into a one-hour long monologue that raised eyebrows as he attempted to defend the 2022 World Cup from controversy.
So, maybe Infantino is just saying things without considering their impact. Either way, FIFA’s return to video games is likely to be a tough one.
Jake Tucker is NME’s commissioning editor for video games.
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