By Gary Symons
TLL Editor in Chief
In one of the more shocking licensing stories this year, FIFA and Electronic Arts announced they are parting ways on their hugely profitable gaming partnership.
To hear EA and FIFA talk about it, the split between the long-term partners is both amicable and no big deal. In fact, both FIFA and EA portrayed the development as a positive outcome.
Observers of the video game sector aren’t so sure, pointing out that replacing the unparalleled expertise of EA Games will be a difficult and risky task.
Nevertheless, FIFA announced the breakup with a headline saying, “FIFA diversifies its gaming rights and launches new non-sim football games alongside EA SPORTS franchise,” and went on to claim the move would allow it to work with a wider selection of partners.
“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,” said FIFA president Gianni Infantino. “The FIFA name is the only global, original title. FIFA 23, FIFA 24, FIFA 25 and FIFA 26, and so on—the constant is the FIFA name and it will remain forever and remain THE BEST.
“The interactive gaming and esports sector is on a path of unrivalled growth and diversification,” Infantino added. FIFA’s strategy is to ensure we can make the most of all future options and ensure a wide range of products and opportunities for gamers, fans, member associations and partners.”
For their part, EA kept things positive in its announcement, saying the split now allows it to work with a wider selection of partners in the world of football (soccer to Americans). The company announced its world-famous football games will move forward under a new EA SPORTS FC brand in 2023. It says the the move “will enable EA to deliver the world’s biggest interactive sports experience for its growing community in collaboration with 300+ partners across the world of football.”
As Electronic Arts CEO Andrew Wilson explained, both to the press and to investors, the idea is for EA Sports to work with the many other leagues in the soccer world in order to broaden its appeal.
“The important thing to understand,” Wilson said in an earnings call, “is that as you travel around the world and you meet with players who really are deeply engaged with our game, for a player in the U.K., the most important thing to them is the Premier League. For a player in Germany, the most important thing to them is the Bundesliga. And in Spain it’s LaLiga and so on and so forth as you go around the world.
“What we’re focused on right now is building very unique experiences for each of those fans and each of those markets. And what you’ve seen today is many of our partners come out in support of our ability to do this for our fans. What gives us confidence as we move in this next phase of growth is that we are working with the partners and the content that our fans love and relate to most directly in the markets in which they do it.”
In fact, the news was well received by leagues throughout the world. Javier Tebas, President of the Spanish national league LaLiga, said, “EA SPORTS represents the pinnacle of interactive football experiences today and for the future, and we’re honored to continue working with them, as we have for more than 20 years.”
The Bundesliga was equally thrilled to learn its league will now be incorporated directly into the world’s most popular sports video game.
“EA SPORTS is an established and valuable part of the football world, and we’re excited about everything that is to come as a result of our innovative partnership,” said Bundesliga CEO Donata Hopfen. “We look forward to seeing Bundesliga and Bundesliga 2 incorporated into EA SPORTS FC.”
For EA, the plan is to put out one more game with FIFA for 2023, and after that move to the newly branded EA SPORTS FC.
“Our vision for EA SPORTS FC is to create the largest and most impactful football club in the world, at the epicenter of football fandom,” said Wilson. “For nearly 30 years, we’ve been building the world’s biggest football community – with hundreds of millions of players, thousands of athlete partners, and hundreds of leagues, federations, and teams. EA SPORTS FC will be the club for every one of them, and for football fans everywhere.”
Key to the plan is that EA SPORTS FC has more than 300 licensed partners, which gives the game access to more than 19,000 football players on 700 teams, spread among 30 different leagues. That means EA’s football franchise will continue to be able to portray the greatest players in the game, but it can also now allow players to compete for glory in their own local leagues. That’s seen as a way to increase the game’s popularity in local markets.
For all those reasons, it appears EA is still in a good position for the football market, but what about FIFA?
Despite the optimistic note struck by FIFA management, many analysts believe the split was a tactical error that will cost the association in time, trouble, and lost revenues.
The sports and gaming writer Iain Macintosh of The Athletic believes FIFA made a costly blunder in allowing the EA partnership to founder, simply because building out high-end sports game is notoriously difficult.
“Infantino’s belief that the mere ownership of the word ‘FIFA’ is a guarantee of success in an ever more sophisticated gaming industry is startling,” said Macintosh, who writes about both football and sports gaming. “This is either empty bombast to placate worried stakeholders or he genuinely believes it, which is terrifying on several levels. If he was president of Ferrari and all the staff left and all the factories burned down and all the blueprints were lost, would he also believe that Ferrari would remain forever and remain the best?”
Macintosh, and several other gaming experts, pointed out that other companies have tried and failed to come out with top notch titles in this arena. For example, when Eidos split with development company Sports Interactive, Eidos kept the title of their Championship Manager game, but Sports Interactive then built their own game. With SI’s greater experience in developing that type of game, Championship Manager eventually failed and was taken off the market due to being judged “almost unplayable.”
Macintosh also points to the story of Konami, an experienced and well regarded developer that nevertheless failed to launch a game that could compete with EA Sports titles.
“Its ‘eFootball’ was a well-meant attempt to counter EA Sports’ dominance with a free-to-play game,” Macintosh said. “Konami had the resources, the expertise and the experience, and still its new game was pilloried on release. What is FIFA bringing to the party that Konami did not? Aside from the apparently magical power of its name?
“FIFA’s best option would be to partner with an established publisher — someone like 2K, which produces the well-received NBA and PGA Tour games,” he added. “But even a company of that calibre would struggle to build substantial coding, data and quality assurance (QA) teams in time for a 2024 release.”
Still, it appears it may have been FIFA that pushed for the split, as they explained in a statement. “This new, non-exclusive licensing model follows on from an extended period of discussions between the parties relating to FIFA’s future gaming vision. As announced in October 2021, FIFA intends to work with a range of partners rather than lock up all gaming and esports rights exclusively with one publisher for the long term.
“As well as launching a portfolio of new games during 2022 and 2023, FIFA is currently engaging with leading game publishers, media companies and investors in regard to the development of a major new FIFA simulation football game title for 2024.”
However, that also means FIFA has not yet engaged a developer to build a game that can compete with those from Electronic Arts. Even if a dev team started today, game development experts say releasing a title of that sophistication would be very difficult indeed in just two years.