FIFA’s split with EA could be a very costly mistake

Launched in 2021, it has now materialized in 2022: EA Sports and FIFA have consciously disassociated themselves.

On the surface, the divorce is amicable. There will be one more game together (FIFA 23) and then the two sides will go their separate ways. EA Sports will keep the game, FIFA will keep the name. But what happens next?

EA Sports came first, announcing the launch of the “EA Sports FC” brand, under which its future games will be released. He was quick to answer the question that immediately popped into the mind of any worried player: Will he still be able to use real club and player names?

The carefully crafted press release by CEO Andrew Wilson mentions EA Sports’ many “partners” in the first, second and fifth of its five paragraphs, before ostensibly quoting the aforementioned partners named below as they made the standing in line to swear brand loyalty.

In turn, the Premier League, Spanish La Liga, German Bundesliga, European UEFA and South American federation CONMEBOL have pledged allegiance to EA Sports FC. Message received and understood.

Two hours later, FIFA responded, rather less convincingly.

World football’s governing body has announced it has ‘diversified’ its playing rights, planning new ‘simulation-free’ games for the crucial third quarter ahead of this World Cup final year and that it was “engaging with publishers, studios and investors on the development of a major new sim football title for 2024”.

“I can assure you,” said FIFA President Gianni Infantino, “that the only true authentic game bearing the FIFA name will be the best available to football players and fans. The FIFA name is the only original world title FIFA 23, FIFA 24, FIFA 25 and FIFA 26 and so on – the constant is the FIFA name and it will forever remain and remain THE BEST.

Rarely have so few words offered so much to unpack.

Let’s start with “games without simulation”. And please note that these are “games”, plural.

FIFA said it was “unleashing a portfolio of new games in 2022 and 2023”.

The phrase “non-simulation” suggests that these will not be “Be the Footballer” games, nor “Be the Football Manager” games. But what else can you do under the FIFA banner?

Are we talking about a horribly misjudged Minecraft-style construction game, where you have to build as many stadiums in the desert as possible, while as few migrant workers die as possible? It is perhaps more of a management game, where the objective is to ruin a perfectly successful tournament by introducing the second phase of four groups of three which was a disaster in the 1982 final in Spain. We’re waiting impatiently.

Infantino’s belief that mere ownership of the word “FIFA” is a guarantee of success in an increasingly sophisticated gaming industry is startling.

It’s either an empty bombshell to appease concerned stakeholders, or it sincerely believes in it, which is terrifying on many levels. If he was president of Ferrari and all the staff left and all the factories burned down and all the plans were lost, would he also believe that Ferrari would stay forever and remain the best?

Infantino is unlikely to know that there is precedent for this type of split.

Someone probably should have told him how publisher Eidos broke with Sports Interactive, the development company behind the Championship Manager series in 2003. Eidos kept the name, Sports Interactive kept the database, and the matching engine, the key components of the game.

It was not an amicable separation and resentment simmers to this day.

This was in a time before Facebook and Twitter, and the breakup went unnoticed by many gamers.

Both parties released their own games and Eidos had the clear advantage of brand recognition. But their Championship Manager 5 was so riddled with bugs that it was nearly unplayable upon release. Sports Interactive’s Football Manager 2005 was far superior.

Even without social media, it didn’t take long for gamers to find out which game was worth their money.

It took Football Manager years steady organic growth, but they are now the only superpower of the genre, while Championship Manager has ceased production altogether.

Eidos’ only advantage in this battle, the fact that many customers were completely unaware that this was not the game they liked, is now being denied to FIFA by the sheer weight of online coverage over the past 48 last hours.

And so we come to the exciting part: The release of “a major new sim football title for 2024”.

Let’s be clear, the competition is good. EA Sports’ polished and popular series could definitely be one of them. Its relentless focus on in-game purchases has raised concerns, and some players feel it doesn’t always offer serious progress from one edition to the next.

But the competition in this market is fierce.

Japanese entertainment company Konami discovered this last year with the troubled release of its “eFootball” game, the much-hyped next generation in the Pro-Evolution Soccer (PES) series.

Konami has been in the video game business since 1978, the PES series debuted in 2001 and has sold over 100 million units in its various incarnations. His “eFootball” was a well-meaning attempt to counter EA Sports’ dominance with free play. Konami had the resources, the expertise and the experience, and yet their new game was pilloried upon release.

What does FIFA bring to the party that Konami didn’t? Aside from the seemingly magical power of his 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. But even a company of this caliber would struggle to build substantial coding, data, and quality assurance (QA) teams in time for a 2024 release.

Although the story behind this split has yet to fully emerge, it is widely believed to be caused by a dispute over how to split income. EA is thought to make a third of its $5.6 billion annual revenue from this game alone, and FIFA apparently wanted a much larger share.

When EA hinted at a parting ways last October, this writer incorrectly predicted an eventual compromise on the basis that FIFA would have to be mad to shut down what was essentially a pipeline delivering free money.

But that’s exactly what he’s done now.

FIFA’s only leverage was the threat to make its own game and EA called that bluff.

Considering the cost, both in resources and time, of building a whole new game franchise, this can turn out to be an extremely costly mistake.

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Want to know more about Iain and his team? Why not check out his podcast – The Football Manager Show sponsored by Livescore – free on Apple, Spotify and all the usual podcast platforms, and of course ad-free on The Athletic.

(Photo: Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images)


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