When the news finally dropped late yesterday that EA Sports and the FIFA brand name were parting company, it felt like something of a shock. Since the mid-1990s, the two have been bedfellows, as the former built the most popular football gaming franchise in videogaming, using the name of the latter.
However, this divorce has been a while coming. Towards the end of last year, it became clear that the renewal of the deal between the pair was anything but a formality. The existing deal ends following the World Cup at the end of the year in Qatar, and that means that FIFA 23 is the last gaming release covered by it.
Now we get the official confirmation that it’ll also be the last EA-made FIFA football game too.
The clues were set out in a New York Times report in late 2021, where it was already made clear where EA’s thinking was heading. It’d become known that EA was seriously considering moving away from the FIFA name, and building something of its own.
A collection of factors were pushing its decision.
Firstly, FIFA itself. The governing body of world football was reportedly getting a little more demanding with its renegotiations. As the New York Times wrote, “FIFA would prefer to limit EA’s exclusivity to the narrow parameters around use in a soccer game, most likely in an effort to seek new revenue streams for the rights it would retain”.
That didn’t sit well with EA. It’s evolved the FIFA game many times, most notably with the lucrative and contentious Ultimate Team version, that’s added a billion or two to the company’s bottom line. Did it want to crosscheck with FIFA every time it wanted to add a new feature of note to the game? Absolutely not.
FIFA wanted more money too. The existing $125m annual fee that EA pays? Well, it allegedly wanted double that.
Finally, what played into EA’s hands was the clear run it had. Its main competition, Konami’s PES series, has been retired in favour of the free to play eSports Football brand. Things haven’t been going well there, and nearly a year after it was first released, Konami neither has a particularly compelling game, nor a hefty playerbase.
EA is like Paris St Germain in the French league. It has the money. It doesn’t have much competition. And now, it’s inclined to gamble.
Thus, it’s taken what’s undoubtedly one of the biggest gambles in its recent history. It’s ending a deal that’s been fundamental to the growth of the company over the last 25 years. It’s not stopping making football games – quite the opposite – but they won’t, after this year, bear the FIFA name.
Instead, it’s going to launch EA Sports FC, a suitably bland new moniker for its football range, but crucially for EA, a name it entirely owns. It’s gambling that players won’t give a hoot what the game is called, and will just follow it to its new branding. Given that October 2023’s EA Sports FC will come with official player names and such like, that shouldn’t be a stretch. The one key omission will be the game can no longer include the FIFA World Cup.
There’s a slight precedent here, as we talked about previously. That once upon a time, Championship Manager was the comfortable leading name in football management titles. Its developers rebranded as Football Manager, whilst its former publisher kept hold of Championship Manager. For a year or two, the pair were in competition, but it didn’t take long for players to work out what’s what.
In the case of FIFA, it’s hard not to conclude that EA holds more of the cards here too, and that’s what it’s banking on. The chances of FIFA licencing its name to another publisher, who in turn can crank out a competitive rival in just over a year, are minimal to non-existent. The only way EA is able to turn a game out on an annual basis is that the changes between each release are slim (an ongoing criticism of the franchise), and that the core codebase remains in place.
As Konami has found, just keeping pace with EA is tricky. Launching from a standard start against it feels one hell of a stretch.
Where EA may find itself vulnerable though is longer term. As much as EA now has the freedom to do what it sees fit with its football game, FIFA can licence its name to different kind of rivals. Not a full on console football title perhaps, but certainly something to nip at the edges. It’s thus far made no comment, to be clear.
Yet EA has.
Chatting to the BBC, it’s clearly come out on the offensive. EA Sports’ David Jackson, its vice president, insists that “In the future our players will demand of us the ability to be more expansive in that offering. At the moment, we engage in play as a primary form of interactive experience. Soon, watching and creating content are going to be equally as important for fans”.
He added that “under the licensing conventions that we had agreed with FIFA ten years ago, there were some restrictions that weren’t going to allow us to be able to build those experiences for players”.
Well, things are clearly changing. The speculation already is Fortnite-style in-game events and such like, although EA has confirmed nothing. But do expect it to launch whatever it comes up with in 2023 with the kind of advances we’ve not seen in an annual FIFA game for years. It knows it’s taken a huge risk. It knows it has a window of time to make the most of it.
And it knows it can’t afford to mess this up.