FIFA are going their own way in gaming after having split with EA. But what comes next? Because producing triple-A games from the ground up is expensive.
It’s been a busy week for Gianni Infantino. He’d confirmed that FIFA will be using four-team groups and a round of 32 in their 48-team World Cup in 2026, a decision which takes the number of matches to be played from 64 in Qatar at the end of last year to 104. There will also be an idiosyncratic World Club Cup which takes the very worst thing about the existing version of that competition – that the biggest confederations have to jump through too few hoops to be able to call themselves the ‘world club champions’ – and makes it a 32-team tournament instead.
And now, having slung a metaphorical skateboard over his shoulder while donning a backwards baseball cap, he’s returned to the subject of video games. Or, as gamers call them, “games”. Speaking this week, Infantino said: “The new FIFA game, the FIFA 25, 26, 27 and so on will always be the best egame for any girl or boy, we will have news on this very soon.”
It’s been known that a split had happened between the global game’s governing body and Electronic Arts (EA), the people who have been producing the FIFA series of games over the last three decades, but how realistic are his plans to respawn the ‘official’ version of the world’s most popular football game?
The FIFA series of games is an absolute cash cow. FIFA 23 was the seventh best seller in the world in 2022, and the proceeds from the sale of the game itself aren’t the only prize on offer to the winners of this particular battle. On top of those revenues, there’s also scope for making enormous amounts of money from players once they’ve actually bought the product.
EA have already committed to continuing their series under the name of EA Sports FC from next year. The only difference gamers might quickly notice will be the lack of World Cup in the game. EA already hold licenses for just about everything else. But despite reports that FIFA had demanded more than £250m per year for EA to continue with the licence that did so much to make their game the top dog in the first place, it’s not easy to have much sympathy with the game’s producers.
In 2021, the last year for which such figures are available, EA made £1.62bn from their games’ Ultimate Team modes, in which players can build a team using virtual cards that can be either earned or – and this is the key – bought to play online or offline.
Across their football, American football, ice hockey, basketball and UFC titles, that £1.62bn accounted for 29% of their total annual revenue for that year.
Last month, the UK government stopped short of taking action on loot boxes, despite finding that players who buy loot boxes are “more likely to experience gambling, mental health, financial and problem gaming-related harms”. So with this golden goose having been given a stay of execution in quite a big market and lots more lovely, lovely loot to be accumulated, it was always likely that two organisations as avaricious as EA and FIFA would have ended up splitting over money, with the likelihood of them fighting like rats in a sack over future loot box revenues, too.
But does Infantino really know what he’s going to be letting himself in for here? The days of bedroom coders knocking out a video game in a few weeks aren’t quite dead, but they certainly are in the triple-A games world that EA inhabit. The combined costs for production and advertising run to hundreds of millions of pounds a year, while the development time to build a platform upon which Gianni Infantino’s Definitely Official FIFA 24™ is unlikely to be short.
EA, of course, already have their game engine up and ready to run.
And the story of the precedent for this doesn’t really sound great for FIFA either, as can be seen from the Championship Manager vs Football Manager debacle of almost 20 years ago. When CM producers Sports Interactive split from publishers Eidos in 2003, the publishers decided to carry on producing it, but the audience followed the game rather than the name and a vast gulf between the quality of the two resulted in Football Manager becoming a behemoth while Championship Manager limped on in the face of diminishing returns until 2011, and was revived for a few years as a mobile game in 2013 before eventually giving up the ghost completely in 2018.
It is to be presumed that Infantino is aware of all of this. Konami, the giant Japanese publishing house and producer, infamously ended their Pro Evolution Soccer series and began afresh with eSoccer 2021, a game which has entered the annals of infamy as one of the worst releases of recent years.
Its many shortcomings have been largely patched now, but it’s shown no signs that it could topple the FIFA series.
So what does Infantino do now? Hire a developer to produce it, presumably, and then the race is on. His statement is somewhat unclear, but when, exactly, is he expecting to launch this title? There’s no set release date for EA Sports FC yet, but if it might reasonably be presumed that it’ll match those of the old FIFA Soccer series, then that would mean September. So if FIFA are planning to take on this giant, have they actually started development yet? If so, who’s doing it? And if not, then how long are they allowing for it?
To be absolutely clear, this isn’t even really a matter of having to be ‘better’ than EA’s version, which does have detractors for its gameplay as well as its rapacious attitude toward the game’s players. It’s perfectly acceptable to hate both sides in this argument. But that’s not even really the point. It’s about the cold, hard realities of video game production at the level that will be expected if it’s to have a cat in hell’s chance of challenging EA’s FIFA series and EA Sports FC. Who buys what game, who subscribes to what, and who starts buying those loot boxes will determine who ‘wins’ this fight.
Somewhat hilariously, Infantino has previously said that, “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”, which primarily reminds you of how weird it is that such a successful gaming franchise is named after a stuffy old governing body of wheezing men, many of whom look as though they may not have kicked a ball in their entire lives. EA have a habit of this, with their equally successful American series being named for John Madden, who died at the end of 2021.
It is absolutely inconceivable that gamers will care more about this new game being an official FIFA™ product more than they will about:
Having who’s got the licences for all the biggest leagues and players – which EA already hold;
The quality of the gameplay and reliability of the online servers – which EA already have the structure for but which FIFA don’t, at least not publicly;
And where their mates are playing the game – which for the last 10 or 20 years has probably been FIFA, certainly since the last Pro Evolution Soccer game in 2017.
They want an authentic product, not an ‘official’ one, and if Infantino or whoever is undertaking this hare-brained scheme on his behalf doesn’t understand this, then the prospects for them topping EA don’t look great.
And if this does end up failing, the words “the best egame for any girl or boy” should be written on its tombstone when it’s buried. Firstly, no-one in the history of anything has ever called them ‘egames’, with the primary references to that word online already being the extent to which Infantino has been dunked upon for sounding like Steve Buscemi in 30 Rock.
And that’s not all. “Girl or boy”?
Signor Infantino, if I may address you personally for a second. I am 50 years old, I have been gaming since you still had hair (more than 40 years, to be slightly more exact), and I am by no means the oldest gamer I know. And I say this because condescending your entire audience by completely needlessly infantilising, well, all of us doesn’t seem like a move fresh out of Marketing Week magazine. The average age of the gamer has been estimated at around 35 years old, for the record.
There are ways in which FIFA can make this work. Perhaps they’ll come up with something interesting and imaginative, rather than a pale imitation of previous years. Esports is big business these days, with professional clubs having their own teams. Perhaps that’s what Infantino meant when he said “egames”. But even calling them that shows a carelessness which doesn’t inspire confidence. He should probably be aware of the fact that many gamers will be giving him the side-eye for having disrupted the status quo in the first place, even those who don’t care about all that other stuff.
But even hoping that esports will save the day is somewhat thin. If the next eWorld Cup is played exclusively on Gianni Infantino’s Definitely Official FIFA 24™, will that encourage millions to buy it, or will it instead diminish the tournament? FIFA probably has brand recognition, but only really among those who don’t really know quite what they’re looking for. EA may be a hugely unpopular company, but their game is competent.
It is possible that FIFA could get this right. If they hire the right developers and those developers are given the resources and freedom to produce something truly imaginative, then it might just work. But no-one ever wanted to play as West London White and no-one really wants to score the winning goal in a World Cup final – and not even in the Gianni Infantino Definitely Official FIFA 24™ World Cup Final – with Bobson Dugnutt (if you know, you know) if they could with Lionel Messi.
But the point remains that this is a huge logistical undertaking and it’s difficult to believe that the guy who calls them ‘egames’ could be the right man to usurp EA’s rebranded version, however flawed that game and even EA themselves might be. It’s not a matter of wanting FIFA to fail. God knows gaming could do with some better competition for EA than Konami’s mediocrity. It just seems all a bit far-fetched to me. But then again, what would we know? We’re just boys and girls to FIFA.