Last year EA announced it would look to re-brand the long-running FIFA series. Reports at the time suggested FIFA wanted too much money (opens in new tab), EA executives were increasingly aware that the game is bigger than the license, and the cherry on the cake came when EA trademarked 'EA Sports FC' (opens in new tab).
EA's current licensing deal with FIFA means that we will see a FIFA 23 later this year, but beyond that? Things are looking very dicey, and a new report by VGC (opens in new tab) quotes CEO Andrew Wilson's words from an internal meeting held in November last year—shortly after the news became public.
"I’m going to be more open… more open than I’ve been with the outside world," Wilson said (opens in new tab), "We’ve had a great relationship with FIFA over the past 30-odd years. We’ve created billions in value… it’s just huge. We’ve created one of the biggest entertainment properties on the planet. I would argue—and this may be a little biased—that the FIFA brand has more meaning as a video game than it does a governing body of soccer."
Wilson went on to expand on this notion that FIFA the game is more important than FIFA the football governing body: "Basically, what we get from FIFA in a non-World Cup year is the four letters on the front of the box, in a world where most people don’t even see the box anymore because they buy the game digitally."
That is what they call an executive-level burn.
One of Wilson's more eyebrow-raising assertions is that "Our players tell us they want more cultural and commercial brands relevant to them in their markets, more deeply embedded in the game… brands like Nike. But because FIFA has a relationship with Adidas, we are not able to do that."
This obviously isn't about players of the game, whatever Wilson says, but about the footballers. They want their sponsorships reflected in the game and so do all the non-Adidas sportswear brands that sponsor them: 'normal' players don't give a toss about Reebok boots being in FIFA, but Reebok certainly do.
Wilson goes on to say that the FIFA license is stopping EA from doing other things with the game: "Our players tell us they want more modes of play, different things beyond 11v11 and different types of gameplay. I would tell you, it’s been a fight to get FIFA to acknowledge the types of things that we want to create, because they say our licence only covers certain categories. Our FIFA licence has actually precluded us from doing a lot of this stuff. Again, FIFA is just the name on the box, but they’ve precluded our ability to be able to branch into the areas that players want."
The CEO says that the approval process with FIFA is stopping EA being as dynamic and responsive as it would like with the game. Which is a fair enough point because for many years now FIFA has been effectively a live service game, constantly updated and kept in-line with whatever's happening in the real world of football. "Because of the nature of the approval timetables and the various things around our FIFA licence," says Wilson, "that’s actually been really hard and we’re moving much slower than we want."
Finally, EA is licking its lips at the prospect of building its own brand to replace FIFA. "I had a conversation with [FIFA president] Gianni Infantino just a couple of weeks ago where I said, 'listen, the money’s a thing: we don’t want to pay more money than this licence is worth. But it’s not about that, it’s really about our ability to deliver games and experiences that our fans want, in a timely fashion.'"
Wilson looks forward to a future (opens in new tab) where "we’re able to rebrand our game and take control of this global football ecosystem that we’re going to build, ironically we’ll probably generate more revenue, and have more fans, and have more engagement over time."
It's interesting times for football games at the moment. We'll almost certainly see FIFA engaged in a massive re-branding exercise towards the end of the year, while Konami tries desperately to get eFootball into a fit state for competition. There's also a third game and new entrant, UFL, which has been announced as a free-to-play competitor to both, but not really detailed.