Yesterday, EA announced that its current licensing deal with FIFA is ending: There will be a FIFA 23 later this year, but from 2023 onwards the long-running football series will be rebranded as EA Sports FC. This marks the end of an incredibly successful partnership. Over decades, EA has made billions and constructed a true industry juggernaut, while also adding immeasurable value to FIFA’s brand.
The split comes with an element of risk for EA, and is a disaster for FIFA, which now has to either build a competitor from scratch or wave goodbye forever to the billions of dollars that the series has generated.
“We’ve got over 150 million players across unique accounts, and so when we think about the future of football right now, we really made this decision on the basis of being able to deliver experiences that our players wanted,” said EA CEO Andrew Wilson on an investors call after the announcement. “They told us they wanted more modalities of play, they told us they wanted to see more commercial partners in the game that are representative and authentic to the broad global world of football. They’re telling us they want us to move beyond just the core experience and really build out the digital football experience, and they’re telling us they want us to move really really fast.”
Wilson paid a bit of lip service to FIFA and the decades-long partnership between the two organisations but, as we’ll see, FIFA itself is not being quite so gracious. Wilson was then asked in the Q&A by investors about the risks inherent in re-branding an incredibly successful product, and marketing the game without the FIFA license.
“I think it’s a little early to tell yet,” said Wilson. “We’re certainly being very thoughtful and deliberate about that. The important thing to understand though, 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 UK, the most important thing for them is the Premier League. For a player in Germany, the most important thing to them is the Bundesliga. And in Spain it’s La Liga, 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 in 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. And so certainly anytime you change the name of a product, you must be very thoughtful, and we’ll certainly have to think about marketing up front. But what gives us confidence as we move into 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.”
Wilson was pretty graceful about FIFA, all things considered. Following EA’s announcement, the world football governing body has announced that it plans to compete in the videogame market with new partners, and aims to launch its first “simulation football title” (which is what it calls the current FIFA) in 2024. It will also move to a non-exclusive licensing model: Whereas previously only EA had the rights to use the FIFA name in games, now expect a wider range. Somewhat surprisingly, FIFA reckons it’ll have stuff launching later this year.
“A number of new non-simulation games are already under production and will launch during the third quarter of this year. The first is a tailored gaming experience featuring the biggest event on earth, the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022, which will bring new, interactive experiences to fans across the globe.
“Following this initial unveiling, FIFA will launch further games and virtual experiences around this year’s FIFA World Cup. Additional projects are also under discussion with publishers ahead of next year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup.”
FIFA President Gianni Infantino has also come out all guns blazing: “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. 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.”
Get that EA? It will be THE BEST! Unfortunately for Infantino, EA Sports does currently make the best football game in the world, and FIFA is coming at this from a standing start. Taking on EA Sports at what is very much its own game is a daunting challenge and FIFA is coming at three decades of gaming heritage from a standing start.
It’s fascinating to consider what unlikely alliances this could prompt. The most obvious, surely, is with the Japanese publisher Konami, which recently re-branded the long-running Pro Evolution Soccer series as eFootball. So far… it’s been a disaster. But this series was, not so long ago, FIFA’s only real competition, and even though it never seriously challenged EA’s series commercially, many would argue it was once the better game.
Konami has decades of experience in making football games and, while it couldn’t offer FIFA the kind of licensing money it wanted from EA (apparently an eye-watering $1 billion every four years), already makes equivalent modes to a lot of what FIFA offers. It would be an obvious pick as well as a hell of a plot twist. Another contender is the upcoming game UFL which is an unproven quantity but, crucially, already exists in a studio somewhere.
Infantino naturally puts what’s happened down 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,” he said. Funny way of saying they wouldn’t give us a billion.
The crunch year is going to be 2024: “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.” This is when we’re going to be treated to the spectacle of EA Sports FC versus FIFA 25, as the former partners go to war over one of the most lucrative audiences in gaming.