THey, guess it’s all over… it’s now. The lucrative corporate marriage that brought us annual soccer sims for 30 years, raking in billions of dollars along the way, is now dead. Fifa and Electronic Arts (EA) have parted ways. And now the dust has settled on a day of frantic press releases, hype and low-key interviews. What challenges do both units face as they fight to reclaim the future of footie sim?
Here’s my pretty safe bet: Fifa is going to have a tough time. Now stripped of the exclusivity clause granted to EA, the company appears to have a number of “non-simulation” games due out this year from various developers. It’s likely these will be casual titles, likely for smartphones, loaded with microtransactions, perhaps aimed at the huge Asian market for arena-based multiplayer games. If there’s a plausible Fifa: Clash of Teams game out there, maybe with a few NFTs, you can bet someone is working on it.
Fifa has claimed that it will release a full Fifa football sim in 2024, with President Gianni Infantino making a rumbled promise that it will be “the only authentic, real game” and “the best available for gamers and football fans”. This is obviously a ridiculous piece of hubris that shows no understanding of modern video game development. EA’s titles represent the culmination of 30 years of sports sim development with a huge, dedicated and extremely experienced team. Where else will Fifa find this kind of expertise?
It might work alongside Konami’s Pro Evolution Studio (especially given the rocky start for its current series, eFootball), but Konami hasn’t really challenged EA’s Fifa games in well over a decade. At the same time, it’s hard to imagine any other major, established development studio in the world focusing on sports simulations in such a short period of time.
What about 2K games? It has the prestigious NBA 2K license and its Visual Concepts studio has basketball experience and American football – that even worked on the Madden series in the mid-1990s, so there are transferrable skills here. But even then, to make the best available footie game with almost two years of development from a cold start? I do not think so.
If Fifa hopes to extend this to brand awareness alone, they have another consideration ahead of them. In 2003, Championship Manager was one of the biggest sports gaming brands. Published by Eidos Interactive and developed by Sports Interactive, it was an institution. But in 2003, the two companies parted ways, allegedly due to disagreements over licensing negotiations and the fact that both wanted more control over the franchise. What happened next should be instructive for both EA and Fifa.
Sports Interactive signed a new publishing deal with Sega and bought the rights to Kevin Toms’ classic sim brand, Football Manager. “The team at SI was the team behind the game, we had the database and we had spent the last decade building the community,” recalls Miles Jacobson, CEO of Sports Interactive. “We were the ‘owners’ of all these things. And the sum of it is much more important than the brand – Even back then, when the internet wasn’t as ubiquitous as it is today.
“I would be lying if I said we never worried about it. We were confident but not arrogant. It took a lot of work not only from us but also from our partners at Sega.”
Eidos, meanwhile, lined up a new team, Beautiful Game Studios, to take on the work on Championship Manager, no doubt believing the brand would make up for the relative lack of experience. The resulting game, Championship Manager 5, was released a year late and was riddled with bugs. Despite four consecutive iterations and a brief afterlife as a mobile game brand, the series never came close to challenging Football Manager as a serious sim. Whoever Fifa partners with for the next “official” Fifa match, if the quality isn’t there, it’s unlikely to succeed.
One thing is for sure: this heralds the end of an era, not only for the Fifa games but also for the idea of selling big tentpole video games on annual physical discs. Konami hasn’t had great success turning its Pro Evo series into a free-to-play service, but that won’t stop Electronic Arts from exploring live subscriptions to its future soccer games. Undoubtedly, the company has plans for a soccer metaverse, where the game will sit alongside livestream matches, influencer broadcasts, and plenty of expensive customization options.
Beyond the final whistle, this messy disconnect will have repercussions that will spread across the industry. Sitting down with your friends for a game of soccer will never be the same again.