Commentary: Why FIFA’s split from EA Sports would be such a costly mistake

It was hinted at in 2021, and it has now come true in 2022: EA Sports and FIFA have intentionally split up.

Ostensibly, the divorce is amicable. There will be another game together (FIFA 23) and then the two will go their separate ways. EA Sports will keep the game, and FIFA will keep the name. But what will happen next?

EA Sports moved first, announcing the start of the “EA Sports FC” brand, under which its future games will be launched. He was also quick to address the question that immediately popped into the mind of every anxious player: Will he still be able to use the real club and player names?

The carefully written press release from CEO Andrew Wilson refers to several of EA Sports’ “partners” in the first, second and fifth of its five paragraphs, before explicitly quoting those aforementioned partners named below as they prepare to swear an oath of allegiance to the brand.

One by one, the English Premier League, Spain’s La Liga, Germany’s Bundesliga, UEFA and CONMEBOL have pledged allegiance to EA Sports FC. Message received and understood.

Two hours later, FIFA responded, but less convincingly.

The global soccer governing body has announced that it has “diversified” its rights to play, that it has new “non-simulated” games planned for the third quarter of this year ahead of the World Cup, and that it has been “dealing with publishers, studios and investors on developing a new major soccer simulation title.” football for the year 2024.

FIFA President Gianni Infantino says: “I can assure you that the only real game named FIFA will be the best available for players and football fans. The FIFA name is the only global original title. FIFA 23, FIFA 24, FIFA 25, FIFA 26 etc. – Constant is the name of FIFA and will always be the best.”

They rarely offer too few words to offload their contents.

Let’s start with Non-Simulation Games. And please note that they are “games”, the plural form.

FIFA said it is “releasing a batch of new games during 2022 and 2023”.

The ‘No Simulation’ implies that these will not be ‘Be the Footballer’ games, and will not take the form of ‘Be the Football Manager’ games. But what else can you do under the FIFA banner?

Are we talking about a poorly governed Minecraft-style building game where you have to build as many playgrounds as possible in the desert, while as few migrant workers die? Perhaps it’s more of a management game, with the goal being to ruin a great tournament by introducing the second stage of four sets of three that was a disaster at the 1982 finals in Spain. We are eagerly waiting.

Infantino’s belief that the mere ownership of the word “FIFA” is a guarantee of success in making more advanced games is astonishing.

This is either a blank blast to please anxious stakeholders or he genuinely believes it, which is terrifying on many levels. If he is the boss of Ferrari and all the employees are left and all the factories are burned down and all the blueprints are lost, does he also think that Ferrari will be forever and will remain the best?

It is unlikely that Infantino would know that there was a precedent for this kind of split.

Perhaps someone should have told him how publisher Eidos broke up with Sports Interactive, the development company behind the Championship Manager series, in 2003. Eidos kept the name, Sports Interactive kept the database and match engine – key components of the game.

Friendly division and anger did not boil to this day.

This was sometime before Facebook and Twitter, and the breakup went unnoticed by many players.

Both parties released their own games and Eidos had the distinct advantage of brand recognition. But Tournament Manager 5 was so full of bugs that it was almost unplayable upon release. The 2005 Football Manager at Sports Interactive was remarkably superior.

Even without social media, it didn’t take players long to figure out which game was worth their money.

It took a football manager years of steady organic growth, but they are now the only superpower of the genre, while the Tournament Director has stopped production altogether.

Eidos’ only advantage in that fight, the fact that many customers weren’t fully aware this wasn’t the game they loved, has now been rejected by FIFA due to the sheer weight of online coverage over the past 48 hours.

And so we get to the exciting part: the release of a “big new 2024 football simulation title”.

Let’s be clear that the competition is good. The polished and popular EA Sports series can certainly do with it. Its constant focus on in-game purchases has raised concerns and some players feel that it doesn’t always make serious progress from one release to the next.

But competition in this market is tough.

Japanese entertainment company Konami discovered that last year with the troubled release of “eFootball” was the next generation of the popular Pro-Evolution Soccer (PES) series.

Konami has been in the video game business since 1978, and they launched the PES series in 2001 and have sold over 100 million units in its various variants. Its ‘eFootball’ was a well-intentioned attempt to counter EA Sports’ dominance with a free-to-play game. Konami had the resources, expertise, and experience, and its new game still fell into disgrace upon its release.

What does FIFA bring to the party that Konami did not do? Apart from the magical power of its seemingly name?

FIFA’s best option would be to partner with a well-established publisher – someone like 2K, which produces well-received NBA and PGA Tour games. But even a company of this caliber will struggle to build great teams for coding, data, and quality assurance in time for release in 2024.

While the story behind this split has yet to fully emerge, it is widely believed to be caused by a disagreement over how to divide the revenue. EA is believed to generate a third of its annual revenue of $5.6 billion from this game alone, and it appears that FIFA wanted a much larger segment.

When EA hinted at a parting ways last October, this writer erroneously predicted a final compromise on the grounds that FIFA must be crazy to stop what was essentially a pipeline offering free money.

But that’s exactly what I did now.

FIFA’s only influence was the threat of making its own game, and EA described this trick.

Given the cost, in terms of resources and time, to build an entirely new gaming franchise, this could be a very costly mistake.

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Want more from Ian and his team? Why not check out his podcast – The Football Manager Show curated by Livescore – free on Apple, Spotify and all the usual podcast platforms, and of course ad-free on The Athletic.

(Photo: Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

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