The Beautiful Game 2.0: How FIFA 17 Taught Real Football A Lesson
This year, a Fifa football tournament took place that included no superstar players or teams from the global sport; in fact, there was no pitch and no ball.
Despite these disadvantages, live coverage of the final was shown in more than 100 countries to an audience of about 5 million and generated 40m comments on Facebook and Twitter. That’s how sporting success is measured nowadays.
The event was the Fifa Interactive World Cup, an annual e-sports competition, featuring the world’s best gamers, competing in the multimillion-selling Fifa computer game series. For a growing number of fans, these teen and 20-something cyber athletes are a new kind of star in international football, securing their own lucrative sponsorship deals and attracting huge numbers of viewers to their official channels on YouTube and Twitch, a live streaming service.
More than a dozen major clubs around the world, including West Ham and Manchester City, have now employed Fifa players to represent them in e-sports competitions and this blurring of the lines between the real and virtual sports is something publisher Electronic Arts is very keen to foster.
Since its inception in 1993, the Fifa series has sought to replicate every facet of the professional game, forging licensing deals with international sides and clubs all over the world to use their player names and stadiums.
Fifa 17, which comes out later this month, features more than 650 sides from 30 leagues, and hundreds of key players have been digitally scanned in HD detail to ensure accurate facial likenesses. It is a process that has led to the game’s dominance of the sports sim genre, shifting more than 7 million copies a year. But it is not always smooth.
This week, Iceland’s football association, KSI, complained about the small sum of $15,000 (£11,500) it was offered to feature the country’s national side in the latest Fifa title. “They are the ones buying these rights and they almost want it for free,” KSI president Geir Þorsteinsson told the BBC. “The performance at the Euros show that we are quite a good team and many would like to play with our team.”
Electronic Arts will not comment on individual deals, but David Rutter, vice president and executive producer of the Fifa series, concedes that these negotiations are a vital – and challenging – element of the development process. “We have a dedicated team who manage licences with clubs, leagues, and partners,” he said. “It is sometime straightforward. It is sometimes complex.”
Things seem to have gone much more smoothly with the English Premier League. In 2010, Electronic Arts inked a deal to become the organisation’s technology partner, with EA Sports branding appearing on all televised matches and EA sponsorship of the league’s player performance index, which gathers stats on all Premier matches. In August, EA Sports became the lead partner of the Premier League, giving it even greater access to clubs and players.
But in a troubled sector, where corruption scandals and rising ticket prices are alienating fans, the integration between the Fifa franchise and the real sport of football is mutually beneficial. EA gets the official credentials, but Fifa gets to connect with a young demographic that is moving away from viewing mainstream televised sports or attending matches and toward watching YouTubers and e-sports.
According to market analyst Super Data, the global e-sports market will be worth $1bn in 2017, the revenue coming from advertising, ticket sales and merchandise, with a global online audience of more than 200 million.
“If you look into certain sports in the US – like baseball where the average viewer is 53 [years old] or to niche sports like Nascar and wrestling – e-sports can compete,” said Manny Anekal, founder of e-sports media company Versus Sports. “In fact, just this past week, the Turner Sports eLeague actually drew more viewers in both ‘total’ and ‘18-34 [years old] demographics than the televised [Chelsea v Liverpool Premier League match]. That was pretty impressive to me.”
Through the Fifa titles, then, the sport has a chance to reconnect with a young viewer base and thereby maintain its lucrative advertising deals with youth brands such as Coke and Adidas. “A lot of kids are getting priced out of going to matches, especially with the English Premier League,”says David Bytheway, a pro Fifa player who now represents
German Bundesliga side Wolfsburg in Fifa tournaments.
“One of Wolfsburg’s main strategies in getting involved with Fifa is to connect with their fans in the interactive world. When children get home from school, switching on the TV isn’t the first thing they’re doing anymore – they’re going onto YouTube watching celebrity gamers. Football clubs need to reach these fans.”
Until this year, Fifa was a minor player in an e-sports world dominated by titles such as League of Legends and Call of Duty. In December 2015, however, EA announced the EA Competitive Gaming Division, dedicated to organising official worldwide tournaments with prize pools over more than $1m. It is this formalisation that has attracted real-world clubs to the sector.
“E-sports is a market worth of $700m a year, there’s real potential there,” says Bytheway. “It’s a no-brainer for clubs to get involved. There are whole new groups of fans that teams can be attracting.
Electronic Arts’ Rutter adds: “There was some research in the US a little while ago that told us 50% of Fifa fans in the States become interested in football after they play the video game.
“I don’t think I will ever get used to watching the game become increasingly embedded in the sport and culture, like seeing it on TV, or hearing and meeting all of the musicians that play the game, seeing it trend worldwide on Twitter, or hearing from NBA and NFL athletes who want to get their copy early.”
Most of all, Electronic Arts has been smart about hijacking the football conversations in playgrounds around the country. Since 2008, the game has included an Ultimate Team mode, which operates like a digital version of the old Panini football sticker album – fans buy randomised ‘packets’ of players via an online store and use these cards to build their own fantasy football squads for use within the game. Comparing decks with friends and improving their teams is now a key part of the game; earlier this year, EA CFO Blake Jorgensen revealed to investors that Ultimate Team alone was generating around $650m a year for the company.
But it is also the main focus for Fifa YouTubers who make videos about their best cards and teams. One of those YouTubers, KSI, has 15m subscribers and many of his videos follow him as he opens new digital packs. Last year, he was in the top five YouTube highest earners making $4.5m from advertising and sponsorship on his channel.
Once again, through Ultimate Team-obsessed YouTube stars, Fifa is creating synergies between different fanbases and bringing football to new audiences. “Someone doesn’t have to be a massive football fan to be into Fifa,” says YouTuber Jack54HD, who has more than half a million subscribers. “They may see their favourite YouTuber making videos about the game and get an interest from there. Fifa has opened football up to a whole new market.”
For Generation Z, a demographic brought up on the internet, social media and online channels, football the sport has just become another part of their online digital consumption. Jack54HD is certain that if you ask certain teenagers who their football heroes are, they are now just as likely to name a Fifa YouTuber as they are an actual athlete.
“Take these big YouTubers like The Sideman, Spencer FC,” he says. “They’re running these charity matches at massive football stadiums and they’re getting 20,000-30,000 fans coming along, purely to see them playing. Your readers might not have heard of them, but for the younger generation, these YouTubers aren’t just celebrities – they’re becoming role models.”