Read our new manifesto

How Fifa 21 used players as influencers: ‘Everyone wants to see them’

In the face of Covid-19 restrictions, EA Sports pivoted to digital episodic content for Fifa 21 launch

This year's launch of Fifa 21 looked a little different with EA Sports having to devise an alternative to its World Premiere live event. Inspired by Twitch streams, it produced a series of films where footballers play the iconic game. Here, the team tells The Drum about their plans for the ‘Boot Room’.

While Fifa lives in the virtual, each year EA Sports usually goes offline to launch the arrival of its new season. “Typically with Fifa, we do something called a ‘World Premiere’ that normally takes place in London,” explains Alex Wilde, athlete relations director at EA Sports. This was no normal year.

“On game launch day, we get our cover star and our main athletes all in one building to celebrate the game and show off its new features. But it became apparent early on that this wasn't going to be possible.”

And so, EA Sports got in contact with the team it already had in place to slide tackle this challenge. After being appointed as production and creative partner, Kode Media brought in 20something on creative to handle UFC 4. In doing so, they built up a hub of creatives, editors, and motion designers who were poised to take on the Fifa launch.

Inspired by live Twitch streams and pre-records, which are a well-known format in the gaming community, the team devised 'The Boot Room' - a series of long and short format films that featured players and hosts, that included Gary Lineker, Ashley Cole, Peter Crouch, Theo Hernandez, Alessandro Bastoni, Samantha Kerr, and Phil Foden.

“Footballers are naturally competitive, so they wouldn't want to come and play a game where they lose six-nil, even if it's only a computer game,” Wilde recalls. “So we made it more about interaction and conversation, and less about who wins.”

But how difficult is it to film footballers and hosts in various locations, playing Fifa against each other, over Zoom, in different languages? Extremely difficult, they were about to find out.

“You just have to roll with the punches. Every single time we filmed, we learned something new,” admits Jack Goodwin, Kode Media's executive producer.

“We had to remote stream the gameplay to Twitch for it to record, and we were also recording on PlayStation's remote play function and on Zoom. Internet speed was not always in our favour, sometimes the players with their busy schedules didn't have the new game loaded on their PlayStations so we would have to do that ourselves, sending runners to their houses to drop off games consoles so they were ready to go.”

Inspired by both modern and old-school gaming animation styles, in post-production, the footage was cut up and fitted within reactive and dynamic animation to dramatise the Fifa match, and to amplify's the players' personalities.

20something's co-founder Will Thacker explains that the original plan was to film the series over the course of an intense week, with one big launch push with all the content. “It planned for it to be everywhere - you couldn't avoid it. But due to the situation and footballers diaries, it evolved into more of an episodic thing rather than a massive digital takeover,” he shares.

“But that worked in our favour, it's a format you can keep dipping into whenever EA Sports wants a new push or has new news. It's got longevity to it as everyone wants to see these players, and watch the competition between them.”

With the campaign still in production, four series have now gone live, with another two to go live over the next few weeks, Wilde says as a brand: “we've realised that we want this to be an ongoing franchise. So this developed from what was going to be a one-off replacement for an event to suddenly an entirely new franchise, which is very exciting.”

Thanks to the proliferation of social media in recent years, footballers have propelled themselves from sports stars to influencers in their own right. Portuguese forward Christiano Ronaldo now boasts a jaw-dropping 197.2 million followers on Instagram, followed by Lionel Messi with 140.6 million and Neymar coming in third, with 131.3 million.

This demand to engage with football players digitally has accelerated the likes of football media publishers like Copa90 and 90min, which have been disrupting the media landscape in recent years by providing fans with a behind-the-scenes lens on what goes on beyond the 90 minutes of play.

And so, while EA Sports is by definition a gaming business, this campaign is helping to push it in a new direction. “It's a natural migration. Fifa is a huge crossover with real-world football fans and the gaming sphere,” Thacker explains. “When you consider Copa90, it's a place that EA fits in and Fifa can start playing in. EA makes a lot of content anyway, but in the current situation, it's almost turned them into a publisher than a gaming franchise in its own right.”

Agreeing, co-founder 20something Andrew Barnard says: “People want the human interest stories - to see the soap opera behind-the-scenes footage. It allows EA Sports to deliver engaging content without the need for huge, half a million-dollar sets and it gives you so much more opportunity to be more prolific in what you're producing. And as Will says, you can push yourselves to be more of a publishing platform in some respects, albeit in your sphere - you can reshape yourself slightly.”

Wilde adds that its new content strategy also helps it appeal to a wider audience. “We want to develop our ‘athlete stories’ to play a more important role within football culture. The game is obviously one of the biggest in the world and it has a loyal community, but how do we make content that appeals to people, where football isn't really their thing? I think this kind of content is so fun, where viewers are learning things, so it will continue to appeal to casual fans.”