EA Sports v Fifa: who will win the battle of the brands?
EA Sports and Fifa, the commercial partnership that kicked off the most successful video game sports series in history, is approaching full-time. As part of The Drum’s Gaming Advertising Deep Dive, we explore which brand has won the draw.
Video game giant EA Sports will not renew its licensing agreement with international football’s governing body Fifa, meaning that Fifa 23 will be the final annual installment of the video game. From 2024, the game that has generated more than $20bn in sales over two decades will rebrand as EA Sports FC.
The biggest brand battle in fooball
The writing has been on the wall for some time. In October, EA Sports publicly teased the possibility in a press release flouting the supposed success of Fifa 22. Behind the scenes, it was negotiating with Fifa which was reportedly keen to double the $150m a year it charges EA Sports.
This partnership until that moment had proven to be mutually beneficial for both since 1993 when first agreed. The dynamics had finally shifted.
The imprimatur EA gained from having Fifa onboard gave its title a sense of authority, similar to what it had with its NFL and NHL titles. Fifa however brought little else to the table, with the official leagues, clubs and player likenesses in the games all the result of agreements EA itself had struck.
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So the question is, who carries on the legacy of the leading football video game?
Building a new football brand
We have been here before. Gamers will remember the Championship Manager schism in 2003 that saw the emergence of Football Manager – a brand still going strong today. It is happening again and the winner takes all of digital football.
Chris Scullion is the features editor at Video Games Chronicle. Having written extensively about the Fifa series and the negotiations between the two parties, he is of the firm belief that the huge fanbase will be largely unperturbed by the change – especially given the way EA marketed itself within the game for so many years and the way it has handled the split.
“The first thing people see when they start up the game is the EA logo,” Scullion explains. “Everyone who plays Fifa associates it with EA and when the Fifa name is dropped people will still see EA in the title and know that’s the latest game in the series.”
He says EA has been clever in announcing it so early. “It’ll be over a year before we see the standalone EA title and that gives it time to create that word of mouth among fans. It is sowing the seeds this early so that, when the game comes out in 2023, people will know the continuation of the series is EA Sports FC and that’s where they’ll find all the official licenses for leagues and teams.”
The value in having the official licenses has been instrumental to EA’s dominance over rivals like Japanese video game developer Konami, which created the Pro Evolution Soccer (currently named eFootball) series. Throughout the years Konami was often praised for superior gameplay over Fifa, but its sim couldn’t compete when it came to official licenses. As video games became more photorealistic over console generations, that attribute was decisive in commercial success as football fans sought greater depths of authenticity.
The licenses EA has to hand gives it a rich and colorful palette – in some respects it may enjoy the freedom away from the strict parameters set by the governing body. Mathieu Lacrouts, the chief exec of esports and gaming comms agency Hurrah, believes EA will undoubtedly capitalize on this newfound freedom to take advantage of the marketing opportunities in the space.
“There are a lot of contractual restraints for EA within Fifa,” Lacrouts tells us. “One of the most noticeable ones is not being able to put sponsors other than Fifa’s partners in the stadiums. There are a lot of brands that would love to do in-game programmatic advertising with things like the LED boards around the pitch and billboards around the stadiums.
“I also think EA has a perfect platform to do some in-game experiences that are not football. It has licensing deals with so many iconic stadiums throughout the world and it could replicate the moves Fortnite has been doing with concerts and other experiences. It could use these to explore marketing opportunities outside of football – something that was impossible until now.”
Can Fifa compete against EA Sport in gaming?
As EA explores the newfound freedom it will have, Fifa is left starting from scratch. The governing body has already partnered with multiple third-party developers for a range of non-simulation games that will be released later this year. These are likely to be casual titles for mobile that could be a viable business model for the organization. Transitioning from console-based simulation games to mobile opens it up to a broader, more casual player, which could increase the mass appeal and help fill the EA-sized hole in its revenue.
James Lamon, the senior vice-president of content and creative at Footballco, points to moves by other sports rights holders within the video game industry as a model Fifa could follow post-EA.
“For Fifa, this now means it can license the name to other publishers,“ he says. “This may benefit it financially in the long run if those publishers end up paying more combined than EA Sports did on its own. For instance, WWE’s brand is associated with a myriad of different game types outside of its main WWE 2K title.”
The model Lamon puts forward has worked well for WWE and Fifa would gain credibility if it were to successfully follow suit. One part of Fifa’s plans that raised a lot of eyebrows, however, was its ambition for a full football sim that it said would be released in 2024. Comments from Fifa president Gianni Infantino that “the only authentic, real game that has the Fifa name will be the best one available for gamers and football fans” left the organization looking naïve and led to widespread criticism for failing to comprehend the industry it has been involved with for so long.
But it would be unwise to completely dismiss the notion that Fifa could find a developer capable of challenging EA. “The sensible move for Fifa would be to partner with a developer like 2K,” says Scullion. “It has been throwing money about acquiring licenses and it has invested in sports games with the WWE license and also recently acquired an NFL license.”
Scullion does point out that Fifa wouldn’t have any licenses to bring to the table, but 2K’s parent Take-Two Interactive is a major player in the industry and owns companies such as Rockstar Games, whose Grand Theft Auto V title has so far generated over $6bn. His hypothesis of 2K as a potential suitor was substantiated a week after news of the breakup was announced when Take-Two boss Strauss Zelnick described Fifa as ”a great brand” with ”incredible clout” in an interview with IGN, before adding that Take-Two was keen to continue expanding its sports portfolio.
EA and 2K are familiar rivals in the sports game space. The two companies held NBA licenses for years, but with 2K’s NBA series consistently outperforming NBA Live, EA appeared to wave a white flag when it put its game on hiatus after the 2019 release. The two will also be going toe-to-toe in golf when EA brings back its PGA Tour franchise next year to take on 2K’s own title, which recently signed Tiger Woods as the cover star for its upcoming release later this year.
2K’s pedigree with video game sports titles will be an attractive proposition to rights holders like the Premier League and Uefa, which may be tempted to follow the model adopted by the likes of the NBA and PGA. Infantino’s 2024 window for a rival football sim will be too early, but given more development time 2K has the credentials to make EA nervous.
There’s little doubt EA will manage just fine without Fifa and has unlocked numerous new marketing opportunities (which you can explore here). However, those pursuits will ultimately need to be attractive propositions to players if EA is to succeed in capitalizing on the additional revenue streams it wants to tap into. And with the licenses it has secured and its longstanding dominance in the space, it has a strong hand to play going forward.
Fifa, on the other hand, has been in a comfortable position for many years and will now need to put in far more effort to make up for the loss it has suffered. Early indications suggest the governing body will need to be savvier than it has been to pick itself back up, but if it makes the right partnerships it could find itself back in the top flight in time.
For more on all the different ways brands can advertise in gaming, from virtual billboards to product placements, social lenses and even games of their own, check out The Drum’s Gaming Advertising Deep Dive.