“My dad still calls Snickers ‘Marathon’ bars,” says James Salmon, encapsulating the challenge EA Sports has had to grapple with, but even that might be underselling the scale of the task at hand.
Renaming a chocolate bar is one thing. How do you go about arguably the most ambitious commercial rebranding in the history of gaming, perhaps even the history of sport? Essentially, how do you get people to stop calling the FIFA computer game ‘FIFA’?
“It isn’t easy and it won’t happen overnight,” admits Salmon, EA’s senior marketing director, who is speaking at the launch event for the company’s new title, FC 24. “We understand that, we recognise that.”
As a word, as a name and as a brand, FIFA has become more closely associated with a video game than the governing body over the past 30 years, particularly among younger generations of football fans, many of whom have become engaged with the world’s most popular sport through its virtual equivalent.
There is a narrative that this was not just one of the longest and most successful commercial partnerships in the worlds of sport and entertainment, but also an accidental public relations masterstroke for an often-embattled organisation.
That was especially the case during the 2010s. While FIFA the governing body was mired in scandal, FIFA the game streaked ahead of long-term rival Pro Evolution Soccer to become the dominant market leader.
This was a symbiotic relationship, though. Upon the launch of FIFA International Soccer in 1993, the governing body’s name lent authenticity and legitimacy to EA, helping an early adopter in an emerging market to stand apart from and ultimately blow away their initial competitors.
It was also a lucrative relationship. EA’s revenues hit $7.4billion (£6bn) last year, with the FIFA series viewed as a key driver of that success.
FIFA, meanwhile, earned a reported $150m a year for the use of their name — a substantial chunk of the $268m the organisation generated in brand licensing revenues during 2022. That substantial chunk now needs replacing.
In May last year, protracted negotiations between EA and FIFA about extending their decades-long relationship broke down and concluded in a historic split. The writing had been on the wall for some time.
In October 2021, an EA press release celebrating the launch of FIFA 22 revealed that the developers were “exploring the idea of renaming” the FIFA games and “reviewing our naming rights agreement”.
A report by the New York Times subsequently revealed talks over a renewal of the commercial partnership had stalled, claiming the dispute revolved around FIFA’s demands for more financial compensation and EA’s desire for greater exclusivity rights.
A few months later, leaks from an internal company meeting suggested EA chief executive Andrew Wilson had claimed the partnership with FIFA offered little outside of the World Cup, other than “four letters on the front of the box”.
— Erling Haaland (@ErlingHaaland) July 13, 2023
Those four letters are now gone, replaced by just two: FC — short for football club, of course. The new name was ready to go from the jump, announced at the same time as the FIFA split was confirmed.
It is a little more generic, a little less specific, but it was chosen to represent EA’s broadening aspirations in this new, FIFA-less era.
“Our ambition through this transition is to go from being a video game built from football to becoming a football platform built off a video game,” says Salmon.
In the wake of the split, EA conducted research that categorised football fans into three types — ‘active’ fans who play the real-world sport, ‘passive’ users who watch it, and ‘interactive’ users who engage with football through their games.
That research, EA claims, showed that more and more interactive fans were taking part in the active and passive sides of the sport as a consequence of playing the FIFA series. “That blurring of lines that exist between digital and physical is very real,” Salmon says.
Through FC, EA wants to blur those lines further by extending the game’s influence beyond the virtual world.
FC Futures is a plan to invest $10m over the next three years in grassroots football projects — albeit with only a small proportion of those $7.4bn revenues — while a new esports competition, FC Pro, will tap into the growing popularity of watching as well as playing.
Crucially, these types of initiatives would not necessarily have been possible while still operating under the FIFA brand and are what EA wanted to do more of, with or without its long-time partner.
“We had an opportunity to re-evaluate and look at where we wanted to go,” Salmon says of the split. “With that came a huge amount of opportunity to take more decisions ourselves, owning our ecosystem and by connecting with more brands across the sport, having more freedom and autonomy.”
“We felt the pace that we could achieve that as EA Sports FC would be faster than perhaps if we were to stick with a licensor and a naming partner.”
The FIFA deal was separate from the other 300 licensing agreements EA holds with partners such as the Premier League, UEFA and La Liga, meaning FC 24 retains the official look and feel of the FIFA series that, to many, was always its greatest selling point over its rivals.
Having built and maintained those years-long relationships with leagues, clubs and organisations, EA believes it will be able to see off any future competition and retain them. “We’re really confident that we’re going to be able to continue to provide fans the authentic experience we know they crave, that they’re used to,” says Salmon.
But competition is coming, at least according to FIFA themselves. Last year’s split was followed by an announcement from world football’s governing body that they will launch “new football video games developed with third-party studios and publishers”.
“I can assure you that the only authentic, real game that has the FIFA name will be the best one available for gamers and football fans,” FIFA president Gianni Infantino said. “The FIFA name is the only global, original title.”
Infantino went on to list off the future iterations of this new FIFA series that would be released into the world, including “FIFA 24”, a game that currently seems unlikely to see the light of day. No update on FIFA’s plans has been forthcoming since that statement almost 18 months ago.
That delay in relicensing with another games developer could have consequences for one of FIFA’s real-world tournaments.
The FIFAe World Cup was launched in 2004 — then as the FIFA Interactive World Cup — and annual finals are held with prizes of up to $300,000 for winners. Naturally, the EA-developed FIFA series was at its heart throughout.
FIFA 23 was still used at the 2023 FIFAe World Cup after the expiration of the EA deal, but what happens next is uncertain. Plans for next year’s tournament are not expected to be finalised until the new year and, crucially, a decision is still to be made on what game will be used. The Athletic has approached FIFA for comment.
Any FIFA-branded rival to FC therefore seems a distant prospect, distant enough to be far from the minds of its former partner. How would EA react if FIFA’s new game dropped tomorrow?
“I think we would continue to focus on our core values,” says Salmon. “From our perspective, we’re certainly not being complacent, but that isn’t where we’re focusing our attention and energy.”
EA’s focus has instead been to make the most of the avenues that the FC era opens. Broader commercial partnerships with brands that do not have an existing relationship with world football’s governing body are now possible.
Nike — the rival to FIFA’s longstanding partner Adidas — announced a partnership with EA on the same day the split was confirmed and launched an FC 24 campaign featuring Nike-sponsored athletes Virgil van Dijk, Alexia Putellas and Sam Kerr.
Putellas and Kerr’s involvement points to the greater prominence of women’s football in the games.
International women’s sides were introduced to the FIFA series eight years ago, but clubs only appeared for the first time in FIFA 23. Now, women’s players are available in Ultimate Team, the fantasy football-esque mode that has turbo-charged the game’s popularity over the past 15 years.
With that change comes the possibility for users to select women’s players in the same team as their male counterparts — something figures at EA have previously suggested would be difficult to implement under the FIFA banner given the organisation’s more traditional outlook.
That was not the only reason for the gradual — arguably slow — incorporation of the women’s game into the series, though.
“There wasn’t a world where we were just going to put a female head on a male avatar body,” says Salmon. “That would be doing an injustice to all of the things that I would like to think and firmly believe EA Sports represents.
“We wanted to ensure we were doing it authentically and that takes time. There was also a humility that came with that. We’re not all experts of the women’s game.
“That helped educate us and bring us on a journey that ensured that when the women’s game was introduced, both within the women’s club sides and within Ultimate Team, we were doing it right.”
But even then, this progressive step forward was hit with an early teething problem.
EA was forced to remove Ada Hegerberg from the Ultimate Team mode last week after those playing FC 24’s early access release reported that the former Ballon d’Or winner’s in-game player was the victim of a bizarre bug that prevented her from controlling the ball while dribbling.
A technical issue led to real-life consequences when, on Monday, Hegerberg shared sexist and abusive voice notes from an FC 24 user criticising her in-game performances. “This is getting a bit far, isn’t it?” the Lyon striker wrote on Instagram.
In a statement, EA described the harassment of Hegerberg as “abhorrent and completely unacceptable”, stressing its “zero tolerance for gender discrimination, misogyny or hatred in any form”.
That is one example of the pitfalls that come with launching a game on the scale of FC, something FIFA would do well to take heed of as it assesses its return to the market. When that competitor to FC arrives, if it arrives, it will face an uphill task.
EA has secured the licences that allow them to provide the kits, logos and branding that lend authenticity; it has the engine and game modes that users are already familiar with. Crucially, it has three decades of developing the most popular football simulation game on the planet and the legacy that comes with that.
For all the differences, FC 24 is largely the same game that has captivated millions, only with a new name marking the start of a new era.
(Top photo: Erling Haaland at the EA FC24 launch; courtesy of EA Sports)
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