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The most popular sports video game franchise in the world is getting a rebranding next year. It won’t be called FIFA anymore. Who is losing out the most?

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Good Evening [%first_name |Dear Reader%],

A couple of days ago, I was feeling rather weird. A part of my childhood had just ended, or rather, is about to end in a few months.

From 2023, the hugely popular FIFA football video game will no longer be called FIFA. That’s because FIFA, football’s international governing body, and game developer Electronic Arts have decided to end their nearly three-decade-long partnership.

The cracks in this relationship were first reported by the New York Times in October. I had written about it briefly back then in the second edition of Moneyball, when most gaming industry analysts believed it was probably a negotiation tactic. The most recent 10-year deal between the two parties, worth US$150 million a year, is ending in December 2022.

But not many expected them to actually call it quits. After all, why would you pull the plug on a relationship that’s resulted in a game that has generated more than US$20 billion in sales over the past two decades?

But according to the New York Times’ latest report on the matter, FIFA feels EA owes it a lot more in licensing fees—at least double the US$150 million a year it’s currently getting. And FIFA also reportedly demanded non-exclusivity for its brand. Meaning it wanted the freedom to put the FIFA brand on other video games and digital products, according to the report. This was a step too far for EA, so it has decided to go solo instead.

But while EA may be losing the FIFA branding, which has become synonymous with its football game over the last 30-odd years, it will likely get over this breakup a lot faster than one of the most powerful governing bodies in world sport.

FIFA vs EA Sports FC: it’s in the game

– Dude, what plans for Friday evening?

– Nothing much, man.

– You wanna come over and play some EA Sports FC?

Doesn’t quite have the same ring, right?

Starting next year, more than 150 million people around the world who play the hugely popular simulation football game FIFA will have to start getting used to a new name.

Over the last three decades, for these millions of people, the four-letter word has probably come to mean the video game more than the governing body. I, for one, didn’t know that FIFA was an actual governing body till I was maybe in high school. And I started playing FIFA when I was about 12. FIFA was always the game, and nothing else.

That will change now.

In a press release published on 10 May, Electronic Arts announced that its football games will move under a new brand, EA Sports FC, in 2023. But while most of the buzz and talk since the announcement has been about the new name, that’s not the most important part of the press release.

EA has gone all out to make sure you know that the name of the game is the only thing that’s changing. While FIFA’s keeping the name, EA’s still got the game. And despite the absence of the FIFA brand from next year, EA still has more than 300 individual licensed partners, including over 19,000 footballers, 700 teams, 30 leagues, and 100 stadiums around the world.

So, basically, if you want to continue playing as Mo Salah and Liverpool at Anfield in the Premier League and Champions League, EA Sports FC will be the game for you.

EA has developed the most extensive and comprehensive network of partnerships and licenses in the sport - all in the name of delivering a truly immersive experience to fans everywhere. EA SPORTS FC will be the only place fans can play in the iconic UEFA Champions League, UEFA Europa League, CONMEBOL Libertadores, Premier League, Bundesliga, LaLiga, Serie A, and MLS, among many others. The breadth and depth of EA’s ecosystem of licensed content will enable it to offer unrivaled authenticity in EA SPORTS football games, now and for many years to come.

And just in case you didn’t catch that, EA’s individual partners then went on a social media blitzkrieg to show their allegiance.

A few hours later, FIFA responded, clearly rattled by EA’s messaging. In a press release, FIFA said that it will launch new non-simulation football video games during the third quarter of this year, ahead of the 2022 World Cup in November. It also said that it’s “currently engaging with leading game publishers, media companies and investors in regard to the development of a major new FIFA simulation football game title for 2024”.

Quote
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. The FIFA name is the only global, original title. FIFA 23, FIFA 24, FIFA 25 and FIFA 26, and so on - the constant is the FIFA name and it will remain forever and remain THE BEST.
FIFA president Gianni Infantino, as quoted in the press release

Okay, Gianni.

It sounds like Infantino is trying really hard to convince himself that FIFA will remain “THE BEST” football video game. I wonder if he knows what happened the last time the publisher of a popular football game broke ties with the developer.

Launched in 1992, just a year before the release of the first FIFA game, Championship Manager was the most popular football management simulation title in the 90s and early 2000s. It wasn’t quite a FIFA competitor, though, because the game was more about the management side of football rather than the playing side.

But in 2003, the game’s developer, Sports Interactive, split up with the publisher, Eidos Interactive. Sports Interactive kept the game’s database and match engine, and went on to tie up with another publisher, Sega, to produce a new game called Football Manager. Eidos, meanwhile, kept the Championship Manager name and found a new developer in Beautiful Game Studios (BGS).

Football Manager went on to become an extremely popular gaming franchise. The 2021 edition sold over a million copies in under two months to become the fastest-selling title in the franchise. Meanwhile, Championship Manager 5, the first title under the Eidos-BGS partnership that was released in late 2004, was reportedly riddled with bugs and unplayable. Championship Manager went out of production after the 2010 edition.

Football Manager

It won’t be easy for FIFA to find a new partner that’ll be able to replicate EA’s expertise, experience, and technology. It could tie up with an established sports game publisher like 2K, which has partnerships with properties like NBA (basketball), PGA (golf), and WWE (wrestling entertainment). But will 2K be able to build a competent football game from scratch by 2024?

FIFA could also go with Japanese gaming giant Konami, which is behind the once-popular Pro Evolution Soccer franchise. However, the game has been on the decline over the last few years, especially after it rebranded to eFootball last year. eFootball 2022 was rated 4/10 by IGN and 1.5/5 by GamesRadar.

But perhaps most importantly, whichever developer FIFA goes with won’t have as many licensed partners in the world of football as EA does. And those partnerships allow EA to use the names and likenesses of thousands of players, hundreds of teams and stadiums, and dozens of leagues and tournaments. And that’s all that football gamers care about, no matter what Infantino says about the game with the FIFA name being the most authentic.

Quote
I’ve been playing FIFA since 2006, which is about five years after I started watching football. And the thing that drew me to the game was the authenticity—being able to play as Manchester United, my favourite club, and all the players like Cristiano Ronaldo. I’ve played some EA cricket games in the past where the names of players were purposely misspelt because the game didn’t have the necessary licences. Sachin Tendulkar became S.Tendehar and MS Dhoni became D.Dhenier. They were ridiculously funny but kind of took away from the whole experience.
Nikhil Deshpande, 34, avid FIFA gamer

Deshpande says that he will stick with EA Sports FC even without the FIFA brand if he can continue playing as Manchester United, rather than a randomly named team like, say, Manchester Reds. But what if EA isn’t able to tie up with Manchester United? “In that case, I might still go with EA because it’s still the best football game out there,” he says. “But it’s more likely I’ll not buy the game and just keep playing FIFA 22.”

That’s why this breakup is so unfortunate if you’re a big FIFA fan. The game has copped its fair share of criticism over the years for making incremental and superficial changes to the gameplay, and just repackaging the same game every year.

But it’s still an immensely successful game—​​EA has reportedly sold more than 325 million copies over the last three decades across more than 50 countries. It’s no joke to make US$20 billion in revenue over 20 years from just a single game franchise. Only Madden NFL, another EA franchise, even comes close among sports games, with 130 million copies sold and US$4 billion in revenue generated since its inception in 1998.

EA Sports FC, with its thousands of licensed partners and nearly 30 years of experience making a football game, stands a very good chance of making it on its own. The FIFA decoupling also allows it to expand its sponsorship net. So far, it has been limited to FIFA’s bucket of commercial partners. EA chief executive Andrew Wilson told the New York Times that his company will “look to partner with more companies and brands, creating the potential for direct-to-consumer sales of team jerseys and other products.”

EA’s financial strategy for FIFA has also evolved over the years, with profitability growing on the back of innovations like player packs, similar to trading cards, that require users to spend money within the game as they seek to build the best rosters. One analytics company estimated the in-game feature known as Ultimate Team was worth as much as $1.2 billion to EA Sports last year.

However, EA has also been criticised by gamers for these monetisation models.

Gamers have chafed against its paid loot boxes, which they compare to gambling, and collecting paid in-game assets that don’t transfer to newer FIFA games. Players consider each game increasingly greedy and lacking in significant gameplay improvements.

Despite this criticism, EA appears to be in a far better position than FIFA, which has to find a competent partner, get whatever remaining licences it can, and then build a new game from scratch. All before its own deadline of 2024. How far will its name take it in this endeavour?

This reminds me of the famous EA Sports tagline, which you see and hear along with an animated logo at the beginning of each of its games: “EA Sports—it’s in the game.” Not the name.

A brief note

Last week in Moneyball, I wrote about the many cooks in India’s online gaming and fantasy sports regulatory kitchen. I wrote that the industry can’t be regulated at the central level because gambling—and, by extension, online gaming and fantasy sports—is a state subject.

Hours after the edition went out, Games24x7, the parent company of platforms like RummyCircle.com and My11Circle, wrote to me saying that this is incorrect. They pointed to two opinion pieces published in The Hindu and The Hindu Business Line, written by Dinker Vashisht, Vice President – Corporate and Regulatory Affairs, Games24x7. The pieces suggested that there are alternative routes by which the central government can regulate the sector.

Quote
The Centre on its own can regulate the sector under various entries under List I (Union list) of the Constitution, most notably Entry 42 (matters related to inter-state trade and commerce) and Entry 31 (matters related to posts, telephone, broadcast, communication, etc.). Also, since online skill games were not envisaged at the time of writing of the Constitution and are not present in any of the three lists, the Centre can use its residuary powers to regulate the matter. There is also an option under Article 252 of the Constitution, where two or more states write to the Centre and ask it to regulate on their behalf.
Dinker Vashisht, Vice President – Corporate and Regulatory Affairs, Games24x7

Quick singles

🎾🏢 Tennis star Naomi Osaka is launching her own sports agency, called Evolve. The 24-year-old’s contract with global sports management company IMG expired at the end of last year. The Japanese player is starting the new company along with agent Stuart Duguid, who is also leaving IMG. Osaka is the highest-paid female athlete in the world, according to Forbes. She made US$55 million from endorsements last year. [ESPN]

🏏▶️ Google parent Alphabet could join the race for the Indian Premier League’s (IPL) media rights, after purchasing the bid-related documents from the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI). The company, which owns the popular video streaming platform YouTube, joined the likes of Amazon, The Walt Disney Company, Reliance Industries, Sony Group, Zee Entertainment Enterprises, and Dream Sports in picking up the bid documents. [Bloomberg]

🏏🐭 The IPL has been credited with streaming giant Disney+ Hotstar adding four million subscribers in the quarter ended March 2022. That’s half of the eight million subscribers added by its parent Disney+ worldwide. Disney+ has nearly 138 million paid subscribers around the globe, out of which Disney+ Hotstar’s share is over 50 million, the company said. Apart from India, Disney+ Hotstar is available in Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia. [Business Standard]

That’s all from this edition of Moneyball. Do you play FIFA? If so, will you make the switch to EA Sports FC or stick with FIFA from next year? Let me know.

Take care.

Best,
Jaideep

This newsletter has been discontinued. But you can read The Stack which includes our newsletters around cleantech, fintech, personal finance and e-commerce in India!