The announcement of EA SPORTS FC has shown yet again that the fiercest competition in football isn’t the Premier League title race, but the licensing battle between UEFA, FIFA and the top leagues around Europe.
Maybe it’s just because my team is having an awful season, but it really feels like football is melting.
I’m not a Barcelona fan, and I’ve only been to Camp Nou once, but I took Lionel Messi moving to Paris Saint-Germain pretty hard. It just felt like another win for the corporatisation of football, with the gooey, tribal fantasy of a player’s unbreakable bond with their beloved club unceremoniously squished in a deal that left no one except the shirt-printers at Nike happy.
Not the casual fans who’ve lost their idealised image of one of the greatest players of all time, not the PSG fans who came to boo and whistle his every touch, and certainly not the Spanish league that Messi played in, La Liga, who had now lost two of their most marketable players in their years-long feud with Paris Saint-Germain. The first being when PSG triggered the €222 million league-mandated release clause in Neymar’s contract, which was supposed to be an absurd, astronomical sum no one was really supposed to pay.
Fewer big name players means less international TV interest, and therefore lower revenue and a less prosperous competition, with even more ground lost to richer teams.
In gaming, we’ve seen how powerful strong branding is, and how devastating not having it can be. You only need to look at Pro Evolution Soccer, or should I say eFootball, which for years “had the better gameplay” but slowly became less and less relevant because it didn’t have the new West Ham kit every year.
Lower sales led to seemingly lower investment, until we were left with the free-to-play melted ooze that is eFootball 2022 – the kind of off-brand football game you’d buy for £4 at Blockbuster on the PS1. At least it technically costs less now.
Serie A in FIFA 22 is also rubbish, even with just a handful of the best teams replaced with generic ones.
Europe’s biggest teams trying to keep up with the spending power of state-backed clubs like PSG and Manchester City, as well as the Premier League in general – which is perceived globally to be the strongest league and therefore gets the most TV money – has led to all sorts of hijinx that have rocked the footballing establishment.
To compete, teams like Juventus in Italy and Real Madrid and Barcelona in Spain have to go all-in on the Champions League, the current top European competition and most teams’ most lucrative moneyspinner. The Champions League is run by UEFA, Europe’s football governing body, but they’re under constant pressure to give top clubs guaranteed access and a bigger slice of the revenue pie.
This, in part, led to the detested, but currently shelved, European Super League, a closed-shop competition that would replace UEFA’s Champions League, but without UEFA’s involvement, where historically big teams would play each other without need for qualification and without threat of relegation.
To fend off the challenge, UEFA looked for support from FIFA, the world football governing body responsible for the World Cup, but, at least initially, didn’t get much. To make matters even more complicated, FIFA and UEFA don’t see eye-to-eye on a lot of things either.
Basically, FIFA’s biggest cash generator is the World Cup, but that only happens every 4 years. FIFA therefore wants to shorten the cycle to every couple of years, but that would interfere with the European Championships, UEFA Nations League and throw up all sorts of other issues – hence the friction.
In light of all these warring factions, EA dropping the FIFA licence to found its own EA SPORTS FC is incredibly interesting. For almost 30 years, FIFA has been the byword for football games, and the loss of that brand recognition is sure to hurt sales.
The FIFA games are hugely important to the football zeitgeist and a big part of how younger people interact with football as watching live matches has gotten more difficult and expensive.
However, EA has reportedly been unhappy with the cost of doing business with FIFA for years, and it seems like the mooted $250 million a year they were asked to stump up at the tail end of last year was the gold bullion that broke the cashcow’s back.
In the EA SPORTS FC announcement, EA flexed its “300+ licence partners”, more than hinting that this new game would still have the same realistic glitz as current FIFA games. They then went on to reference how their “unique licensing portfolio”, which includes deals with the international players’ union FIFPRO, many top leagues and kit manufacturers, would “still be there” post-FIFA. That's the names, competitions and kits sorted at least.
Conspicuously, although it wasn’t confirmed in that post, one of the biggest additions EA has made in the last few years is a fully licensed Champions League and Europa League. How curious would it be then if UEFA stepped in to eat FIFA’s lunch by taking a leading role with one of its most day-to-day culturally relevant touchstones with fans.
This move would also seem to give even more power to specific clubs, leagues and even players, who have also been getting grumpy at games raking it in based on their likenesses and properties.
On the FIFA side of things, it’s very likely their decision to dole their name out to other game developers to produce different products irked EA. After all, what' would their's the alleged $250 million paying for if not even the exclusive right to make FIFA games?
While it’s easy to read EA SPORTS FC as just a tussle between EA and FIFA, it feeds into the wider and escalating branding battle throughout football, as different interested parties jostle to extract as much cash as possible.
EA is one of the best in this regard, with Ultimate Team across FIFA, Madden and NHL netting them more than $1.6 billion - over double the revenue of even the biggest football teams.
And as crypto exchanges, currency creators and NFT projects continue to invest more heavily in both gaming and football, it seems more than likely that EA could partner up their new platform in that department too, whether it’s Socios as many teams already have or a different company.
You never know; some other publisher could seize the opportunity to try and partner with FIFA and challenge EA’s hegemony with a fresh and exciting football game - FIFA 2K24 perhaps? But then again, if it doesn’t have the right Crystal Palace away strip it’s not worth playing, is it?