The Uncertain Future of (Association) Football Games

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The Uncertain Future of (Association) Football Games

On Oct. 15, FIFA announced that they are planning to end their exclusive videogame license with Electronic Arts while also working to expand their esports investments in a manner “best placed to… benefit all football stakeholders.” According to MSN and The New York Times, FIFA wants $1 billion every four years for their naming rights and wants to prevent EA from including real game highlights in their games and exploring NFTs as another way to make money, perhaps because FIFA is intending to do that outside of EA. Strange as it initially felt when I read it, it isn’t all that surprising EA would be interested in NFTs, considering the popularity of and emphasis on the Ultimate Team mode.

Historically, EA’s biggest competition for the FIFA game has been Konami’s eFootball/Pro Evolution Soccer/Winning Eleven series, which was able to license a great many of the players and competitions in world football that FIFA did despite not using FIFA’s name. Their prominent exclusive licenses were the UEFA Champions League, Europa League, and Super Cup, but Konami did not renew those 10-year-old deals in 2018. Now we enter a brave new future for association football videogames as FIFA keeps its options open while EA profits despite losses of quality and Konami is in an apparent tailspin. How did we get here, and where are we going?

It is a generally accepted maxim that competition is good for sports games. The anecdotal evidence for this is that a lot of sports games are mediocre or stagnant, yet they sell well all the same because they’re the only available game for their respective sports or leagues. In 2004, 2K Games released ESPN NFL 2K5, which is still considered one of the best American football games of all time because of its fluid playstyle and gamut of features, some of which Madden is still catching up with. A few months later that year, EA acquired the exclusive rights to make videogames about the NFL and, according to many critics and fans, the Madden NFL videogame series has suffered in quality due to lack of competition. However, outlets including Den of Geek and Business Insider reported last year that the NFL’s exclusivity deal with EA will end in 2025, and 2K is exploring making a non-simulation NFL game.

2K had competition for a while on the NBA side, with Sony’s San Diego Studio releasing the NBA series from 2004 to 2009, while EA had a longer-running NBA Live series. It released every year from 1994 to 2010, but has been cancelled five times since 2011, including each of the last two years, with no word so far about a release for the current NBA season. Overall, the NBA 2K games have been dominant, and the lack of competition has turned them into what Luke Plunkett at Kotaku calls “a shakedown disguised as a basketball game that is growing as tired as it is exploitative.”

On-field soccer simulations have had two long-running competitive series (in addition to Sega’s Football Manager games), but both have started to take hits from critics and fans over the last few years. EA’s FIFA series is increasingly known primarily for the money-extracting Ultimate Team mode, while Konami’s Pro Evolution Soccer games’ gradual evolution over the last two years into a free-to-play model appears to have backfired stupendously. In 2019, Konami began rebranding with eFootball PES 2020, a game that was generally well-received (82/100 on Metacritic and Best Sports Game at the Games Critic Awards). Rather than release a full game in 2020 amid delays during the height of COVID, they released a free 2021 Season Update. Development time was put toward eFootball 2022, which released Sep. 30, 2021, as a free-to-play game that has been critically panned for its poor execution and piecemeal design. Built in Unreal Engine 4 instead of the Kojima Fox Engine Konami has used since 2013, the combination of poor graphics, lag, weird new controls, and the overall lack of release date content combined to make it the worst reviewed game in the history of Valve’s Steam platform with 0.82% of all reviews being positive. Plunkett also has a stellar breakdown of all the ways the game fails, but the “why” isn’t just a question of design choices and direction, it’s a question of market.

FIFA is the best-selling sports game year-in and year-out. Electronic Arts, called the worst company in America by Consumerist in 2012 and 2013 and ranked the fifth-most hated company in 2018 by USA Today after researching Glassdoor and their own customer service survey (evidently people are more bothered by EA than oil companies or Nestle’s slave labor), is nonetheless obsessed with extracting money ad infinitum from their players, many of whom are minors.

Konami’s bid to unseat their more prosperous rival involved scrapping the engine in which they’d produced technically advanced and generally acclaimed games, and trying to compete more in the esports realm by putting out an intentionally unfinished product that was unintentionally broken and is apparently taking quite a while to repair. The 0.9.1 patch that was scheduled to land this Thursday, Oct. 28, has been postponed until some uncertain time in November.

Making videogames is not an easy task. If it were, so many projects wouldn’t require crunch periods that ruin people’s lives and drive them out of the industry. Put simply, as the wrestling coaches said in eleventh grade, “if it were easy, everyone would do it.” Sports games have the added challenge of being expected to iterate every year, which results in development times shorter than typically seen in the industry. Fans want the same things again, with improvements; roster updates across professional leagues, new formations and plays to accurately reflect how sports evolve, new uniforms, new stadiums; new options to make the experience more immersive. But what’s most important is what happens on the court, the field, the pitch. Konami’s new game fails on the field and off of it, and reflects a maddening misattribution of priorities, resulting in a huge missed opportunity under new branding.

Now FIFA is forcing EA to relinquish their license, which could open the market for a third competitor in the soccer gaming space. There is surely room among fans and videogame enthusiasts for a soccer game focused more on tight gameplay and career mode features than on optimal monetization. That just doesn’t seem to be the direction of sports games. How many companies can afford to spend $250 million per year for the rights to a governing body, before they’ve even paid for leagues, players, or teams? How many companies would be content to do that without being promised the return on investment that comes with widespread and pervasive monetization? Videogames remain a marketing tool for professional sports. The world’s most popular sport might need that tool less than some others. EA is betting they can succeed with a FIFA-less FIFA game, just as they plan to release an NCAA-free college football game. A new game developer would have to produce something truly stupendous to outmaneuver them, and there are no indications right now as to who might be interested.

Kevin Fox, Jr. is a freelance writer and Paste intern. He loves videogames, film, history, pop culture, sports, and human rights, and can be found on Twitter .

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