As FIFA Game Passes Sales Milestone, EA Sports Seeks New Markets And To Clear Up Image Rights ‘Misunderstanding’
As the Covid-19 pandemic brought soccer to a halt across the world, the gamers kept playing.
Electronic Arts EA, the Redwood City-headquartered video game giant, was one of the few businesses to thrive during the global economic downturn.
With people stuck inside, the demand for gaming soared. EA's stock has climbed from pre-pandemic levels of $110 to $145 (yesterday). The company will announce its third-quarter results later today and analysts are expecting record quarterly revenue.
FIFA, one of EA's flagship games produced by its EA Sports division, was a big part of the successful year. In the UK, its number one market for the franchise, FIFA 21 was first and FIFA 20 fourth for sales.
"We saw a massive influx of players. I think we're up something like 30% year-on-year in that period versus FIFA 19. And that continued all the way through the summer, all the way through to the launch of (FIFA) 21 (in October)," DJ Jackson, VP of brand at EA Sports, tells me in an interview.
"It's challenging for EA because we are benefiting from what is essentially a universal crisis. But I think what we've tried to do during that time is give back in a meaningful way to our player base."MORE FOR YOU
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The FIFA team organized the "Stay and Play Cup" for those bored at home and also provided "atmospheric audio" stadium sound to the Premier League PINC and La Liga for broadcasts.
The first FIFA game was released in 1993 and by the mid-90s EA was selling 6 million to 8 million units a year. Today, it sells about three times as many.
Across lifetime sales, EA has now sold about 325 million units, making FIFA the highest-selling sports video game franchise in history.
While Western Europe remains a "heartland market" for the game, Jackson says demand is growing from Southeast Asia and Latin America. EA is working on new FIFA experiences, including on mobile platforms, and expanding its FIFA Online 4 presence.
FIFA Ultimate Team, in which online gamers can spend money on new players for their team, has been a big earner for EA during lockdown. In July, the company said its revenue from the Ultimate Team had grown 70% for the first quarter compared to the same quarter in 2019.
"We're really lucky in that football is the most popular sport in the world. It's kind of geographically agnostic, because it doesn't matter whether you're in Rio or Reading or Riyadh, football means something to you," Jackson says.
"We probably over time need to understand that we need to offer players different experiences. Not everybody has the means or the desire to buy a $500, $600, $700 console, and then buy a $60 or $70 game, and then spend money within that game.
"So we're looking at new ways to engage FIFA players in different parts of the world, where engagement is just different."
As well as recruiting new players, EA has a "deep responsibility" to current players, Jackson says. He says the company's "sentiment" metric is at an all-time high in part due to resolving issues around quality and stability of gameplay in FIFA 21.
While gameplay is one factor, another reason FIFA has remained popular is its license agreements with clubs, leagues and associations. These agreements allow EA to include things like official stadiums, kits and player likenesses in the game.
For example, EA has announced an extension to its partnership with soccer's European governing body, UEFA. It offers players "authentic" experiences, like hearing the Champions League music or lifting the Europa League trophy.
Securing such licenses is not simple. EA manages more than 400 every year and even that does not cover everything.
Italian giant Juventus, for example, is known as 'Piemonte Calcio' on FIFA 21 as the club has an exclusive license deal with Konami, maker of FIFA's big rival Pro Evolution Soccer. While the likenesses of real players, including Cristiano Ronaldo, can be used, FIFA cannot use Juventus' official kit or crest.
"It is complex. We are dealing with global football where nobody really has full authority and autonomy over everything, not even FIFA," Jackson says.
"It's not at all like how we operate in other parts of the sports landscape. When we work with the NFL, we have to deal with predominantly two partners, the NFL and the NFLPA, we secure licenses because they're centrally owned and centrally managed by that legal entity.
"In global football, it is a little bit more of a kit of parts. You have to acquire those licenses in as good a faith as you possibly can and ensure that you're robust in the way that you acquire them."
The issue of player image rights was thrust into the spotlight in November, when Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Gareth Bale called for an investigation into the use of their names and likeness in the FIFA games.
Mino Raiola, Ibrahimovic's agent, said about 300 players were considering legal action. At the time, EA told Forbes the dispute was "not an issue for EA", rather "it’s a battle between football agents and (players' union) FIFPro".
Jackson says EA is confident in its licensing deals, the majority of which are negotiated with leagues and individual teams, and that the company has been in contact with Raiola and Ibrahimovic.
"We have a great deal of respect for Mino. We work with Mino right now and (Erling) Haaland, one of his clients, is one of our ambassadors this year," Jackson says.
"With Zlatan, we have a deal with Serie A, we have a deal with AC Milan. AC Milan have been very, very clear with their players that they offer collective rights to commercial affiliates and commercial partners in order to make sure that they can fund things like training ground improvements and youth team development and work in the community.
"So we pay AC Milan and AC Milan pays Zlatan's wages. We are paying Zlatan, it might be indirectly, but he is benefiting from the partnership that we really enjoy with AC Milan.
"So I think there is a bit of a misunderstanding there. And I think it's something that we're going to work hard to resolve over time."
The rights EA has acquired for 27 years have helping FIFA become the world's most popular sports game. It remains to be seen whether players – and their agents – push for a change in the way those rights are licensed.
"We're open to the dialogue," Jackson says.
"And we're open to understanding where we can improve but at the moment, we feel really, really good about the way in which we operate."