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In leaked comments, EA says FIFA license is holding back soccer game design

Artist's conception of the jockeying for position between EA and FIFA in this licensing fight.

Artist’s conception of the jockeying for position between EA and FIFA in this licensing fight.

We’ve known for months that EA has been questioning the value of its nearly three-decade-long relationship with FIFA, the international soccer governing body whose name has become synonymous with an ultra-popular video game series. Now, though, newly leaked statements attributed to EA CEO Andrew Wilson detail how “ironically, the FIFA license has actually been an impediment” to some of the ways EA wants to “grow the franchise.”

“Our players tell us they want more modes of play, different things beyond 11 vs. 11 and different types of gameplay,” Wilson said in a November all-hands meeting, according to a Video Games Chronicle report. “I would tell you, it’s been a fight to get FIFA to acknowledge the types of things that we want to create because they say our license only covers certain categories… FIFA is just the name on the box, but they’ve precluded our ability to be able to branch into the areas that players want.”

Beyond gameplay, the FIFA license also limits EA’s ability to include “more cultural and commercial brands” in the game, Wilson reportedly said. FIFA’s existing relationship with Adidas bars the inclusion of any Nike-branded products or imagery in the game, for instance.

And Wilson reportedly said that even when FIFA does end up approving something, “because of the nature of the approval timetables and the various things around our FIFA licence, that’s actually been really hard, and we’re moving much slower than we want.”

This wouldn’t be the first time a coveted sports license had an impact on game design. In American football, the NFL asked Midway to tone down features like late hits and excessive celebrations in the over-the-top NFL Blitz series. When EA brought back NFL Blitz in 2012, the league reportedly asked for the game’s most excessive violence to be toned down to align with “their take on player health and safety.”

EA’s NFL license also stops other publishers from making any “simulation” games that bear the league’s official support. Thus Take-Two says that titles in its coming revival of the NFL2K brand “will be non-simulation football game experiences,” whatever that means.

A strained relationship

The comments come during the most protracted public battle between EA and FIFA since FIFA International Soccer was released on the Sega Genesis back in 1993. Last October, EA publicly confirmed that it was “reviewing our naming rights agreement with FIFA” and that it was considering renaming the series going forward. Shortly after that announcement, The New York Times reported that FIFA was asking EA to double the nearly $150 million it pays annually for those licensing rights.

FIFA responded to EA’s move by issuing its own statement saying it was “adopt[ing] a new commercial positioning in gaming and eSports” and “engaging with various industry players, including developers, investors and analysts, to build out a long-term view of the gaming, eSports, and interactive entertainment sector.”

Enlarge / Would “FIFA Ultimate Team” still bring in billions of dollars if it was just called “EA Sports Ultimate Team”? EA might be preparing to find out.

FIFA’s reported licensing ask of over $1 billion for every four-year World Cup cycle is significant, even for a series that recently brought in $1.62 billion just from annual “Ultimate Team” microtransaction sales. And FIFA’s push for more money apparently has EA wondering whether it’s getting sufficient value from that licensing relationship, which is one of over 300 it has with individual soccer teams, leagues, and other partners for the game.

“Basically, what we get from FIFA in a non-World Cup year is the four letters on the front of the box, in a world where most people don’t even see the box anymore because they buy the game digitally,” Wilson reportedly said. During World Cup years, the added authenticity of having a digital version of the international tournament “is important, but it’s not the most important [thing],” Wilson continued.

Wilson also said he had discussed his complaints with FIFA President Gianni Infantino directly, wrapping the financial and game design issues together. “I said, ‘Listen, the money’s a thing: We don’t want to pay more money than this license is worth,'” he reportedly said. “But it’s not about that, it’s really about our ability to deliver games and experiences that our fans want in a timely fashion.'”

Last October, EA filed for European and British trademarks for “EA Sports FC,” suggesting a potential rebranding if the FIFA licensing discussions fall through.

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