What does EA and FIFA’s split mean for fans of football games?

EA's given the FIFA name the red card, but it may be exactly what the industry needs

The Week in Games is a weekly column where Vikki Blake pulls apart the biggest stories in gaming each week. This week, she discusses EA’s new “fan-first future of interactive football” as it parts ways with FIFA.

Break-ups suck. Break-ups after a long-term relationship that necessitate a name change are especially sucky. Break-ups after a long-term relationship, an awkward name change, that also play out with the whole world watching must be wholly embarrassing for all involved.

I’m talking, of course, about Electronic Arts‘ excruciatingly public break up with football’s global governing body, FIFA, after 25 plus years together.

Publicly, EA says its parting ways with FIFA in order to enable it to “deliver the world’s biggest interactive sports experience for its growing community in collaboration with 300 plus partners across the world of football”. Privately, I suspect a prohibitively expensive licensing deal and the (alleged, lol) indelible stink of corruption that’s followed the football organisation for years may have propelled EA into action.

This means that from next year, EA’s astonishingly successful footie franchise, FIFA, will be FIFA no more; instead, you’ll be playing EA Sports FC.

FIFA 22. Credit: EA
FIFA 22. Credit: EA

As game names go, it’s a stinker. With enough of a marketing budget, though – and EA, being EA, will definitely have enough of a marketing budget – the company can and likely will make it work. It’s gone to great pains to express that “the introduction of EA Sports FC will not impact any current EA Sports global football games”, and the final FIFA instalment – a game EA and FIFA jointly insist will be “the greatest, most expansive FIFA ever” – will release later this year with “more game modes, features, teams, leagues, players, and competitions than any previous edition”. But after that, the companies go their separate ways.

For some, the news is likely to come as a shock, but EA – or, more accurately, its trackie-wearing subsidiary, EA Sports – has been talking for some time about “exploring the idea” of renaming its tentpole footie franchise. It all got super serious last October, though, when it flatly declared that it was “exploring” the idea of rebranding in a global bloody press release.

“Exploring” is one of those words, isn’t it? “I’m thinking about exploring other relationships” means “lol, I’m already am”. “Exploring other employment opportunities” equates to “I’ve been fired, but don’t want my parents/other half/bank manager to know”. It’s cautious and a little bit sneaky, endlessly fishing around for more whilst desperately hedging its bets, too.

My gut instinct is that by the time EA was openly revealing its plans to “explore”, the ink on Plan B was already dry. I’m not sure who blinked first or exactly what happened in those behind-closed-doors meetings, but EA has likely been considering this option a fair bit longer than it lets on.

FIFA 22 Mbappe Goal
FIFA 22. Credit: EA Sports

For now, though, it’s anxious you know that cutting ties with FIFA marks not the end of its footie franchise, but a fresh kickoff. Relieved of the FIFA moniker, EA reckons it can “grow the reach and power of its football licensing portfolio” and intends to expand to incorporate new experiences and platforms (what ones, I have no idea; FIFA’s out on pretty much every platform known to humankind), and embrace the global communities of both women’s and grassroots football.

That means it’s going to leverage “more than” 300 new license partners, and although it remains to be seen how that will translate into actual gameplay, EA’s certain that 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”… so we’re not quite going back to the days of PES‘ unlicensed team names. Not yet, anyway.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, FIFA’s responded exactly as one would have expected FIFA to respond, and is currently courting “third-party studios and publishers” whilst insisting that “the only authentic, real game that has the FIFA name will be the best one available for gamers and football fans”.

“The constant is the FIFA name and it will remain forever and remain THE BEST,” FIFA president Gianni Infantino – emphasis all his, not mine – declared in a statement, revealing that “a number” of new non-simulation games (non-simulation because, for now, EA retains the exclusive license for that) are already in production, including a new 2022 World Cup game coming out later this year.

FIFA 22 by EA
FIFA 22. Credit: EA Sports

Scramble past the bluster and bullshit, though, and I reckon this may be a turning point for football-flavoured games. For years, PES and FIFA were the only mainstream football franchises on offer, and the former is now a desperate – if unintentionally hilarious – shadow of its former self; that’s a shocking state of affairs, really, given football is one of the world’s biggest sports.

I’ve no doubt that EA Sports FC will do just fine, with or without the might of the FIFA name behind it. But if FIFA makes good on its plans to diversify its partners and work with other developers, we should see a slew of different studios get a stab at devising new footie games.

It remains to be seen if they’ll emulate FIFA’s monstrously successful, if a tad stale, formula or develop something entirely unexpected, but the good news for football fans is that after 25 years, EA’s stranglehold – and its problematic preoccupation with microtransactions – is finally coming to an end, meaning they can no longer just try to walk it in. Maybe, just maybe, this means they’ll have to innovate.

Vikki Blake is a freelance journalist and columnist for NME.

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