For a number of years’ FIFA Football has ranked amongst the world’s top-selling video games, bridging a vital gap between generations’ of console gamers. However, despite FIFA’s popularity, the game has yet to crack the top echelon of competitive esports play and competition.
Esports Insider’s Ollie Ring details what he believes is hindering FIFA’s progress within esports ranks and why this matters as esports broadens its profile and stakeholders…
FIFA is a game very close to my heart. Despite having whittled countless hours away during my younger years conquering the compelling lands of Azeroth and since transitioning into wasting a fair portion of life struggling in Valve’s Dota 2 title – I have, and always will continue to play FIFA. I’ve vehemently insisted that I shall maintain a level where I am able to beat my (potential) children and their friends in the future.
Blur – Song 2, Chumbawamba – Tubthumping and an eclectic mixture of tracks from The Crystal Method play the soundtrack to pure nostalgia for one of my first truly memorable video games, FIFA ’98 – Road to World Cup. Quirky features such as indoor football will always feature prominently on the list of fond recollections, whilst the immediate red card “professional foul” button provides a timely reminder of just how far game development has come. Back then, running up to the keeper and pressing standing tackle would also provide instant dismissal.
From David Beckham through to Sol Campbell and Edgar Davids – many a true sporting legend have graced the front cover of EA Sports’ mammoth title. Whilst I must confess I had a brief hiatus from FIFA as Pro Evolution Soccer simply became a better game in the PlayStation 2 era, FIFA is back as the uncontested king of soccer simulation.
FIFA as an esport, the circuit, and clubs entering the space
By the Wikipedia definition: ““A multiplayer video game played competitively for spectators, typically by professional gamers”, FIFA is very much an esport. Others, myself included have a more reluctant view.
It stands as the easiest to understand medium for sports clubs entering the space, hence we’ve seen a plethora of clubs take the jump — but fewer commit fully to game titles that communities truly consider recognisable esports titles. Paris Saint-Germain, F.C. Schalke 05 and F.C. Copenhagen are but a few examples of clubs that have gone deeper with esports offerings. A game of FIFA is intuitive and easily comprehensible by nature — it’s a far cry from the complexity of a MOBA which simply put, senior decision makers at sports clubs are alien to. A quote from Paul Chaloner always sticks in my mind when thinking about FIFA and that is “FIFA is a gateway drug to esports. I can bring someone to a FIFA event and they understand it before moving them on to something more hardcore like CS:GO”.
This year has seen EA Sports up their game with a bigger esports circuit. The ultimate goal remains the FIFA Interactive World Cup — a tournament that’s actually been around for 12 years already. Last year, Mohamad Al-Bacha defeated former West Ham player Sean Allen on away goals in a dramatic final to secure the main prize and a ticket to the famous Ballon D’or awards night.
The FIFA Ultimate Team Championship Series has changed FIFA esports. The game has moved away from the traditional “Seasons” mode where players would play with a standard team and towards Ultimate Team. Now whilst essentially players are competing in the same one versus one football simulation, the gameplay is fundamentally different as players are unpacked at random from “card packs” purchased for in-game currency or FIFA points, which can be purchased through the store. Players can change formations, play cards on their players and ultimately build what they believe to be the best team.
It’s a huge money spinner for EA, with gamesindustry.biz reporting that EA made $800 million from Ultimate Team alone this year. To be the best, you need to have the best players and thus you have to invest a minimum amount of money to be able to compete at the highest level — either that or be obscenely lucky.
Although there is clearly growth (at least from a tournament and prize perspective), and EA clearly have grand plans for esports going forward, there remains an abundance of fundamental issues. Until these are addressed they will continue to hold FIFA back if it wishes to break into the respected esports ranks.
Take the FIWC 2017, for example. There’s an impressive amount of money on offer for the best FIFA player in the world. With a whopping $268,000 on offer, there’s no doubt it’s an impressive sum. But how is it distributed? Well, the winner of the tournament receives a staggering 75% of the prize money. That’s a staggering $200,000 for the champion with those who are unlucky enough to finish 9th to 16th receiving just $1,000. So you’ve made it to the last 16 in a game with a huge player base — where millions compete. What do you get for your troubles? A measley $1,000.
Whilst the Ultimate Team Championship was slightly less skewed, 17th – 32nd received $1,500 of a total $400,000 prize money. Considering that these players have committed hours upon hours each and every week (you have to play 40 games each and every weekend to have a hope of qualifying) and for reaching the top, they can go home with $1,500 whilst the winner takes a significant chunk more.
The investment is great, but until the distribution is less about grabbing headlines with the “look how much the winner made” approach — it’s not overly sustainable and very few will be able to make a living from the game considering how much time they devote into it.
The spectator experience
Now this isn’t something that EA can particularly improve. It’s far from awful to watch two players compete in a game of FIFA, but again, it’s not the most exciting of games. Whilst having shoutcasters replace the dulcet tones of Alan Smith and co goes some way to engaging viewers, it still remains fairly dull to watch. There’s a reason that the FIFA demographic tends to lend itself to YouTube instead. Olajide William “JJ” Olatunji made his name through comedy FIFA videos and has since generated over a billion YouTube video views, and sits at the 28th most subscribed YouTube channel globally.
On Twitch, the most popular FIFA streamers are the likes of “Castro”. He’s not a professional player by any stretch of the imagination, and his streams are often of him simply opening FIFA Ultimate Team packs and his chat engaging and reacting accordingly. He has had 34 million eyes on his channel whilst PSG professional player and previous world champion Agge Rosenmeier has a grand total of 17,588. Former West Ham professional Sean Allen has had 71,059. Those who consume FIFA through Twitch are more interested in watching pack openings than gameplay itself which stands as a barrier to truly becoming an esport.
Although damning, it seems the players at the top have simply mastered the game and watching them play will far from guarantee the 6-5 goal fiesta with three red cards that we’ve all had whilst sipping a beer on a Friday night.
Competitive games are broadcast across an array of mediums, as again, like with football clubs, it’s an easier sell to mainstream television providers than the likes of Dota 2. That’s not to say that it attracts a large audience, however.
Now here’s where the crux of the matter lies. For a game to be a feasible esports title, it needs to function properly. Even those who play the game for a living at a professional level are constantly whinging about just how bad the gameplay is. It’s seemingly random and there’s also frequent problems with servers that cause disconnects and ultimately losses for no reason. When you’re playing 40 games a week and ultimately qualification for top tier competition depends on them — randomly disconnecting can literally cause players to miss out. That, and gameplay glitches that could ultimately decide the difference between $200,000 and $40,000 shouldn’t exist.
Ryan, a.k.a. “xL_Stackzz”, the exceL esports FIFA player has qualified for the FIWC already. When asked about the gameplay, he commented: “I think it has to be taken seriously. The game is inconsistent in terms of gameplay, and having to constantly adjust to the change of gameplay is frustrating. Also there is a delay between when you press buttons and when the action is performed which is extremely annoying. Overall I think this year’s improved in gameplay from the last FIFA but EA need to focus on gameplay and servers rather than the aesthetic elements.”
Mindfreak player Marko told ESI: “The gameplay this year has been terrible due to delay and lag, it does feels different and i hope that’s their main priority for FIFA18 and making sure it’s perfect for next game”.
The ROW FIWC issue
The rest of the World FIWC qualifier has been another topic of controversy and just goes to highlight exactly what shouldn’t happen in any esport. Whilst there’s been problems aplenty in esports with dodgy third party tournament organisers, EA and FIFA — two huge organisations — should not have problems hosting their own events.
Effectively, the dates of the FIWC qualifier were changed three times in the space of four weeks which, for those who don’t play FIFA as a full-time job, makes it impossible to attend and get time off work. Additionally, the event was held in Doha, Qatar which meant severe complications for many trying to attend the event having qualified. Marko, an Australian player released a statement about it here, detailing his frustration at the occurrences.
Those qualified from Saudi Arabia were forced to pull out as they aren’t allowed under government law to enter Qatar. European player xL_Stackzz avoided such problems but told ESI: “The situation is horrendous and completely unfair. If you qualify for an event and are declared as eligible then you should be able to attend. If the location is the issue then it should be taken up by the organisers to change the events location so it suits all. I don’t necessarily believe either (EU or RoW) are prioritised I just believe that because of the massive names in the EU it is taken more seriously as there would be a colossal uproar from the big names in the EU if this ever occurred.”
Add to that the fact that the event was changed from FIFA Ultimate Team to Head to Head, it’s almost akin to deciding that Overwatch players will play on console instead of PC at an event. Marko described the decision to change from FUT to H2H as “a complete joke”.
FIFA is a prime example of a top-down esports approach. It’s a competitive game by nature but the desire and appetite for watching the best compete isn’t there and hasn’t been fostered organically. With the FUT revenues coming in, EA are putting a tiny fraction of money back into the esports ecosystem but plenty of questions remain.
There’s no doubt that football clubs will continue to sign players to represent them at FIFA. A virtual league equivalent makes sense, and with a substantial amount of professional football players also keen FIFA players — the potential for great content and utilising these FIFA players is definitely there. It’s just whether or not clubs decide to unlock it. There’s been scant content thus far from the likes of West Ham and Manchester City, for example.
We’re set to see an interesting period for the game, but until aspects as fundamental as gameplay are fixed, the title can surely not break into the elite esports ranks. That’s without even dabbling on the cross-platform issue that sees players having to master both the XBOX and the PS4.
Ollie Ring – EsportsInsider.com (part of SBC.Global)