EA Sports, the sports arm of global video game giant Electronic Arts (EA), unexpectedly ended its 30-year relationship last year with global soccer's governing body FIFA, making FIFA 23 the last installment under the long-standing licensing deal that began in 1993.
The move was unexpected largely due to the game having generated a reported $20 billion, making it one of the most profitable franchises in video game history.
EA’s first offering since the split was titled EA FC 24, and while it sold well, its physical sales were reported to be 30% lower than Fifa 23’s. However, the video game giant expected a short-term decrease due to the name change and 2023’s especially high sales figures, yet esports participation in the title has increased.
The move away from the Fifa name has also meant that EA has had to set up its esports infrastructure to replace that of global soccer's governing body, called FC Pro.
Qualifying began only two days after the game launched on October 1, 2023, with a ladder system eventually leading to the inaugural FC Pro World Championship this year, featuring 32 players competing in a group stage to a single elimination tournament with $1 million in prize pool money available.
With the final qualification for the FC Pro World Championship, the FC Pro Open, currently ongoing until February 3, EA Sports’ senior director of esports and commissioner of football esports Sam Turkbas explains EA’s esports strategy moving forward without Fifa.
What is EA Sports’ strategy for esports following its split from Fifa?
We've had a great partner in Fifa for many years, but now it's our opportunity to own the ecosystem front to back.
So we've made a few changes, the fans told us that it was really hard to understand our old program. There was a one vs one competition, two vs two competition, a nation-based competition, and an individual competition, so we've streamlined the program around one vs one, which is how most users choose to play EA Sports FC, especially in the Ultimate Team game mode.
So that's the first thing that we've done, really make sure we're in the right game mode with the right format. The second thing we've done is streamline the calendar for the year so that it's really easy as a fan to follow what's happening.
The first part of the year is the EA-run competition, which is super open. We've just started our online ladder, and finished the online ladder. We had close to 20,000 people participate right at the launch of the game which was amazing.
Now we're going to narrow that down to 20 folks who are going to compete in our FC Pro Open weekly show, which will start on Monday, November 27. We're excited about that, a square broadcast product that airs every Monday, a really good opportunity to show our players’ stories in an easily digestible format that's familiar to a football fan.
We want to feature our early partners. So we created a section of the year where our league partners had the opportunity to run their programs and activate against their domestic markets. So Virtual Bundesliga in Germany, LaLiga FC Pro in Spain, and even ePremier League in the UK as examples.
The last thing is that we now own the Championship. So we're able to tell the story of the players from day one to when somebody lifts that trophy at the end of the season.
And that's exciting to us because it's always been a bit confusing on where things lead and how many steps there are, so given our lead partners rights to access to that championship, and EA owning that championship, it was a really exciting proposition.
Have there been any challenges as a result of the split?
Nothing particularly to note, we have great partners within an ecosystem of players, clubs, and leagues, and all of them have helped us go on this journey together as we both launched EA Sports FC and on the esports side launched EA Sports FC Pro.
So we've honestly had a great experience working with those partners to make sure that we're able to bring our vision to life both across the game and across the discourse.
How do you plan to balance attracting new fans via soccer clubs’ esports teams and maintaining traditional esports teams’ fanbases, given that most slots will now go to soccer clubs?
So we're in a unique position that a lot of players already were representing multiple organizations throughout the year (in Fifa 23).
So we had players who would play for an esports team within the EA competition, but then in the leagues, they would play for a club team, so we think over time we want to drive the behavior of the clubs to become more engaged.
So when it comes to the open side of the competition, we still wanted to have an opportunity for any player, whether they represent a club esports team or aren't signed at all, to register and compete at the highest level of competition.
So the calendar has changed a little bit, and the amount of EA-run competitions has changed, but there is always an opportunity for a player to go from sitting on the couch, or more likely sitting in a gaming PC chair, going from there to actually competing at the highest level.
Keeping that path to pro open is important and we do think esports teams are really important to the vitality of the ecosystem we think that they can offer great opportunities to players in FC Pro Open, as well as hopefully work with some of the football clubs to support those football club teams.
What was the decision-making behind the exclusive esports partnership with Sony to make your esports tournaments exclusively on the Playstation 5 console?
We already knew that a lot of the players competed on PlayStation 5 and we were very unique among esports in that we ran two completely separate competitions for PlayStation players and Xbox players with equal numbers between, and we did that until 2019, I believe.
What we found is that our best matchups weren’t happening until way late in the competition and you could never have the top five Xbox players and top five PlayStation players compete against each other in a tournament.
So our goal was to make the competition more exciting by making sure that all the players who were playing could match up at any time during the competition. That goes back to the fan dream as well. For the fans seeing two separate rackets, two separate platforms, was confusing.
So in partnership with Sony, we were able to create the opportunity to have a competition exclusively on PlayStation 5, and from a player perspective, we were able to bring our top players, the existing ones who were already there, and the ones who were elsewhere, all to PlayStation 5, and that's something that we're confident in because we know that we're creating the best competitive environment across the board and we're making sure that we have the best competitive matchups for fans. No matter what portion of the competition you're in.
How do you approach esports partnerships in regions where FC 24 esports has less traction?
It's a bit difficult to answer in some ways. So we do have a partnership in Latin America with Conmebol, which is exciting, obviously Europe is really strong.
But we have added deliberately more countries within Africa into our competitive mix. We also make sure that our program has regional-level competitions so that we're supporting play no matter what.
Lastly, we also have a free-to-play title that's available in China, Korea, and Southeast Asia called FC Online we also run a separate esports program that engages players in those markets and in partnership with our publishing partners, which are Tencent, Nexon, and Garena.
What would you consider a success for FC 24’s esports launch?
So I think we've already seen several items that I would consider successful. We've increased registrations at the same period year over year, and we've increased the number of players participating in our first tournament of the year substantially.
And now the way that we look at successes is a combination of different metrics and different things. Engagement, viewership, awareness, sentiment, we'll be looking at all those things and understanding how we’re performing against our targets and how we can continue to improve in the future.
How does EA view the future of the soccer esports industry moving forward?
I think that we see esports for EA Sports FC as a really important fan engagement. Our goal is to engage players of Ultimate Team on a deeper level to show them and tell them how they can get better at the game through our pro players who are the best in the world, to create compelling content. So we think that FC esports, and football esports as a whole represent an important engagement.
And we also know that from our partners, our football league partners, and our club partners, that esports is important to them. And so we want to continue to create a platform where they can showcase their clubs, or clubs can showcase their players to as big of an audience as possible, but primarily one that we think already is playing the game and engaging with the game.
Could you share a recent success story or notable partnership that has significantly contributed to the growth of EA FC esports globally?
I think I would showcase Manchester City, the club, they are a key partner for us across the game. Haaland is our cover athlete this year and so they have seen the opportunity with this new program to invest in their esports team.
So they signed three incredible players, arguably the best player of all time Tekkz, along with a player called Matias, to compete in the ePremier League, and then assigned a top quality European player to go compete for New York City FC in the MLS. So when you look at our partnership there you see that they see the value in the program we created and want to be important in it.