FIFA, the video game, is at war with FIFA, the soccer organization. Game publisher Electronic Arts is considering a generic alternative for its 28-year-old, $20 billion franchise, after licensing talks reportedly stalled over a seven-figure fee.
EA's contract to license the FIFA name is up at the end of the 2022 World Cup next December, and the company has yet to reach a new agreement. Negotiations between the two sides have been ongoing for two years, reports The New York Times. The main sticking point is money: The Times reports that FIFA wants to more than double the amount it gets from EA, to more than $1 billion for each four-year World Cup cycle. On top of that, FIFA wants to slap the “FIFA” brand on more than just EA’s video game, pursuing new partnerships outside of its exclusivity deal.
“As we look ahead, we’re also exploring the idea of renaming our global EA Sports football games,” EA Sports’ Cam Weber wrote after the launch in October of FIFA 22. “This means we’re reviewing our naming rights agreement with FIFA, which is separate from all our official partnerships and licenses across the football world.”
Imagining FIFA sans FIFA is tricky. However, EA’s deal with FIFA is just one of about 300 licenses that power the video game. As soccer’s international governing body, FIFA enforces soccer’s rules, facilitates player transfers, and, of course, runs the World Cup, watched by billions. What FIFA doesn’t control is perhaps more significant to EA: soccer’s many clubs, leagues, and particular players. Mostly, what EA gets from its FIFA license is a very big, very important name.
“The fear we always had was how much money we were paying FIFA for what you get,” says Peter Moore. Over his 10 years at EA, first as head of EA Sports and then as COO, Moore had been present for licensing negotiations with FIFA before leaving the company in 2017. He calls the ongoing situation, especially with one year left on the licensing agreement, “unprecedented.”
What sports fans want out of a sports game is authenticity, says Moore, who now works at Unity. FIFA 22 re-created 17,000 players, 30 leagues, 700 teams, and over 90 stadiums with incredible fidelity. Not a lot of that is owed to FIFA. There’s still a large portion of the game that could be executed through national teams, leagues, and clubs. Plus, says Moore, FIFA itself has had its fair share of controversy in recent years: the 2015 corruption scandal, allegations of bribery. The value of the FIFA brand is immense, yes, but according to Moore, to a lot of younger people, “FIFA” is more recognizable as a video game than as a corporate entity.
“This is a time when you say goodbye to FIFA,” says Moore. “If there was ever a time EA needed to walk away, you walk away now.” EA recently registered “EA Sports F.C.” as a trademark in the UK and EU. Moore suggests taking just half of the hundreds of millions EA spends on the FIFA license to start building out that game. “Clearly, for both parties, it might be time to think about doing something different,” says Moore.
EA and FIFA declined WIRED’s request to comment for this story.
EA Sports faces some challenges beyond what to call its flagship soccer game. FIFA 22 is widely reviled. On Metacritic, the game has earned just 2.5 out of 10 stars. Players complain that FIFA 22 is so similar to its predecessors, FIFA 20 and 21, that it should have just been a free add-on. Particularly incensed fans hate the game so much they’re now “review bombing” it, or spamming its Metacritic review pages with negative reviews, briefly pushing its score down to under 2 stars. In fact, most FIFA games since 2015’s FIFA 16 received middling to negative reviews on Metacritic. In part, that’s because these games’ monetization models have also come under fire: Gamers have chafed against its paid loot boxes, which they compare to gambling, and collecting paid in-game assets that don’t transfer to newer FIFA games. Players consider each game increasingly greedy and lacking in significant gameplay improvements.
FIFA’s negative reviews aren’t an outlier in the world of sports games. In the past five years, sports game players have become increasingly frustrated with the corporate engine pumping out these loot-box-filled, often buggy sims. Kotaku reviewer Luke Plunkett, who has reviewed 2K’s NBA series for about a decade, describes the series’ recent direction as an “exploitative psychological and economic trap” in his review of NBA 2k22. Reviews have been mixed to negative for years. (2K did not respond to WIRED’s request for comment.) It’s the same with EA’s Madden NFL. It’s a blessing for game publishers that, a lot of the time, they have exclusive deals with sports leagues to publish these branded video games; otherwise, there may be more competition. EA’s partnership with the NFL is set to expire in 2025.
As the games industry balloons in size and valuation, the cost-benefit analysis fueling sports games may shake out a little differently. The price of licensing sports franchises is escalating, says Scott Bouyack, cohead of talent agency CAA’s sports licensing department. “Cost has definitely gone up, and it’s continuing to go up.” There may be more difficult conversations around licensing renewals for other top sports games, Bouyack says. “The money is getting so significant. It's natural that as the dollars rise, the negotiations become more challenging.”
Although many of these sports series are losing their novelty at the same time licensing fees escalate, both Bouyack and Moore remain bullish on the future of sports games. It’s an easy calculus—people are always going to love sports, and video games are a major growth industry. Moore believes that much of the tension around FIFA can be chalked up to how organizationally complicated soccer is as a sport. “The massive global complexity and the money at stake in formal soccer dwarfs anything else in the world of sports times 10,” he says. Game licenses with the NBA, NHL, and UFC, he says, are comparatively more simple affairs.
What’s in a name, though? FIFA without FIFA is, in all likelihood, a similar game—bugs, microtransactions, and all. The world’s most popular sport will always be a money-printer for whoever best captures its heart and replicates it for gamers.