The footwork may be fast, but when it comes to competitive FIFA and Madden, EA Sports wants to take it slow and steady.
Compared to the League of Legends or Counter-Strikes of the world, esports based on traditional sports like soccer do not (yet) command the same viewership. Madden and FIFA, while both very successful game franchises, are still young in the world of esports. And Brent Koning, FIFA Commissioner for EA Sports, knows that very well.
“We use the terminology ‘crawl, walk, run’ a lot,” said Koning to ESPN. While an old adage, it holds true to how EA views itself in the esports scene. “I think we are formally new to the competitive gaming space. And I think for us, we need to be humble, we need to learn.”
Fans have noticed in recent years that many video game publishers have jumped into promoting their titles as esports. But many question if the intention is to support genuine player interest, or if it’s more of a marketing ploy.
Considering the number of titles with esports-oriented marketing that have fallen to the wayside, like Infinite Crisis and Dawngate, it makes sense that Koning has a thoughtful stance.
“Can you make an esport? No, you can’t. The community makes an esport,” said Koning.
Overall, Koning was careful to not throw the word “esports” around unnecessarily, and it’s that deliberateness that has dictated EA’s philosophy in regards to the scene. “We are the competitive gaming division within EA. There’s a reason why we’re calling it the ‘competitive division’ for EA [and not the ‘esports division’]. It’s about competition,” said Koning.
EA sees esports as the tip to a massive iceberg. That’s where the best of the best reside, but it’s not everything; the non-professional player base is far more massive. To solely focus on the tip would be turning a blind eye to the rest of EA’s Madden and FIFA players. And that’s something EA Sports does not want to entrap itself in.
Because EA has looser expectations in esports, its competitive division has been allowed to breathe and not just focus on high viewership numbers. “You don’t just set crazy lofty goals. We want to be attentive to viewership. But we also want to make sure it’s something worth watching,” said Koning. As a result, EA has not strictly followed traditional tournament models and has featured collegiate side events like FIFA 17 eCOPA this past November in New York.
At the end of the day, however, viewership and popularity do matter. In this realm, the biggest hurdle for EA and competitive FIFA is soccer itself. With the real sport readily available to watch, there must be a unique proposition for viewers to give FIFA some attention. That’s something that Koning and his team are grappling with.
One uniqueness comes out in the gameplay. Unlike a normal game of pro soccer, competitive FIFA allows players to make their own custom teams from the soccer elite and command the whole squad. Viewers get to see two experts in the game use any player they want as a piece on a large grassy chess board. Both teams can have the star power of Lionel Messi, but it’s about which player can utilize his incredibly precise dribbling the best in the context of the game.
Luckily for EA, there is already evidence for a significant FIFA-loving audience online. YouTuber KSI is one of the most popular personalities on the site with over 15 million subscribers. The two million views on a KSI FIFA 17 video show that there’s a massive audience willing to watch him play the game. There’s also Edwin Castro, a Twitch streamer that currently has over one million followers and whom EA Sports has featured as a caster at live events.
These impressive numbers are usually reserved for the top Dota 2 or Hearthstone players, which bodes well. The challenge for EA Sports will be finding ways to convince that audience to watch its own competitive events rather than third-party content.
There will be $1.3 million on the line at the FIFA World Championships in London next March, a prize pool comparable to top events in popular esports like Counter-Strike. However, EA Sports may need to invest in other ways to attract viewers, some of who already enjoy some form of FIFA content online. A combination of marketing, celebrity and competitor narratives could be the key to give FIFA a shot at being a major esport.