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Divorce between FIFA and EA Sports marks the end of an era

FIFA for 30 years has not only changed the world of video games, but also soccer as we now know it

Divorce between FIFA and EA Sports marks the end of an era FIFA for 30 years has not only changed the world of video games, but also soccer as we now know it

"EA, it's in the game," as the claim reads in a metallic voice that no one ever understood by hearing but only years later, perhaps reading pieces like this. But EA Sports has been linked to FIFA for everyone, an inseparable duo so much so that one has become synonymous with the other, setting a new standard not only for football but for the entire video game landscape. For nearly three decades FIFA was more of a vibe than a game, and despite its many imitators and the many criticisms that piled up, it remained unchallenged at the top of the food chain despite the constant pitfalls of Pro Evolution Soccer, PES for everyone. In the end, it emerged victorious from the battle with the Konami product, and last season alone EA confirmed a turnover of more than 1.5 mln euros, largely derived from the FIFA Ultimate Team (FUT) version. 

A constant revolution that began almost by accident thanks to the intuition in 1991 of a computer engineer, Jan Tian, who first sensed the potential of a video game about soccer on a continent dominated by NFL and Madden. At the time, the video game market on soccer was dominated by English products, Sensible Soccer, Championship Manager and Kick-Off above all, but these were unable to provide the same experience to which FIFA would. In particular the isometric view of the field instead of scroll, which for the first time mimicked the feeling of watching a game on TV just as the latter were beginning to widen.

But above all, it was the deal struck with FIFA that launched EA Sports' game into a new stratosphere, legitimizing and certifying that one game was the official one according to the international federation that governs every aspect of football. It is worth recalling how the first contract struck between the two parties was obscenely low, because no one in Zurich realized the value of their brand and the possibilities the new game offered them. The exact figure was never revealed, but it was clear that the success, which would soon come instead, was not expected by any of the parties involved.

Indeed, like perhaps only SuperMario or Tekken, FIFA is a household name even with those who have never had a console in their hands, becoming the best possible ambassador for football to the rest of the world. It is no coincidence that the first installment will not be called FIFA 94 but FIFA International Soccer, and it will be released just as the U.S. World Cup takes place, what for many was the true international launch of soccer. The quick and instant video game, with quick and easy-to-configure matches soon became a favorite in all American college dorms, the perfect companion for sleepless nights along with fries and coke. 

Five years later, when the time came to renegotiate the deal right around the time of the World Cup in France '98, prices for the rights to exploit the FIFA brand rose enormously. But it was already a new world for EA Sports, which had begun to buy the rights to the major professional leagues, from the Premier League to Serie A, and to finally have the increasingly realistic players on the field with their original names. And teams had begun to realize how profitable such a market was, beginning to exploit their brand not only on the field but also in all the declinations on which it is now normal for us to find a soccer club.

In a sense, the agreement between FIFA and EA Sports has shaped the current football landscape, introducing new channels of remuneration for clubs and turning rights into the real core business of sports federations and leagues. From the first pixel to the latest mode, FIFA's cultural impact has outweighed even that on the gaming world, including soundtracks that have gone down in history, iconic covers, and an endless array of memories that anyone who has ever approached the game cherishes. Now, like all divorces, the one between FIFA and EA Sports will have its profound repercussions since last year for the first time, also obviously due to the pandemic, more than half of FIFA's revenue came from licensing rights. And if now EA Sports FC is now launched with the full support of all the small and big clubs, as is evident from the posts on social media, the future of what until the day before yesterday was the unofficial name of the world's most famous video game and will now go back to being simply the name of the federation presided over by Gianni Infantino appears more nebulous.