2013 marks 20 years of the FIFA video game franchise.
EA released the first game in the series back in July 1993, with David Platt on its prestigious cover.
Since then, EA has released nearly 60 games (including spin-offs) and sold over 125m units. The latest title in the series, FIFA 13, is the most successful one yet, shifting 14.5m games in record time.
Although licences in games have a chequered history (just look at the commercial performance of the latest James Bond and Marvel games), for sport games licences remain crucial.
FIFA today is one of the best video games money can buy, but that’s not always been the case. In fact, for almost ten years the best football game on the market was Konami’s Pro Evolution Soccer. Yet despite not always being the best football game, FIFA has always been the biggest seller. And that’s because it was the only game to have all the players, all the grounds and all the leagues.
Pro Evolution Soccer does have some official content (it recently signed the Asian Champions League licence) but it cannot match FIFA’s authenticity.
EA as a company dominate when it comes to officially-licensed sports titles. In fact, FIFA isn’t even its oldest sports IP. Madden – based on NFL and is the biggest video games series in the US – is a series that is 25 years old. And EA has also held licences for Tiger Woods golf, Grand Slam Tennis, NHL and NBA. Even college American football (the NCAA).
The only time EA has struggled to compete in sport is when it fails to sign a licence. Back in 2010 it attempted to create a mixed martial arts game entitled: EA Sports MMA. The game failed to match the commercial success of THQ’s licensed UFC series. As a result, EA splashed the cash to acquire the UFC IP from THQ last June.
And one of the few companies able to compete with EA’s sports division is 2K Sports, which boasts licences for Major League Baseball, NBA and WWE. And Sega continues to succeed in the sports category, mainly due to its Olympics licence.
As EA Sports has grown and expanded, it has dropped some of its more niche sports games. It no-longer builds games based on Rugby or Cricket for example, which are popular in territories like the UK but not around the world. And this has given smaller games publishers the opportunity to capitalise. Recent games based on the Rugby World Cup and Ashes Cricket have been modest successes.
And EA is now going beyond video games. EA Sports’ relationship with its licence holders has seen the company’s technology get used in real life sport (you can’t watch a Premier League match without seeing the EA Sports logo). EA Sports also operates its own sports bars in America, plus it has a range of shops. EA Sports has become a brand in itself, in 2011 it was ranked the eighth biggest sports brand by Forbes, putting it alongside the likes of Nike and Adidas. "It’s in the game" is probably the most iconic games slogan in the world.
But if it wasn’t for FIFA, EA Sports – at least in the UK – would have no resonance at all.
And if it wasn’t for the huge profits that FIFA generates (digital add-ons for FIFA 13 last year made $200m alone), EA would not be the world’s biggest games publisher.
About the author
Christopher Dring is Associate Editor for Licensing.biz sister publication and weekly computer and video games industry magazine MCV.