Why FIFA Failed as an Esport
And the Lessons the Gaming Industry Should Learn From It
The last few weeks have seen the FIFA esports community go from bad to worse, as last year’s multi-tournament winner Donovan “Tekkz” Hunt and reigning FEWC Xbox One champion Mossad “Msdossary7” Dossary criticized the game’s experience. Shortly afterwards, FIFA pro and popular streamer Kurt “kurt0411” Fenec was banned from all EA services. The ban came as a result of alleged threats and insults levied at the game’s developers, but for the community, it was more of a case of EA silencing its most vehement critic.
Then last weekend, a server failure left competitive FIFA players having to play Rock, Paper, Scissors to decide who advanced in a licensed qualifier. In short, it was a big old mess. Another player was also eliminated despite scoring a seemingly valid goal in the penalty shootout of his qualifier.
The last few days have served as a culmination of years of complaints about FIFA’s esport nature which have been brewing around ever since EA Sports decided to integrate it into the game’s wildly successful Ultimate Team mode in FIFA 17.
How did this happen, though? After all, for a sports game, the transition from a sports game to an esports game should be as easy as adding the “e”. Yet, the game has failed to gain traction as an esport. What went wrong?
The concept of FIFA esports is very similar to the concept of Mario Kart esports. Seems like a great fit in principle, but the more you think about it, the less it makes sense. Both games are very much casual in nature and mechanics, based on randomness, stats and designed to create a fun couch-play experience. These elements are bound to not fly well with the very controlled and meticulously balanced world of esports.
For FIFA, the problem is intrinsic to its design. You cannot simulate football without randomness and emulating its rules and real-life mechanics. You can’t make a balanced esport while retaining them. You can’t make a sports game without them.
While it can’t be said that the unequivocal leaders of the esports world like Counter-Strike, League of Legends, DOTA 2, or Overwatch were designed specifically for esports, it’s the elements of their design that defined them as esports titles. People enjoyed competing in them for higher and higher stakes.
Of course, FIFA esports didn’t start in FIFA 17. The FIFA Interactive World Cup has been around since 2004. Back then, however, the game was played using National Teams only and was much less complex than the games of today, animation-wise.
With a brand new Frostbite engine introduced in FIFA 17, the game seemed to lose a lot of its predictability and animation stability, exacerbating previously reported input delay. Simply put — it was not a good esports experience.
Oh, and then there’s the core design problem. You can only control one player at a time.
While FIFA has a 11v11 mode, their choice to focus on what is essentially AI-assisted esports puts FIFA in a unique category among esports titles. It becomes a Real-Time Tactics game similar to Total War’s battle mode. You set some basic tactics for your units, yet you don’t have to micromanage everything they do.
This doesn’t make for the best spectacle. Esports fans love seeing mechanical skills come to the forefront. Can they really when 10/11 players are controlled by a (very faulty) algorithm. It’s like if CS: GO tournaments were played 1v1 with 4 bots. Fun as a novelty. Boring as a competition.
Additionally, the win-at-all-costs tactics displayed by the pros quickly make their way into the core game through tutorials and guides. Since most tactics are based on parking a giant bus in your penalty area, the trickle-down effect makes even the most casual of players suffer boring, chore-like gameplay.
What boosts the chore-like feel is the fact that the AI’s actions are largely based on player stats… which brings us to the second glaring issue.
Ever since EA moved its esports structure to the FIFA Ultimate Team mode, it became clear that it wasn’t an even playing field. In Ultimate Team, players collect players to create squads. These squads have to be linked together with “chemistry”, a system that gives big stat boosts or penalties to players who are played out of position, or have nobody from their League or Nation surrounding them.
Given that stats define everything from the speed of a player’s movement to their defensive and offensive abilities, there’s a premium on high-rated players, particularly “Icons”, retired players who are guaranteed chemistry links with every player on the game.
The game’s market is constructed in a way that encourages spending insane amounts of money to get these players. In fact, last year’s esports squads had a real-life value of $27,000 according to Jamey “FUTEconomist” McCane, a FIFA content creator who now serves as EA Sports’ Live Content Product Manager.
While EA introduced some rules to curb this “pay-to-win” attitude in qualifiers by introducing rating caps, the fact is that to even get to participate in online esports qualifiers, you have to survive the grind known as the Weekend League.
Unlike most esports setups, the Weekend League isn’t based on an ELO system. It’s a weighted free-for-all, where players compete for in-game prizes as well as esports qualification. The problem? To qualify for esports, you’re required to win at least 27 out of 30 games. There is no ladder, there’s no guarantee who you will be facing before the weighed “form factor” kicks in.
This means that despite the format of the qualifiers, you still need a “God Squad” to compete to even get “verified” and be allowed to compete in the esports circuit. Since the Ultimate Team market is based on supply and demand, the only way to generate income without flipping players for hours is to spend money on packs containing player cards, not dissimilar to sticker packs from the days of yore.
With odds of packing a player like Messi, Ronaldo or Pele disclosed at a very broad “under 1%”, you have to count on a stroke of luck or disposable income to compete. While DOTA 2 and League of Legends are also based on a freemium model (note that, unlike FIFA, they are free), even the overkill of collecting every single champion is likely to cost less than the amount of money required to build a truly competitive team that will get to the FIFA eWorld Cup finals.
It’s not a one time cost, either. Every time a new FIFA comes out, your team is reset, leaving you with another year of choosing between trying your luck with money or grinding for hours to build up a decent enough piggybank to bankroll your road to playing in front of tens thousands of viewers worldwide.
Yeah… about that.
I’m not going to lie. As a FIFA player, I tune into FIFA tournaments. Not because I enjoy watching two pro gamers recreate Jose Mourinho’s wet dream by filling the box with familiar-looking AI pawns, but rather because EA offers drops for people watching the tournament.
Even despite this example of shameless, bribery-like marketing (the drops aren’t guaranteed, so you have to leave the stream on for the best chance), FIFA tournaments are still pulling numbers comparable to those of Rocket League, a smaller game with a smaller marketing and esports budget.
Last year, a few of EA’s esports streams did not have drops enabled, leaving them watched only by a few thousand people — less than popular FIFA content creators, let alone other competitive games, some of which have far smaller userbases than the year-on-year sports bestseller.
This isn’t a good sign for EA, yet they keep inflating the prizes. They keep investing more and more into organizing them, while also hiding their head in the sand at the first sign of criticism. The recent social media storm isn’t the first or the last time EA will have heard these same arguments. Yet, they keep going. Keep investing.
The truth is, it’s not even incompetence driving those investments. It’s good ‘ole corporate greed. The FIFA esports circuit isn’t designed to be self-sustainable. It’s not designed to create a loyal audience and community. It’s not designed to entertain. It’s designed to support EA’s monetization funnel.
With microtransactions earning EA a whopping $1 BILLION in just the third quarter of last year, it’s no surprise that they think this model is working. Yet, it’s also a classic example of gaming’s short-term scheming. With more and more countries considering loot box bans, EA might not only see their earnings plummet but also leave hundreds of people involved in the organization of their esports side jobless.
The bubble hasn’t burst yet, of course, and some companies, like TakeTwo, are following suit by introducing esports as an incentive in their monetization funnels. However, none of this is sustainable if one piece of legislation can break the camel’s back.
There are a lot of lessons for would-be esports entrepreneurs here. The first one, of course, is that a game cannot be “made” an esport by just creating a tournament circuit and integrating it into your game. All the best esports were created because people wanted to play them competitively. You cannot fit a square peg into a round hole.
If you want to design an esport, start with a fun game that will engage people. Make sure it’s fair for everyone involved. Don’t create barriers to entry. Make sure that watching competitive play enhances a player’s experience, instead of teaching them annoying, unstoppable exploits that invariably lead to sub-par gaming experiences. Patch your games. Test them with pros and casuals alike. The best esports come out organically instead of being force-fed to a captive audience.
If you want to create an esport just to service your microtransactions, you won’t get far in the long run. It only took 3 years for top-tier pros to get absolutely frustrated with EA’s offering of bad game mechanics and pay-to-win. It only takes one piece of legislation to topple their entire business model.
Finally, respect your audience. FIFA isn’t an attractive esport for esports fans. It’s not attractive for real-life football fans. Hell, it’s not even attractive to FIFA fans. If you create something that doesn’t speak to any of the audiences you are targeting, why bother at all?
Some games will never make good esports. The sooner the gaming world can accept it, the better it’ll be for the esports ecosystem as a whole.