In his most revealing comments yet on the status of licence negotiations with the footballing body, Wilson told staff in an internal company meeting in November that the FIFA license had been “an impediment” to EA’s ambitions for the game series.
In comments provided anonymously to VGC, Wilson claimed that FIFA had precluded EA from expanding its games into modes beyond traditional 11v11, or “broader digital ecosystems”, and suggested that the only value EA got from the licence in a non-World Cup year was “four letters on the front of the box”.
EA declined to comment when provided with advance notice of this story.
EA and FIFA were engaged in a surprising series of back-and-forth statements last year, which started when the video games publisher decided to make public that it was considering ending its relationship with the footballing body.
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According to a New York Times report published the same month, negotiations between the pair stalled due to EA’s desire for more rights, and FIFA’s alleged demand for EA to double its payment for the licence to $2.5 billion over the next decade.
If negotiations aren’t resolved before EA’s current 10-year naming deal expires after this year’s Qatar World Cup, FIFA 23 could be the final EA Sports football game to use the FIFA name.
VGC understands EA is currently planning to release this year’s game as FIFA 23 and include two FIFA World Cup tournaments – the men’s and women’s events – for the first time.
However, speaking to employees during an internal all-hands meeting in November, EA boss Wilson argued that ditching the FIFA brand could benefit its developers, players and the company’s bottom line – especially in years when it doesn’t have a World Cup tournament to put into its games.
“I’m going to be more open… more open than I’ve been with the outside world,” Wilson said, when asked why EA was considering breaking up with FIFA. “We’ve had a great relationship with FIFA over the past 30-odd years. We’ve created billions in value… it’s just huge. We’ve created one of the biggest entertainment properties on the planet.
“I would argue – and this may be a little biased – that the FIFA brand has more meaning as a video game than it does a governing body of soccer. We don’t take that for granted and we try not to be arrogant. We’ve worked really hard to try and make FIFA understand what we need for the future.”
He added: “Basically, what we get from FIFA in a non-World Cup year is the four letters on the front of the box, in a world where most people don’t even see the box anymore because they buy the game digitally.
“In a World Cup year of course, we get access to the World Cup, but in the broader context of global football on an annualised basis, the World Cup is important but it’s not the most important. We have 300 other licences that give us the content that our players engage with the most and the most deeply.”
Wilson went on to detail ways in which he believed EA’s football games could benefit from existing outside of restrictions imposed by the terms of the FIFA licence.
“As we’ve looked to the future we want to grow the franchise, and ironically the FIFA licence has actually been an impediment to that,” he said.
“Our players tell us they want more cultural and commercial brands relevant to them in their markets, more deeply embedded in the game… brands like Nike. But because FIFA has a relationship with Adidas, we are not able to do that.”
He continued: “Our players tell us they want more modes of play, different things beyond 11v11 and different types of gameplay. I would tell you, it’s been a fight to get FIFA to acknowledge the types of things that we want to create, because they say our licence only covers certain categories.
“Our players want us to expand into the digital ecosystem more broadly… our fans are telling us they want us to go and participate in that space.
“Our FIFA licence has actually precluded us from doing a lot of this stuff. Again, FIFA is just the name on the box, but they’ve precluded our ability to be able to branch into the areas that players want.”
Lastly, the exec claimed that the FIFA licence was also stopping EA from being as agile as it would like to be in adding new features and content to the series.
“Our players are telling us they want us to move really quick: ‘we want you guys doing stuff fast’. And in order to do that, we need a level of freedom to be truly creative, innovative and experiment in the marketplace,” he said.
“Because of the nature of the approval timetables and the various things around our FIFA licence, that’s actually been really hard and we’re moving much slower than we want.”
Wilson claimed in the meeting that he had communicated all of his concerns directly with FIFA.
“I had a conversation with [FIFA president] Gianni Infantino just a couple of weeks ago where I said, ‘listen, the money’s a thing: we don’t want to pay more money than this licence is worth. But it’s not about that, it’s really about our ability to deliver games and experiences that our fans want, in a timely fashion’.”
Although this year’s football game will carry the FIFA brand name, EA’s CEO said he still wasn’t convinced the company would be able to agree terms to extend its relationship.
“At the end of the day, I don’t know if we’re going to get there,” he said. “And ironically, if we don’t, and we’re able to rebrand our game and take control of this global football ecosystem that we’re going to build, ironically we’ll probably generate more revenue, and have more fans, and have more engagement over time.
“Because we’ll be able to work with more partners, we’ll be able to build more modes of play, we’ll be able to expand more deeply and broadly into the digital ecosystems around the fabric of football, and more than anything we’ll be able to move really, really fast.
“We’re going to work through this, we’re going to be thoughtful and we want to be good partners with FIFA, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we ultimately move in a different direction. At the end of the day, I think that might even be better for our gamers than continuing with those four letters on the box.”
In a public statement released in October, EA implied that should it cut ties with FIFA it would still retain all its other league, player and stadium licensing because those deals are arranged separately.
FIFA fired back later that month in a statement of its own, in which it suggested it was open to working with new video game companies.
It also emerged that EA had filed multiple trademark applications for ‘EA Sports FC’, which could potentially be the new name for its football franchise should it choose to rebrand the series.