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Opinion | Coke deal proves Fifa game is now the real thing

Tyrrell Hatton may be one of the up-and-coming names in British golf, but it appears he is also a typical 26-year-old. 

At the end of September, the European Tour star was leading the likes of Rory McIlroy, Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter and Danny Willett at the halfway stage of the British Masters, however he only had one thing on his mind.

“I’m absolutely devastated I can’t play Fifa 18,” Hatton told the Guardian after a second round containing six birdies. “It’s just as well I’m away for another few weeks otherwise I’d probably waste 12 hours a day on it. I’m looking forward to getting home and playing.”

For all we know, Hatton’s tongue may have been pressed to his cheek. However, it is no joke to suggest the launch of each new version of EA Sports’ genre-defining football video game is now a phenomenon. 

It is marketed expertly for the modern age. The major component is a drip-feed of real-life footballers pictured with the gold-and-black Fifa Ultimate Team (FUT) cards displaying their statistics. There are even… ahem… “leaks” of the major stars’ numbers.

Ratings

A crucial factor is that the players genuinely care about their ratings. Perhaps the most telling ‘reveal’ of this year’s campaign came live on Sky’s Soccer AM show and concerned Hull City midfielder David Meyler, an ardent Fifa fan with his own YouTube channel upon which he commentates on his virtual games. Disgusted at the reduction in his pace and shooting stats, he whined: “How can I go home and look at my daughter?”

Elsewhere, Michy Batshuayi‏’s first concern after a Carabao Cup hat-trick was to ask EA Sports to boost his ratings while Juventus’ Sami Khedira tweeted his concern that his Fifa 18 depiction sported a two-year-old hairstyle. 

All joking aside, statistics and authenticity have been at the heart of Fifa’s dominance in the market after outstripping Pro Evolution Soccer (PES), its main rival. 

EA Sports has 9,000 data reviewers creating 5.4m data points and ratings for 18,000 players in 700 teams. These days your Fifa rating IS your ability, hence Meyler’s chagrin. 

IMAGE: Golfer Tyrell Hatton is a big fan of EA Sports' Fifa (Getty Images)

EA Sports was quick to secure licensing agreements with major clubs, leaving PES fans playing with ‘Merseyside Reds’ and ‘Tyneside’ rather than Liverpool and Newcastle United. Stadiums, chants and kits have been replicated in detail. 

It is all part of the software giant’s intention to make the game as lifelike as possible in comparison with the slightly cartoonish gameplay of PES, created by Konami of Japan. 

The policy has clearly worked. Once neck and neck, Fifa reportedly outsold PES by a factor of 40 in the week of release last year. Small yet significant iterations bring buyers back year after year. Meanwhile, an army of YouTube channels have grown up around the game, thereby reinforcing its cultural significance to its target market. 

Copa90, the most influential football channel on that platform, has been rolling out 'Fifa and Chill' for years. Essentially this is just a celebrity interview over a game or two (think “Around with Alliss” minus the knitwear) but it works.

Extra revenue

Elsewhere, EA Sports has shown real innovation in recent versions of Fifa by opening up avenues of significant extra revenue.

FUT, a fantasy/trading game hybrid, was introduced in 1999, six years after the first iteration of the game hit the shelves. In 2016, microtransactions in this section across EA Sports titles reportedly hit $800m (€680m).

It gets better. Fifa 17 saw the introduction of ‘The Journey’ with Alex Hunter, a fictional player you guide through their career, both on and off the field. In ‘The Journey’ the way the player reacts to new contract offers, the press and sponsorship deals affects progress as much as gameplay. Fifa 17 was the biggest-selling console game in the world in 2016 with 21 million copies and 75% of players interacted with Hunter at some point.

Therefore, it is no surprise that he has just ‘signed’ a real-life deal with Coke. Hunter will be part of the drinks manufacturer’s push towards the 2018 Fifa World Cup and feature in an advertisement in Times Square.  

The new version of ‘The Journey’ sees Hunter struggle in the Premier League and join up with LA Galaxy in MLS. US soccer has long seen Fifa as a strategic tool for unlocking a larger audience and an ESPN poll in 2014 found 34% of American fans found the sport as a result of playing the video game. 

Arguably, Fifa is yet to successfully enter the esports space, but let me make a bold prediction – in eight to 10 years’ time we will know the name of the world champion. They will have a significant profile and stand alongside traditional sports stars in their ability to make headlines. 

Who knows, they might even be competing with Tyrrell Hatton if his upward trajectory continues. Unfortunately, the Englishman carded a 71 and 69 to finish eight strokes off the eventual winner at the British Masters. But the Liverpool fan would storm back to win the Dunhill Masters Links and Italian Open in successive weeks. 

Presumably, after that he got back to the serious business of thumping home a few goals at a virtual Anfield.

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