FIFA esports: AKA the FUT sales team

The growth in the eports scene we’ve witnessed over the last few years has been mainly driven by developers of big ‘PC’ titles, games that may also be on console, but are predominantly aimed at the PC market, especially when it comes to the competitive side of things. There are a few exceptions to this rule of course, console games that are making an impact and those tend to exist in one of two states. Either they live entirely on community support, like much of the FGC and Smash scenes do, or they rely entirely on developers pouring in money, in the ways the Call of Duty franchise has for so long.

It is fair to say FIFA esports is firmly in the latter camp, supported by EA and its desire to take over every part of the sporting games world. The campaign from EA has been so pervasive that it has even sponsored parts of the Premier League, in turn making the real world of football look more like its FIFA version, and the impact is being felt a bit. Sunday saw the conclusion of the sixth edition of the FUT Champions Cup, and the first clue as to why EA runs this event is contained within the name of the event itself.

FUT stands for FIFA Ultimate Team, the online portion of the game, and the place where EA is keen to get its users to spend time. The reason for that is the fact this is the place you can also spend money, once you’ve paid your £50 fee to get the game in the first place, of course, with all manner of packs and cards being available to unlock and use. Each card represents a player, and sometimes a specific era of that player’s career, which is a clever way to potentially sell the same card two or three times, by specifying that this is ‘X’ version of the player in question (just pray you don’t get MUFC Alexis Sanchez).

The reason for naming the event is the aforementioned elephant in the room, that FIFA esports is mainly about selling copies of the game or cards to kids playing, and that instantly devalues the experience for the viewer. The same can safely also be said for the way FUT works, with certain players being clearly superior and then appearing in every single game. Trust us, you haven’t experienced idiocy until you’ve heard a FIFA esports commentator try and describe an engagement that contains four players, on two different teams, all of whom are called Ronaldo.

Slick show

The production itself was slick and impressive, as you’d expect from a publisher of EA’s size, and the cast of talent included former England and Man City player Joleon Lescott, too. A forced overlay seemed designed to make the program feel more like the ‘Sky Sports News’ style stream viewers are used to, which is an odd choice, as it directly contradicts the efforts made to make it feel like we’re watching a live game of ‘real’ football, but that can be easily fixed.

With UK players dominant it was also a chance for young F2Tekkz, one of the most discussed players in console esports, to demonstrate his own dominance of the scene, but he instead went for the classic taunt > get bodied combo beloved by Smash players everywhere. First he taunted his opponent online, before also stating in an interview that he, F2Tekkz, was in the GOAT conversation while his World Cup-winning opponent msdossary was not. You can guess how it went for the young Liverpool fan in the final after all that, with msdossary going on to take the cross-platform title after defeating the vocal Brit.

For those thinking this is just typical hubris, it does seem like the young man is aware of his need to create a narrative around his impressive season, too, and that the ‘beef’ between the two players is as much for the camera as anything else. On the virtual pitch there was also a great contrast of styles, with F2Tekkz playing a far more intricate, dribbling style, while his Saudi opponent was far more optimal about the way he attacked and defended. There is no doubt the narrative would be satisfying if presented in a more authentic manner.

Too legit to be like this

Overall, the show was one of the most slick and well-produced esports products, on the level you’d expect from an MLG, which ties back into the point made earlier that these games are very heavily supported by the developers. While that helps in terms of the show, the prize money is sometimes lower than you’d find at a Valve event, for example, and the amount of discussion about ‘team of the year’ Ronaldo etc versus just normal commentary is jarring at times.

If EA wants to make this a legitimate esport, then it does have the ability to do so, with the game having great potential as a viewer spectacle, but today FIFA esports is entirely driven by the FUT side of things, even down to viewing figures. The peak figure for most events is taken from the period where EA gives away drops to anyone who has linked their account to Twitch, and is watching the action at the time, meaning it is very tough to distinguish between viewers who come in for drops and viewers who actually care about the game.

The scene has a future in its current form too, but it isn’t going to challenge the likes of Dota or CSGO anytime soon with this setup. When a fan watches a CSGO Major or TI, they know that the title is worth more than the money, and the competition is what brings in the fans, even if you can get the occasional drop too. Right now, FIFA esports is a shop for flogging FUT cards, and that is a waste of a potentially great product with some ready made stars.

Image: FIFAeNationsCup