FIFA without FIFA? EA Sports considers a name change

FIFA, whose name has become synonymous with video game soccer over the past two decades, may no longer headline EA Sports’ globally dominant franchise.

Cam Weber, EA Sports’ general manager and top executive, said Thursday in a note to players that the label is “exploring the idea of renaming our global EA Sports football games. This means we’re reviewing our naming rights agreement with FIFA, which is separate from all our other official partnerships and licenses across the football world.”

In the preceding paragraph, Weber somewhat pointedly mentioned the 300 other licensors EA pays to give the FIFA series its real-world authenticity, from the FIFPRO group license giving the game a roster of more than 17,000 players, to the UEFA Champions League and top European professional leagues like Spain’s La Liga.

The FIFA name has zero to do with that. Whatever EA Sports has been paying the global football sanctioning body, it’s only bought the title of the game. FIFA controls the World Cup, of course, but the video game’s now-biennial inclusions of its men’s and women’s tournaments are a separate licensing matter.

Why EA Sports would consider a name change, Weber didn’t really say. He noted in his statement that the publisher is “here to create the best experiences for football fans everywhere. To do that, we start by listening to our players.”

“We hear consistently that what matters most is growing the global community, creating innovative football experiences across new platforms, a commitment to every level of the sport including grassroots, and accelerating the elevation of the women’s game,” Weber said. “As a result, we have a clear vision for the future of football.”

EA Sports’ long-standing licensing agreement with FIFA somewhat resembles the one it had with the NCAA for the college football video game it published from 1997 to 2013. In that case, the NCAA’s license was only for the video game’s title, and EA Sports paid it mainly as a bonus in its agreement for the NCAA’s March Madness and Final Four trademarks on the college basketball series that the publisher ended in 2009.

Collegiate athletic conferences, much like Europe’s and South America’s individual professional soccer leagues, supplied the bulk of the licensing oomph to the NCAA Football series, for which a group license covered more than 120 schools’ names, logos, uniforms, and the like. The unlawful use of player likenesses torpedoed that series eight years ago, but with new NCAA policies in place, EA Sports said it will soon revive the franchise, possibly with real-life players’ names on the roster. But the game, so far, isn’t titled NCAA Football — it’s just “EA Sports College Football.”

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FIFA doesn’t need FIFA, and EA Sports should sever ties

It’s possible that Weber and EA, as they get ready to deliver one video game sport without its sanctioning body’s name or trademark, realized they don’t need another’s to generate billions of dollars in Ultimate Team revenue in an even bigger-selling title, either. EA Sports could also be looking ahead to a 2022 World Cup in Qatar that is sure to generate more bad publicity and brand tarnish for FIFA.

The Qatari bid was rife with corruption — 16 individuals or corporations were convicted of or pleaded guilty to racketeering charges connected to vote-selling for it and the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Staging a soccer tournament in the middle of a desert has been sharply criticized by athletes and sports leagues, while the labor building the facilities for it was exposed as practical slavery eight years ago, with allegations that hundreds, possibly thousands, of South Asian workers have died on the job. All of this was bad enough to convince Sony to pull PlayStation out of a $277 million sponsorship in 2014, and it hasn’t returned, either.

Such a reckoning would also come after distant competitor Konami changed its soccer franchise’s name, from a series globally recognized since 2001 as Pro Evolution Soccer/Winning Eleven to this year’s eFootball. Konami’s soccer series, which dates back to 1995, has never had FIFA branding, even in earlier years when it was a bigger seller or a better-playing game than EA Sports’ title.

Weber’s statement on Thursday also noted that the label now controls licenses for three big soccer tournaments that once distinguished PES/Winning Eleven exclusively — the UEFA Champions League and Europa League, and South America’s CONMEBOL Libertadores club championship. It all underlines the implication that FIFA, as a trademark, is irrelevant to the current game, if not actually harmful to it in the public’s view.

Roster File is Polygon’s news and opinion column on the intersection of sports and video games.

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