The negotiations between the international governing body of association football and the leading publisher of sports video games are rumoured to have reached an impasse, with the existing rights deal between the parties set to expire in 2022. It is as yet unclear what will happen next.
In its statement made on 15 October 2021, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association ("FIFA") announced that it would be adopting new commercial measures regarding its long-term future in gaming and eSports. The international governing body made clear the importance for football stakeholders of the market being occupied by more than one party controlling and exploiting all rights. The statement arrives as FIFA and EA approach their 30 year partnership milestone, with the first FIFA International Soccer video game released in 1993.
What has been announced?
The existing FIFA/EA deal, which grants EA Sports the right to use the FIFA name, associated branding and content, is reported to be valued at a sum of approximately US$150m per year. Commentary on the recent negotiations suggests that FIFA is rumoured to be seeking a figure in excess of double this sum to continue the partnership. FIFA has explained that it is in the process of engaging with various developers, investors and analysts, to construct a new long-term approach to the gaming, eSports, and interactive entertainment sector, and this gives some further context to the apparent standstill.
Equally, EA explained to its customers in a press release published a week earlier, that it was exploring renaming its own soccer game. EA has been reported to have registered its own trademark for “EA Sports F.C.” suggesting that this may very well take the place of its FIFA partnership should the existing rights arrangement be terminated.
What does this mean?
It remains unclear whether this is commercial positioning or whether there really is a danger that this is the end of the FIFA/EA partnership. Perhaps the truth lies somewhere in the middle, and whilst the current agreement between FIFA and EA is not due to terminate until after the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, to the interested observer it does feel symptomatic of the obvious increase in the value of digital rights in football and a sense of rights holders needing to cash in whilst the time is right. This is unlikely to come as much of a surprise, although whether that outweighs the value of a successful 30 year partnership is another question. There are some other complicating factors that appear relevant too. For example, FIFA is only one of many rights holders that licence rights to EA in connection with its football titles, and whilst a FIFA/EA fall out may be indicative or persuasive for others (e.g. would UEFA follow FIFA’s example the next time the UEFA/EA deal comes for renewal), it may be that the impact is not as keenly felt. It does not seem, for example, that many have mourned EA’s loss of rights to the Juventus name in FIFA 20, and indeed fans of Konami’s PES titles have long since happily deployed “Merseyside Red”, “Man Blue” and “West Midlands Village” in the “English League” without too much distress. It will be interesting to see how things play out here.