EA Sports’ officially licensed FIFA series has a thriving online community and given world soccer’s governing body a credible route into esports. Christian Volk, the Fifa director of gaming and eFootball, lays out plans to bring the physical and virtual games together.

The boundaries between sport and esports have been blurring for some time. For traditional governing bodies, that has created a wealth of opportunities, and unearthed a series of pitfalls.

It is plain to see what appeals about the esports audience, which is young, highly engaged and active on growing, data-rich platforms. The difficulties many in the federation world face, however, range from credibility within protective communities, to scale, to the challenges of aligning regulations and competitive goals.

The most popular sport of them all, however, is perhaps better placed than any other to fully embrace this moment of change. As many commentators have delighted in pointing out during the many travails of the world soccer body over the past decade, a generation of fans associate the word Fifa not with governance, but with gaming.

Since 1993, North American publisher EA Sports’ officially licensed FIFA series has become the most successful sports title in video game history and one of the biggest franchises of any kind. It has sold over 280 million copies to date across every major format. Successive editions have risen in quality, making it the essential annual purchase for a reliable base of players, and in verisimilitude, creating a richly detailed universe in which leagues, clubs, players and sponsors are faithfully represented.

In recent years, millions of members of that community have migrated online. Over a million players have been known to be competing online concurrently at peak times. The FIFA Ultimate Team (FUT) mode, which further incentivises online play through in-game enhancements, has become central to the experience for a huge number of regulars. It was making US$800 million a year by 2017. Between unit sales and in-game purchases, FIFA 18 made EA US$3 billion worldwide in its first year of release.

All of that makes FIFA one of very few actual sports simulations to make a serious impression in the world of esports, whose most lucrative competitions are otherwise based on multiplayer online battle arena games and first-person shooters like League of Legends, DOTA 2, Counter-Strike, Call of Duty and Overwatch. World soccer’s authorities are capitalising on this by consolidating their esports strategy around a concept they are calling eFootball, which they see as a “virtual extension” of the physical game.

“There are not too many scenarios out there,” says Christian Volk, the director of gaming and eFootball at Fifa, “where you have the producer and publisher of the most successful sports game and the governing body of the biggest sport in the world working hand in hand together for such a long time, and trying to accelerate and really build something that is sustainable, that is healthy, and that has a future.

“I think it’s fundamentally important we ask ourselves the question which is at the core of everything we are doing, which is: what does the fan want? What are the problems of the fans? What does the football fan expect moving forward? Obviously there are different answers for different personas within our football community.”

It is a structural advantage that Volk (pictured, left) sees operating both ways. As the potential audience for esports grows, the familiarity of soccer will lend accessibility and visibility to eFootball. “If you look into the future, for example, what you see as a viewer is a known format - everybody knows the football game, 11-a-side, so from a spectator point of view, if they’re tuning in, they understand what’s happening,” he suggests. “This is not always the case in esports. It depends, obviously, on if you’re a hardcore gamer yourself or a hardcore fan of the franchises. In eFootball, basically, this is very easy to transmit to the audience in the future.”

Already, the scope of the FIFA video game makes it an invaluable point of contact between the sport and new fans. High-profile soccer stars are active within the community, and the enormous breadth of playable teams and competitions generates powerful and sometimes unlikely exposure.

“For us, that’s very important, like it is for a lot of people in the ecosystem,” adds Volk. “There is obviously an educational aspect to it as well. My younger brother knows, for example, everything he knows about football from the game so this is, I think, very important to acknowledge as well.

“And we do see cross-pollination from the virtual into the real world, and vice versa. We see that the lines are blurring, basically. We see a convergence of the two worlds but gaming and eFootball is one answer why people in the future will keep engaging with the ecosystem of football.”

The explosive growth of professional esports, and its move towards the orbit of the Olympic movement and the traditional sports sphere, has raised its own share of governance difficulties. Volk believes that Fifa has a significant role to play in ensuring that video game competitions are properly run.

“We bring a lot of things to the table,” he says, “from regulatory elements such as anti-doping measures, anti match-fixing monitoring and things like this, which are basically taken from the real world of football and applied in the eFootball environment adequately and in the same way.”

Fifa’s commitment to esports forms part of a growing shift in the way it views its digital audience. Former Manchester City and Valencia executive Luis Vicente, who had been advising Fifa since the start of 2018, was installed full-time as the body’s first chief digital transformation and innovation officer in September. Working with specialist agency Seven League, Fifa has created a digital-first campaign - #DareToShine - for this summer’s Women’s World Cup in France, and expects its online activities to play a greater part than ever in driving interest around the competition.

Meanwhile, the rationalisation of eFootball has centred around a reshaped competitive structure, something Volk sees as being “of fundamental importance” in its efforts to bring together clubs, leagues, member associations and other stakeholders.

“We want to grow organically, healthily,” he adds. “For that, we need to understand what we’ve learned in the real football environment and check what we can apply in the eFootball arena to the extent that we believe there is beauty in simplicity. We need to make sure that everybody out there in the future understands the whole ecosystem in eFootball to avoid fragmentation and biases.

“Like it is in traditional football, people understand the competition, people understand the narrative, people understand the heroes and the villains of the scene. Basically with the new global series, this is our first step into further simplification, but also, at the same time, a further expansion of our efforts.”

Last year the annual Fifa Interactive World Cup was rebranded as the Fifa eWorld Cup, a contest for individual players with total prize money of US$400,000. That still represents the pinnacle for FIFA video game players but has been joined by a new tournament with a new format – the Fifa eNations Cup, an invite-only affair featuring 16 two-player national teams from around the world. National associations have been encouraged to stage their own competitions in order to find their representatives.

The inaugural eNations Cup is being played in London on 13th and 14th April as part of a beefed-up calendar concept, the EA Sports FIFA 19 Global Series, which will comprise eight major tournaments in total. The Global Series Rankings also provide a live picture of the world’s best FIFA 19 players.

“We’re trying to accommodate a global tournament with a pinnacle which is crowning a champion who could come basically from the couch,” says Volk. “This couch to champion narrative, or amateur to champion, is very important. We would like to keep that moving forward and give everybody out there who is a passionate player of the FIFA game the opportunity to make it to the very top. This will not change.

“Other elements we need to have a close look at when it comes to the format, there is always the question whether we should go for a team format - in the sense of a Davis Cup format, for example - to address the needs of teams and people wanting to compete in the team environment. So there are a lot of questions in a very dynamic environment which we are exposed to literally every day.”

Last year’s relaunch of the Fifa eWorld Cup brought with it a palpable change in scale, with a switch from the modestly sized Central Hall Westminster to a bespoke arena configuration at The O2. That move, Volk says, was intended to “really send a signal to the world that EA Sports and Fifa are taking this very seriously moving forward”.

The Fifa eClub World Cup rounds out the new competition set-up, with the interest of elite sides and the likes of the Premier League, Major League Soccer (MLS) and Ligue 1 offering considerable PR leverage. Over 150 teams were competing for a place in February’s final, and access to the competition provided food for thought for “endemic clubs as well who are obviously assessing whether they should switch from any of the other esports titles”.

EA Sports, for the past quarter of a century, has scrapped for soccer simulation supremacy with Japanese publisher Konami and its Pro Evolution Soccer series. The latter has rarely challenged Fifa in sales terms, though it has sometimes been in the ascendancy creatively. FIFA has historically sought to press home its advantage through the acquisition of official licences – most recently picking up rights to the Uefa Champions League and Europa League – but the fact that PES is the basis for selected esports competitions is another threat to counter.

A thriving esports scene also creates an imperative for EA Sports to keep converting its fans to new releases. FIFA 18 has sold an additional 2.4 million copies since its successor was released in the autumn, typically at discounted prices. FIFA 19 has tracked slightly below expectations as a result, shifting 20 million copies by the start of February.

“We have a daily exchange with EA, with the different offices around the world, because obviously eFootball is being played daily,” says Volk. “There are a lot of players participating. So for us it is fundamentally important that we create a relationship with EA that is working and addressing the needs of the ecosystem, which, as I mentioned before, is growing on a daily basis as well.

“We have to find space for all of our stakeholders in the market - to give room for the clubs, to give room for the big leagues, to give room for the member associations - and really address their needs and come up with competitions that address their own perspective. EA is obviously very invested in the ecosystem, such is Fifa as well. When it comes to the different levels, we are running the Fifa eWorld Cup Grand Final and the Fifa eClub World Cup and the Fifa eNations Cup; EA is taking care of the FUT Champions Cups, which we have several of this year.”

As we see that the gaming industry is accelerating its growth as well - growing to a US$180 billion industry in the next years - we expect that esports will obviously accelerate as well

Christian Volk, the director of gaming and eFootball at Fifa

Esports tournaments could add another dimension to FIFA’s commercial offer. Broadcast partners have a relatively low-risk environment in which to find out more about a new audience, while sponsors have already made bold experiments in the virtual space. Both Coca-Cola and Adidas, for example, have appeared in the FIFA video game’s story mode, ‘The Journey’. Volk insists it is “too early to tell” how such opportunities might be factored into FIFA’s commercial packages but some progress looks inevitable.

“I mean, the whole ecosystem of esports is, in comparison to video games and the entertainment and media markets, relatively small,” he says. “So we have to see what’s happening moving forward.

“We have amazing annual growth rates in esports and in eFootball as well, and as this will continue your question will become very important for us. We will take a close look at this and discuss with our stakeholders currently from the commercial side how they see the development.”

Whatever happens, 15 years after the first online FIFA competitions came into being, eFootball looks certain to become an even more intrinsic part of soccer’s commercial landscape.

“Esports is very closely linked to the game market, to gaming,” he says. “As we see that the gaming industry is accelerating its growth as well - growing to a US$180 billion industry in the next years - we expect that esports will obviously accelerate as well, potentially growing at the rate it’s been growing in the past because the ecosystem itself will become more mature. And with more maturity, a lot of investment will be pouring in - from the broadcaster side, from the digital platforms side, from the brand side as well.

“So we believe that there will be continuous growth in this environment. It will evolve, so esports and eFootball today might look differently tomorrow, especially in the always-emerging tech environment. New tech elements or new technologies will enable a new gaming experience, a new eFootball experience, a new viewing experience. So we are absolutely bullish on eFootball and with the convergence of the two worlds, one can only imagine where this might go.”