EA Sports first released the Fifa football video games ("Fifa") two weeks before Christmas in 1993. Since then, Fifa has become the most popular football game in the world and is listed in the Guinness World Records as the best-selling sports video game franchise. EA have unlocked the commercial potential of Fifa using online game modes such as Fifa Ultimate Team, a mode which encourages players to spend real money to create better teams, and this now generates more revenue than sales of the game itself. But it is only recently that EA have begun to expand their reach into the esports industry – and their latest moves may lead to fundamental change in EA's relationship with their participants.
In 2019, EA and the Premier League launched the ePremier League. To participate, each Premier League club selects a representative from the UK to play as that club in the Fifa tournament (last year's winner was Liverpool). Bringing the premiership clubs together in a formal esports competition in this way raises a number of unique legal challenges, in particular from governance and employment perspectives (the employment issues are to be discussed in our next feature).
Governing bodies are ultimately responsible for regulating the integrity of a sport. They do this by establishing and implementing clear regulations, for example the FA determines the rules of a football match, but also regulates much broader issues relating to the activities of each football club off the pitch. Knowing that these rules will be implemented consistently provides comfort to all those involved: both participant and fan alike.
And yet, as esport has grown in an organic way and through the proliferation of different formats based on different games, there is no such unifying governing body in the context of esport; the British eSports Association has sought to perform some of the functions of a regulator, but its coverage is patchy and it has been relatively quiet, especially in the context of Fifa tournaments.
Absent an external body already in situ, EA have been responsible for the rules, format and engagement of all stakeholders in the ePremier League. Its role covers everything from reaching separate agreements with each premier league club, to implementing player bans and specifying the internet connectivity requirements for every event. In effect, EA have been propelled straight into the role of a governing body.
This may sound like a far cry from EA's day-to-day functions as a global leader in digital interactive entertainment. But their success so far is evident from the immediate renewed commitment of every Premier League club to the 2020 ePremier League tournament (before it was postponed due to Covid-19). EA are already tasked with ensuring commercial compliance at each tournament (further details of what this might involve can be found in our previous feature – Exploiting IP and Sponsorship Opportunities in Esports), whilst also deciding the format and rules for participants, tournaments and matches.
However, a critical next step is for EA to make generally available a comprehensive set of regulations. Promulgating regulations in this way has a number of important effects. It requires EA to give thought to aspects of ePremier League competition that perhaps have not yet come up in practice. It gives stakeholders and fans confidence that the format is supported by robust structures and procedures, which promote fair competition. It also helps to demonstrate EA's commitment to issues such as player welfare, integrity, and consistency across multiple seasons of the ePremier League. Importantly, such regulations offer another way in which EA can inspire real confidence amongst Premier League clubs that joining the ePremier League is the right thing to do – the appeal is already there, particularly when recent studies suggest that 60% of young football fans would rather play a game of Fifa than attend a real football match.
Though a substantial responsibility which will require commitment and investment, taking on the role of governing body presents an exciting opportunity for EA and, more generally, other games developers which have the same potential in different formats. The real advantage for them is maintaining a position of overall control: as the developer of the game itself and administrator of the tournaments, EA can dictate all aspects of Fifa as an esport and thereby ensure it is governed in a way which reinforces and best protects EA's interests, as well as the interests of its stakeholders.
Retaining control over the format in this way bolsters the opportunity to grow the brand and unlock the commercial potential: perhaps soon there could be an EA cup, multiple EA regulated Fifa leagues like football's EFL system, or EA could link with other NGBs across the globe, particularly ASEF (Asian Electronic Sports Federation) to create the equivalent Fifa tournament of the Champions league. Regardless of whether EA choose to develop their role as a regulator further, the very fact that they are in a position to do so should be a source of excitement.