Fifa 19 will be at the top of many Christmas lists. Ed Power explains how it has become the world’s biggest video game
It was the summer of 1992 and in an apartment in Vancouver’s eastern suburb of Burnaby, Bruce McMillan was sleeping with the lights on. More accurately, the source of the illumination was a computer monitor which McMillan, a team lead at the Canadian division of computer games giant EA Sports, made sure to leave on through the night. On it, tiny pixellated figures dashed after a ball.
McMillan and his programmers were toiling on a project towards which their bosses at EA’s headquarters in Redwood, California were deeply dubious. The game was provisionally titled “EA Soccer” and its gestation was not going smoothly.
It had from the outset been a struggle to persuade the suits higher up that a simulation of the beautiful game had the potential to be the next hit for the industry’s biggest publisher of sports video games.
EA Soccer had become a night-and-day fixation for McMillan. He had pushed his team to create an innovative new “isometric” look — very different from the top-down visuals favoured by footie favourites of the era, such as Sensible Soccer.
McMillan’s determination was so all-consuming he took to leaving the game on in the background as he worked and slept — he would, he hoped, sub-consciously “soak up” EA Soccer and think more clearly about how to make it perfect.
A quarter-century later, McMillan’s drive, and his idiosyncratic sleeping habits, have paid off in abundance. EA Soccer, finally released on December 15, 1993 as Fifa International Soccer (with England’s David Platt on the cover), has grown into one of the biggest brands in entertainment.
As of the release last year of Fifa 18, it has shifted 260 million copies and is recognised by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s best-selling video game. Each weekend more than 400 million games of Fifa are estimated to take place worldwide. Drake is a fan, as is LeBron James — plus practically every single professional footballer of note.
One of the most impressive aspects of Fifa in its modern incarnation is its statistical depth. Earlier soccer
simulations rarely featured even well-known stars. But EA understood true fans were interested both in the major brands but also in the more obscure, trainspotter elements of the game.
To that end, it became the first simulation to include obscure teams and second and third tier leagues. Fifa today allows players participate in South Korea’s K-League, the Swiss Super League, the Saudi Professional League and — good news for Irish fans — the Airtricity League. This is more than lip service. EA Sports is careful to include up-to-the-minute squads and the likenesses of real players.
“The data collection and licensing team consists of 20 plus producers operating from five office locations — Cologne, Guildford, Los Angeles, Vancouver, Bucharest,” Michael Mueller-Moehring, head of data collection and licensing for the game, tells the Irish Examiner.
“We gather all available sources from the internet as well as our own observations to assess player abilities, performance, skills but also the face and body appearance of all the players so we can reflect this as authentically as possible in our football products.”
The original 1993 Fifa was, by contrast, put together on a shoe-string. The idea for a soccer title had originated at EA’s European operation. “We did some research and found that 90 per cent of [computer] magazine readers loved football,” David Gardner, then sales and marketing boss for EA Europe, said in 2013. “We realised that if we wanted to bring the EA Sports brand to Europe we needed a football game.”
Back in Redwood, executives (tentatively) agreed but felt the fledgling European division was not best placed to make the vision a reality. The project was handed over to EA Canada in Vancouver, where a team of 10 was set to work on it. The publisher was not exactly going all in. EA Soccer had a modest development budget of just $30,000 a month — compared to the estimated $250 million lavished on Fifa 2016.
One further stipulation was that the title had to be “official” in some way — mirroring the approach taken with EA’s best-selling NHL and Madden American football games. To that end, a junior executive was sent to meet Fifa in Switzerland and, for a nominal sum, returned with a license. EA Soccer would now be called Fifa Soccer.
The Fifa tie-in had been cheap and it soon become clear why. Players’ names and club teams were excluded from the agreement. Consequently, the first Fifa game featured only international sides and no real world stars. Instead the players were entirely fictional, with the developers reducing to using their own names to fill out the ranks.
As if that wasn’t damaging enough, word then reached Redwood that an official 1994 World Cup game was being worked on by EA’s rivals US Gold – complete with officially licensed player names. It seemed Fifa was starting off already 3-0 down and fears rippled through the Vancouver team that the higher-ups might pull the plug.
Worried the axe might fall at any moment the team in Canada made themselves scarce and on more than one occasion actively ignored calls from management. The belief was that, through keeping a low profile,they might usher the game through before anyone noticed.
Yet somehow Fifa hit the shelves and then, another miracle, became a phenomenon, comprehensively outselling US Gold’s World Cup tie-in. Ever since, it hasn’t slowed down. In 1996 John Motson came on board as official commentator. Five years later, Thierry Henry was the first licensed star to appear on the cover. The honour is this year held by Cristiano Ronaldo, in his sparkly new Juventus kit.
Fifa has even overcame a long-running power struggle with Konami’s Pro Evolution Soccer — traditionally regarded as the better, or at least more authentic, soccer game (shortly after gracing the Fifa cover, Henry, for instance, said Pro Evolution was his favourite footie sim).
Just how much bigger the EA juggernaut has become compared to Pro Evo seemed to be confirmed in June when German side Borussia Dortmund “prematurely terminated” its exclusive licensing agreement with Konami.
A 10-year deal between Pro Evo and the UEFA Champions League also recently ended and it’s hard not to imagine soccer’s biggest club competition going instead to Fifa.
Landing the Champions League would be the sweetest triumph of all. For all their hard work, the early Fifa team didn’t quite succeed in creating the definitive soccer simulation. In fact, purists — or even those with a passing understanding of the game — recognised that in its formative years Fifa was distinctly second best.
A bug in the 1993 version, for instance, allowed you score simply by standing in front of the goal keeper and waiting for the ball to ricochet off. That was ironed out, yet the suspicion persisted that Fifa was a video game about soccer rather than a real simulation.
“The quality of the game itself was just awful,” Bob Summerwill, developer, and former chair of EA Sports’ “Architecture Council”, would write on his blog in reference to Fifa’s 1990s incarnation.
Irish Examiner video games columnist Ronan Jennings adds: “EA understood the importance of capturing the glitz and ‘fantasy’ of modern football . They added a hugely successful player card system, which works just like the real-world Topps or Match Attax equivalent, so players can build their own collections of real-world superstars.
He points out that the core gameplay was extensively overhauled so that Fifa is now a much better game. Yet it is still entertainment first, love letter to the sport second.
“If you’re looking for the best representation of the actual sport of football, then Pro Evo is the clear winner. It’s the better ‘game’ by far. However, if you’re looking for fantasy football and that superstar feeling, then FIFA is the only choice. Basically, it’s the difference between Luka Modric and Neymar.”
The power of Fifa can be seen in the unlikely cult celebrity it bestowed on Cork City striker Karl Sheppard.
The Dublin-born player attracted a huge social media following in the Netherlands in 2017 thanks to the video game and to a prominent YouTuber, Raoul de Graaf, who has a quarter of a million subscribers.
Sheppard woke one morning to discover his Instagram following had increased by 3,000 “in the space of four or five hours”.
He learned that de Graaf, who vlogs as FC Roelie, had drafted Sheppard into his Fifa 18 team, alongside Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Anthony Martial, and was using Sheppard’s avatar for a series of tutorials about the game.
Sheppard saw the joke and sent FC Roelie a signed jersey. “What a legend — Cork City!” exclaimed the YouTuber on air. He went on to describe the online back-and-forth as “their love story”.
A company in Cork went one further and released a Karl Sheppard shirt in the Dutch national colours of orange and white.
“We did it after we saw the Dutch following Karl has acquired,” said On The Ball Media’s Declan Carey.
“He can’t put up a post on Instagram without dozens commenting calling him a legend.”