Jan Tian stood in nervous silence in the departure hall of Beijing Capital International Airport. Beside him, his sister held an envelope containing a thousand yuan, close to her entire year’s wages. It was May 1993 and China’s capital was humid, its parks ablaze with tulips, crab apples and red azaleas. But Tian, who had graduated from Beijing University a decade earlier and now worked in Vancouver for the video game company Electronic Arts, had not come to sightsee. The previous week, he had received a phone call to say that his father had suffered a stroke and Tian’s bosses had booked him an emergency flight to China.
After a week, the doctors had given their prognosis: Tian’s father would be paralysed down his left side, but would recover. As concern yielded to relief, Tian’s thoughts returned to the work he had left behind in Canada. The release date for EA Soccer, his current project, had recently been brought forward, after an executive walked past an office and heard staff, who were playing an early version of the game, whooping with excitement. For the game to be on shelves by Christmas, it would need to be finished by October. They had less than five months.
While Tian and his dozen-or-so colleagues believed fervently in the project, EA’s other executives were less enamoured. “There was great scepticism in the US about the future of soccer,” Trip Hawkins, the computer programmer who had founded EA in 1982, told me. “Nobody cared.” Soccer was still seen by many as a benign distraction for children who showed little talent for American football, the sport on which EA’s early fortunes had been founded.
Fifa International Soccer, as the game would eventually be titled, was a modest bet, costing around $30,000 a month to develop. (Fifa 2016’s development budget, by contrast, is estimated to have been in the region of $350m.) Even so, Tian and his colleagues feared the game might be cancelled at any moment. Speaking to an industry magazine in 2013, Neil Thewarapperuma, then EA Sports’ marketing manager, put it bluntly: “EA didn’t give a shit about Fifa.”
The game was broken, too. Before he was called to China, Tian had been wrestling with a knotty programming challenge: how to automatically position players around the pitch in a way that resembled professional football, rather than a playground kickaround where children swarm after the ball. “People may say, what’s so difficult with positioning?” Tian told me recently. “Believe it or not, it’s the most difficult task to program correctly.”
While he was at his father’s bedside, a solution – involving “tricky methods and algorithms”, as Tian puts it today – finally came to him. Now, he just needed to find a way to get back to Vancouver quickly, but when he checked, every flight out of Beijing was fully booked.
At the airport the next day, a man from the airline approached, wearing a dark blue suit. He took the envelope from Tian’s sister and motioned to the pair to follow him to the ticket office. There, they stood a little distance away, while the man leaned over the counter conspiratorially, and whispered to a colleague. After a moment, Tian was handed a plane ticket. The bribe had worked.
Ten hours later, on a Saturday afternoon, Tian landed in Vancouver. He dropped his bags off at home, washed his face, then drove to the office in a jetlagged fug. The system that Tian implemented over the following weeks to fix the game’s problems with positioning laid the foundations for what would become the world’s most profitable video game franchise.
Along with Mario and Tetris, Fifa belongs to an select group of video games that are familiar to people who have little further interest in the medium. For many, Fifa is the only game they buy each year. In many parts of the world, the word “Fifa” is synonymous not with football’s scandal-ridden governing body, but with the video game that licenses its name.
On any given Sunday, the day on which it is played most often, more than 200 million matches of Fifa take place in living rooms, studies and bedrooms around the world. The series has sold more than 150m copies, its popularity extending far beyond the world of football. In 2013, the NBA star LeBron James, who features in numerous EA-made basketball games, posted a photograph to Instagram of his sons playing Fifa alongside the caption: “Game is fresh to death!” Celebrity endorsements like this on social media can cost more than £10,000 a go. Yet LeBron, alongside other athletes and pop stars (Justin Bieber: “@Drake: I’m getting nice at Fifa. Be prepared”), have, at least according to EA, expressed their fandom freely.
From the start, EA’s long-term ambition – its plan, in fact, for market dominance – was to make a game that faithfully reproduced, pixel by pixel, every aspect of real football. “My vision, even before I founded EA, was to make authentic team-sports-simulation games,” Hawkins told me. EA’s original slogan, repeated in a metallic drawl during the start-up sequences for its sports games, was: “If it’s in the game, it’s in the game.” Later, this became simply: “EA Sports: It’s in the game”.
For most people under the age of 40, that familiarity extends beyond the catchphrase. The pinch of a trigger to make a player sprint, the momentary squeeze to power up a shot, the thumb-flick to perform a defender-beating feint – these moves are almost as deeply embedded in players’ muscle memory as the swipe to unlock their smartphone.
EA’s single-minded drive towards authenticity has been key to Fifa’s growing dominance, even at the expense of rival games that videogame critics have considered to be superior. While it is possible to opt to play 90-minute matches, by default Fifa attempts to condense the rhythm and drama of a football match into a more manageable burst of 10 minutes (the in-game clock hurries accordingly). All of the aesthetic pleasures of the real-life game are captured: the feints and step-overs, the curve and dip of a perfectly arced free kick, the rippling net, the boots with the luminous laces. “The entire presentation aims for nothing less than an accurate rendering of the match-day experience, as seen on your TV,” says the video game critic Steve Burns. From the punditry to the branded, whizzing graphics that frame the screen with information before each match, Fifa has evolved to reproduce the glossy sheen of Sky Sports.
These trappings are just the start of the game’s campaign for authenticity, which now embraces everything from the rampant commercialism of 21st-century football to the increasingly obsessive focus on data analytics. Switch on Fifa today and you will be able to play the league or international fixtures of the week, complete with accurate starting line-ups – details that are automatically sucked into the game via the internet. Teams shake hands in front of true-to-life sponsor boards, inside meticulous digital recreations of real-world stadiums, from Wembley to Gamba Osaka’s Suita City. Virtual fans sing their team’s actual chants and spit abuse at the referee – even when he has made the right call. (The virtual ref is programmed to be both omniscient and infallible.)
EA works with a 9,000-member network of data reviewers, led by the German statistician Michael Müller-Möhring (known as Triple-M by his colleagues) in Cologne. They ensure that each player profile, which includes more than 30 statistics, from speed to stamina to temperament, is as accurate as possible. In the hours after the launch of the latest version of Fifa, which typically arrives each year in the final week of September, many of the 18,000-odd professional footballers included in the game huddle around, anxious to see how their recent form has been translated into the virtual game. The results can sting. In September, the former England and Manchester United player Rio Ferdinand jokingly threatened on Twitter to visit EA’s office and “tear the place down” after his in-game character was awarded 65 out of a maximum of 99 for his passing skills. In 2011, Chelsea’s diminutive attacker Eden Hazard complained that he was “three or five centimetres” too short in the game. This year, the Ipswich midfielder Jonny Williams was upset to find himself described as “injury prone”. “That hurt to be honest,” Williams told the Daily Star. (Such complaints are logged but never acted upon, one current member of the Fifa team told me.)
The data Fifa draws upon has become so accurate that teams have started to use the game to scout for potential new signings or to test out the strengths and weaknesses of upcoming opponents. The Arsenal midfielder Alex Iwobi recently told the New York Times that when he was starting out, if a player he had never played against was on the other team, he would “look at his name and then try to remember how good he was on Fifa”. In October 2013, Leyton Orient’s manager introduced a no-Fifa-before-a-match-day policy, after members of his team stayed up late rehearsing the next day’s fixture (which they subsequently lost).
The game’s reach is such that its influence has even extended into politics. Last month, communist MPs in Russia complained that a new feature in Fifa 17, which allows players to dress their virtual team with a rainbow-coloured kit to show support for a campaign against homophobia and transphobia, violated the country’s laws banning so-called “gay propaganda”. If the option was not removed, the MPs suggested, the game could be banned in Russia.
Annually updated blockbuster games come with the risk of what publishers refer to as “audience fatigue”, but Fifa’s popularity and influence continues to grow. Earlier this year, the German club Wolfsburg signed David Bytheway, a 22-year-old from Wolverhampton, as a professional Fifa player. (The club runs competitions in which the prize is to play against Bytheway, pitchside, before a home game.) “Our goal is it to create a binding connection between real football and the digital version,” said Klaus Allofs, Wolfsburg’s sporting director, at the time.
If EA’s original aim was to fit the whole world of football into Fifa, the company’s dogged pursuit of this goal has come to alter the world of football itself. “Until Fifa is indistinguishable from football in real life and plays exactly like football,” says Matt Prior, Fifa’s current creative director, “we’ll always have more to do.”
When Jan Tian emigrated to Canada in 1982, he found a country ravaged by economic depression. “Not even McDonald’s was taking job applications,” he told me. Tian took night classes in computer technology at the British Columbia Institute of Technology, where he learned how to build and program computers. After graduating with honours, he eventually ended up at a local video game developer, which was soon acquired by EA.
Tian spent the next three years working on a tennis game, one of EA’s first 3D projects, a vastly challenging undertaking given the limited power of 1980s computers. By the time the game finally came out, he was exhausted. When it failed to sell many copies, he became disillusioned. “I told my managers that I would never again work on a game based on a sport that I don’t actually play in life,” Tian said.
In late 1991, after the success of EA’s flagship American football game, John Madden Football, a senior executive named Mark Lewis floated the idea of a soccer equivalent. Lewis, who had been sent to London to set up EA’s European office, wrote a proposal for a lavish, high-tech football game, one to rival the British hits of the time: Sensible Soccer, Championship Manager and Kick-Off.
“Almost the entire US organisation was opposed to our idea,” recalls Lewis. “They felt that soccer was too complicated a sport.” Lewis’s tenacity, or perhaps his preposterously ambitious sales predictions – 300,000 units in total throughout Europe – eventually convinced his bosses back in San Francisco. The team began work on a proof-of-concept demo, often the first stage in developing a video game.
Lewis was adamant that the game should be made in England – the home, as he saw it, of football. Undaunted by the fact that the British wing of EA was not yet set up for game production, Lewis hired two freelance game designers – Jules Burt and Jon Law – to build the game. The pair, who were based near Liverpool, spent 12 weeks on the prototype, developing three versions of the game, each of which employed a different camera position. The best of the set used a so-called isometric camera angle, positioned as if looking down on the pitch from one of the stadium’s corners. Rather than the top-down view of the pitch that other football games offered, this new perspective captured the players’ entire bodies, closing the distance between video game and televisual representations of the sport.
As the British team began to make headway, the senior executives at EA decided to shift development to their more experienced team in Canada, and assigned Tian to the project. When he saw the prototype that Burt and Law had designed, Tian was astonished. “The viewpoint was revolutionary,” Tian told me. And unlike previous football games, where the ball appeared glued to the player’s foot, in Burt and Law’s demo the player knocked the ball forward and had to chase after it. “It felt like real soccer,” says Tian. “I wanted to do exactly that. And I wanted to do it better.”
At this stage, Fifa was not called Fifa. When the US office announced its plan to burden the game with the calamitous title Team USA Soccer, Lewis, who was doing his best to steer the production from back in London, immediately began to scrabble for an alternative. (“I spent a lot of time working to keep the US organisation at bay,” Lewis recalls.) In May 1993, while Tian was in Beijing, EA’s vice president of European marketing, Tom Stone, flew to Lucerne in Switzerland to try to broker a deal with international football’s governing body for use of its name. Fifa had the power to give EA the rights to use national teams in the game, and while the organisation was less well known at the time than it is today, its imprimatur would lend the game the air of authenticity that EA craved.
“The deal was agreed very quickly,” Stone recalls. “We literally licensed four capital letters and we paid a very, very low royalty percentage rate.” Two decades later, Stone still refuses to disclose precise figures, but it is clear that those in charge of Fifa’s licences did not realise the value of their brand. “They were a bunch of old men who had no idea what they had,” Stone said. At EA’s base in California, however, nobody took much notice. “Almost no interest was shown by the Americans,” Stone says. “I mean this respectfully, but the reason Fifa is so successful is that the game was developed and published a long way from head office.”
As summer drew on and the deadline approached, Tian’s team began to work 16 hour days. At one point Tian was hospitalised for exhaustion, although he returned to work after just a few days, against doctor’s orders. Late one night in 1993, Tian’s office phone rang. Bruce McMillan, then vice president of EA Canada, picked up. “Can you let my daddy come home please?” the voice on the other end of the line said.
At 2am one September morning, McMillan, production manager Joey Della-Savia, and Tian sat together at a desk looking over the game. “It’s time, Jan,” McMillan recalls saying. “Leave it alone now.” Della-Savia locked Tian’s keyboard so that he could not make any more changes, and burned a final “master” copy of the game. McMillan took the game home with him, then sat and played it until first light. In the morning he sent a message to the UK office: “It’s time to ship.”
Within four weeks of its launch, Fifa International Soccer had almost doubled the UK office’s ambitious sales predictions, selling more than half a million copies to become the best selling game of the year.
At first, despite EA’s best intentions, Fifa did not look much like real football. For one thing, the virtual players were not based on real footballers. David Platt, the England midfielder and Serie A star, featured on the cover of the first edition of Fifa – but that’s where he stayed. Within the game, you could choose from 48 national sides, from Scotland to Saudi Arabia, each of which consisted of 20 players. But every player looked identical, bar varying shades of skin tone, and each one had a fictional name. (Tian’s namesake “Janco Tiano” was a crack striker, naturally.) “It was a compromise,” said Marc Aubanel, a producer on the game. “NHL, NBA and NFL all had player unions and a league with team rights. Soccer in the early 90s was not set up with licensing in mind.”
Following the success of the first game, EA jostled to gain the image rights to as many teams, stadiums and players as it could. The following year’s sequel, Fifa Soccer 95 included club sides from across eight different national leagues, including the Premier League. Negotiating these deals hurt EA’s bottom line but were considered an unavoidable cost to maintain an edge over the competition. “What if someone else got Manchester United?” says Aubanel.
EA’s interest in licensing awoke in the English FA and Premier League an appreciation for wider commercial opportunities. “I was going to the Football Association, the Premier League, the Professional Footballers’ Association, and none of them knew who owned the rights for player likenesses or stadiums, and so on,” says Stone. “We provided the impetus for the associations to get organised.”
By the time of the 1998 World Cup, Fifa had realised the extent to which it had undersold its licence and, when the time came to renegotiate the contract, the price-tag had risen. EA’s staff were forced to negotiate an increasingly complicated web of licences in order to secure the rights to the major teams, players and even commentators such as the BBC’s John Motson and Sky Sports’ Andy Gray, who would come into the studio and ad-lib commentary, without visual prompts.
With Fifa’s success, new competitors entered the market each year. Most – even those such as Actua Soccer, a launch title for Sony’s PlayStation in 1995 that employed motion capture to make players’ movements look more realistic, and advanced use of commentary to match the on-screen action – were soon obliterated by EA’s marketing clout, the competitive advantage of the Fifa licence, and the Canadian team’s willingness to adopt, then surpass the competition’s techniques. Fifa’s dominance was, for a while, unchallenged.
In the late 1990s a clear rival emerged in Japan. Konami’s International Superstar Soccer became the choice of the purist, thanks to its focus on fast-paced, tactical play. The choice between Fifa or International Superstar Soccer (later renamed Pro Evolution Soccer, or simply PES, as it is now known) became more than a simple question of personal taste, it spoke to your entire philosophy of video games. Were you someone who valued style over substance? Were you swayed by graphics or gameplay? Fifa was made by an army of anonymous workers. By contrast, PES was driven by a self-proclaimed auteur, Shingo Takatsuka, who went by the nickname “Seabass” (a reference to his love of sea fishing). Fifa had slickness, but PES had soul.
As the rivalry intensified, according to a former employee, the absence of any major licensing deal soon became a major problem for Konami. Throughout the 1990s, Konami was forced to refer to Liverpool as the Anfield Reds. For most people, the former employee said, not being able to play as their favourite team is a deal-breaker: “It just makes a game feel budget and unofficial, regardless of whether it’s technically the better game.” EA built its strategy to dominate the football market on this simple fact. “We knew that games were on their way to becoming photorealistic,” Aubanel told me, “The more realistic the game is, the more you notice a lack of likeness rights.”
“There seemed to be no real inclination across the stakeholders at Konami to do anything about EA’s clear plans to grow Fifa,” the former Konami employee told me. “Meanwhile, EA seemed to become obsessed with destroying PES.” A rumour went around Konami’s UK offices that EA had a graph of Fifa’s year-on-year sales numbers versus the declining PES sales, displayed in its reception area. Whether or not such a graph existed – a spokeswoman for EA told me she has no recollection of it – employees at Konami began to feel as if they were under siege. “As ghoulish as that sounds, when a company of that size focuses on a singular objective like that,” said the ex-employee, “it’s an incredibly tough thing to fight against.”
Through the first decade of the millennium, PES retained its identity as the superior underdog. (One reviewer wrote of Fifa 06: Road To Fifa World Cup, “It’s not only awful, but it’s also sabotaging everybody else’s efforts at the same time.”) According to the video game critic Steve Burns: “Over the years, Fifa’s need for ‘realism’ bled into the on-pitch action and harmed the game.” Those meticulously motion-captured player animations, which include every stretch and flex of a digital muscle, Burns argues, slow the game’s pace.
Konami’s game, by contrast, is less concerned with realism than what Burns describes as “feel”. “I once asked a senior PES developer why it feels so much better to score a goal in PES than Fifa,” Burns said. “He told me that the shooting animations are deliberately not accurate recreations of the real thing. They leave room for player intuition and invention.” Counterintuitively, Burns believes that, by employing brisker, more cartoonish animations whenever a digital player, say, leaps for a header or executes a showboating overhead kick, PES better replicates what we imagine it feels like to be a hyper-athletic professional footballer, rather than the exact reality.
Over time, though, Fifa continued to pull ahead commercially. By Fifa 07, EA owned the rights to more than 500 teams, in 27 leagues, with more than 10,000 players. The football world was almost fully contained within the game. In 2012, EA dealt a particularly painful blow to its Japanese rival when it stole PES’s cover star, Lionel Messi. (Messi was, reportedly, always a Fifa man anyway; Victor Vázquez, a former teammate in Barcelona’s youth academy, remembered Messi often playing the game “for three hours without a break”.)
Fifa has established a daunting lead over its old rival. According to sales figures leaked in October, Fifa 17 sold 40 times more copies than Pro Evolution Soccer 2017 in the week following each game’s release. “We will never underestimate EA and the talented Fifa team, but our goal is to establish PES as the definitive football title,” Adam Bhatti, PES’s defiant brand manager recently said.
As video games have, in the past decade, become ever more expensive propositions – costs often exceed £100m – so the risks have escalated. Ryan Payton, an American game designer who worked at Konami, recalls being shown around the Pro Evolution Soccer team’s office on his first day at the Tokyo-based studio in 2005. “I was told: ‘This is the project that brings in the money. If anything bad happens to this team, we will be in deep trouble,’” Payton said. Today, Konami produces few video games and, instead, focuses on Japanese pachinko gambling machines and health spas.
These days, Fifa is produced by a core team of roughly 100 people working in EA’s 400,000 square foot campus in the Vancouver suburbs. Although EA makes other games here, Fifa is the site’s flagship project (a three-quarter-length football pitch sits at the centre of the campus grounds). In the early days, the game was essentially the product of “a few people in their basements”, says creative director Matt Prior, who first played Fifa with his friends while growing up in Manchester in the mid-90s. “Now it’s a blockbuster-film-sized army.”
As well as the usual phalanxes of programming machines, the EA campus also contains a warren of video editing suites, music composition rooms and a 130 foot-long motion-capture studio, where footballers such as Gareth Bale and Sergio Agüero are tracked as they run, kick and tumble, in order to translate their movements into the game. EA also takes its head-scanning rig on the road, photographing around 500 new players every year from various angles so that their digital versions appear as true-to-life as possible.
For professional footballers, lending one’s likeness to the game has become far more than just another source of easy income. For Fifa: Road to World Cup 98, David Beckham appeared on the cover. “There is no doubt that was a piece in the puzzle that led Beckham to be the most marketable footballer on the planet,” Andy Bell, founder of Soap Box London, a company that manages sports personalities such as Watford striker and captain Troy Deeney, told the Sun in 2015. “The paradigm has shifted,” Matt McKie, the global brand director for EA Sports’ Fifa franchise, told me. “If someone signs a marketing deal with Fifa they get much more than a cheque; it’s not like endorsing a car.”
Some players have even incorporated techniques learned on the virtual pitch into their real-life game. The German defender Mats Hummels once alluded to the way in which Fifa can help players visualise new ways of playing, saying “some people use what they learn in Fifa when they find themselves on the pitch”. In 2008, after saving a penalty from AC Milan’s Ronaldinho, the Italian goalkeeper Marco Amelia said: “It was just like playing against him on PlayStation – he had the same run-up. It was very strange.”
As EA continues its quest for greater and greater realism, Matt Prior’s eagerness to make Fifa “indistinguishable” from real-world football may seem like a logical, if distant, objective. But to those who follow the game closely, it is something of a mirage. Most years, Fifa swings between a more simulation-based approach – with keenly realistic physics that generally allow for fewer goals – and a more impressionistic, playful take, in which it is easier to score screamers from 30 yards, and matches can finish with double-digit scores. Each direction has its supporters and detractors. “That’s the eternal balancing act,” says Prior. “Some people like it sim-based and defensive. Others want to jump in and see huge scorelines. There’s no perfect answer.”
Any changes to the game tend to arouse fierce passions. In 2013, at E3, one of the video game industry’s largest annual conferences, held in Los Angeles, I remember the whoops of delight when an EA spokesperson announced that the players in that year’s Fifa would be able to turn their necks to head the ball at greater than 90 degrees in each direction – something that had, he said, “never before been possible”.
To the outsider, it is incomprehensible that these arcane particulars could elicit such strong reactions. Yet David Rutter, the game’s executive producer, routinely receives death threats via social media from fans maddened by some perceived misstep in the game’s design. On one forum dedicated to the series, there are more than 2,000 threads that contain the word “rant” in the title. “Fans of Fifa are some of the most passionate people in the world,” Rutter told me, diplomatically.
Much of the consternation revolves around one recent addition to the series, Fifa Ultimate Team (FUT). In this mode, you form a squad from a random selection of Panini-style playing cards, which include players from the past and present, then compete with your ragtag band of players online. Wins are rewarded with new packs of cards. You must pay, however, to enter each tournament, either using virtual funds accumulated in other modes, or actual money (around £2.50 for each entry to a tournament). Many players see FUT as exploiting the goodwill of fans. “I have spent the best part of £100 on packs and got completely nothing,” wrote one player. At a Morgan Stanley investor conference held in 2016, EA’s chief financial officer Blake Jorgensen revealed that the company makes $650m a year from the sale of virtual packs alone.
Fifa can wheedle its way into life in unexpected ways. Not long ago, my seven-year-old son was playing a friendly match as Sunderland. With an unassailable lead against the computer, he decided to give his opponent a boost by attempting to score an own goal. As my son approached his six-yard box, his team’s computer-controlled goalkeeper, Jordan Pickford, launched a savage tackle that sent his teammate spinning through the air. The goalkeeper was given a red card and in that moment, a vendetta began. “Pickford” has since become a percussive curse word in our household. My son routinely plays as Sunderland just to send Pickford, in the first minutes of a match, mournfully, to the subs bench. He runs Pickford recklessly up the pitch, praying for a leg-shattering injury. From Fifa, he has learned an appreciation not only for the beauty of this most beautiful sport, but also its agony, its ecstasy and, in the hated form of Jordan Pickford, a football fan’s ability to hold an everlasting grudge.
For many who have worked on Fifa over the years, its success has come at a cost. “I paid for it with my health and family life,” Tian told me. EA’s demands on staff have escalated in recent years. When many major video game publishers only release two or three games a year, survival is dependent on each one being a hit. For Prior, managing “crunch”, as the hectic weeks of overwork leading up to a video game’s launch are grimly referred to within the industry, is another priority. “The work-life balance is way, way better than it was when I first started,” he says.
EA’s current licence agreement with Fifa only runs for five more years. When the next negotiations arrive, football’s governing body can surely name its price, knowing that the game’s brand recognition depends on those four, monolithic letters. But if the price is too high, EA may choose not to renew its agreement. Perhaps Fifa could thrive without Fifa, after all. It is no stretch to argue that, just as the game has transcended the governing body from which it takes its name, so, to many, it has become, not an adjunct to, but a vital component of the sport on which it is based.
In 2014 an ESPN poll found that 34% of Americans became soccer fans as a result of playing the game, while half of all Americans say that the game has increased their interest in the sport. Once upon a time, children would become football fans through Match of the Day, Panini cards jammed in tatty sticker books, and pull-out posters of Glenn Hoddle or Pelé. That has all changed. “Nowadays,” says Prior, “people come to football through our game.”
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