Sports and video haves have gone hand-in-hand since the very beginning. Pong, the title that started the video game industry we know today, was itself completely based on the sport of table tennis. It’s easy to see how sports has thrived in this virtual medium too as multiplayer is clearly the big selling point. Even with a game as simplistic as Pong, the huge deal was being able to play a friend and ideally defeating them. It was also seemingly easy to create a sports game in the early years as well. Companies constantly dished out entries focusing on track & field, boxing, football, and driving, to name a small few, and didn’t have to worry about creating a story to go with each title. All that mattered was you had competing forces trying to accomplish the same goal.
By speaking to our basic instincts to be better than someone else, without all the physical effort that actually goes into becoming an actual athlete, sports games became unbelievably popular. Eventually the major organizations couldn’t ignore a way to make a solid profit and started putting their official licenses behind major releases. The National Football League (NHL) jumped in first, and was then followed by the National Basketball Association (NBA), National Hockey Association (NHL), Major League Baseball (MLB), and the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA). Each governing body has found immense success with their sports titles that are now released annually. Seeing as countries across the globe are currently enraptured with the always exciting World Cup, I’ve decided to focus this week on the most popular licensed sports franchise on the market: FIFA
The first official game within the FIFA series was FIFA International Soccer in 1993. It wasn’t the first soccer game by a longshot, but it had the prestige of being licensed by the sport’s governing body. That alone made the game a top seller on the market, easily defeating its soccer focused competitors. Yet it wasn’t until FIFA Soccer 96 where the license started to be used to its fullest potential. This was when, for the first time ever, actual player names were used with correct positions and rankings in tow. Sure, some of the information wasn’t accurate, but it was a huge step in the right direction to making FIFA the absolute go-to series for diehard soccer fans. With each new year came a brand new game with better graphics and new features. FIFA 97 had motion capture, FIFA: Road to World Cup 98 was the first to feature the World Cup, and FIFA 2000 replaced the fake American league with Major League Soccer (MLS), the official top league for USA and Canada.
FIFA has been a massive success for publisher Electronic Arts (EA). Over its lifespan it has outsold every other licensed sports game currently available. For some that may come as a surprise, especially considering soccer’s place within American sports, but it’s really not a shock when you look at the global landscape. Soccer, internationally known as football, is by and large the most popular sport on Earth. Over 200 countries actively play the game, giving it a fanbase that overwhelmingly defeats other popular sports like baseball, hockey, basketball, and American football. With such a global reach, can you really say that FIFA selling more than 100 million copies is anything but totally expected? You should be more surprised by how Madden NFL has nearly sold as much as FIFA and that series is obviously focused on North America.
There is a downside to how popular FIFA is however. When sports games with official licenses started getting popular, there was no way FIFA was just going to tie itself to any random company. It needed someone popular enough to maintain the brand. This is where EA came in, the third largest gaming company ever. EA Sports was created for the sole purpose of maintaining these major brands and the division has since essentially monopolized the entire genre since. It contains the intellectual properties for FIFA, the NHL, the NBA, and even NASCAR. The only company that can possibly come close to this library is 2K Games and their division 2K Sports. Yet even they can barely scratch the surface as they only produce games for the NBA and the WWE. For all the happiness that FIFA brings to soccer/football fans on a global scale, it’s really a major cog in the dominant EA Sports machine. The sports genre is definitely the most difficult to break into by this point.
For one reason or another, professional sports games are not my cup of tea. I enjoy playing them, don’t get me wrong, but I can count the amount of licensed games I’ve owned on one hand. FIFA especially was never in my library primarily because I grew up in a country where soccer is vastly overshadowed. I was definitely more likely to play a game like NFL Blitz or even NHL 2K growing up. Yet regardless of who I talk to, FIFA is always critically lauded. It is easily one of the more in-depth games currently available. Personally, I’d rather play a colorful game of Mario Strikers any day of the week.
Truth be told, the FIFA series is not going anywhere anytime soon. A game for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil was released in April and FIFA 15 is coming later this year. It is amazing too how, despite 22 FIFA games already released, each new installment breaks new ground. For example, last year’s FIFA 14 was the first game on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One which allowed a whole slew of technological advancements like crisper graphics and changing weather patterns. Just when you think there’s nothing more they can do, EA Sports always thinks of a new ways to one up themselves. Whatever new features will come with FIFA 15 are currently unknown, but you can bet the game will be another hugely popular entry.
Luke Kalamar is Pop-Break.com’s television and every Saturday afternoon you can read his retro video game column, Remembering the Classics. He covers Game of Thrones, Saturday Night Live and The Walking Dead (amongst others) every week. As for as his career and literary standing goes — take the best parts of Spider-man, Captain America and Luke Skywalker and you will fully understand his origin story.