What FIFA can learn from League of Legends

Wait, what? How sports games can play in the big leagues, with help from the kings of eSports.

League of Legends football
League of Legends football

FIFA is huge, but you already know that. In Europe, where football is by far the dominant sport, the FIFA following has been rising exponentially for five years. By 2013, the newest game was shifting 12.45 million copies, and with the strong launch of FIFA 15 last month, that looks set to continue rising this year. But despite its enormous playerbase and being based on one of the most easily replicable competition formats in the world, competitive FIFA doesn’t pull in the seven-figure prize pools like the big guns of MOBA. What could EA do to fix this by, say, looking at a game whose existence is almost synonymous with spectator eSports? A game like League of Legends?

EA: it’s in the game

FIFA is already 100 percent kitted up and ready for tournaments – bar a spectator mode, perhaps – but it simply has nowhere to go. The few competitions that are out there are third-party affairs, albeit ones run by organisations with clout, such as ESL or ESWC, often at wider gaming tournaments. But, as they are multi-faceted events, much of their focus goes on games with established spectator scenes, like Counter-Strike, Dota 2 and StarCraft 2. As a result, the prize pools are often small, less than $10,000, with the exception of the World Gaming (formerly Virgin Gaming) challenge series in 2013 which mustered $400,000 – handing $140,000 to a single winner.

If EA wanted FIFA to be the best eSport it can be, it could do well to look at Riot’s approach to League. Getting their hands dirty and throwing an annual tournament themselves would do wonders for fans: yes, there’s the FIFA Interactive World Cup, but it needs a league and a season before it to really build hype. And building support into the games themselves would make sure their entire, massive playerbase knows about it, presented with tournament info on the game’s home screen, shown their world ranking and so on. But as much as these steps make sense, EA sees it differently. Its short-lived EA Sports Arena project is being shuttered this month, taking support for World Gaming tournaments in FIFA 15 along with it. A step in the opposite direction, in other words.


Show us the money

It’s not all about the money, obviously, but to get players from all over the world to WANT to be at your tournaments, the pot has to be pretty sweet. The prize money pools aren’t the only place to invest though. Sponsorship, outreach, promotional marketing like that extraordinarily fancy Worlds trailer Riot put out for this year’s championships – featuring the musical talents of Imagine Dragons, no less. It all takes a bit of green.

But with a new game every year, an ever-expanding sales figure and 2015’s price increase, this certainly doesn’t sound like a problem. But even if EA weren’t in the mood to front the whole bill, they already have a system in place for fans to help. A huge proportion of League’s prize money came from microtransactions, and EA certainly knows how to do those. One wizard’s hats are another footballer’s sticker sets, and that’s without the possibility of tournament-specific purchases like compendiums.

Keep it together

But by far one of the biggest complications in making FIFA an eSport is the annual cycle. There are currently tournaments running on two separate versions of FIFA, neither of which are the most recent iteration, or even last year’s title. Mastering a game takes hundreds of hours of play, and though the game is always essentially the same, roster changes every year compound with engine tweaks to make each iteration new enough to cause problems.

This isn’t uncommon, as League also updates with new heroes and patches that alter in-game mechanics. But the slow drip-feed of changes makes this much more adaptable for pro players, even serving to spice up the game for viewers. Though we’re not likely to see a goalkeeper with three arms or a volcano added to the centre of the pitch any time soon, FIFA being a little more League and a little less second division could mean great things for players and fans alike.

It sounds like an insurmountable issue for the original annual gaming franchise, but it’s not. Microsoft is taking a few cues from Dota and League with its new Halo eSports league, pledging to support the new Halo collection on Xbox One for years to come. And EA itself is moving away from the “Pay upfront every 12 months model” with its EA Access subscription pass for Xbox One. Perhaps when FIFA drops the number off the end and just becomes the go-to football game, gradually updated, Riot and Valve might have something to worry about. Here’s hoping.

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