One of the key challenges of real pro soccer is coordination. Eleven players on each team need to work together, filling any holes in their defense and knowing where and when to latch onto precise passes on attack. In pro FIFA, that challenge doesn’t exist. One gamer commands an entire team, and the 10 players not under direct control have their movements dictated by artificial intelligence.
FIFA does have an 11v11 mode, FIFA Pro Clubs, in which 11 humans, each controlling a single on-screen player, can face off against 11 more, but the developer, EA Sports, is putting its support behind its single-player mode. Partnerships like eMLS are built around the one-person FIFA Ultimate Team, and some features, like the ability to make substitutions, only exist there. In Ultimate Team, individual competitors create their entire teams from avatars of real world players, and then control a single player on the pitch while the rest are controlled by AI.
EA titles that try to model team sports like Madden, FIFA, and NHL all rely on AI-controlled players. In contrast, other esports, ones not developed by EA, don’t. Though some esports are naturally one-on-one, like fighting games and Hearthstone, the vast majority require teamwork and having different human players fill the individual roles. NBA 2K, the only non-EA game of the major sports simulations, has adopted five-on-five human teams for the NBA 2K League.
There are, however, FIFA leagues that do have full 11-player teams, using the Pro clubs mode. The Football Virtual Pro Association is unaffiliated with EA Sports, but is built upon the developer’s game. The FVPA runs dozens of leagues across the world that can be played via PS4, Origin, or Xbox One. There are over 50,000 players competing for both club and country through those leagues.
Jean-Baptiste Pennes, the co-founder of FVPA Esports, previously worked for Ubisoft and Blizzard. He says the FVPA requires more strategy and teamwork than Ultimate Team.
“You have to have a strategy in place. Most of the people playing pro club were soccer players previously. The ones that weren’t need to learn all about correct positioning,” Pennes explained. “To succeed, you need to move all together, you need to all be on the same page. There is no automatic control to help you. In the end you get the great feeling of playing together and winning together.”
Pro Clubs can only be used to play friendly matches. As teams win and lose games they rise and fall on a single global ranking table, but that doesn’t copy the structure of soccer leagues in the real world. So FVPA games are played in that 11v11 mode, and then the results are reported back to the association. The FVPA handles scheduling, rules, standings, and everything else.
While the FVPA is a third-party association, it has grown into something bigger than the friendly game mode it relies on. The club season runs from October to July, and during the season more than 500 matches are played every week. According to Pennes, professionals in the league play one or two games per week, and practice three to four times.
However, Pennes expressed frustration that his association has been unsuccessful in gaining support from the game’s developer. He feels that crucial tools that could help grow a community around Pro Clubs—an API for streaming and a built-in tournament structure—are missing.
“All the partners we approach say the same thing ‘what you are doing is great, it has huge potential, but if EA doesn’t support this mode, why should we?’” Pennes said. “I can’t blame them for thinking like that. We are put in an impossible situation when [we don’t have developer support.]”
In 2017, the FVPA and another similar association called the Virtual Football Organization announced a partnership to collaborate on leagues in France and Germany. But according to Pennes, that partnership fell through. He feels that without explicit help from the developer, such partnerships might be difficult to maintain.
Asked to comment on that partnership, EA Sports wrote back that “The EA SPORTS FIFA 18 Global Series is operated in partnership with FIFA and operates in a 1v1 competitive format for all officially sanctioned tournaments. This has been consistent since the inception of the FIFA Global Series.” The VFO did not respond to a similar request.
“To grow an esport takes time and listening to the community. You can’t just suddenly put huge money on the table and say ‘hey, we’re doing esports,’” Pennes said. “EA is late on the esports front. Of all the big developers they are the last ones.
“Now that they are doing esports, they are doing it in the wrong way.”
Pennes explained that the game lacks an easy way for spectators to watch, and that one-on-one FIFA tournaments can’t recreate the same show as having a team of people celebrating their successes, or commiserating over their failures, together.
But, ultimately, Pennes and the FVPA are at the mercy of EA. Because like almost every other esport, in FIFA, the developer owns the playing surface.