FIFA is a Better Esport Than Other Sports Simulation Games

Visitors play the soccer game FIFA18 while visiting the Gamescom 2017 video gaming trade fair on August 22, 2017 in Cologne, Germany. (Photo by Lukas Schulze/Getty Images)

The most challenging thing a sports simulation game must try to do is create a model as close as possible to traditional sports. That is a challenge no other esport genre has. There is no traditional sport basis for how a first-person shooter or multi-player online battle arena should look in real life, so those games are simply taken at face value.

Of all the sports simulation games, FIFA may be the one that best resembles its real life counterpart. And while soccer may not be the most popular sport in America, FIFA is often the sports game of choice. The 2017 FIFA Interactive World Cup, now called the eWorld Cup, set a world record for the largest videogame tournament, drawing seven million participants to its qualifying round.

“Especially when it comes to soccer, not a lot of sports can replicate the fluidity or the gameplay,” said Dax McCarty a midfielder for the Chicago Fire and an avid FIFA player. “It’s something that is so unique to our game and I think fans of other sports are jealous of it. You can have a [football] fan but their favorite game could be FIFA because of how fluid it is. That to me is so impressive, how FIFA connects with fans of people who aren’t even a fan of the game.”

Earlier this year, MLS partnered with FIFA’s developer, EA Sports, to hold the inaugural eMLS cup. The champion of that tournament, Houston Dynamo’s Kid M3Mito, won a chance to compete at the Global Series Playoffs in Amsterdam, but was knocked out in the first round there. The FIFA eWorld Cup Grand Final will take place in London in early August.

“At the MLS we have the youngest fan base in [American] sports and it’s important to provide a digital format that compliments the physical game,” said James Ruth, the Senior Director of Properties at MLS. “We pulled a stat from our fans that says our fans, more than any other North American sports league’s fans, believes the team they play with in a video game defines their fandom.”

For many young American sports fans, FIFA is their first introduction to the world of global soccer. Still, just because a game is popular, doesn’t necessarily make it successful. As the NBA 2K League is learning, just putting NBA branding on an esports league hasn’t translated into large audiences on Twitch. Over the first month of the NBA 2K League, it ranked as the 64th most viewed game on Twitch, according to the Esports Observer. For comparison, during that same time period FIFA was 14th.

“There are lots of naysayers on sports titles in competitive gaming. We put a lot of thought into how we wanted to enter this space. Our goal was to make it authentic and something gaming fans want,” Ruth said.

One key factor holding sports simulation games back is simply price. The most popular esports in the world—Fortnite, League of Legends, and CS:GO—are all free to play or cheap. Instead of making money on the initial game purchase, their developers earn revenue through selling in-game cosmetic items. In comparison, sports titles typically retail for $60 annually. That means less people own the games and are able to get invested in them at a high level. That also means that instead of building up each game’s ecosystem year-after-year, the developers simply move on to next year’s title.

Another problem is glitches, where the physics of the video game just don’t seem to match up with the reality of the actual sport. For years players have found ways to abuse the onside-kick system in Madden games to recover the football at an unrealistic rate. In FIFA 18, gamers have worked out how to score goals almost immediately from the kickoff. For games to become major esports, developers will have to minimize those exploitable glitches.

Still the worldwide popularity of soccer combined with the fluidity of the game, gives FIFA the best chance to succeed as a competitive esport. McCarty knows first hand what being on an actual pro soccer pitch feels like. While he says that FIFA could never fully re-create that experience, he feels the game has gotten close in some respects.

“It’s truly mind-blowing to see how far the game of FIFA has come in regards to the intricate detail in their product,” McCarty said. “Not just in the gameplay but in the stadiums, the fans, individual player’s movements and tendencies. It’s as realistic as they can get in a video game.

“[But] it can never replicate the physicality. An injury mark over a player’s head isn’t the same as a broken ankle.”