May 23, 2024
A variety of legal and broader commercial issues are bound up in the complex analysis of whether FIFA was, in hindsight, misguided in withdrawing from the EA Sports franchise.

What was the history between FIFA and EA?

Electronic Arts (EA) had first started to create sports-based titles like John Madden Football in the 1980s, before turning its attention to football in 1993. In order to differentiate themselves from competitors, EA wanted their game to have an extra sense of realism, and so negotiated with FIFA (football’s governing body worldwide) for licensing rights. This early game (released as FIFA International Soccer) actually had a very small number of rights attached (mostly those of international teams, and notably missing any reference to real player names).

Over the course of the next three decades, the agreement continued and evolved through a number of games – from FIFA 95 to FIFA Street to FIFA World Cup and FIFA Mobile. While the games themselves constantly evolved (from Career Mode to Ultimate Team, to the inclusion of female players and a wide variety of leagues and competitions), the FIFA name remained attached the whole way through.

What led to the split between EA Sports and FIFA?

FIFA 23 was to be the last game in the series. The reason for this was the significant split between the two parties. 

The series generated $20 billion in sales alone over the last 20 years, and in more recent times an even larger chunk of profits came from the purchase of in-game currency for the Ultimate Team mode. This reportedly generated over a billion dollars a year by the time of the split – more than half of EA’s additional income outside of traditional game sales. Hundreds of millions of players were regularly active within the games, with most of the competition (particularly Pro Evolution Soccer, aka PES) falling far behind.

So what went wrong? FIFA came to the negotiation table in 2023 with higher demands than usual. While the exact numbers have not been made completely clear publicly, the regulators (feeling supposedly short-changed based on EA’s profits) reportedly asked for the licensing fee to be increased to around $1 billion dollars – a huge increase on the pre-existing deal. EA Sports requested that they reduce their demands or split, and after no leeway was provided, the split occurred – very publicly and in a less than ideal manner.

EA announced soon after that it would continue to release its game series under the new name of ‘EA FC’, whereas FIFA announced that they would develop their own game series (a rival title) independently from now on. FIFA President Gianni Infantino angrily responded to the split by saying that they would produce:

“The only authentic, real game that has the FIFA name. The FIFA name is the only global, original title. FIFA 23, FIFA 24, FIFA 25 and FIFA 26, and so on – the constant is the FIFA name and it will remain forever and remain the best”.


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Who has come out on top a year later?

A year on from the split this week, and many months since the release of EA FC, it has become clear that EA likely made the right move by walking away from the FIFA deal.

First, EA’s lawyers managed to maintain licensing deals with all of the key parties involved, who are more than capable of negotiating on their own terms. For example player likenesses and major competitions (like the Champions League) are all still present in the EA series (and will likely remain so going forwards).

Second, EA now have far greater creative control over the series than before. In the past, many of their decisions needed to be run past FIFA first, which some within the studio felt was stifling creativity.

Studio head Andrew Wilson stated internally that ‘we need a level of freedom to be truly creative, innovative, and experiment in the marketplace. Because of the nature of the approval timetables and the various things around our FIFA licence, that’s actually been really hard and we’re moving much slower than we want’. In other words, onerous contracts are no longer holding the game developer back either.

EA FC 24 has generally been a strong commercial success, too – sales have stayed relatively stable, and in-game spending is still extremely profitable for the company, with little signs of the huge drop-off which FIFA might have been predicting (or hoping for).

And what about from FIFA’s perspective? No material FIFA game has surfaced yet. One of the main concerns raised at the time was the fact that FIFA itself has virtually no experience with creating videogames and would only have a very limited number of videogame companies to partner with in order to create a game on this kind of scale again (whereas EA have been honing and refining their offering for many years). Leaks in early 2024 suggested that they may be in talks with 2K Games (known for their respected basketball and wrestling series already). However, it is still unknown whether 2K would be willing to offer the billion dollar fee FIFA was asking for previously (only a handful of gaming companies worldwide would even be able to consider such a deal in the first place).

Furthermore, FIFA’s reputation outside of gaming has gone from bad to worse. The FIFA Uncovered documentary on Netflix has been very popular recently – detailing a huge amount of corruption within the organisation which has essentially already been public knowledge for years. Additionally, the Qatar World Cup led to a huge number of scandals over human rights abuses in stadium construction, LGBTQIA+ safety concerns, and more. The FIFA game series were a relatively reliable way for the organisation to present a positive public image year-on-year, and so its loss is likely to add to the fire even more.

What can aspiring lawyers learn from this dispute?

There are a number of points that aspiring lawyers can both learn from here and discuss as part of their applications (whether for training contracts, vacation schemes, pupillages, etc). 

IP (intellectual property) law is clearly at the heart of this story – both in regard to the FIFA naming rights itself, and to the rights to individual clubs, player likenesses, etc which EA was able to skilfully maintain after the split. These rights are clearly pivotal (to the tune of a billion dollars, according to FIFA’s estimates), and are the leading cause in this split.

Future lawyers might also want to consider/discuss what this story teaches about negotiations – one of the key soft skills that lawyers are expected to demonstrate. FIFA’s inability to budge (and perhaps a sense of arrogance on their end) versus EA’s willingness to break with tradition and walk away from the negotiation table are interesting approaches to contrast with each other – especially in light of EA’s ongoing success since. Think about not only the technicalities of law-school topics like Contract, but also how they work in practice.

Lawyers are also expected to consider their clients’ PR and public image while simultaneously advising them on legal points, too. In the context of FIFA’s ongoing controversies, there is a lot to be said to the approaches taken here. Just because they were able to demand a higher licensing fee, it does not mean that it was the right approach commercially – and demonstrating that sense of commercial awareness is crucial for the lawyers of tomorrow.

More specifically, you might want to see if any firms you are applying to are particularly specialised in gaming law – Legal500 rankings show strong teams are currently present in a wide range of firms, from big names like Mischon de Reya to boutique offerings like Harris Hagan. Drawing upon specific deals that the firm have worked on and contrasting alongside your own relevant news stories (like this one) is an excellent way to demonstrate your ability as a future commercial lawyer.


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