EA Sports, Fifa and the power of athletes in gaming.

Since 1993 the partnership between EA Sports and Fifa, the governing body of world football, has been a video game constant.

It is also one of the most successful commercial licensing arrangements in sports history. With more than 30 annual or tournament-linked editions released across multiple platforms over several generations of hardware, the series has generated more than $20 billion in revenue.

Beyond that, it has created a giant, cross-cultural digital environment which brings gamers and football fans together. It dominates the playing time of tens of millions – particularly with the rise of online modes like Fifa Ultimate Team in the last decade.

The comprehensive in-game world – a result of an extensive patchwork of other licences, pulled together over many years by EA Sports – is now home to bespoke activations by partner brands and digital-first product releases by sportswear companies. Music publishers have used the Fifa soundtrack to break dozens of promising acts. For teams and leagues, a place in the game has become the most powerful way to reach supporters for the first time.

Much of that could now change. At the very least, the name will. Fifa and EA Sports have confirmed they will end their partnership after the release of Fifa 23 later this year. According to the New York Times, Fifa had sought to double the annual $150 million it receives in licensing fees and revenue shares, while EA Sports wanted to incorporate new digital experiences into the game world. No compromise could be reached on either issue.

Both parties are bullish about their prospects apart, though analysts find one side easier to believe than the other. EA Sports has wasted no time in announcing a renamed EA Sports FC for 2023, with dozens of its official licensees part of an instant promotional push. With global players’ union Fifpro already re-signed, most of the sport’s leading stars will be in place.

Fifa, the governing body, expects its marks to return to a football simulation produced by a new partner in 2024. Sports game development is expensive, however, and EA Sports’ success has long forced rivals like Konami into retreat.

Beyond that, Fifa promises to diversify its video game rights, working with multiple partners to cover more of the space. What that means is not yet clear: it could herald a much broader move into mobile gaming, allow for the use of Fifa and World Cup assets in other major titles like Minecraft or Fortnite, or open up web3-based possibilities in the next few years. Integration into the recently launched Fifa+ digital video platform is also anticipated.

Whether any of that proves as compelling as what the organisation can access now will have to wait until after EA Sports’ final Fifa release, and updates featuring the Qatar 2022 Fifa World Cup and the 2023 Fifa Women’s World Cup in New Zealand and Australia.

All of this could revitalise competition between publishers but ultimately, it is the players who will decide. Moreover, what matters is not just the footballers who are licensed to appear on screen but how they engage with the culture.

Over the past decade in particular, EA Sports has encouraged the impression that leading stars play Fifa, too, while also getting them talking about the ratings of their virtual selves and teammates. Footballers have discussed taking time to learn about opponents through the game, much as fans might do.

Whatever comes next, that has been the most telling legacy of the EA Sports Fifa era and the one both parties must work hardest to recreate. The more successful and ubiquitous the game has become, the more it has been able to leverage its community.

Commercially, that drives a virtuous cycle but it also offers a sense of something deeper: fans and their heroes all sharing in the same game.

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