AMSTERDAM — When EA Sports and FIFA announced the end of their long-standing partnership last year, it sent shockwaves through both the gaming and football worlds.
For the generations of people across the globe who had enjoyed playing the wildly popular soccer simulation for almost 30 years, the split marked the end of an era and a move into the unknown.
Last week, EA Sports finally gave the world a glimpse at EA Sports FC 24, its first game since the FIFA split, and a taste of what to expect. The reveal of Erling Haaland as the first cover star for the new game certainly gave the impression that it is business as usual for the producers of the globe’s biggest football gaming franchise.
The Manchester City striker made a big impact at the launch event in Amsterdam, walking to the stage in a bright green silk ensemble with his long blond hair in corn rows. When he then sat down to play the game, he admitted that he hadn’t played for a few years, but still managed to win his first match 7-2, including five goals scored as himself.
Haaland stood out among the group of journalists, influencers and YouTubers from the gaming world who got to play a pre-Beta version of the new game, which will be released globally on Sept. 29.
So what’s new with EA Sports FC? What will stay the same? And what, if anything, is FIFA doing? Let’s take a look.
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For many people, the name FIFA was synonymous with the video game they played with their friends, rather than world football’s governing body.
However, in May 2022, it was announced that the partnership would be ending after the game’s producers, EA Sports, could not agree a new licensing deal. FIFA had previously earned around $150 million a year to lend its name to the game, which was first released as FIFA International Soccer on the Sega Mega Drive console in 1993.
EA Sports used the announcement of the split to introduce the world to the new name for its flagship soccer game when the FIFA deal ended in 2023: EA Sports FC.
While no one at EA Sports would comment directly on the similarity with ESPN’s own rebrand of its soccer coverage more than a decade ago from ESPNsoccernet to ESPN FC, EA FC’s brand vice president David Jackson said it was any easy decision to decide on their own new name.
“We came to the name really quickly,” he tells ESPN. “Because we wanted to have something that was universally translated across the world in terms of football. Chinese Super League clubs, MLS clubs, obviously English and certain European clubs, all utilise the suffix of FC. And it translates pretty quickly into it being part of the football fabric. So we got to the name really relatively quickly.”
Any fears that the split from FIFA would condemn players of the new game to having off-brand versions of the biggest players, clubs and leagues have been dispelled by EA Sports.
More than 19,000 players, 700 clubs across 30 elite leagues and club competitions across the men’s and women’s game have been licensed for EA Sports FC 24 including both the men’s and women’s UEFA Champions Leagues, the Premier League, LaLiga, the Bundesliga, the NWSL and Women’s Super League.
That means no more teams like Piemonte Calcio, the name for the club that was the stand-in for Juventus until the Serie A giants licensed their name to EA Sports last year when a previous deal had ended.
As well as being able to lift the most prestigious trophies, in Career Mode players can now claim the highest individual prize in football, the Ballon d’Or, after the award was licensed to a video game for the first time.
One of the biggest cheers from the audience at the launch (along with former Barcelona and Brazil great Ronaldinho bringing out the Champions League trophy) was the reaction to an announcement from Arsenal and England captain Leah Williamson that women’s players would be added to Ultimate Team in the new game.
EA Sports producer Jean Tether also revealed that players would be fully integrated into Ultimate Team, meaning that users will be able to field mixed teams on the pitch. With six women’s competitions licensed for FC 24, Tether said that “there has never been a better time to introduce women to Ultimate Team,” and that the development of mixed squad gave her “goosebumps.”
The greater profile of the women’s game in FC 24 is also one that excites former Arsenal right-back Alex Scott, who won 140 caps for England before embarking on a broadcasting career. Scott is one of 31 players who feature on the cover of the FC 24 Ultimate Edition, in which she is pictured surrounded by legends like Johan Cruyff and David Beckham, and current stars like Marcus Rashford and Vinicius Junior.
“It’s like a huge moment,” Scott tells ESPN. “I think not just because I’m female, but to be on the cover of a game that I’ve played since I was a kid is just a huge ‘pinch me’ moment … Just being like, ‘Yeah, that’s me. I’m next to these people.’ And we’re normalising that. That’s a huge moment.”
When asked if she wished she could have featured in the game during her playing career, Scott adds: “I can spend so much of the time wishing that we would’ve had it then. But look, I still enjoyed the game. I know still what it did for me, and we are here in this moment now.
“So I always choose to focus on the now and the positive and how we keep moving things forward. Because with the women’s game and everything surrounding it, we’re still only here. We are not at the end point yet. There’s still much more that we need to be fighting for and changing. So it’s celebrating the moment, but still using our voices where we can to push for more.”
In one of the few times the word “FIFA” was actually said on stage at the FC 24 launch event, EA Sports executive producer John Shepherd told the audience that while the company was proud of what that partnership produced, he was looking forward to “unlocking the full potential” of the game.
While that statement is open to interpretation, everyone at EA was keen to push the new advances that fans will see when they finally get to play the new game:
This, EA says, allows them to record the actual movements of the top players in real matches, rather than relying on people in motion capture suits going through simulated playing motions. This is achieved by placing cameras all around the stadium at 180 top-level matches last season (the “V” stands for “volumetric”) and then converting around 1.3 billion frames of match action to create distinctive and authentic animated movements for each player. In theory, it will be possible for a player to score an iconic goal or perform a hitherto-unseen skill on the pitch and have it rendered and applied into the video game within a matter of days.
EA has used Opta data to create 34 PlayStyles, or specialisms that can be assigned to particular players to improve skills such as dribbling, shooting and set pieces. For the top-rated players in the game, there is also PlayStyles+ which has categories such as “Trickster” and “Speed Dribbler.” With those star players you can perfect new abilities such as swerve precision pass and controlled speed dribble, as well as four new skill moves including the dragback turn and the flair nutmeg.
According to EA, the latest version of the Frostbite Engine is 10 times more powerful than that used in FIFA 23, making for even more detailed and realistic graphics than ever before. That technology is backed up by new developments in showing how players’ bodies move, and how the cloth of their kit responds to those movements. There is also more detailed light and shading, giving more depth and detail to the action on the pitch.
“I think the trinity of technology builds into the gameplay this year, and obviously volumetric capture, which is like magic,” says Jackson. “It’s the ability to be able to ingest video content and then have it live in the game and then have players be able to manipulate. That is something that we could never do even a year ago.
“When you combine those three things together — we didn’t name it [Frostbite], it’s not a new engine, it’s not a new thing — but we pulled those three technologies together and created the gameplay that lives in FC 24. And it’s a benchmark, I believe, for the sports video game industry.”
Plenty. In Career Mode, you can now enlist an agent to conduct contract negotiations and help you define career path objectives. In Manager Mode, you can select your own “tactical vision” and hire a coaching staff to help make it happen on the pitch, as well as watch matches from a spectator’s point of view or from the touchline to get a true sense of how your team is playing.
In Ultimate Team, players can evolve and improve their ratings uniquely to that particular game, and you can add attributes to change a player from the position in which they became a star to another in a different area of the pitch.
But perhaps the most impressive technical achievement by EA Sports in FC 24 is Crossplay, which will give users the ability to play against their friends across different consoles and platforms. According to EA Sports line producer Jeff Antwi, it was the “No. 1 requested feature” from gamers.
“We’ve been on the Crossplay journey, certainly all of this year,” Antwi tells ESPN. “It’s a massive technology, and it takes time because we wanted to be able to get it right. Our players have been asking us about Crossplay for so long, so to be able to deliver it this year is so exciting for a lot of people.”
For all of the undoubted improvements and exciting new developments that will be included in EA Sports FC 24, it feels like most of them are ones that will enhance the experience around playing the game, rather than the actual playing of matches itself.
PlayStyles will enable players to do new things on the pitch and improve how well their teams perform but, judging by the pre-Beta version of FC 24 that was available to play in Amsterdam, the actual fundamental basis of the gameplay will not feel very different for the user, if at all.
“Absolutely nothing,” Dennis Zirkler of Gamestar tells ESPN when asked he felt was different about the new game. “I think it’s just a lot of buzzwords that they’re using every year. But I played the game for two hours yesterday, and if they didn’t tell me about all those things, I would never notice them. I mean, it always feels slightly off when you play a new FIFA or EA Sports game, but it’s very hard to pin down that there’s any really obvious changes.
“I don’t think most players will ever use these new moves. I think I’m an average player, I’m not very good, but I can beat all of my friends and I barely use any skill moves. I know I use the same three or four moves that I’ve been using for years.”
There was a time about 20 years ago when EA Sports’ FIFA franchise was locked in a battle for gaming supremacy with Pro Evolution Soccer, with many players preferring the Konami game. That rivalry drove EA to make major improvements to the FIFA franchise, to the point where it destroyed the competition and became by far and away the market leader.
Perhaps that monopoly has led to a loss of inertia when it comes to taking the gameplay to another level, or maybe they have simply come so close to perfecting the format that there is nowhere left to take it with the technology currently available. Still, for the game’s legions of fans around the world (EA CEO Andrew Wilson puts that figure at 150 million people, playing 9 billion matches last year) they will find a familiar comfort in knowing that the name may have changed, but the game remains much the same.
“The problem is everyone’s talking about how FIFA needs to change it up big time, but no one really knows how,” says Zirkler. “And I always write reviews on FIFA, and I criticise them for always doing the same thing, but I wouldn’t know how to make it feel different or more realistic because I’m not a game designer. But I only know it feels like last year, there’s still the muscle memory you develop over the years, it still works. You know which shot is going to go in, how much you have to charge your shot. So I didn’t feel that many differences.”
When the split with EA Sports was announced in May 2022, FIFA said that there would be a “number of new non-simulation games [that] are already under production.”
FIFA president Gianni Infantino said in a statement: “The interactive gaming and e-sports sector is on a path of unrivalled growth and diversification.
“FIFA’s strategy is to ensure we can make the most of all future options and ensure a wide range of products and opportunities for gamers, fans, member associations and partners.”
When approached by ESPN for comment, FIFA pointed to the recent addition of a Women’s World Cup experience on the community platform Roblox. This includes FIFA Footblocks, a 3-vs.-3 arcade game, while users can have their avatars wear national-team jerseys within the Roblox world.
In the real world, the semifinals and final of the FIFAe World Cup take place in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on Wednesday, although the future of that tournament once FIFA 23 gives way to EA FC 24 is unclear.
Infantino said at the time of the split: “I can assure you that the only authentic, real game that has the FIFA name will be the best one available for gamers and football fans.”
However, as things stand, the Women’s World Cup on FIFA 23 will be the last place that players can play in a football video game as a national team, competing to lift the biggest trophy in the world.