Over half the world's population watched the 2018 World Cup, making it the most-viewed sporting event in history. The figure of 3.5 billion viewers saw the Russian edition of the tournament grow from 3.2 billion in both 2010 and 2014, and illustrates the massive reach of the competition.
The FIFA eWorld Cup was launched in the same year following the introduction of the FUT Champions game mode in FIFA 17. More than 29 million people watched the first FIFA eWorld Cup, and that figure increased by 60 per cent the following year to 47 million as it was shown by 21 broadcasters in more than 75 territories worldwide.
Brent Koning is the FIFA Competitive Gaming Commissioner and has a full-time staff of 20 employees in his department focused on running and expanding the esport. In total, over 100 EA employees are involved in building the product and making sure tournaments and competitions all over the globe run smoothly, with the FIFA Global Series holding tournaments in various cities such as Bucharest, Paris and Atlanta.
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Even during the coronavirus pandemic, Koning's staff are busy running tournaments and events with some of the world's biggest names such as Trent Alexander-Arnold and Vinicius Junior competing against each other on FIFA 20 from the safety of their own homes.
"EA made the significant investment over three years ago to accelerate the growth of competitive FIFA," Koning tells Goal. "We've created the FIFA Global Series on the path to the eWorld Cup to allow us to invest more time and resources to grow the global digital sport of football.
"Our future is going to come down to how well we can provide access to people who want really engaging content. The Stay and Play Cup brought 20 of the top clubs in the world together and it was broadcast to over 115 countries. There's not a whole lot of groups that can do that. It comes down to access and giving content to fans where they want to see it."
Former Olympic gold medallist rower Phelan Hill now works as head of consulting at Nielsen Sports & Entertainment, which provides analytics and audience engagement data for brands and teams across a variety of real-life sports and esports.
Hill believes that both football and motor racing have shown the huge reach of esports during the coronavirus pandemic, where virtual sports have replaced live sports in the broadcast schedules of many channels.
“At the moment, you’ve got this gap in live sport and all sport at the moment is thinking ‘how can we stay engaged with our fan base?'" Hill tells Goal. "So various sports are looking at it.
"The best two sports at it currently are Formula One and FIFA. Formula One really tried to develop their esports competition over time, while football clubs benefit from having the best sports simulation game on the market. It’s realistic, you’ve got all the teams in the game, people are playing it across the world and you have 35 million users.
“There’s a ready-made platform and FIFA, the federation, have made a lot of investment in it. So Formula One and FIFA have had very strong platforms to build off and now you’re seeing individual clubs benefit off the back of it."
Seventy miles north-west of London in Brackley lies the home of the Mercedes-AMG Petronas Formula One Team, a state-of-the-art technology centre with over 950 employees. There, Mercedes designs, develops, builds and tests its Formula One cars.
The same site is also the home of the Mercedes-AMG Petronas Esports team, which works out of its own esports training centre on the campus.
In 2018, Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton became Formula One world champion for the fifth time with Mercedes’ own Brendon Leigh winning his second Formula One Esports title.
Leigh was signed by Mercedes in 2018 when real-life teams entered the championship, with the official Formula One teams using the platform to build their brand and increase their following. In fact, the 2018 F1 Esports Series was watched by as many UK viewers as the real-world Singapore Grand Prix (4.4 million each, with the Esports Series broadcast both on television and through live streaming).
Esports is now big business for Formula One teams, which have followed Mercedes’ example in giving it the attention it deserves. Renault decided to move its drivers from Germany and the Netherlands to its F1 base in England and also participates in tournaments for Rocket League, another huge video game in the esports world.
Some football teams have begun to follow this approach with their esports branches. In 2018, AS Roma Fnatic moved their FIFA players into a house in London, where four professional gamers from Ireland, Sweden, Poland and Italy are looked after by their American manager and a coach from France. They spend four hours a day playing the game, but also have to fit in coaching sessions on tactics, formations and even opposition analysis.
Teams are eager to snap up the best players for their squads in both football and virtual football, with the signing process for esports players even mirroring their football counterparts. Alan Avila was on the books of FC Dallas and played for their youth teams before a series of ACL injuries caused him to retire before he turned 20. He switched his focus to competitive FIFA, where he was known as 'AlanAvi' and even signed for FC Dallas to play for their eMLS team.
"The eMLS started in 2018 and I actually got scouted," Avila tells Goal. "I got an email from FC Dallas' eMLS agent and they wanted me to be their homegrown player. They scouted me, reached out to me and I went over to FC Dallas' stadium, talked about everything and I signed the papers.
"It was exactly like signing for the soccer team. I went to the stadium, met all the important people, even [club president] Dan Hunt and the owners. I signed my contract at the same table where I've seen FC Dallas players sign pro contracts. The contract was like that of a pro player, with the same benefits. It was really awesome at the home games, people would recognise you and ask to take your picture."
The now professional nature of esports and the quality of both the broadcast package and the audience experience has helped it become accepted as something that belongs on the same TV schedule as real-life sports.
Similarly, the involvement of professional athletes in tournaments such as the ePremier League Invitational and Stay and Play Cup while European football has been indefinitely suspended has caused esports to earn greater respect from the public.
“It has really helped with the acceptance of esports and you’ve seen some traditional sports who have been bold enough to push it forwards and they’ve had really positive results," Nielsen's Hill explains.
"Other, more conservative sports will have taken notice. It’s not just people in their rooms playing games. It’s opened up people’s eyes. What’s been the biggest game changer is that live sport has been stopped and now the real-life sports stars are able to engage in the games and has driven audience numbers.
"Formula 1 have magnificently benefitted from having [real-life drivers] Charles Leclerc, Lando Norris, Max Verstappen all get involved.
"It’s a great thing for the Premier League when you have the likes of Trent Alexander-Arnold, Moussa Sissoko, Raheem Sterling and Wilfried Zaha getting involved. That’s been a huge positive shift. At the end of the day, you know these guys play it at home but they wouldn’t have had time before to play in the tournaments because they have training to do and are on a schedule.
"I think it’s been a two-way relationship. Esports has massively benefited from having sports stars behind it and help to drive their audience, but at the same time, the sports stars are seeing the benefit as well.
"Lando Norris, the McClaren driver, was one of the first people to get involved with Formula 1 Esports. Since he’s got involved with live streaming himself racing, he added 300,000 new followers on social media in a week or so and has seen a 14% increase in the level of engagement on his accounts as well as 6.5 million total views on his Twitch streams. The mutual benefit can only be a good thing."
While the involvement of professional players in FIFA during the coronavirus shutdown is helping the reputation of esports as a whole, EA has worked closely with leagues around the world as well as FIFA, UEFA and CONMEBOL to not only get the biggest tournaments licensed in the game, but to mirror them in competitive gaming.
For former FC Dallas midfielder Avila, representing the franchise in esports was the next best thing to being a professional footballer in Major League Soccer.
"Playing in the eMLS was awesome and replaced my dream of playing in the MLS," he explains. "It was really, really competitive. You would see the same exact badges as MLS teams. I played against Houston Dynamo in the Texas Derby.
"The competitiveness was still there, the emotion when someone would score was there. The fan base on social media was very supportive. It was basically the real-life league of MLS but virtually."
Avila left FC Dallas after the 2019 eMLS season to join Complexity Gaming, an esports organisation that has won over 140 championships across more than 30 games and has billionaire Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones as one of its investors. Now, as well as playing in competitive FIFA tournaments, Avila is able to better focus on engaging his audience on Twitch, YouTube and social media to earn a better living as a pro gamer as a result.
Esports is a massive business in its own right, with the gaming industry projected to make $160bn (£129bn) in 2020. For comparison, the recorded music industry's projected revenue was $19bn (£15bn) and worldwide film box office was $43bn (£35bn) before the coronavirus pandemic shut cinemas across the globe.
Prize money for esports is also growing at a tremendous amount, with the total prize pool standing at over $35m (£28m) for the International, the biggest DOTA 2 tournament which was set to be held in China in August.
Competitive FIFA is also profitable, but the prize money is still some way behind the game's rivals, with the total prize money at the eWorld Cup standing at $500,000 (£400,000) - less than what the 16th-placed finisher gets at DOTA 2's the International.
Almost four million Americans watched the Stay and Play Cup on television with the event raising $2m (£1.6m) for Global Giving’s Coronavirus Relief Fund. EA Sports' Koning hopes competitive FIFA can grow not only in terms of viewership and engagement, but also in prize money in order to compete with other esports.
"Most games were built for competitive play," he says. "When you look at the likes of DOTA 2, Overwatch, they were built for competition. FIFA is 25 years old, so it wasn't built for competition like this. People weren't streaming or using the internet to connect our experiences.
"The future of FIFA comes down to how we can scale and grow and have the tools for viewers and players to become fans. When we unlock this, the prize pool can go through the roof."
This vision is tied into real-life football, with Koning believing that FIFA's unique place in the football ecosystem gives it the advantage of being able to tie into traditional football events like the World Cup and the Champions League.
EA and FIFA have no desire to replace football - instead the two can work hand-in-hand to help each other engage audiences and entertain fans. This has been excellently displayed during the suspension of football leagues where teams and players can still connect with their fans but on a virtual football pitch rather than in a crowded stadium.
"We have so many similarities with traditional sport: fan activity, attendance, viewership, talent, superstars. We have the DNA of sport," Koning explains.
"I get asked the question all the time 'are you going to replace football?'. The reality is FIFA is integrated into the fabric of football. We are a companion to the football experience globally.
"In the ideal world, you have lead-in programming for a derby which is an esports derby. You have programming on a Wednesday, Thursday, Friday leading up to a Saturday football match. That's the ideal world - how do we use that to build more entertainment for consumers and build fan bases?
"Every single sports enterprise on the planet is looking for fan engagement. Our goal is to have some of the most unique, progressive and engaging fan engagement that we can possibly have. The analogy is to fish where the fish are.
"If I have a sports entertainment product, where would I go? I absolutely would go to the World Cup, to the Champions League final and have activation. It's that relationship that makes FIFA so unique: we are woven into the DNA of football.
"The future of FIFA is around fan engagement growth and deepening that connection into the actual DNA of football."