Electronic Arts is one of the biggest video game publishers in the world. Its EA Sports brand is responsible for FIFA and Madden — two of the biggest titles in sports gaming. At first glance, it seems logical for EA to branch into the lucrative world of esports, but the reality is likely far from it.
During the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), EA unveiled its future plans for esports. Four major events will be announced in the coming months, the first of which is the "Madden NFL Championships," boasting a $1 million prize. It’s an eye-popping number, but the idea of sports games being esports has inherent problems, even with a force like EA at the helm.
The balance problem
The first thing that jumps into people's minds when you say "esports" is the concept that sports games are synonymous with competitive gaming. It's easy to imagine FIFA or Madden translating into professional play because there’s an innate understanding of the sports involved. However, there is a major balance problem sports games haven’t corrected (and can't) without selling out the core concept of their games.
There are a breadth of games that qualify as esports, but the biggest leaders in the space are League of Legends published by Riot Games, and Dota 2 from Valve. Both of them are competitive 5-on-5 games that draw millions of viewers for large tournaments and boast daily player counts in the tens of millions.
Both League of Legends and Dota 2 have fantasy settings. This means developers can change things quickly. Stats can be tweaked if a certain champion is overpowered, abilities modified to pull them back into line. When adapting a game with real-world players this becomes an impossible task. You simply can’t make Cristiano Ronaldo worse because he’s too good in the game, or make Barcelona less effective because the team is overpowered. Being beholden to a real-world sport creates serious balance problems.
To combat this, the FIFA Interactive World Cup had a relatively easy fix: Set every player’s stats to 85 overall to keep the game at parity. However, this has the unfortunate side effect of causing the game played to no longer represent the sport it’s simulating. This disconnect is difficult to overcome, and that’s before we discuss how making statistics equal across the board makes the game less interesting to watch.
The Artificial Intelligence problem
In League of Legends or Dota 2, players succeed or fail solely on their own merit. The game works because there are no variables. If a professional gamer understands their champion and knows their team then things are predictable in-game. This is impossible in sports games.
Because FIFA and Madden are representing real-world sports, there are moments where players inexplicably fail, because they are simulations of the game itself. Even with stellar ratings, a computer-controlled lineman can get trucked through, or a midfielder can be caught woefully out of position by no fault of the game’s player themselves. These games innately require the AI to do part of the heavy lifting, and in a space where precision is everything, that becomes a problem.
Imagine watching a game not only where the referee makes mistakes, but is guaranteed to make a mistake every single game you play. Now ask if that's something you want to sink your time, effort and practice into when you could succeed or fail solely based on your own merits in another game.
The money problem
There’s no denying that FIFA and Madden are juggernauts. They sell over 10 million combined copies a year, predominantly on the Xbox One and Playstation 4 consoles. This runway success has a deleterious effect on money that can flood the market.
Professional League of Legends and Dota 2 players have an array of sponsors that help allow them to practice the game 24/7. No primary job concerns — they just practice. To support those sponsors, they use specific brands of keyboard, mice and headsets, drink carefully selected energy drinks -- the list goes on. These accoutrements are sold to their fans who want to play like the pros. Move a game onto the console, though, and the accoutrements don't hold as much sway. The array of sponsors shrinks considerably, and so does the money.
The FIFA Interactive World Cup winner took home $20,000 this year. The Madden NFL World Championships are offering $1 million in prizes. Dota 2 just had its Manila Major, one of its large events that awarded $4 million in prizes. Its world championships, The International, will offer over $20 million in 2016. EA Sports cannot front that kind of money.
The viewer problem
In order to create a market that entices professional gamers to switch to sports games, there must be viewers who are ready to consume live streams. Despite having access to apps on both the Xbox One and PS4, there simply isn’t the consumption of esports content on the Internet via Twitch that we see on PC.
Yes it’s the middle of the day in the US on a Tuesday, but this doesn’t change the core issue. It's 7 PM in much of Europe at the time of writing. People are home from work. They are streaming one of the largest sports games in the world. It is barely cracking the top 20.
Proponents of sports games as sports will make the salient point that there’s no major tournament happening, or that games like FIFA haven't developed the stream personalities that forward viewership. These are both true, but neither explanation can solve the core problem.
As we speak, the semi-finals of the Madden NFL Championships are happening. Right now, four of the best players in the world are competing for $50,000.
980 people are watching. NINE HUNDRED AND EIGHTY! That’s not just a failure, it’s a disaster. It shows that despite being promoted at E3, and having the full support of ESPN esports (which has been tweeting about the event all day) simply nobody cares. There’s not even the curiosity gap being filled by first-time watchers to see what it's all about.
The shareholder problem
This is the biggest one to overcome, and it’s unclear whether EA can do it. Electronic Arts is a publicly traded company. It has a board, shareholders and people to answer to when profits are below expectations. Companies like Riot Games and Valve do not. They can sink as much money into the promotion and proliferation of League of Legends and Dota 2 without fear of reprisal, knowing full well that it will succeed on the back end.
That's what both companies did years ago, when they were first building their esports scene. It’s what it will take in order to get FIFA and Madden into the conversation (assuming they can at all). That will take time, a lot of money and a lot of effort. It’s a near impossible sell to investors looking at bottom lines and wanting returns. This will not happen overnight.
The core problem is making people care. Sports fans are not all esports fans, and, in fact, there’s a lot of cynicism from sports fans who bristle at the idea of gaming being sports. The majority of players who pick up a sports game do so for the simulation of the real thing, not to then compete online or watch people do it.
The issue is shrinking the Venn diagram one too many times. Esports draw in video game fans who like to watch competitive play. Sports as esports must draw in video games fans, who understand the rules of sports and like to watch competitive play.
The chance this actually works out for Electronic Arts is slim. They are too late to this party and not enough people care.