(Unpleasant) Fan Experience at the FIFA eWorld Cup.

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Our second online module provided by The Football Business Academy is almost over, and so is my time in London. I’ve spent the last couple of days reflecting on the past 6 months I spent here, doing the online master’s degree and a 5-month internship at Soccerex at the same time. I also reflected on personal experiences I got myself into and there is one that particularly disappointed me. I didn’t want to share my thoughts on that at first, but Stan and Arianna (who wrote insightful articles on the blog, I invite you to have a look) didn’t leave me the choice. Moreover, after having witnessed how untruly the event was reported the days that followed, described as an experience I would clearly not report the same way, I waited to get some free time to write on how unsuccessful the FIFA eWorld Cup Grand Final at the O2 arena was in my opinion. (Here is BBC’s report on the event. FIFAeWorldCup).
I had never been to an eSports competition before. It’s unlikely that I will be going to another one soon. Here is a really detailed description of my experience at the FIFA eWorld Cup.

Having spent 10 months in London between last year and this year, I was looking on the Internet for something I hadn’t done before, and most importantly, something affordable for once in this city. I found out that the eWorld Cup of FIFA was taking place in London, for three days and that the Grand Final was happening all day on Saturday, 4th of August. Two ticket categories were on-sale: VIP and General Admission. I wondered how much a VIP ticket would cost. Not a single ticket was left. I guess I couldn’t have afforded it, but, eh, it would have been awesome to make my first eSport experience a VIP one. That would be General Admission ticket for me then. I had the opportunity to choose my seat and at that time, I didn’t pay attention to the numerous seats remaining. We were still three days prior to the event, “it will be packed”, I told myself. After I had paid £16,50, I found myself so satisfied that I eventually told about the event to my soon-to-be new boss, Daniel Wood, co-founder of the World Freestyle Football Association, suggesting that it might be a great idea to take his son to the event, which he did. I don’t know if he is thankful though.

On that Saturday, particularly excited, I arrived at the O2 Arena… late. In fact, I was just on time to see the kick-off of the first semi-final, but security wouldn’t let me enter the arena with an e-ticket. I had to go and get a physical, paper one at the O2’s entrance…
Eventually, I went through security and arrived at my gate. I pushed the doors and then surprise, the O2 was empty. Not empty-empty, but not particularly packed as I expected it would be. Maybe there was some delay I thought. There wasn’t: 60 in-game minutes had already gone in the first match.

I watched the first game, then met Dan and his son, one of his associates, and Kristian Dobrev, co-founder and head of partnerships of The FBA.
Kristian and I talked for the entirety of the semi-finals. I knew the playing style was completely different at pro level, slower, more careful than the one anyone is used to play online. It didn’t impress me that much. To be fair, I was paying more attention to my discussion with Kristian and the « POPCORN! » guy, hovering between the empty rows. Semi-finals finished at around 3:00PM, and we were told that the Grand Final would be played at 6:00PM. 3 hours ahead of us then.

I met some ex-colleagues from Soccerex, and we went together, alongside Dan and Kristian in the corridors. There were ten PS4s Pro with a beta-version of the unreleased yet FIFA 19 just outside our gate. I couldn’t get my hands on it at all, nor could my friends. 20 consoles in total, for more than couple hundred attendees, it was clearly not enough. I wasn’t willing to wait anyway: the organizers had promised us some exciting entertainment during the break. Well, I should’ve waited to play.

That entertainment was essentially composed of in-game mages of new exclusive content about FIFA Ultimate Team (FUT) mode, the most famous one, the one on which players competed during that Grand Final. It lasted 30 minutes or so. It didn’t bring anything significant to give me the will to spend countless hours as I used to in the past to build that “Ultimate Team”, earning the in-game money, the so difficult-to-earn credits, to buy the best players and compete in online or offline. Yes, because here is grossly what you have to do in order to get a decent team without paying any money: try your luck opening packs to find rare players, worth a lot of credits, sell them or just keep playing again and again, and save those credits. Otherwise, in order to create the teams players in the Grand Final had, you would have to spend thousands of pounds.

We are far from what the animators kept praising: the accessibility the mode offered to get to the positions those pro players were in. According to FIFA’s website, over 20 million took part in qualifying for the FIFA eWorld Cup. (Here is how the qualifiers worked:FIFAeWorldCupQualifiers).

Disclaimer: below is a gross explanation of the amount of games you would have had to play to get the best card-version of Kylian Mbappe in FUT 18, 97-rated (out of 100). I wanted to share that example just to prove that the mode wasn’t as accessible as they kept repeating. If you are not interested, just skip that paragraph and go on to the next one.

He is worth between 690,000 credits on Xbox One and 735,000 credits on PS4. Let’s say his card is worth 712,500 credits in average. You earn between 350 and 550 credits in average after each game you play online or offline, depending on several in-game stats and other factors affecting those numbers, (such as not leaving the game before the final whistle for example) and excluding bonuses. In average, so, let’s take 450 credits. 712,500 credits / 450 credits earned after each game = 1584 games. If you start from zero, you have to play 1584 games to get Kylian Mbappé’s best card-version, whereas a game takes at least 15 minutes (6min x 2 + pauses + loading screens etc.). 1584 games x 15 minutes = 396 hours = 16,5 days. (Of course, this is a really rough estimate, this doesn’t take into consideration bonuses, the players you may sell nor the expenditures that you have to deal with to be able to play that amount of games, but I guess you got the idea.) To reduce that time however, you can pay to buy packs that contain players and pray to get some luck to obtain someone decent in packs of different values to sell him as I said before.
(Here is an explanation of how the FIFA Ultimate Team mode works if you are interested: FUTBeginnerTutorial)

To sum up, a player needed time and dedication, a lot, and just as much financial resources to facilitate the process of playing competitively. Only the most skillful players and the ones with a big bank account got a chance to go through the qualifying rounds. Step-by-step, only the most skillful players were remaining. Because, yes, I have been criticizing a lot, but I need to admit that I respect those players that made it that far as much as I respect athletes. Countless hours in front of a screen training and trying to improve can be compared as countless hours in a gym, not the same results for sure, but the commitment is the same. However, it happened that for most of these skillful players, they had the financial support from either professional football clubs involved in eSports or pro gaming teams.
(Here is an article describing the journey to the FIFA eWorld Cup: TheJourneyToTheFeWC)

The other piece of entertainment during those three hours of nothing was the 2v2 Celebrity Cup Tournament. The programme promised us “famous faces from the FIFA scene including Spencer FC (~ 2M subscribers on his YouTube Channel) and ChuBoi (FIFA esports analyst/commentator) taking on London-based guests such as one of the F2 Freestylers and many more […]”. I only recall the “final” opposing English FIFA YouTuber “Bateson” & “castro1021”, the world’s most followed FIFA twitch streamer and Brandon Smith & Richard Buckley, the two English commentators of the event. In fact, there were four teams in total, with two others composed of Jordan Nobbs & Leah Williamson and Zak Abel & David Meyler.
I had to do some research to remember who was taking part in the 2v2 Celebrity Tournament. One of my biggest question was: why wouldn’t they just let the pro players eliminated compete, instead of those « celebrities » (no offense)? This activity was a total fiasco for two reasons: first, no one had a clue who the players were. Second, and most importantly, they weren’t the celebrities the programme announced.

That entertainment the organizers had provided us took not more than an hour and a half and there was the same amount of time to wait. So, what do you do when you are bored? Well, eating is a solution. Nonetheless, it is not inside the O2: £7,50 for a sausage between two pieces of bread? Really? When you know that you are hosting an all-day long event, with many children and families likely to attend? This is far from the fan-first approach now more commonly adopted in big stadiums in North America. This issue also applies to Premier League stadiums, but this is another debate. So, you go for another walk in the corridors, from one PS4s spot to another, still without an opportunity to play. Of course, that was packed, even more than during my first attempt.

I came back to my seat and started talking with my ex-colleagues from Soccerex about my experience. The observation was the same for them as well: “what a terrible experience it is”. They had never been to an eSports competition before and the only thing they wanted was the final to take place and leave as soon as the final whistle blew. We joked around the day we lost, that we wanted to go home, but we didn’t want to waste the money we paid for the ticket. We waited for the relief: the final.

Few minutes before 6 o’clock, one of the animators took the mic and she suggested that we came closer to the stage “to better see the players…”, she said. She paused and continued with “…and because it looks better on camera”. Then, at 6:00PM, finally, the event was live again. The animators introduced the Grand Final, describing the O2 as full and packed – I remember watching on my left: 20 rows were empty – ready to enjoy “what we had all been waiting for”. She was absolutely right, we could have not been waiting longer for the final to start… to go home! We also had Zak Abel’s performance before or during the break in between the final games, I don’t remember. I had no idea who he was, and I was not the only one in that situation. Embarrassingly, it happened that he played the 2v2 Celebrity Tournament. Just had the time to get a quick look at his Instagram account to get to know him better and the Moroccan-English singer’s performance – one song – was already over. He then left the stage. That’s about it. 

The final started at 6:27PM (!) exactly: two legs, one on Xbox One and one on PS4.  I still don’t really get why you are asking players to perform on both consoles, since the controllers differ so much from one to the other. Same for the game speed, very different if you play on PS4 or Xbox One. It also implies that a player needs to invest as much money and time on both consoles to be competitive… Anyway, Saudi Arabia’s Mosaad ‘Msdossary’ Aldossary secured a 4-0 aggregate victory over Belgium’s Stefano «  StefanoPinna » Pinna and won the $250,000 top prize. The runner-up will be able to console himself with the $50,000 he received though. The winner celebrated thirty seconds with his crew, went back on the stage, received his trophy, golden confetti were thrown from barrels, and the moment most of us had been waiting for had finally arrived. My friends and I left as soon as he got the trophy above his head.

On my one hour commute time to go back home, I was wondering: why would you host a competition in August, whereas the game was released 11 months before. Players have continuously stopped playing the game before summer the past few years and recently, more and more early in the year. Also, where was the VIP area and what were the advantages of a VIP ticket? I didn’t see anyone in the VIP boxes. If the VIP area was the one close to the stage, it was occupied almost exclusively by the players eliminated and their entourage. Still, I could have easily sneaked in the area I am almost certain. So, JB-from-three-days-before-the-competition, there was no point in being disappointed with not getting a VIP ticket, dude.
Finally, I couldn’t determine a precise target for the organizers and the developers of the game. One sure thing is that it is 99% male. However, there is not a precise age group. Albeit there were children, I wouldn’t say it is the principal target (in fact, I hope it is not!). Competitive FIFA, as I wrote earlier, is not particularly attractive to watch and I don’t see how children could have enjoyed those slow-paced games. Competitive FIFA is something I believe that cannot be done under a certain age. I would say 14 years old is the youngest age one can play competitively because under that age, I am not sure one can handle the pressure of big events. On the other end of the age group, I don’t imagine people playing (or trying to play) competitively older than 25 years old. Most importantly, the period of time one can try his best to become a pro player is very short and there are some reasons for that. First, the commitment: it is impossible to play thousands of games every year to access the biggest, most lucrative tournaments, during 3-4 years. Second is money. Each new release implies starting from scratch and therefore re-investing money if you want to speed the process of building that Ultimate Team. Finally, the game and mostly Ultimate Team are not fun to play anymore. Full of bugs, sometimes giving you the feeling it is scripted and that whatever you will do, you won’t win the game. All in all, that leaves EA Sports with a very small target, in terms of demographics and quantity of players.

Maybe it is the game mode that makes it unaccessible. I always wonder why they wouldn’t do competitions the way they did before: 1v1, club against club (or national team against national team) and that was it. Doing so would drastically increase the number of people trying to play competitively. Indeed, you don’t need much to train and to play in that way. Friends if you play offline, internet connection to test yourself against players worldwide. No money involved, you just pick a team, change the line-up, do some tactics and there you go. The more you win, the higher you go in divisions. Better divisions equals better players and therefore improvement. Had it been this way, I would have kept playing. But what is the point in playing a mode that is forsaken by the developers and in which you have nothing significant to aim for? Unfortunately, Ultimate Team is the most attractive and lucrative mode in FIFA. EA Sports has seemed to be focusing on that mode solely the past few years. Previous most played modes such as Career and Club Pro have not evolved majorly for years now. Why so? Because they don’t generate additional revenue. That is the only explanation I can think of…

So, EA Sports, if you are reading this, I am definitely not buying FIFA 19 this year. I paid 70$ for the 18, I played exactly four games in Ultimate Team. I know you don’t care about an average person like me. However, I am sure you are paying more attention to players such as RocKy and usual big FIFA streamers who started playing different games early this year. (RocKy stopped playing FIFA 18 in February, whereas he was still holding the « World Champion » title at the time. He is now a PSG FIFA eSports player).

Among those other games that work particularly well without inciting the player to spend money to improve his performances you can find Fortnite. A free-to-play game, available on PC, consoles and mobile, with in-game purchases in its Battle Royale online mode that don’t affect the player’s in-game experience. Indeed, those add-ons do not provide any competitive advantage, they only enrich players’ experience with fun content. Still, Fortnite generates hundreds of millions of revenues each month… So, EA Sports, I don’t want to interfere into your business model which has worked for years, but maybe it is time to reconsider it… It’s not like you have to create it, it is already done successfully by others.

To conclude, I would like to say that I really have no resentment towards the organizers, nor the players, nor EA Sports’ game. I just have so much disappointment. The experience was clearly not the one we were promised to live, nor was it worth the money and time. My biggest worry though concerns the game’s future in the eSports landscape. I don’t have the same optimism as Jean-Francois Pathy, Fifa’s director of marketing services, who says that « The Fifa eWorld Cup Grand Final 2018 provided an outstanding opportunity to drive forward the professionalization of competitive Fifa gaming. » Increasing the prize money is indeed a good thing towards the professionalization of competitive FIFA gaming, but this is only good for the players. I don’t care about the prize money, I care about the experience I paid for. I guess you understood it was not a good one.

FIFA gaming and its future at the competitive level might be bright due to the increasing amount of money invested in it. However, it doesn’t represent a threat for live football at all just yet, because if it stays that way, competitive FIFA will only be enjoyable for the players, not for the fans. This was illustrated by the fact that at some point during the final, I opened Twitch’s app on my phone (the world’s leading social video service and community for gamers for those who didn’t know): only 43,000 viewers were watching. At the same time, more than 150,000 cumulated viewers were watching the much more agreeable content that Fortnite streamers were displaying.

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