UEFA has signed a deal with EA Sports aimed at launching the eChampions League, a games tournament on the PS4. The 'etournament' will take place in March 2019 and will award a total purse of $280,000 (with $100,000 for the overall winner). To sign this deal, UEFA had to cancel an existing agreement with Konami, meaning that Konami's latest Pro Evolution Soccer now features UEFA Champions and Europa League competitions as offline modes only.
Etournaments organised by EA Sports have a system of qualification based on a complex sequence of licensed events of different sizes – named the EA Sports Fifa Global Series - that professional gamers have to qualify through to reach the eWorld Cup. This system is based on the Fifa Ultimate Team (FUT), that allows gamers from all around the world to compete.
Fifa Ultimate Team was introduced in 2009 alongside FIFA 09, and has been a companion to every mainline FIFA game released ever since. It is a mode that allows gamers to develop their own team, one that is initially composed of randomly-generated players. The initial squad can be improved by purchasing new players with the internal currency of the game (which can be accumulated by playing matches online or completing offline challenges), or through trading, or purchasing digital card packs which contain new players and consumables.
The initial version of FUT attracted around one million players, growing to 11.2 million by the 2013 edition. Back in 2017, some six million of FIFA 17's players are said to have taken part in competitive FUT Champion Weekends, having grown further still in 2018.
The eChampions League is the latest in a number of tournaments created by EA Sports in partnership with football leagues and competitions. A similar deal, in fact, has been already signed by EA with the MLS, the English Premier League and the Bundesliga among the others. It has been reported that Italian Serie A is likely to be the next to sign a partnership deal with EA Sports.
These deals make it possible to create online tournaments anchored to the leagues. In fact, the requirements of these competitions include the rule of having a certain number of players belonging to teams involved in the Champions League. These etournaments are all part of the qualification system to the FIFA eWorld cup, that usually takes place in July and August and it is one of the most important events in the esports landscape.
The partnerships are not limited to football associations and game developers, as the number of football clubs that launched their own branded eteams has been increasing too in the last few years. Notably, many popular teams in Europe – such as PSG, West Ham, AS Roma, Valencia, Schalke 04 among others - have already signed partnerships between clubs and EA sports, but other software houses (such as Konami) have sometimes been involved. Similarly to the eChampions League, the official eteams licensed by football clubs require a minimum number of footballers from the real team to be selected in the 'eteam', in order to maintain some grounds of relevance between sport and esport.
The agreements signed between football associations and clubs with EA Sports is symbolic of the growing convergence of sports and esports. There is an obvious overlap between the world of football fans and FIFA gamers: a relevant part of which is involved in FUT and is involved in online gaming. These partnerships aim to increase the reach of esports, as they give football fans an additional incentive to engage with eleagues and etournaments. According to EA, more than 20 million players participated in its FIFA 18 Global Series tournaments with the goal of competing in the FIFA eWorld Cup Final, which itself saw a four times increase in viewership over the previous year (totalling 29 million views across three days).
Esports are on the rise and EA Sports is keen to leverage its leading role in the videogames sports market via etournaments. However, this increased visibility could lead to increased scrutiny in how its FIFA Ultimate Team marketplaces are regulated, especially where its virtual currency is concerned. The real-money buying and selling of FUT Coins is banned, leading to the suspension of accounts that repeatedly defy this condition. As events associated with FUT grow in both popularity and prominence, so the value of problematic secondary marketplaces also potentially rises, which will be a development that EA and partners will need to remain on top of.