With the introduction of FUT Champions, many things have changed. Let's compare the current and the former state of FIFA in the esports realm.
While looking at the current landscape of the esports industry, it more and more revolves around the crossover between traditional sports and esports. Be it sports teams acquiring equity stakes in esports teams or building own esports from scratch, certain events being created in likeness of their traditional sports counterparts or even whole constructs being designed to look like something we only know from examples outside of the scope of esports.
A game that has always had the native connection to traditional sports is the FIFA franchise as it contains the world's most well-known football leagues, teams and players out of which the players can choose as who they would want to get into the game.
Time for a history lesson
So it only makes sense that FIFA has found early popularity in the world of esports. When the World Cyber Games launched, FIFA was one of only five games that were part of the first tournament in 2000. More importantly, it is one of only two games that has featured in every single edition of the 14 tournaments between 2000 and 2013.
There have been many other attempts at making FIFA a huge esport in the 2000s, like two iterations of the "Esports Bundesliga" in Germany where different kinds of systems have been tried out and even Hertha BSC Berlin, a professional football club, has fielded one contracted player - in 2006. Furthermore, EA created the EA SPORTS Arena together with Virgin Gaming. Even the Championship Gaming Series featured FIFA in both of their seasons of existence.
But none of these projects have really been successful, for different reasons. With FIFA being a popular game which sells very well, it has been astonishing how small the conversation rate from overall gamers to people interested in esport has actually been.
Then FUT Champions came along
Until now? FIFA Ultimate Team (FUT) Champions, which debuted with the current edition, FIFA 17, has seemed to help to get the FIFA franchise on the right track on its way to esports popularity.
Why is that? What does this construct have or execute better on that the previous creations did not?
As soon as the mode has been announced, everyone knew the most important facts. If it's the organisational setup of the Weekend League or how FUT Champions can take you to the FIWC, everything has been properly explained with more and more details coming out in due time - and it's definitely a plus that it comes from both EA and FIFA directly which gives it a lot more credibility.
High prize money
Seeing $200,000 for the winner, $100,000 for the runner-up or a total prize pool of $1,300,000 emphasizes the importance of such an event immensely. It not only gets more public eyes on the event but also more players are inclined to give it a shot because they can see a clear career path in this - something which other publishers have laid out in front of their community. As a comparison, there has not been that much money in competitive FIFA in the last eight years - combined.
Native in-game implementation
This is key because it not only makes it easy for players to participate but it makes them even notice in the first place. Whereas in the latest edition of the weekly Go4FIFA tournament in Europe for the PlayStation hosted by ESL "only" around 1300 players took part, the FIWC has been recognized as the biggest gaming tournament in the world a few years ago already.
But seeing that the FIWC exists since 2010, what exactly is the big change now?
Appealing game mode
That's what the FIWC mode of old did not bring to the table and it has to be said: playing Ultimate Team is fun. Although it is the exact opposite of fairness and equality, it has created more buzz and interest than the old game mode, which was all about these two things.
This actually has created more comparability between the players of the community. Of course, it has always been impressive to finish a month with stats of 90-0-0 but it's not impressive for the main player base if they don't know what really goes into it. But now, thanks to the appealing game mode, more and more casual players also tried out the "Weekend League stuff" and noticed that it is pretty hard to get consistent results. And when they themselves only get 15 wins a weekend, it's obvious that they are able to recognize the sheer skill of a player who wins 38 out of 40 games on a consistent basis - or even more.
Attracts professional football clubs
Last but not least, FIFA has always been the title in which football clubs had the native opportunity to field contracted players in order to get their feet wet in esports. But although it would make perfect sense, it has not always been feasible for the clubs.
Why? For example, if FC Schalke 04 signs a player, they would want this player to always choose Schalke in every game he or she plays. But while facing the opposition who is free to pick Real Madrid or Bayern Munich, this immediately puts the Schalke player in a disadvantageous position and will most certainly cost him the game against a player of his own caliber. FUT Champions solves this problem: players can create their own clubs and name them however they like. They can also choose kits and crests freely - and now it doesn't matter if he fields Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi or Eric-Maxim Choupo-Moting; it still is Schalke 04.
In addition to this, EA SPORTS and FIFA have shown that they value the engagement of traditional sports teams with the creation of the FICWC (FIFA Interactive Club World Cup, at the bottom of the page) in which only players from traditional sports teams can enter and play for two slots at the Grand Final of the FIWC.
The introduction of all the changes EA and FIFA have brought to the table for this year's World Championship has been hugely benefical to all the parties involved. Professional players get more interest behind them as casual players identify the size of the skill gap between them and the professionals. Sponsors and organisations as well as football clubs see the numbers behind it and perceive FIFA as a worthwhile investment and EA additionally generates a ton of money by integrating everything into their Ultimate Team pay structure.
Tomorrow, Paris will host the first of two Regional Final events where 32 Europe's best players from Season 1 will fight for both Grand Final tickets as well as $20,000 which will be very interesting to keep an eye on as it is the first event of its kind.
There are still problems to tackle, like the missing spectator mode or consistency issues with the servers during the weekends but the first very important steps have been done. Now, it's time to get the ball roling even further - on and off the (virtual) pitch.