On Thursday October 29, EA hosted the 'FIFA 21 Challenge' esports event on Twitch, it's now the most-watched EA operated esports broadcast in history.
The broadcast more than doubled the viewership metric set by the next most-watched EA operated FIFA event, the FIFA Global Series FUT Champions Cup: Barcelona, which took place over multiple days in January 2018.
In the event, four professional FIFA esports players paired with four professional footballers, with Liverpool defender Alexander-Arnold, West Ham United midfielder Declan Rice, Inter Milan defender Achraf Hakimi and Borussia Dortmund midfielder Gio Reyna all involved.
The footballers were paired with professional FIFA players Fnatic Tekkz, Dux Gravesen, Levy "Levy" Frederique and 2019 FIFA eWorld Cup champion MoAuba respectively. In the end, Reds defender Alexander-Arnold and Fnatic’s Tekkz took home the trophy and won $20,000 on behalf of their selected charities.
There's no doubt that the viewership figures behind this one-day FIFA esports event are absolutely extraordinary.
EA say that the event had a total watch time of 1,024,696 hours. To put that into context, that's the equivalent of over 11,385 full-length 90-minute football matches. It's also the equivalent of 42,695 days of watch time, or 116 years, or more than an entire century.
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These mind-blowing viewership figures showcase the sheer popularity of FIFA esports, with the entire esports industry in general growing increasing popular worldwide.
To find out more about the present and future of FIFA esports, we spoke to Brent Koning, EA SPORTS FIFA Commissioner.
He told us about their plans for the future, blurring the lines between football and esports, FIFA esports' main competitors and why they've had to balance competition with entertainment.
"We set out with a pretty aggressive plan in a big pivot to traditional esports, which is professionals going at it one v one, two v two etc, to mixing it up a little bit," said Brent Koning, EA SPORTS FIFA Commissioner.
"Our lens on our esports scene is that this is about entertainment as well as competition, so this kind of hybrid has unlocked some really cool things for us.
"The people that are getting involved, there's great stuff happening with Fnatic and the organisations that have been in the scene for a while, they are pivoting and they are pulling in stream numbers that are better than a lot of other games, and that's because they're woven into that fabric of football.
"It's all indicative of that change and that shift to not just pure competition but also entertainment.
"The biggest differentiator for us is that access, it's really ball, net and easy to watch. You're not talking capture the flag moments and defending zones with time challenges, it's accessible and it's familiar.
"Because it's familiar, it makes it digestible. Instead of watching a 90 minute football match, it's 12 minutes, so if your favourite player is Tekkz, you can watch him for 12 minutes and get your fix, watch some other stuff and come back and hang out in a broadcast.
"Thats the magic of esports and the magic of FIFA as well, because there's so many things going on, you can flip to Tekkz, to Trent Alexander-Arnold, to getting rewarded with Twitch rewards.
"It's a full experience of entertainment rather than just watching a competition.
In recent years, EA have taken the decision to involve professional footballers within their esports scene, with players like Liverpool defender Alexander-Arnold and Man City winger Raheem Sterling among those who have featured in FIFA esports events.
But as Brent explains, it wasn't as easy as sticking a professional footballer on a stream, it took some planning.
"This has been a multi-year discovery phase for us.
"Here's the unique thing about FIFA, for every single pro esports gamer in the world, FIFA is in their top three games.
"The best DOTA 2 players in the world, the best CS:GO players, we get videos all the time of them at tournaments, Liquid vs Fnatic and all these teams, playing FIFA. So it's a top game for all these competitors.
"Here's the crazy thing, when footballers are not playing on the pitch, on the grass, they're playing FIFA!
"Why this has been such a discovery phase for us is that we've had to find ways to make the content meaningful.
"You can't just take Trent and put him up against Tekkz, you can't just take some random person and put him up against them, they would just get smashed!
"What we've had to do is try and figure out the right balance and really create a piece of entertainment, not just a competition, because it's both, and you have to do both.
"That's what the unlock for us has been, with some of this viewership, is treating this like a true form of entertainment as opposed to just another esports competition.
As well as increasing viewership and interest in the game, Brent is also keen for EA to attract more professional FIFA players, explaining that it's now easier than ever for people to get involved in the industry.
"It's never been easier to compete in a FIFA event, you can compete through a league, you can compete for yourself, your own team, your own company.
"FIFA can break down those barriers and find that access. First off, It makes our in-game engagement go up because you can compete in all these different ways. It also lets people know that they can actually win this.
One of the most popular and talented professional FIFA players around is Tekkz, who is signed to esports organisation Fnatic.
Tekkz, real name Donovan Hunt, has won a number of major esports competitions in his career so far, including the ePremier League for Liverpool in 2019.
Brent explained how Tekkz's story is one that other budding FIFA esports players can take inspiration from.
"Tekkz had around 1500 followers on Twitter before our massive Barcelona event that he won, I don't even know what he has now (over 190,000), he's massive!
"For an esports trajectory, he is the white paper on what it means, he's been signed to a number of different clubs, Fnatic arguably one of the most successful esports organisations in the world, competing for Liverpool, has brought his buddy Harry on with him to join the roster (Harry 'Harry' Hesketh, who Fnatic signed from Hashtag United).
"Their content is amazing, their competitions are great too, but if you watch their streams, they are pulling in 15,000-20,000 (viewers), pulling content with BMW and performing really well. And it really all does come from that access.
Over the last few seasons, EA offered viewership rewards to select viewers who link their Twitch and EA accounts and watch eligible FIFA Global Series broadcasts. For FIFA 21, EA introduced FGS Player Tokens.
The FIFA Global Series Swaps will offer one guaranteed FGS Player Token Item during each eligible event to a viewer who watches 60 or more minutes of that event. to those who tune in and watch 60 minutes or more of any of our eligible broadcasts. Once you earn at least two separate tokens from two separate events, you can then redeem your FGS Player token items for pack rewards in repeatable SBCs.
Brent explained how important it is to reward audiences for their viewership, and how traditional sports do the same thing.
"Being incentivised to watch something is inherently good.
"This isn't just for FIFA, I could be speaking on behalf of esports and traditional sports as well.
"The concept of rewards absolutely is a driver of viewership. To make the comparison back to football and sport, in North America, when you go to the match the sponsors put out t shirts on the chairs, you get foam fingers when your team advancing into the playoffs in the NFL.
"The concept of rewards is not a foreign concept. We need to find the right balance with what works, what people want versus what we have available to give.
"The more popular FIFA esports is, it will allow us to do more and more crazy things and bring bigger and better celebrity to what we're trying to do, that's just like sport!
"We're trying to grow fans, players, viewers, people that engage with the brand and you have to reward them.
"Whether that's amazing content, twitch rewards or just giving them someone to cheer for, that's essential.
"That is sport, that is competition, that is entertainment."
So, just how big can FIFA esports become?
Brent explained how whilst they are under no illusions about FIFA esports' potential popularity in comparison to real-life football, professional football isn't necessary their competition at all.
"Here's the reality, are we ever going to take over football, which has billions of fans, the most commercialised and successful support known to man? The answer is no.
"I want the biggest thing possible (for FIFA esports), that's important, viewership and fandom is massively important. But, we have to be authentic, I think FIFA in general is one of the most authentic video games.
"We can actually go through and build a culture around the soundtrack, players to watch, Players of the week, it's everything. During the pandemic, when we had our celeb tournament, the players that performed well when football was shut down, got a boost in their ratings in the game.
"Those are the things that are magic, those are the things that make us unique and different compared to our other esports partners.
"As an industry, I want all esports to be successful. I don't think we have competitors. League of Legends and Fornite aren't our competitors, our competitors are other entertainment properties.
"Our competitors aren't the Premier League, our competitors are movies and Netflix.
"Would I love to see millions and millions of people watching our content, absolutely, they do now!
"Would I love to see more? Absolutely, but we have to do it so that it makes sense for our game, our culture and our ecosystem.
"Once we do that and continue to have these little unlocks and little wins around our event last week, that's when I will say we are a successful esports and hit where we wanna be.
"Everyone wants to talk about how video games are blurring the lines with football, but the reality is that football is blurring the lines with esports. Look at what Spencer and the team are doing at Hashtag United.
"They've been promoted up, they competed in the FA Cup and then the next day they are competing in a esports tournament on the sticks in FIFA!
"These blurred lines go both ways, the yardstick for success has always been viewership, but for FIFA it's actually more than that.
"It's more than just viewership, it's engagement in the game, it's the popularity amongst Gen Z and millennial's, but there's a lot of Gen X-ers paying attention.
"It's easy to watch, if you're an old school Liverpool fan at home watching the Premier League every Saturday and there's nothing on during the pandemic because things are shut down, those people watched our programs.
"Those programs were on the BT Sports and Sky Sports of the world, and you know what they did, they sat back and watched our stuff!
"I think those lines being blurred are really really important but they go both ways and I think that's the magic of what we're trying to do.
This season, EA will award $3million in prizes across Qualifiers, Regional Playoffs, the eChampions League, and CONMEBOL eLibertadores, an increase of over $1million from what was awarded last season. Also, Regional Playoffs now have over $1,500,000 in total prizes compared to last season’s $500,000.
This might seem like a huge amount, but it's fairly small compared to other major esports, such as Fortnite. For the 2019 Fornite World Cup, a $30 million prize pool was available across the various competitions.
In the 2019 solo event finals, 16-year-old American Kyle Giersdorf, known online as Bugha, won $3million in prize money. To put that into context, Tiger Woods won $2.07 million for winning the 2019 Masters.
Brent stressed how it's important that prize pools increase within FIFA esports, but also stressed the importance of how they do that increase.
"Here's the deal, we want to make as many pros as possible. We want bigger prize pools, we want the biggest prize pools!
"It's a very important topic, I want to make as many people pros as possible, I would love for people to not have to have two jobs and have them completely dedicated on being a great content provider, being a great pro and competing at events, that's absolutely magic.
"But, here's the thing. It's an economy that has to be convergent with competitions. We have 45 league partners around the world, we have all of our regional tournaments, we have FIFA national tournaments, the FIFA eWorld Cup, we've got thousands of people competing.
"I don't know what the new Fortnite prize pool is, probably a billion dollars!
"But if the Fortnite tournament is a billion dollars and we had a FIFA tournament that's a billion dollars, the economy would fall apart.
"No one would compete for the leagues, no one would compete in any of our tournaments, they would compete for the one tournament that has the most prize money.
"What that does is jeopardise the integrity of what we're trying to build. What we're trying to build is an ecosystem not an event.
"I have a lot of friends at Epic, kudos to them! They have massive events, massive viewership and massive prize pools, but that's just not us.
"That's not what we're doing, we're building an ecosystem that's sustainable for the long-term. We know we need to increase prize pools, I'm not denying that.
"Yes, we want to increase prize pools, we're going to do it measured, we're gonna do it with the whole ecosystem in mind.
"But I want to make sure we're taking care of the players, that's a massive priority for me personally and for us as a team."
FIFA 21 Latest News
FIFA 21 is out now on Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC.
The next generation version of FIFA 21 is set to be released on Xbox Series X, Xbox Series S and PlayStation 5 on December 4, 2020.
Additionally, fans who jump into FIFA 21 can also benefit from Dual Entitlement, enabling them to upgrade their copy of the game from PlayStation 4 to PlayStation 5, or Xbox One to Xbox Series X/S at no extra cost.
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