Until the inception of FUT Champions, FIFA esports had been on the fringe of the industry. Marquee FIFA Ultimate Team competitions, like the ‘Gfininty Play Like A Legend’ tournaments, weren’t able to gain traction – even though some of the best FIFA players in the world took part. Just 11 months later, it’s a completely different story.
The in-built competitive game mode has sparked an interest in the esport amongst FIFA players, and also brought real-life football clubs into the mix. The Bundesliga’s Vfl Wolfsburg were one of the first teams to sign esports players Benedikt Saltzer and Daniel Fink to the club in May 2015. A year later, the Premier League’s West Ham United also entered the fray, signing Sean ‘Dragon’ Allen.
However, since then, a host of other professional teams have joined. Other Bundesliga and Premier League teams, like Schalke 04 and Manchester City, followed the example set by Wolfsburg and West Ham. French giants Paris Saint-Germain and 2017 Ligue 1 Champions AS Monaco joined last October. This February, Serie A club AS Roma partnered with Fnatic, a London-based organization and one of the biggest names in esports, to sign three players. The English YouTube-based football club Hashtag United, founded by Spencer ‘Spencer FC’ Owen, also field four players.
This is why this year’s FIFA Interactive World Cup in London could be the game’s most important event yet. With more than 10 players backed by teams from at least seven different professional football leagues, the competitive field is unlike any other. Moreover, it has the feel of the real sport itself.
FIFA Interactive Club World Cup Manager Adrian Roelli spoke on this subject in a recent interview with Goal.com’s Chris Wheatley.
“We’ve seen a trend in FIFA esports in general that more and more clubs have taken this up, and have created their own teams,” Roelli said. “[We] obviously wanted to support them and tried to build the tournament that specifically targets these signed players and have them compete against each other.”
AS Roma’s Aman Seddiqi, who qualified for the FIWC and both legs of the FUT Champions Americas regional finals and was one of the three players signed by the club in February, has taken notice of the rich pool of compeitors in London, but doesn’t think the year’s-worth of anticipation will affect the skill level.
“The amount of talent at the FIWC will make the tournament tight,” Seddiqi said. “The players have been playing at a high level since the beginning of [FIFA 17] so I think the timing won’t affect the difference in skill. Most players know each other’s playstyles so that is the one thing that changes with time.”
According to esportsearnings.com, a community-driven competitive gaming resource that compiles public information, the prize pool for FIFA 17 has already crossed the million dollar mark. This still pales in comparison to the bigger esports like League of Legends, but FIFA is on the rise among professional gamers.
“The FIWC is very significant this year, and it’s really because of the prize pot,” said YouTuber and FIFA community influencer Chu Morah, better known as ChuBoi, who is also one of the hosts of this year’s event. “It’s the biggest grand prize in FIFA history.”
The Berlin FIFA Ultimate Team Championships, hosted by EA Sports in May, boasted a $400,000 prize pool. This week’s FIWC 2017 Champion, who will be crowned on Friday, will take home $200,000 alone, ten times the amount won by 2016 FIWC Champion Mohamad Al-Bacha.
“That shows that there’s going to be more money going toward this as an esport,” Morah said. “Hopefully, more prize money gets given out in the future, because we do want to see these events be worth it for these pro players.”
Along with prize money, viewership is on an uptick too. Most of the FUT Champions regional grand finals were broadcast live on ESPN2. February’s Paris Regional, which pitted Europe’s best players against each other, was re-broadcast on ESPN’s flagship network. With its release just over a month away, FIFA 18 could ostensibly reach even bigger audiences thanks to the stage set by its previous iteration.v