'EA Sports: it’s in the game'. Ah, we all remember that slogan from the old days, although the news over the weekend that FIFA 20 on Switch will be a ‘Legacy’ rehash makes you realise that while EA’s head might be ‘in the game’, its heart certainly isn’t. We won't get the new Volta mode on Switch or any of the updated ball physics; instead we get last year’s iteration with updated kits and team rosters, and that version was already a stripped-back take on the 'real' game. Balls, indeed.
Not only that, but Switch owners get their noses rubbed in the disparity by being shown adverts for features that aren’t even in their version on the console’s news channel. Twice. It’s a depressing turn of events for Switch-owning football fans and Nintendo gamers at large who have had to put up with limited ports of this ‘beautiful’ game for some time now.
I wouldn't call myself an avid football fan. I can’t be bothered with the daily ins-and-outs of club football, but I keep abreast of big games and tournaments. I went to Russia for the last World Cup, but the last FIFA game I put any real time into was actually the first one, FIFA International Soccer (the Mega Drive one with David Platt on the cover).
I started out before that with World Cup Italia ’90 on the Mega Drive (great music, plus it had Lineker with his name spelt correctly), but as far as I’m concerned the genre peaked with ISS 64 (or possibly ISS 98, although I never actually played that one – it had a ref on the pitch, though!) Hands down, the best football game on Switch at present is Rocket League, and whether that says more about me than the state of the genre on Nintendo platforms is up for debate. While prepping for my trip to Russia last year I almost bought FIFA 18 to get in the mood on the flight, but I was put off by the fact it was inferior to the ‘proper’ version on PS4 and Xbox One, so I stuck to Rocket League.
FIFA is the cash cow licence; EA, the cold, calculating company milking it for all it’s worth
On paper, EA’s decision to field the B team makes some sense, as did the ‘Legacy’ versions that got released on Wii. In its launch week just 1% of FIFA 19’s physical sales in the UK were for the Switch version (this didn’t account for digital sales, but we don’t imagine them being much better). On the face of it, this indicates that the audience simply doesn’t exist on Switch to warrant putting effort into anything other than a ‘legacy’ (read: old) release.
The problem, though, is the message that this sends to gamers, which plays into the image they already have of Electronic Arts as a boardroom of bean counters. It shows a total lack of interest in video games, a lack of investment in the medium and its fans beyond the purely financial. FIFA is the cash cow licence; EA, the cold, calculating company milking it for all it’s worth.
Despite how prudent a decision it may be to send FIFA 19 back onto the pitch after a spritz from the magic spray, it reflects poorly on the company and its ambitions. We’re sure there are passionate creators in the ranks of its employees, but perhaps more than any of the other massive publishers, EA is the most faceless and ‘corporate’ of them. From a fan's perspective, it often appears to be the least interested in actual video games. The loot box fiasco provides more insight; after acquiring the requisite mass market licences, maximum profit is extracted from them with seemingly little thought for the players’ experience or any factors beyond the bottom line.
Of course, the bottom line is crucial for any business. Companies are obliged to make money for their shareholders, but whereas you’ll see smaller projects getting funded elsewhere, or fan favourites being given a second chance, EA invariably pulls the plug on anything that isn’t adding zeroes to its books. Yes, we might bemoan how Nintendo hasn’t made an F-Zero for sixteen years, but it did finance Bayonetta 2, for example. The (then) Wii U exclusive was never going to be a system seller, but it was an investment in the future, in the makers of the franchise and its fans. The upcoming Bayonetta 3 is likely to perform much better by virtue of being on Switch (assuming the game’s any good) and the fact that it exists at all is down to Nintendo.
The argument that there isn’t an audience on Switch feels absurd to me – it's football; the beautiful game, the most popular sport on the planet
On paper, Bayonetta 2 wasn’t the right short-term decision – there’s no way EA would have touched it – but it was an investment of the kind EA doesn’t appear to understand. ‘Goodwill’ is not a quantifiable return, and uncountable benefits have no place on spreadsheets. Consequently, EA is viewed as a passionless licence hoarder pumping out product for profit only and repeatedly getting voted the Worst Company in America.
Whether it truly earns that dubious honour is debatable, but it’s decisions like putting out last year’s FIFA on Switch that betray a total lack of interest in developing or nurturing the brand; it says that EA couldn’t care less about building a community. The licence sells the game and only the barest minimum of effort is required.
The argument that the power disparity between Switch and other consoles prevents the ‘real’ game coming to the hybrid console holds some water, but we must also remember that EA is huge. We're not talking about some mom ‘n’ pop indie dev that simply doesn't have the resources to optimise and port the Frostbite engine. EA's one of the biggest companies in the business; it's got the personnel and the budget, but not the inclination. And we're not talking about Crysis or Cyberpunk 2077 here! Switch can handle a game of football, especially if properly optimised and considered from the start.
Ultimately, it comes down to a chicken and an egg. The argument that there isn’t an audience on Switch feels absurd to me – it's football; the beautiful game, the most popular sport on the planet! Of course there’s an audience – ‘hardcore’, casual, young, old – but they're not being catered to with the reconstituted pap EA keeps serving up. I wanted to buy FIFA but decided not to because it simply wasn’t good enough. I'll have much more fun burning around the pitch chasing an oversized ball in Ecto-1, thank-you-very-much.
EA is still ‘in the game’, but it's a numbers game. Community, culture and even video games feel like a very distant second
However, poor sales reinforce the idea that Switch gamers don’t like football or the demographic’s too young or whatever rubbish is written on the summary reports being read by the suits in the boardroom, and the cycle begins again, all because EA can’t see past the next 12 months. We're sure that Electronic Arts is not and never has been the 'worst company in America', but that branding stems from the company's actions in the eyes of fans. There are instances of EA taking a gamble; Mirror's Edge Catalyst springs to mind as an example, but if there is a supportive, artistically-motivated and passionate side to the company - one that's interested in this brilliant interactive medium beyond the profits it can bring - somebody's doing a poor job of showing it.
When the best football game on the platform is Rocket League, it's incredibly disappointing that EA won't up its game and invest in the platform and its audience. I want to buy a great FIFA but it’s likely there’ll never be one on Switch – a sorry state of affairs for a platform embraced by so many gamers across the spectrum. EA is still ‘in the game’, but it's a numbers game. Community, culture and even video games feel like a very distant second.
Are you happy with the FIFAs that are turning up on Switch? Do you think a full-fat version could do well given the appropriate attention and support? Share your thoughts below.