In the first of four interviews, MCV looks at different aspects of EA's business. First up, we sit down with EA Sports boss Andrew Wilson.
One of the few surprises at E3 this year was that EA has secured the Ultimate Fighting Championship licence from THQ in a multi-game deal. How did the deal come about?
UFC’s relationship with THQ was in the process of ending. THQ had talked about a greater focus on their own IPs. They have built some great games. But you know they agreed with UFC to do something different and that gave us the opportunity to work with them.
You did have your own MMA game in EA Sports MMA. Why not continue that franchise?
Well it’s not that we necessarily decided not to pursue it, I mean we just launched FIFA Street and SSX for the first time in about four years, so not everything for us is always going to be annual.
There are some products that will always be annual, there’ll be some every other year, and then some that will come every four or five years. With that said, the reality is there is one great mixed martial arts promotion on the face of this earth and that is the UFC, and building a game in the absence of that wasn’t nearly as interesting to us as building a game with the UFC.
You launched this year’s UEFA game as a DLC add-on to FIFA 12, rather than a stand-alone game. Will all future tournament tie-ins go down this route?
We believe delivering that digitally is in line with our strategy to offer ongoing content that changes the game as you play. Gamers asked for it to be delivered that way, and what you’ve seen from us over the last 12 to 18 months, is that we’re listening to gamers more now than ever. We’re doing things that would be seen as non-traditional for EA Sports, in an effort to better serve gamer demand.
When you asked ‘will all tournaments go this way?’, in all honesty we will do things based on gamer demand. We have 25m people engaged playing 10m games a day with nearly 20m Facebook fans involved in a daily conversation with us about what we do and how we do it, and then there’s the many millions on our forums. We’re going to listen and we’re going to do our best to deliver what is asked for. We are a consumer-led brand now more than we ever have been before.
Andrew Wilson (above) says that gamers are buying more than one copy of FIFA across various platforms
You've said that FIFA is the 'role model' for everything EA Sports does. In what way have your other games benefitted from FIFA?
Each of our franchises do different things in leadership. FIFA is the one that you hear about the most because it’s the most relevant sport to the UK and it’s the biggest sports game in the world. FIFA does amazing things in innovation, service and connecting gamers. But at the same time NHL does an amazing job, they led with physics first before they went to FIFA. NCAA (EA Sports’ other American football game) had a connected career cross-platform three years ago, so some of the stuff that we’re seeing in our franchises today started with NCAA. So while FIFA certainly leads on many fronts, I’m happy to say all of our teams are driving innovation and are doing things that FIFA often takes on later.
You mention cross-platform there. Do you find that gamers tend to own FIFA across multiple platforms?
Yes, more and more.
How are you looking to leverage against that?
If you’re a football fan you start thinking and talking about football from the moment you get out of bed. And given any opportunity to interact and hear news about your team or the drama that is football, you will do so through the day.
Previously, the only time you could engage with virtual football was while you were in front of your TV. Because of Facebook, iPhones and Vita, more and more people are interacting with our games through the day. And we are more than happy to be able to provide that because it is how they live their real world of football.
But the bigger opportunity is making the things that you do during the day show up in your console at night and vice versa, so that everything you do in that world has meaning and there’s no waste of time. You’re going to see us start to tie these things together so that you get credit for everything you do during the day. And there is interoperability, like in Madden social, where you can play it on Facebook, stop mid-game and finish on your iPhone and vice versa. So little bit by little bit we have been investing in architecture and infrastructure and organisation to deliver this kind of connected experience that replicates what goes on in the real world.
So how do you get EA Sports and your brands out from behind these screens and into the real world?
EA Sports forms a bigger part of the fabric of sports society now more than it ever did. I think the iPhone helps that. I mean I have more connection with ESPN now than I ever did because I have an ESPN app on my phone. I feel like ESPN is a big part of my sporting life, as a result of that app, particularly as I spend much of my time travelling.
EA Sports on your phone will do the same thing; EA Sports on Facebook will do the same thing. So yeah we do different things around experiences to have different touch points with consumers. But for us the bigger opportunity is to travel with you and be everywhere you go.
Is turning EA Sports into that ultimate sports brand still a goal?
Forbes last year had us rated No.8 in their world rankings of sport brands – not just video game brands but sports brands. We are right up there with the likes of Nike and Adidas and Under Armour. Brand is important for us, but over the last 12 to 18 months we’ve solidified what we stand for. We stand for innovation and from what you’ve seen in FIFA, NHL and Madden this year is a marked shift in our commitment to innovating, to change the way you play day-to-day.
We stand for product plus service, so that the game you buy isn’t the sum total of the experience you get, but it is a service that changes as you play. We have the opportunity to be the most connecting brand in sports. We can connect you with your club better than any other brand, we can connect you with other fans of your club and and its rivals better than any other brand. We can connect your sports experience across platforms better than any brand. And finally, we can build a direct connection with our gamers better than any other brand. So it’s not the logo that’s important – it’s what we stand for.
What about fans of niche sports like cricket and rugby, how do you reach these fans without making a big budget game?
It’s an on-going challenge. There is some good news though, hockey as a sport continues to grow globally and the growth of football globally is unbelievable. I go to places that were traditionally only cricket or rugby territories, and now football is front and centre in the hearts of sports fans in those territories, my own Australia being one of them.
We have just signed UFC, which is the fastest growing sport on the face of the planet, with the most tremendous and aggressive growth outside of North America, in places like Russia, Poland, Asia, Argentina, Brazil and the UK. The UK has some tremendous fighters in UFC right now. It’s always a challenge to reach cricket and rugby fans specifically, but we will continue to try and do so and we never say never on these things. Certainly with the growth of football, basketball, UFC, hockey, even American football, we can touch the lives of sports fans globally.
Could you create games based on these niche sports for iOS and Facebook, where development costs are perhaps lower?
That’s possible. However, we are hearing from players that games that are only played on a single platform are less and less interesting to them as each day passes. They want a game they can engage with from the minute they get up to the minute they go to bed, and games that are console-only, games that are iOS-only and games that are Facebook-only aren’t that interesting because, ultimately, they amount to wasted time.
What they want to know is that every minute they spend gaming has value to who they are in the gaming world, and it’s less and less about wasting time while you’re at the bus stop.
The Kinect additions you have made to FIFA and Madden are subtle, utilising voice control to assist your team. Is that how you see Kinect, as a nice addition rather than a device which you build games from scratch for?
I think that there are opportunities for both. Certainly when we embarked on using Kinect for FIFA and Madden, we sat down and watched people play our games. The same when we put Kinect into Tiger Woods, we sat and watched people play our games. In Tiger everyone always wanted to swing, the Wii, Move and Kinect gave you that opportunity. It was natural. It enhanced the experience. It was how we wanted to play. You want to swing and feel like you’re Tiger on the first tee.
When we looked at people playing FIFA and Madden, what we noticed was that they screamed at the screen a lot. A lot. They were pushing the buttons, and simultaneously shouting commands, almost at themselves. It felt like a natural transition for us to make that screaming mean something. I’m actually really excited about what we’ve done.
I think when people heard about Kinect they thought it was all about motion but voice control is profound and changes the way you play. So in terms of ‘will that be seen in more games?’, yeah I think it will, because most gamers are shouting at the screen for some reason. When we look at the future, we see that as big an opportunity as we as do motion control.
Coming up: MCV speaks to EA Games' Laura Miele, EA Origin boss David DeMartini and EA Mobile chief Nick Earl.