Rejection, tragedy and billions of dollars – The story of FIFA

EA didn’t give a shit about FIFA.”

Neil Thewarapperuma (or Neil T to his friends) isn’t a man to mince his words. He was the European marketing boss for EA Sports back in 1993, the year the publisher would launch its first ever football game.

He wasn’t wrong. EA didn’t care about FIFA, or soccer at all for that matter. The US publisher had no interest in a sport that was practically non-existent in its home country.

But the persistent bloody-mindedness of EA’s European outfit made FIFA happen. And it was this team who would go on to work alongside a small group of talented developers some 5,000 miles away, to build what would become one of the biggest video game franchises in the world.

This is how they did it.

"They didn’t think we were going to sell a single copy of this.
They thought it would be a complete disaster."

– Marc Aubanel, FIFA International Soccer Assistant Producer

The voices calling for an EA football title were numerous.

In the US, EA Sports Network (or ESN, as it was called back then before ESPN asked them to change it) was a sales juggernaut thanks to the likes of NHL and Madden. Over in Europe, however, these games were non-entities.

We did some research and found that 90 per cent of C&VG magazine readers loved football,” says David Gardner, the sales and marketing boss for EA Europe at the time.

So we realised that if we wanted to bring the EA Sports brand to Europe we needed a football game.”

Members of the UK team lobbied the US to let them build one. And even EA Canada’s Bruce McMillan, a Chelsea supporter who would go on to lead the FIFA development team, tried to persuade the EA hierarchy to build a football game.

I said that we should be in the worldwide football business. But when I first said that, EA was like: ‘well we are already in the football business with Madden.’ I said: ‘No, I mean proper football’.”

EA eventually said yes, driven in part by EA Europe’s lofty sales predictions. Yet the UK team didn’t have a development studio at the time, and Mega Drive dev kits were hard to come by. So the team set out to find some local devs to help build them a prototype.

Myself and my colleague Jon Law were developing something and we were hoping that EA would sign it,” explains Jules Burt, a UK indie developer at the time, working in Widnes, Cheshire.

I remember someone from EA travelling all the way up north to visit us, where he told us our creative project wasn’t going ahead. However, he also had news of another game they wanted us to help develop – soccer.”

That ‘someone’ who visited them was producer Matt Webster, one of the few members of the original FIFA team that still works at EA today, now at Need for Speed developer Criterion.

These guys had a Sega Genesis development kit,” recalls Webster.

I don’t know where they got it, I probably don’t really want to know, because at the time EA couldn’t even get one.

Jon and Jules had done three tests for us. One was a side scrolling pitch, one was a forwards into the screen pitch, and the other was an isometric pitch.

I remember going up there and saw the isometric pitch and thought: ‘Wow this is interesting’.”

Burt adds: We’d already created a prototype for a beach volleyball game on the Sega Genesis [Mega Drive in Europe], so the first attempt we had was to create a similar soccer experience.

"It was rendered side on and layered with parallax to give the depth effect – similar to a moving TV camera on the sidelines.

"We realised the view just wasn’t right – although it looked good – for soccer, and that we needed to see the field and goals for strategy. So at the time isometric was the potential alternative, and certainly would suit a more real TV view."

Jules Burt and Jon Law never got to turn their prototype into a full game, although EA did go on to hire the pair of them. Instead there was capacity at one of EA’s new studios to build EA Soccer (which was the game’s working title), 5,000 miles away in Vancouver, Canada.

At the time it was soul destroying to see it go to Canada for development,” says Law.

But in truth there was no way that we’d have been able to deliver the game to the quality needed.”

The original EA Canada FIFA development team was tiny. Barely ten full-time developers worked on the project. Bruce McMillan led the team, alongside his good friends Jan Tian and new recruit Joey Della-Savia.

McMillan says: The original team was very small and I worked very closely with the lead programmer, Jan Tian. Jan was Chinese and had a real passion for football.

Joey was my development manager, and we had this team that seemed to get better every day. He and I were very, very close. He hadn’t shipped a game before but was a super people person. The team loved him. So that gave me the chance to be a super hard-nosed producer.”

THE FIFA TEAM: (Clockwise from top left) Jon Bruce, John Santamaria, Jan Tian, Linda Stansfield, Bruce McMillan, Joey Della-Savia, Lee Patterson, Jeff Van Dyck, Kevin Pickell, Mike Smith, Suzan Germic, Dianna Davies, Brian Plank and David Adams. Not pictured: Marc Aubanel and George Ashcroft

FIFA had plenty of competition at the time. The market leaders were Sensible Soccer and Kick Off, with their top-down viewpoints. If EA had any chance of competing, it had to do something different.

Sensible Soccer was very popular at the time,” recalls Tom Stone, who worked under Gardner in the UK team, primarily on FIFA.

But that was a top-down game and we thought if we could bring all of the values of EA Sports to a football game, with the realism of Madden or NFL, then we’d do well.”

McMillan adds: We really tried to live by the ‘If it’s in the game, it’s in the game’; it had to be authentic, it had to feel correct.”

Central to this realism was this new isometric viewpoint, originally proposed by Burt and Law, but then improved upon and finalised by EA Canada’s Jan Tian. It may look old today, but at the time this new look was revolutionary.

Everything about that first game was like: How the fuck did they do this?’ You had the isometric view, you had these player animations, which I put on the box,” says Neil T. They were so impressive.”

"It was only later we discovered there were no player names,
likenesses, or team logos included with the FIFA licence."

– David Gardner, former EA Studios boss

Part of the game’s quest for realism saw the UK team seek out an official licence. EA had secured official player names, stadiums and teams for its Madden and NHL games, and EA wanted the same for its new football title.

We started discussing a name for the game. It was just called EA Soccer at this time,” says Webster.

And a few of us said that if we were follow the EA Sports tradition, then we should go for the official association, which was FIFA.

I ended up making the first call to FIFA’s press secretary, I explained who we were and he gave us the details of the FIFA marketing agent. Then I handed it off to Tom Stone.”

Stone continues: My first job at EA was to get on a plane and fly to Switzerland to see FIFA.

We met the head of ISL marketing who were the representatives of FIFA, and we shook hands on a deal there and then over dinner.

The deal lasted th

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