20 minutes into our interview with Todd Sitrin, the senior VP of EA’s new Competitive Gaming Division, and we realise that he hasn’t used the word ‘eSports’ once.
“We purposely do not use the term,” he tells us. “eSports is that shiny execution that is getting a lot of hype. We want to focus on competitive gaming, which encompasses eSports, but it is a much bigger thing.
“Our vision is simple: We want to make stars of all of our players, and the key word for us there is ‘all’. We are trying to create a deeper relationship with our community, and one way of doing that is to watch the premium gamers playing. But even more important is to have the community play in their own competitions no matter what their skill level. When I think how big competitive gaming can get, I am not just thinking about other people watching professional people play, I’m thinking about how we can get tens of millions of people to compete - even if they don’t stand a chance of getting to that premium level. That is at the heart of what our vision is for competitive gaming at EA.”
EA launched its Competitive Gaming Division late last year, led by industry veteran Peter Moore. It is a statement of intent from the publisher, although it’s certainly not the first time it has dabbled in this field.
“The very first competitive gaming we did was the Madden Challenge, which was 14 years ago” continues Sitrin.
“I was part of the team that created that and we’ve had a long rich history with the FIFA Interactive World Cup, and Battlefield and all those sort of names. But it was a lower priority in the company at the time. It was also somewhat fragmented, because different regions were tackling it in different ways. We saw an opportunity here to really engage our consumers and not just from a spectator viewpoint, but as players. We saw that really towards the beginning of last year, and we decided that it was time for us to really ramp up our investment.”
But this isn’t a pure money making exercise.
Sitrin continues: “This is about deepening that relationship with our players, and making sure that they are playing more often and for longer. In terms of the revenue, this is consistent with EA strategy overall - if we engage our consumers, then the finances tend to take care of itself.”
At the heart of EA’s competitive gaming vision sits three massive franchises: FIFA, Madden and Battlefield.
All three are obvious choices as they are EA’s biggest brands, and there are already tournaments running for them, too.
Yet there are other games that seem like the ideal fit for the eSports treatment – EA’s UFC titles, for instance, or Star Wars, Titanfall… even Plants vs Zombies. In fact, if you look at EA’s back catalogue, you’ll see titles that already has a competitive gaming scene, such as Command & Conquer.
“We are supporting other titles,” Sitrin says. “For instance, we are working with the UFC team - which you mentioned – on a special execution. We are experimenting and these are opportunities to learn what people want. It is not 100 per cent exclusive to FIFA, Madden and Battlefield, and we are also looking at other games within our portfolio. Again, another great opportunity for EA is the fact that we have a lot of diversity in our games. So we are looking broader.”
It’s that ‘broad’ appeal that EA hopes gives it a unique edge over its rivals. Its sports games, Sitrin says, are immediately more understandable than complex MOBAs.
“I have seen comments, even from folks within EA, who say: ‘Are people really going to watch others play FIFA?’ But when folk watch a FIFA game, I’m getting loads of people say to me: ‘Wow, I just got sucked into the experience.’ I think the reason – and this is a place where EA has a huge opportunity – is because unlike other competitive games in the market, people already understand the rule set of these sports titles. They also have an emotional tie to the teams and the players that are on the screen. That is a huge step up over trying to process and understand something like League of Legends or DOTA. Those are great games, but that is a hardcore experience that requires so much more out of the viewer.
“This is not about matching the real thing, because these are two different sports. What we are finding is that people who enjoy real sports are the easiest to convert to watching the virtual version.”
“eSports players being signed by football clubs…
talk about a dream come true.”
Todd Sitrin, Electronic Arts
In fact, it’s the real world of sports that could unlock an entire new market for eSports.
Football teams are now getting involved. West Ham has signed Sean Allen as its eSports player (he was a runner up in the 2016 FIFA interactive World Cup), while Schalke have invested in an eSports team (Manchester United is also rumoured to be in talks with a competitive gaming group).
“People being signed by actual clubs… talk about a dream come true,” says Sitrin. “You have a person who has been playing FIFA and loving football in their living rooms for years, who can now wear the kit and train next to athletes that are of equal skill, just in a different venue… man, that’s incredible.”
He continues: “We have a lot of relationships with clubs all around the world, and we are talking to them about further investment in this area.
“It’s a big opportunity, whether it is the clubs themselves, the leagues… obviously there is the sports media, and the sponsors… that is a good thing for the whole competitive games industry. That’s what EA offers: a means to take this sector into the mainstream. We have these brands that exist out there in the real world. There is no real world equivalent of Overwatch. We also have the players themselves from these clubs who can get involved. During the Madden Challenge we had NFL players alongside competitive gamers, and they were interacting with each other – that is golden in terms of getting people excited.”
The real world of football might just be what the eSports industry needs to attract bigger sponsors, EA believes.
Although some big brands do back eSports businesses with advertising and sponsorship, there are huge companies that remain reluctant to jump on-board.
“I believe that for non-endemic brands, this is a new space for them, and when you look at the types of games that have risen to popularity, these are not accessible brands, this is not easy to understand, and maybe they don’t match perfectly from a demographic stand-point with the audience they are trying to reach,” Sitrin suggests.
“This is a space where again EA has a special opportunity. Our brands are more accessible, they are PEGI 3, anyone can play these games… that’s not true of a lot of titles that have risen to popularity in this space.
“Our franchises are safer for them to invest in and we are already mainstream. We have had a relationship with these types of brands worldwide for a decade, where we have had them integrated into our games and our marketing activities, and they have been chomping at the bit for EA to increase our investment in this area. Now that we have, we are working with many of them to bring them into the space for the very first time. The games we have, and the relationships we have with these non-endemic brands, is going to unlock the part of the eSports puzzle that has yet to be solved by others.”
“We want to focus on competitive gaming, which
encompasses eSports, but it is a much bigger thing.”
Todd Sitrin, Electronic Arts
EA talks a lot about the financial implications of its involvement in eSports, and the benefits this can have for the whole competitive gaming sector. But the publisher insists it is not in this for a quick buck. It has pledged to support the market, nurture the talent and also help lay down the rules in a bid to fend off the negative headlines that sometimes circle this sector.
“Athletes that are competing in our events should embody the values that are important to EA,” Sitrin continues.
“You’ve read about the issues that have occurred in other games. For us, we have rules that go into player conduct. This is incredibly common in the real world of sports, where there is a level of player conduct that has to be followed, and if you don’t follow that, you can be expelled from competitions. Our community, so far, has been behaving incredibly well. But it is early and things are evolving. In the end, our focus is on making sure we are providing a level playing field for gamers, making sure that we don’t have cheating, and that we have really good matchmaking so that the online experience is competitive.”
EA may not like to use the term eSports to describe what it is doing, but it does believe in supporting the whole sector, and insists it is not just another business trying to capitalise on the eSports goldrush.
If it’s true to its word, then having a company with the scale and potential reach as Electronic Arts is something that the whole competitive gaming industry should be excited about.