Twenty years later, EA’s FIFA thrives

Twenty years ago in the offices at EA Sports began a “great stupid American story” about business and the underground popularity of the other kind of football.

So, anyway, goes the worth-your-time tale at MCVUK.com, a computer and video game website based in the United Kingdom. The piece’s tone and subject matter is best distilled by its first quote.

“EA didn’t give a s**t about FIFA,” said Neil Thewarapperuma, who was the European marketing boss for EA in 1993.

Within a year, EA Sports released its first football (soccer) game: FIFA.

It started with a small team in Europe, convinced there was a market for a soccer game. EA was doing well with its football and hockey games in the United States, but surveys showed 90 percent of UK gamers loved soccer.

The idea was that a soccer game would introduce the EA brand to a European market. That small UK team got some support from a soccer fan at EA Canada, but when they went to the Americans and made their pitch that EA should be in the “worldwide football business,” they realized they were speaking a different language.

“EA was like, ‘Well, we are already in the football business with Madden,’” said David Gardner, who ran EA’s UK sales and marketing department. “I said: ‘No, I mean proper football.’”

Soccer.

EA Europe threw up some big numbers for sales projections and the Americans finally started so see this new “football” in a different light.

But, oh blarney, the UK team didn’t have a development studio. So they found some”indie developers” sitting around and somehow these guys had a Sega Genesis development kit laying around, and nobody wanted to ruin the situation by asking too many questions.

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

So they basically geeked out about it for a while, trying to get the pitch and the scrolling right, just trying to make the game feel as real and satisfying to play as the football and hockey games did.

Well, that indie production wasn’t quite good enough and the project had to be shipped up to their old buddy at EA Canada. That was a crushing blow to the mavericks in Europe, but the when the game came out, everybody knew it had been the right thing to do.

“Everything about that first game was like: “How the f**k did they do this?’” Thewarapperuma said. “You had the isometric view, you had these player animations, which I put on the box They were so impressive.”

Then they had to license the thing, and that was a giant hassle because soccer isn’t as commercially organized as the sports EA was used to dealing with. But two decades later, FIFA is one of the most popular video game series in the world.

“In hindsight it is all quite funny," Gardner said, "and a great stupid American story that turned out quite successful anyway after hundreds of deals later.”