In the first part of our three-part series, we take a look at how FIFA found its feet in the 1990s and learn how the biggest game in the world was thrust upon the world.
Humble Beginnings: FIFA in the 90s
EA Sports’ FIFA series has been popular with football fans and video game enthusiasts alike since it was first released in the mid-nineties, but the development of its online play and the ever-expanding world has resulted in a huge rise of the popularity of the game in recent years. The franchise has now sold over 260 million copies, with 24 million copies of FIFA 18 sold since its release last year.
The game has undergone plenty of changes, both cosmetic and conceptual, since the release of FIFA International Soccer in December 1993 compared to the current version, FIFA 19, played in the Gfinity Elite Series. The game managed to achieve positive reviews by differentiating itself from similar titles such as Sensible Soccer by scrapping the conventional bird’s-eye view utilised by other games at the time.
This portrayal, which gave FIFA International Soccer a feel more akin to watching a live football match, would underpin the realism instilled in each version of the game. The commitment to authenticity would also help continue FIFA’s differentiation in years to come, most notably around the rise to prominence of PES (but more on that later).
The gameplay capabilities are fairly rudimentary when contrasted against subsequent versions of FIFA, but nonetheless, the game represented an essential step as EA Sports took their first step into football video games having achieved success with American sports game titles such as John Madden Football, NHL Hockey and PGA Tour Golf.
The game was a pretty significant risk for the mostly North American team as they looked to take their first steps outside of the home market and capitalise on the global popularity of football. The name FIFA International Soccer was even chosen in response to fears that the game would be a flop in the USA and would only be salvaged by overseas sales. Given the trepidation around the game’s release, the monthly production cost was a miserly $30,000 - a drop in the ocean compared to the reported $350 million spent on developing FIFA 16.
The gamble paid off though, as around half a million copies were sold in Europe in the first four weeks after the game’s release, which was particularly impressive given that EA Sports had a total European sales target of 200,000. It would be easy to say that the rest was history from this point, but in a sense, the work had only just begun. The sequel, FIFA Soccer 95, was praised for improving on gameplay and was widely deemed to be an improvement on its predecessor.
FIFA Soccer 96 took a huge leap forward by including over 3,000 real players, compared to the previous versions which had used fictionalised player names. This feature has widely been credited with FIFA’s popularity over the years, as the realism afforded by this connection to the real world is a characteristic widely overlooked by other titles. The game was also made available on a many platforms, increasing the ubiquity of the FIFA series and reaching a far greater audience.
Another defining feature was the move to a 3D in-game engine, with the isometric view of the pitch used in the previous two versions abandoned for a sideline view that was able to pivot and zoom, unlike the old camera angle which strafed up and down the pitch.
FIFA 97 incorporated more advanced features, as polygonal player models were given more realistic movement (with ex-Spurs and Newcastle winger David Ginola providing the motion capture) and an indoor football mode allowing for a different style of gameplay.
By this point, the FIFA series had started to develop a personality, with many gamers enjoying the added features beyond basic matches, such as customisable teams, as well as the quirks of the game, like the glitch that allowed goalkeepers kicks to be charged down. There was a clamour from the video game crowd for football-based games, although many said that they enjoyed FIFA 97 due to its indoor mode, as the lack of throws, corners or goal kicks added to the consequential rebounding shots and passes made for a faster, more chaotic game.
The slower pace of the primary gameplay mode, which was a consequence of the improved realism in the movement of the players, resulted in mixed reviews, with some praising this realism and others decrying the speed of the play. This presented a quandary for EA Sports, as authenticity had been a core part of their offering as a game developer. Realism has always been an intrinsic part of EA Sports’ ethos, and even their slogan “it’s in the game” is a derivative of the original “if it's in the game it's in the game”, alluding to the realism that EA Sports looked to instil in its sports game titles.
At this point, EA Sports had to decide whether getting closer to real-life football was more important than creating a game that could prove more appealing to the broader video game audience. Ultimately, realism was favoured over speedier in-game mechanics as EA Sports also looked to forge a more significant connection with modern football with the release of FIFA: Road to World Cup 98.
The graphics engine for FIFA: Road to World Cup 98 was considerably improved from the previous version of the game, and many fans of the game appreciated the almost absurd level of detail in the game. All 174 FIFA-registered teams were included, giving gamers the chance to take lesser-lights of the international football scene like the Maldives or Vanuatu all the way to World Cup glory.
The addition of a soundtrack (including intro music from Blur’s “Song 2”) and improved individual player skill cemented FIFA: Road to World Cup 98 as the best version to date, so much so that a revamped spin-off (World Cup 98) was also released in March 1998. FIFA: Road to World Cup 98 was also the first version of the game to utilise directional arrows to help gamers when taking set pieces.
The much-loved indoor mode was abandoned in FIFA 99 as the main gameplay was developed to have a better flow and response rate, and for these reasons, this format was deemed unnecessary. Despite this, FIFA 99 attracted a criticism that would dog the FIFA series for years, in that it merely provided superfluous players updates and new teams without drastic gameplay changes.
The criticisms were relatively unfounded, as FIFA 99 went on the become the best-selling game in the UK, a breakthrough almost unthinkable back in 1993 when the game was widely expected to fail.
FIFA 2000 had the unusual distinction of including a third-tier English side for the first time. It has long been conjectured that their inclusion came about as Robbie Williams, the artist behind the game’s theme song “It’s Only Us” and avid Port Vale fan, requested that they were added to the game.
The first signs of a career mode were present in the FIFA series as gamers could now play in more than one consecutive season, with promotion and relegation also a possibility. The faster gameplay also pleased fans of the game’s discontinued modes, although noise was beginning to swell about a game that could knock FIFA off its perch as the number one football video game.
FIFA 2000 also denoted a significant step for the game regarding esports competition as the game featured at the inaugural World Cyber Games in Yongin, South Korea in October 2000, and South Korea’s own Lee Ji-hun won gold against Taipei’s Huang Y-Kuei to become the first-ever FIFA world champion. FIFA continued to feature at the World Cyber Games until the tournament ceased in 2013, and interestingly Elite Series star deto of Epsilon eSports won the same tournament twice in consecutive years, with his wins coming in Busan, South Korea in 2011 and Kunshan, China in 2012.
As the 20th century drew to a close with unfounded Y2K fears and the divisive release of the Star Wars prequel trilogy, the FIFA journey was far from over, and the advent of improving consoles and internet access would take FIFA to all new heights in the next decade.
Next up, we take a look at how FIFA established itself as one of the biggest games in the world, and how it's rivalry with other sports games came to define its role in the world of football video games.