After the messy break-up of the 30-plus year relationship between EA Sports and FIFA, the first football game from EA without the FIFA license is finally here. What can sales figures tell us about gaming and the power of a license? Did EA Sports make the right decision to abandon the license or has it been an own goal for the gaming giant? Read on to find out.
Elsewhere, we take a look at the most frightening and exciting licensing deals in video games from this year’s Halloween celebrations, and why the rise of K-pop integrations in video games – such as La SSerafim’s upcoming debut in Overwatch 2 – shows no signs of slowing down.
On a seperate note, the latest episode of our Licensing in Games podcast features Ricardo Briceno, chief business officer at Gamefam as our special guest. Gamefam develops some of the most popular IP-based experiences on Roblox, making this episode a must-listen for anyone interested in metaverse activations. Listen to it here on Spotify or YouTube.
You’ll find our top picks for video game licensing deals, as well as the latest news on collaborations, brand partnerships, and in-game events from the last month, below.
If you’re struggling to find a link between your IP and the video game you’re looking to license into, seasonal events such as Halloween can provide an opportunity for integrations between games and IP that might typically be considered a ‘mismatch’. With that in mind, here are some of the most impressive licensing deals that took place in the video game world this Halloween, featuring Jigsaw, Spawn, Michael Myers and more.
Alan Wake, Michael Myers and Jack Skellington join forces in Fortnite
Battle Royale fans were treated to a real “Fortnitemare” this year with a trio of terrifying skins based on famous spooky characters. First up was Alan Wake, who arrived just in time to promote Remedy’s highly acclaimed sequel – which also happens to be published by Epic Games (no coincidence there). He was joined by Disney’s Jack Skellington and Michael Myers complete with an emote of him playing Halloween’s iconic theme on a piano using a machete.
Jigsaw brings terror to Roblox with ‘SAW X: Survive the Obby’
Following the recent announcement that Roblox would allow creators to build experiences for people aged 17 and over, it was only a matter of time before things got a lot more gruesome – and who better to unleash a blocky bloodbath than Jigsaw? The diabolical puzzle master invited players to complete a virtual twisted obstacle course as part of a collaboration with Lionsgate to promote the theatrical release of SAW X.
Hellish horror stars come to Call of Duty
Call of Duty has collaborated with a number of classic spooky franchises over the years, bringing iconic characters such as Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s Leatherface, Donnie Darko’s Frank and Scream’s Ghostface to the battlefield. Activision took things to another level for this year’s Halloween, introducing a terrifying ensemble of Dark Horse Comic’s Spawn, Evil Dead’s Ash Williams, Hellsing’s Alucard, He Man’s Skeletor and Lilith from Diablo IV.
Station to Station and Choo-Choo Charles
Station to Station is a ‘minimalist and relaxing game about building train stations’. There is nothing relaxing about its in-game collaboration with Choo-Choo Charles, which licenses an anthropomorphic spider train from the indie horror game. Typically, there would be a reasonable scenario where these two games would ever come together, but as this latest trailer proves, Halloween can make it happen.
King Kong: Skull Island goes viral
We saved the most frightening licensing deal till last: Skull Island: Rise of Kong - which is scary for all the wrong reasons. This new title, based on the classic film franchise King Kong, has been trending throughout October for its disappointing gameplay, poor graphics and technical woes. Allegedly, it was made in just a year by overworked devs working with only a limited budget, demonstrating why licensors should carefully choose gaming partners and ensure deals allow enough time and budget to maximise the potential of the IP in the gaming space.
Of course, it’s likely that there were external factors at play here, and the end quality of the game is no reflection on the talent of its developer. Game development takes a lot of time to get right, especially on the latest hardware, and rushed development cycles often means no one wins and can reflect badly on studios, publishers and license holders.
FIFA and EA Sports had a stellar relationship lasting more than three decades. So much so, that FIFA is probably the first thing people think of when they consider football video games. The long journey started when the first FIFA game was licensed on the Sega Mega Drive for FIFA International Soccer 93, and the rest, as they say, is history.
FIFA went on to be a global success, with over 50 video games generating more than 325 million sales, making it the sixth best-selling video game franchise of all time. So when the news broke last year that EA Sports and FIFA would part ways, you could see why, according to TalkSport, it was considered to be ‘the biggest cultural split since The Beatles’.
Just so you’re up to speed, the reason for the split was ‘ultimately’ down to money. The last licensing deal between the two organisations was struck in 2013, when EA and FIFA signed a ten-year agreement. During that time, EA was paying FIFA an estimated $150m per year for the use of its license. However, in the negotiations that led to the split, FIFA was demanding almost double that amount. This was in part due to the fact that EA confirmed that it was making £1.1bn per cycle from the football game and FIFA wanted a bigger slice of that very large pie.
Fast forward to the present day, the split has happened, and in September, EA released its very own iteration, without the FIFA license, called EA Sports FC. And FIFA, well, they’ve not really done anything despite promising to create the ‘best eGame for any girl or boy’.
Life after the FIFA license
When EA Sports lost the FIFA license, it expected a short-term loss and the predictions were true. Since EA Sports FC has been released, it’s been reported that physical sales of the game are down 30% year-on-year. However, it's important to note that physical sales are down across the board in the gaming industry. According to an article by GamesIndustry.biz, physical sales of video games in Europe fell by 9% in the first half of 2023.
Despite this, EA Sports FC has still got off to a strong start. The game has attracted more than 11.3 million players worldwide in its first week, compared to the 10.3m players in last year's FIFA 23 during the same period. EA Sports President Cam Weber also confirmed there has been a new influx of players in the game, and that the figures suggest there are nearly 20% more new players in EA Sports FC than the game’s predecessor.
So, how has EA Sports had such a strong start after losing the FIFA license? A lack of real competition from other game publishers? Perhaps. Fan familiarity with the gameplay? Maybe. But these are essentially just theories. When we consider what’s happened from a licensing perspective, the reasons for EA Sports FC’s success become more obvious: EA may have ditched the FIFA name, but it’s kept the licenses for the biggest leagues and most iconic clubs.
The publisher and developer is no stranger to licensing IP into its games and understands the importance of fan immersion more than most. Speaking with the BBC at the time of the FIFA split, David Jackson, vice president at EA Sports, explained that the studio was looking forward to exploring the opportunities of licensing agreements with different organisations. And, following the loss of the FIFA name, EA Sports worked quickly to secure some of the biggest names in the football industry.
They’ve secured a licensing agreement with the Football’s European governing body, UEFA, for its competition’s, branding, and broadcasting likeness. EA Sports also secured the licenses for world-renowned leagues including the Premier League (England), La Liga (Spain), Serie A (Italy), and the Bundesliga (Germany). And arguably the most important, EA Sports secured a contract extension with FIFPRO, the global representative for professional football players, for the use of player likeness in the game. Through these agreements, the game currently has over 700 teams, 30 leagues, and 19,000 licensed players and continues to grow.
Arguably, one of the biggest appeals of the FIFA games has always been the extensive list of global leagues, clubs, and players it features. When you compare the growth of EA Sport’s FIFA games to Konami’s Pro Evolution Soccer, the biggest difference was EA let fans play in recognisable stadiums at their favourite clubs, and control their favourite players.
Player names and likeness have always been a fundamental part of creating a successful football game. Tower Studios CEO Jon Hare, best known for the Sensible Soccer series, stated in a recent interview with GamesIndustry.biz: “It has always been vital to use the names of real players to authenticate a football game and to elevate it above being merely a trivial, sports-themed frivolity,"
After all, playing a game where you emulate David Beckham’s famous free kick against Greece at Old Trafford is immeasurably better than scoring with D. Baythom against Greece at Trafford Bricks.
Ultimately, EA has enjoyed a strong start for EA Sports FC without FIFA. Since its launch, EA Sports FC 24 has had over 14.5m active accounts playing the game, which has resulted in EA net booking reaching $1.82b, a 4% increase from last September. EA Sports, has even agreed deals with several brands including Pepsi, Nike, and Beats.
Around this time last year, we wrote an article on the Layer website exploring whether Overwatch 2, Activision’s team-based shooter, would be able to replicate the success of Fortnite’s branded collaborations. Unlike its prequel, Overwatch 2 is a free-to-play live service game, so Blizzard relies on generating revenue through the sale of in-game items such as character skins rather than direct sales of the game.
That said, no one was expecting Blizzard to team up with La Sserafim, one of the hottest K-pop groups in the world, for a unique limited-time collaboration. While Overwatch 2 doesn’t seem like the natural choice for a K-pop collaboration (we’ll go into that further down), this deal is indicative of the growing relationship between video game studios and K-pop stars.
In the last year, we’ve seen K-pop boy band BTS licensed into Cookie Run: Kingdom, Girl group BLACKPINK perform a virtual concert in PUBG: Mobile (as well as releasing their own mobile game), and most recently, Riot Games announce their new virtual band, HEARTSTEEL, featuring Baekhyun from the K-pop group EXO.
There is, of course, a natural affinity between video game players and K-pop fans, something Korean video game studios such as Devsisters (Cookie Run: Kingdom) have been able to capitalise on. It’s estimated that nearly 75% of South Korea’s population play video games, and, according to Spotify, some of the most popular playlists in the country focus on K-pop artists.
And then there’s Riot Games, best known for developing and publishing the MOBA game League of Legends. They’ve spent the last five years merging the worlds of K-pop and video games with their virtual K-pop group, K/DA, who have over 3 million monthly listeners on Spotify, placing them in the top 1% of most-listened-to Spotify artists.
So, while there’s already a link between K-pop and gaming, there was no obvious connection between Overwatch (nor Activision) and K-pop, meaning this announcement caught a lot of people off-guard. Fans were also sceptical about how Blizard would integrate La Sserafrim’s character skins into the game.
Unlike Fortnite, where players choose to play directly as characters from other popular franchises such as Dragon Ball and Star Wars, Overwatch 2 is a hero-based shooter where players choose from a roster of 38 heroes, each with unique skills. This means Overwatch 2’s purchasable character skins are themed on licensed IP and worn by existing characters, rather than being a complete transform.
When the collaboration was initially announced, fans were left wondering which of the game’s 38 heroes would get a La Sserafim makeover, but we now know it’s D.Va, Brigitte, Kiriko, Tracer, and Sombra from the group’s latest music video. We’re yet to hear how much these skins will cost, but legendary skins in Overwatch 2 cost 1900 coins, the rough equivalent of $19 (although it’s important to note that coins can also be earned in-game).
With live-service video games such as Garena, PUBG: Mobile, Fortnite and Overwatch 2 growing increasingly reliant on licensing IP to support their in-game collaborations and K-pop’s global takeover showing no signs of slowing down, you can expect to see even more K-pop in video games. And with Overwatch 2 fans seemingly ecstatic about La Sserafim’s integration into the game, we wouldn’t rule out another K-pop collab in Overwatch.
Here are some of our other favorite brand collaborations, licensing deals and partnerships from the last month.
And in other news…