Can Ted Lasso Save EA Sports?

Better graphics is nice. But playing as AFC Richmond is a revelation.

November 9, 2022 8:05 am
A pixellated still from the TV show "Ted Lasso."
For the latest edition of its flagship franchise, EA Sports digitized the boys down at Nelson Road.
Apple TV+ Press

One of the more absurd things I’ve seen on the Internet recently was a tweet from a Puerto Rican gamer who uploaded a screen-grab from his Career Mode campaign in the just-released FIFA 23.

It depicts a digitized Jason Sudeikis, in full Ted Lasso garb, welcoming Paul Mullin — the star striker for Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney’s real-life Wrexham AFC — to the fictional AFC Richmond. Apparently, if you know the right buttons to push, that’s a thing you can do now.

As random as it is to be confronted with a pixelated “Super Paul Mullin” in the wild, it makes sense that you can access Wrexham in the FIFA universe. Even before its celebrity takeover, the Welsh side was a historical club. Lower-tier teams are typically available under FIFA’s “Rest of the World” feature.

But you can now find AFC Richmond under that tab, too. The inclusion of the beloved, “Believe” boys from Ted Lasso is a brand-new flourish from Electronic Arts, which has spent over a year negotiating deals with Apple TV and Warner Brothers Interactive Entertainment, conducting scans of the show’s top talent, and fine-tuning club logos and likenesses — from the crowd roars at Nelson Road to the individual bristles of Lasso’s mustache.

It’s proven well worth the effort. The latest installment of the legendary franchise posted a record-breaking release last month; 10.3 million users purchased the game in the first week. Industry experts can’t pinpoint exactly why gamers are so keen for this year’s drop, but it’s impossible to ignore that Ted Lasso, playable as a gaffer, has already amassed over one million wins in the game.

Ted enters the EA Sports universe at a tumultuous time. FIFA 23 is the very last Electronic Arts video game to feature the “FIFA” moniker in its branding. After 30 years of partnership, in which EA earned over $20 billion in revenu (en route to becoming the best-selling sports gaming series ever made), and world football’s controversial governing body came to count on an annual paycheck of $150 million, the sides finally gave up on a contract extension in spring of this year.

There were disagreements on what, exactly, EA was entitled to moving forward, were it to continue ponying up for the license — higher-ups wanted “highlights of actual games, arena video game tournaments and digital products like NFTs,” according to The New York Times — but ultimately, talks deteriorated over FIFA’s latest asking price: around $1 billion over every four-year World Cup cycle. That’s nearly double what EA was accustomed to paying.

What comes next? EA will continue to produce a more-or-less identical game (it maintains its expansive slate of licensing agreements with organizations like UEFA, which operates the Champions League…yet loses the World Cup, obviously) under the new trademark EA Sports FC, while FIFA appears to be plotting some sort of revenge tour, vowing to make its own video game. It’ll have a hard time finding experts on par with EA’s best; the only “competition” in the space right now is a game called eFootball. Upon its release last year, the game’s graphics were derided as so atrocious that its developer was forced to deliver an apology.

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As publications like Wired have pointed out, moving on from FIFA licensing is probably a blessing in disguise for EA. The FIFA name has been tainted for years; in the 2010s, it became synonymous with corruption and bribery, in the 2020s — and especially over the next two months — it’s come under the microscope as fans, players and journalists have questioned the organization’s insouciant approach to hosting its climactic fixture in Qatar, where homosexuality is still punishable by law, and 6,500 migrant workers have died under the abusive Kafala system, all in the name of building seven new, glittering stadiums.

From that perspective, saving $250 million a year becomes an even simpler decision. But whatever name is on the cover, the FIFA franchise can’t afford to rest on its laurels forever. Video games were a comfort during the pandemic (with sales exploding in kind), but they’re a luxury during a recession. The game sells decently no matter what, regularly selling over 12 million units for its yearly iteration, but not every property under the EA umbrella has done so well (Madden sales have stalled, for instance), and besides, the chatter around FIFA is always eerily similar, and reads something like this: “The developers made a few compelling tweaks, the graphics look great as always, but remind me, why did we need another one of these so soon? What’s different?”

Ted Lasso is different. While critics have offered measured reviews (IGN’s consensus reads: “FIFA 23’s slick and dramatic virtual football is fitting for the series’ last hurrah under its long-time name, but familiar frustrations abound”), fans on Twitter have made their thoughts clear. One user put it simply: “”FIFA 23. Game play sucks but it has Ted Lasso and A.F.C. Richmond.”

Is their first contention accurate? Well, that’s subjective. Regardless, it illustrates the inevitable boredom that can accompany purchasing this game year after year. (Not to mention the irritation many of the game’s supporters feel about the continued presence of “microtransations,” whereby purchasing in-game player packs can help you fill out a roster and beat strangers on the internet.) Releasing a game every year is valuable for EA. So is creating markets within those games. But the trend has also wounded the brand — or at least, sometimes frustrated the fanbase.

But Lasso, who appears free in the game, seems to function as a sort of monocultural olive branch. Forget what you’ve read about “Season 2 backlash” and the like…the TV show is a hit; according to one entertainment analytics site, it’s 44.5-times more popular than an average program these days, and that’s at the height of the hopelessly crowded streaming era. As Cam Weber, executive vice president and group general manager at EA Sports, said to The Athletic recently, “We very much see EA Sports at the center of sports culture and fandom. We’ve been looking for more opportunities to expand our reach into pop culture, sports culture and entertainment.”

EA had to know that some critics would decry Lasso’s inclusion in the game as a “waste of time,” or “a brief novelty.” You can’t make everybody happy. Especially in the Redditor era. What’s more interesting is that EA went forward with FIFA 23 X AFC Richmond despite the fact that Lasso is a bit of a punching bag in real world football. Consider: American managers in the United Kingdom, like Leeds United’s Jesse Marsch, have disowned the character in the past, saying it’s created a stigma.

Mike Keeney, who coaches in Finland, said to ESPN this year: “The little bit I’ve seen [of Ted Lasso], I don’t think it does favors for the image of an American abroad. It undermines some of the work that myself and some of the other guys have been doing, the guys who actually come over to Europe and work and battle.” And Chris Armas, an American assistant coach under Ralf Rangnick’s short regime at Manchester United last spring, was repeatedly mocked by players for putting them through evidently bizarre and old-fashioned training sessions…of the sort that Lasso is famous for on Apple TV+.

The FIFA franchise’s link to IRL football matters — EA has long boasted that its flagship game is a gateway to proper engagement and interest, creating fans (particularly: deep-pocketed and influential American ones) from thin air. Does that process miss a step, or take one in a different direction, when one of the selling points of the game actually isn’t rooted in reality?

Perhaps. But then, EA’s ultimate allegiance is to itself, and to the annual sale of its immensely popular soccer game. From that perspective, 2022 was a smashing success, even if it had to meet its Q4 hopes by unusual means. The culture — reliably shifty and undefined, as ever — isn’t just satisfied with a Jack Grealish strike to the far corner. People want him to get “an extra pass” from Jamie Tartt on the way there. (Who, fictional as he may be, has an equivalent overall rating to Grealish.) Little wonder that Steph Curry, of all people, is now a playable character in PGA Tour 2K23.

It’s possible that these sorts of collaborations open up the floodgates for future “multiverse” licensing agreements. Imagine, for instance, if Warner Brothers signed a deal with Visual Concepts to include a special Space Jam campaign in its NBA 2K series, whereby Bugs Bunny and the gang could suit up alongside the likes of Luka Dončić. (It almost feels like a missed opportunity, after the sequel came out a few years back.) Or what if in 2025, for the 25th anniversary of Remember the Titans, Disney worked with EA to get T.C. Williams High School in Madden NFL 25?

The possibilities are endless, which, for some gamers, could one day prove infuriating. But is now really the time to start worrying about realism in video games? Who among us hasn’t named a “Create a Player” after themselves, then proceeded to hit 92 home runs in a season? Well-placed fictional drops, in all their random glory, might be just what the big gaming firms need to keep the lights on — and what we need to keep coming back.

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