EA isn't new to what they call competitive gaming.
In 2004, the company ran the first FIFA Interactive World Cup and has been hosting tournaments for their sports games ever since.
The publisher opened their competitive gaming division in late 2015, putting a public focus on esports. But EA has a problem that most publishers with an esports title don't: How do you turn two of the most popular franchises in the world into something an esports audience will care about?
Perhaps surprisingly for a company as large as EA, the answer is to start small.
"We went in with a very clear strategy, and that's to make stars of all our players," EA executive vice president and chief competition officer of the company's competitive gaming division Peter Moore told theScore esports. "And that strategy means that we need to build community events, we need to focus very much on building a strong infrastructure that could manage massively scaled online tournaments."
Moore isn't new to the world of competitive gaming, as EA calls it. He headed up EA Sports from 2007, then was named chief operating officer in 2011 before his 2015 move to the competitive gaming division, and even worked on the FIFA Interactive World Cups while he was with Xbox before that. He believes that while the world of esports might not be the easiest to get into, EA's sports games can provide a different sort of window into the scene.
Leveraging traditional sports
Madden NFL 17 was the highest selling game in its launch month, while FIFA 17 outsold its 2016 predecessor by 18 percent when it launched. There's no denying that EA has some of the most popular games in the world, and Moore believes that the universality of those games and the sports they simulate gives EA a distinct advantage in the esports space: accessibility.
"Pretty much anybody, period, can watch a game of soccer or watch a game of American football and understand to a certain level what's going on and enjoy it," Moore said. "I'm not sure that's the case with a MOBA, and we have that advantage. It's eminently viewable and understandable from the get-go."
Moore notes that there is occasionally a disadvantage to that: the fact that EA's competitive gaming efforts are competing with the real thing. It's easy to think that someone would rather just watch a football or soccer game instead of watching a Madden or FIFA tournament, but Moore says it can be an advantage of its own.
This year, the annual Madden Bowl pre-Super Bowl event was a pro Madden player tournament, instead of a match between NFL athletes. EA ran it at the fan festival in Houston, where the Super Bowl was about to be held. Moore said the event got plenty of passersby interested, and that's what helps EA the most.
"You've got a captive audience of 100 percent committed NFL fans and you're trying to show them the power of competitive gaming," Moore said. "So from that perspective, I think that tying it to traditional events is classic marketing of fish where the fish are.
"What we're seeing is they sit down and they think they're going to watch for 30 seconds and half an hour later they're still entranced. They go home and then they see it on streaming, or on traditional media and they become fans."
The value of television
That traditional media is a core part of EA's strategy as well. The FIFA Ultimate Team Championship Series is being broadcast on various ESPN channels, while Univision aired the Madden Bowl. There are more broadcast deals on the way, all to try and hit a consumer outside the standard esports audience.
Esports viewership is entirely internet-based right now, and despite several TV deals popping up over the past year or so, it doesn't seem to be changing anytime soon. But, according to Moore, putting it on TV isn't for that audience, the one that already knows about your game, it's about those passersby at the Super Bowl fan fest, the ones that don't know about it yet.
"I want to watch my soccer team live in England, so I get up at 4 AM. I don't watch the highlights, I get up at 4 AM because I want to see it live," Moore said. "Those people in our core community, they want to see Serious Moe play Skimbo live. Now, there's also an audience that enjoys seeing it packaged up for television broadcast, 24, 48, 72 hours later. I think it's a less core audience, but it's a very important audience, it's the next tipping point of the demographic to be lowered in. They watch it packaged up nicely the next day on ESPN, and then next time they see us live on Twitch they'll sit and consume it live."
Of course, there's no guarantee that will work. There isn't much that proves that being on TV will increase Twitch viewership, but again, Madden and FIFA do have a power that League of Legends and CS:GO don't — more people understand what they're looking at on screen.
Focusing on the individual
There are other challenges. Most popular esport titles are team-based, while EA's competitive formats are for individual players. Moore says that it's something they've looked at, and could consider changing in the future since both games do allow for team-based play, it just doesn't flow as well for competitive play. Essentially, everyone wants to be the quarterback, which isn't exactly feasible. For now though, the individual player scene does fall in line with fighting games and StarCraft's focus on player personalities over team identities.
Still, EA is working on Battlefield's competitive scene for later this year, which will be team based. The game has to change a little — tighter maps, clearer objectives — but so will all of EA's competitive games over time.
"When we think about how we embrace and scale the ability for us to be able to continue to package up our traditional sports franchises into more consumable competitive games, there are things like spectator mode," Moore said. "Things we know we need to do and there's a development road map in place for both our Madden franchise, our FIFA franchise, that he teams in Orlando and Vancouver respectively are all working towards."
For the forseeable future, EA's competitive gaming efforts will be iterative; there's no need to reinvent football just yet. The sports game's aren't the most popular esport viewing experiences, but having some of the most popular games in the world gives them a good launching platform to possibly get there. But beyond the infrastructural investments EA has to make to to get their foot in the door, Moore says that the company has to keep their focus on that strength they have — their enormous player base. From the casual players to the pros who made it to Sunday's FIFA regional final in Miami
"We're about engagement, and again, we're about making stars of all our players," Moore said. "Our focus may be a little different than the other players in the space, but we're as interested in the two young guys who started playing against each other in school on the couch and really aspired to be here in Miami. And yes, it's about the top players this weekend, but our eye is always on the base of the pyramid, and how we can build aspiration models to allow people to continue to play at whatever level they feel is appropriate."
Daniel Rosen is a news editor for theScore esports. You can follow him on Twitter.