EA Sports has done business with all three going back to the mid-1990s, largely avoiding any mudspatter for their misdeeds or calls to sever ties with them. EA was, after all, one of a few major brands not to cut loose from Tiger Woods when the golfer was at the center of an absolutely humiliating scandal involving marital infidelity and sex addiction five years ago.
But whatever controversies EA Sports' licensors have attracted going back to the 16-bit console era, they didn't result in charges commonly brought in mob trials. This morning, Swiss authorities collared seven FIFA officials on racketeering and money laundering charges at the request of the U.S. Justice Department, which is asserting jurisdiction under laws it uses to prosecute terrorists who use American banks for their activities.
The case centers on the naming of — read: bribery that secured — Russia and Qatar as World Cup hosts for 2018 and 2022. The bribery allegations themselves are not a surprise. Vote-buying accusations closely followed the December 2010 announcement giving the tournaments to those two nations.
World soccer's governing board faces charges reserved for terrorists and mobsters
What's remarkable is that someone, much less seven, from world soccer's aloof plutocracy actually made a perp walk for this, even if that perp walk was discreetly shielded by hotel linens.
After FIFA retroactively whitewashed and sealed an independent report it commissioned on the matter — even appending blame to England's Football Association — most reasonable persons gave up hope anyone in its regime could be held accountable. So today is a righteous comeuppance for FIFA and its president, Sepp Blatter, whose 17-year tenure has overseen allegations, from petty vote-trading to outright match-fixing, that American sports fans would consider fatal to any league's credibility or continued operation.
That's the funny thing, though. FIFA is not really a league, even if its name is on a video game just like the NFL, the NBA or the NHL. It's simply a bureaucracy, one that stages a tournament every four years among national teams, not professional clubs. Except in World Cup years, FIFA's presence is nearly as irrelevant to EA Sports' soccer video game as the NCAA was to EA's now-defunct college football title. And EA was ready to proceed without the NCAA's name on a college football game, before the lawyers pulled the plug.
It's fair to ask EA how it views its 23-year relationship with FIFA in light of the latest developments, and we have. We'll update our story here when they reply. Yet it's also fair to ask, especially with FIFA's leadership hauled in like mobsters and terrorists, what EA gets from that relationship going forward.
FIFA is not a sports league; it's just a bureaucracy
FIFA's high-level corruption, and the ongoing reporting on slave labor used in its name to construct lavish sports palaces in the middle of the Arabian desert, don't endear the organization to the image-conscious multinational corporations it needs prop up its events. No less than Sony recently opted out of a $277 million deal putting PlayStation's name at midfield of FIFA events. Sony politely cited rising sponsorship costs as the reason, but global peers have followed suit. FIFA's brand is undeniably toxic.
Yes, that's different. As Peter Moore was fond of saying when he was EA Sports' boss, making Madden NFL isn't the same as slapping The Shield on a can of beer. If NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and his top lieutenants were arrested like FIFA's executives this morning, Electronic Arts would face the impossible choice of continuing a partnership with a criminal regime or outright canceling a product that delivers hundreds of millions in revenue. You simply cannot make an American football game without the NFL and still make money — ask Backbreaker (2010) and All-Pro Football 2K8 (2007).
EA no more needs FIFA to make a game than McDonald's needs it to make a Big Mac
But Pro Evolution Soccer — assuming Konami still cares to make video games — did just fine without FIFA licensing. This year's game played better than FIFA 15, and PES was the dominant soccer video game throughout the lifespan of the PlayStation 2, the greatest selling game console in history. EA Sports overtook PES because EA Sports got serious about beating PES, not because it suddenly acquired FIFA credibility. FIFA has been EA Sports' exclusive partner going back to 1993.
Who knows what EA pays to FIFA today, but three out of four years what it pays for, mostly, is marketing, a name that conveys the authority of the sport's ultimate governing body — and denies it to a competitor. Maybe it needed FIFA in 2005, but today EA Sports no more needs FIFA to make a compelling soccer game, featuring the world's top professional teams and stars, than McDonald's needs FIFA to make a Big Mac.
EA could rightly see this partnership as damaged goods as of right now. It seems certain to get worse. Blatter, perhaps not coincidentally, is up for a reelection on Friday — the FIFA commissioners arrested were done so at the body's annual meeting. Many expect he'll continue, which will further cement the image of FIFA as inveterately dishonest.
The Justice Department, under a newly installed attorney general, vows its investigation has only begun. Whatever it turns up will be uglier, and our prosecutors will look to put FIFA's ass on the wall not only for our national pride (the U.S. bid on these two Cups), but also as a brofist to our angered allies in England and Europe. Who knows if someone really ends up in jail for this, but the next two World Cups, and a decade of news reminding us of the ugliness that created them, will be embarrassing for any corporation cheerleading for FIFA — video game makers included.
the next two world cups will be an embarrassment
Ultimately, this is what Electronic Arts faces. If it's fair to condemn McDonald's, or Coca-Cola, or Nike, for sponsoring an organization that sold the World Cup to Russian kleptocrats and Qatari slavemasters, then it's also fair to rope in EA — which actually makes a product on FIFA's behalf. That is how branding works. If you buy an organization's prestige, you buy its disgrace. So do your customers.
Roster File is Polygon's news and opinion column on the intersection of sports and video games.