Andrew Wilson's vision for EA Sports will bring its games closer to the reality of sport than ever before
The location for our meeting with Andrew Wilson is Stamford Bridge, the home of Chelsea Football Club, but despite Wilson being a longstanding Chelsea fan, he isn't here to take in a game. Instead, he's giving a talk to a room full of representatives from the world of real sports about what they can learn from the world of videogames.
In this interview, EA Sports' executive vice president - and since the promotion of Peter Moore, de facto leader - discusses the increasingly blurred lines between real and virtual sports, what that means for a franchise like FIFA, and how to keep innovating when critics and consumers have offered their full approval.
Q: Last time we talked Peter Moore was still head of EA Sports. A formidable figure.
Andrew Wilson: Yes, he's quite a character.
Q: EA Sports made great progress during Moore's tenure. How do you view his legacy? What did he bring to the label?
Andrew Wilson: Peter put sports as a genre back on the map. I've been at the company a long time, and when the label structure was first put into place something had happened in the industry. When I started playing games as a kid, that's what I played - I played sports games.
But little by little, sports games got the reputation of being poor quality, iterative, just roster updates, and what Peter was able to do was shine a light back on sports. He helped people understand that it isn't just iteration for the sake of iteration.
Peter Moore gave us a pride to build sports games again. I think that maybe we'd lost a little of that
Andrew Wilson, EA Sports
He put the brand back on the map internally in the company and in the industry in general, and he gave us something to rally around, he gave us a pride to build sports games again. I think that maybe we'd lost a little of that.
Q: It is difficult, because the iterative nature of sports games is a necessary evil to a degree. The real sports run to an annual cycle, so it makes sense that the virtual versions should do the same. Is the real battle finding ways to make the consumer see that tight regularity as a positive thing?
Andrew Wilson: I look at FIFA. Right now that's a 91 or 92 rated game depending on the platform; it was, I think, 89 last year, and 91 the year before. The industry, the media and the consumer are recognising that there's a lot going on in sports games beyond just a roster update.
Now, in defence of the industry, I don't think we were always putting in the level of energy and commitment that we do today, which is necessary to deliver these games. So the feeling five years ago that we weren't doing everything we should be wasn't necessarily misplaced.
Q: Is that change all about extra effort? The boom in online over the last five years, particularly on consoles, has given you the tools to make a live experience, which can incorporate more aspects of the real sport.
Andrew Wilson: That has been a big shift for us, but we're really only now starting to see the results of that. We launched EA Sports Football Club with FIFA 12, which is really a 365 days-a-year service. The game you buy today is going to be very different to the game you buy six months from now, based on what's happened in the real world, based on the challenges we provide that you've taken up, based on who you play with, what your club is.
That has certainly added to the feeling that sports games are really innovating, and that's really what drives year-round purchases. Right now, I think sports is a leader in the industry in terms of delivering a live service that actually changes day-to-day.
Q: The EA Sports strategy includes console, social, mobile, Ultimate Team and Football Club for FIFA. Your customers are going to be very well prepared for most of the predicted upheavals in the way we buy and consume games in the future. It's almost like your future-proofing them.
Andrew Wilson: What we've got is a really engaged consumer base. What we know about our sports consumer is that the relationship they have with their club, and the relationship they share with other fans of that club, are some of the strongest relationships in their lives. So an experience that allows them to re-enact that reality through interactive entertainment drives a level of engagement that most other genres can't deliver.
There's an identification that people have with sports games that can't be easily replicated. Most of us can believe the fantasy that we could play for Chelsea; we've kicked the ball around, we believe that we understand what that feeling is and that we can replicate that in a game.
Most of us haven't been in Afghanistan with an M16. We want to relate to that, but for me, personally, the relationship to sports is much, much stronger. First-person shooters are great games, they're great escapes, but the longevity behind the relationship with your team and other fans is exponentially stronger.
Q: We last talked at Develop, where you gave a talk about how the industry can survive in a more consumer-driven future. Today, you gave a similar talk to a very different audience.
Andrew Wilson: Really today was about how the learning that we have in the games industry around putting the consumer in the centre of every strategy can apply to other industries, whether it's managing a football club, or a brand, or a soft drink, or whatever it might be.
Most of us haven't been in Afghanistan with an M16. We want to relate to that, but for me the relationship to sports is much, much stronger
Andrew Wilson, EA Sports
Q: There were a lot of representatives from the real world of sport in the audience, from ESPN to, as you say, people from actual football teams. How interested are they in what's being doing at EA Sports right now?
Andrew Wilson: We're seeing more and more interest. I think they've always had an affinity with a game like FIFA - they always thought that was kind of cool - but what they didn't realise is the level of engagement that could drive.
I talked today about a stat: Tottenham vs. Arsenal on the weekend had about 35,000 people turn up to the game... Straight after that we pushed a challenge out to the Tottenham and Arsenal fandom and we had ten times that many people try to relive that game virtually, and in the broader day we had 8 million games of FIFA played online - just on that day.
So when you talk to people about that, you say, listen, you can get 35,000 people in your stadium, and engaged. Well, you can get people watching television, but that's kind of a passive experience. Or, we can drive ten times the stadium capacity, specifically around that game, and we can have 8 or 10 million games of FIFA a day. The level of engagement and interactivity we can drive with your team, and what we can tell you about the people who are playing as your team in the game - that was very interesting to them.
Q: How much more closely will you be working with, say, ESPN or Sky Sports? An idea like Football Club must be extremely powerful for them, and it's really only just getting started.
Andrew Wilson: At the very centre of all of that is data. We get a lot of it from broadcast, a lot of it from people playing our games, and that's valuable to both types of companies. We already have a tremendous relationship with ESPN, and we do a lot of things with Sky right now. I think those relationships only get stronger,a dn that happens because, again, the consumer will want that.
These days you sit and watch a sports game, you have your iPhone and your iPad there on the couch. You're getting stats from other games in the league and from other sports, and so this concept of connected platforms is as important to a broadcaster as it is to us.
Q: How accurate are the results produced by the data behind EA Sports games? Can you simulate a game in FIFA and come out with the same result as in the real match?
Andrew Wilson: We do a little bit of that now. For the most part any team can win on the day, but we use our engines as predictors of outcomes all the time. And not really to predict the outcome but to start a conversation... We simulated Tottenham vs. Arsenal ahead of the game and put the result on our Facebook page, and there's millions of people interacting with that and talking about that.
I would love to think that we could reach a point where our data was so pure we knew what Wayne Rooney was gonna do before he did.
Q: Alex Ferguson would probably like that, too.
Andrew Wilson: So we're a way off from that, but certainly we're getting greater fidelity and greater authenticity in our data every year, and adding more and more traits to players. In the old days, each player would have 10 or 20 traits that governed how they operate, so you had this very regimented type of play. Today, we have over 100, not just traits, but tendencies - so, what would that player do in context? How does the player operate with three minutes to go when their team is losing and they're playing into a headwind? What happens?
We're now starting to put player traits and tendencies in a real physical world, and we're getting outcomes that are very, very dynamic. That's going to change the way people play the game.
Q: FIFA launched recently with week-one sales of 3.2 million - more than any game launch this year.
Andrew Wilson: Yes. It's legitimately large now [laughs].
While we do a lot of things really well, there are other players in this industry and other industries that do tremendous things that we can learn from
Andrew Wilson, EA Sports
Q: FIFA tends to dominate the conversation when it comes to EA Sports, but all of the core franchises have performed well.
Andrew Wilson: NCAA, the biggest year. NHL, the biggest year. Madden is up. FIFA is up. It has been a very, very good year for EA Sports.
Q: But that presents its own challenges. You come from a development background, and when you've achieved so much there's a danger of resting on your laurels. For a long time the FIFA team was driven by the desire to get to pretty much where it is now. So what then?
Andrew Wilson: The EA Sports team as a whole is at a point where they accept the responsibility to make great games - you can't lose that fire in the belly. But we challenge them to start looking at other things: let's look at what Battlefield 3 is going to do and how big that launch is going to be; let's look at what Need For Speed has done with Autolog and asynchronous play and see what we can learn from it.
While we do a lot of things really well, there are other players in this industry and other industries that do tremendous things that we can learn from.
Q: Are you looking at other sports, so you can spread the reach of the label? 2K is doing a very good job with its basketball franchise, and then there's rugby, cricket.
Andrew Wilson: We're looking at where we can build the best games. For us, having breadth is important, but not to the detriment of building quality experiences, and while we do this as a passion the economics have to work. And the challenges around your rugbys and your crickets, unfortunately, mean that what it takes to build a 90-rated sports game is not something those markets can sustain right now.
And so our focus is football, and American football, and golf, and hockey, and absolutely basketball - we are investing big there to come out with a bang next year. And I look at other things like surfing, and fighting, and rugby, and cricket, where maybe the experience may end up being in a different context: maybe it's a social game, maybe it's an iPhone game, where the development budgets aren't in the $20, $30, $40 million plus bracket.
Because that's what it takes to deliver a quality experience, and that's why some of what you see from other developers doesn't match the FIFAs and the Maddens. It's hard to make the economics work.