The proliferation and cultural influence of gaming is making an indelible mark on sports marketing. At this point approximately 70%  of 16-24 year olds play video games in the UK. Football clubs in particular, desperate to engage with this hard to reach audience, are making it a key focus of their engagement strategies.
EA Sports’ FIFA franchise, primarily aimed at 16-24 year olds, is the most sought-after platform, generating nearly 18 times  more sales than its closest rival Pro Evolution Soccer.
Consequently, a number of top clubs including Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur and AS Roma have partnered with the FIFA franchise, enabling the co-creation of exclusive content for their respective communication channels.
“Gaming is a powerful tool for reaching millions of engaged fans around the world. We also know the size of the gaming community continues to rise. Therefore, our partnership with EA Sports is a very important step for our future.” Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, CEO Bayern Munich
The partnerships are a fantastic example of clubs investing in a space where their youth audiences are already interacting and engaging, creating a new landscape where the lines blur between the physical and digital worlds.
For example, when Manchester United signed Paul Pogba from Juventus, United’s many gaming fans were immediately rewarded as FIFA ‘18 already had Pogba’s avatar and images made up and live on the game. Equally, Spurs fans were able to view and play in their new stadium in FIFA ‘19, before it opened in the real world.
Players are also blurring the physical and virtual lines, lobbying for their stats in FIFA to be improved and adopting goal celebrations that reflect their digital avatars. Ronaldo’s twirling finger goal celebration at the FIFA 2018 World Cup was a clear reference to his FIFA ’18 skill, ‘El Tornado’ .
The importance of partnering with EA Sports to engage a youth audience was further highlighted when ‘Journey’ mode was introduced in FIFA 17. ‘Journey’ mode is a single player mode where the main protagonist is an avatar called Alex Hunter. Hunter begins his career in the MLS before transferring to Manchester United and, in FIFA ’19, signs for Real Madrid. Naturally, all EA Sports partners.
#WelcomeAlex trended on social media and Real Madrid announced the signing in a video , edited as if it were a real signing. It also included actual Real Madrid players welcoming their new, virtual, teammate.
To new generation fans, Alex Hunter is now a sports star in his own right. He’s an official adidas athlete, sponsored by Coca-Cola and has his own Instagram and Twitter accounts. Alex perfectly demonstrates how the digital and physical worlds co-exist for new generation fans and the opportunity this in turn presents for clubs.
It is clear that a close relationship between clubs and EA Sports is a fantastic way to engage and reward passionate fanbases. However, of potentially greater interest to clubs and indeed other sports organisations is the insight from Infrared’s fan focus groups that such a relationship can also be a catalyst for converting casual fans into higher spending, passionate fans.
The FIFA ‘20 official trailer  revealed ‘VOLTA Football’ for the first time, “a brand-new style of gameplay grounded in football realism”. Expect to see deeper levels of collaboration with players and clubs where it will likely become increasingly difficult to tell the difference between what is real and what isn’t.