Peter Moore is a former pro soccer athlete, and so he knows the mixed emotions people feel when they describe professional video game players as esports athletes. The chief competition officer at Electronic Arts prefers to call the emerging cyber-athlete phenomenon as “competitive gaming.”
In the past couple of months, EA announced its own strategy for embracing esports. Moore said that includes forming EA’s own world-class tournaments, prioritizing games such as FIFA, Madden, and Battlefield. EA will also partner with other esports leagues such as ESL, and it will also invest in amateur competitions so every gamer can compete.
But the company has a lot of work to do in catching up with rivals such as Riot Games, which has its own esports empire with League of Legends, and Activision Blizzard, which acquired the MLG esports league. For EA, the path into esports is complicated. Plenty of fans won’t watch EA Sports games as spectators because they are too busy watching physical pro sports such as the NFL and the NBA.
Moore talked about these challenges — and hinted at an announcement coming at the Gamescom event in Germany — with Game Awards host Geoff Keighley at our GamesBeat 2016 conference last week. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation. You can also watch the video embedded below.
GamesBeat: You now have a new role at EA, focused on — I was going to say “esports,” but I read in an article today that EA prefers to refer to “competitive gaming.” What’s the difference?
Peter Moore: I want everybody to think of competitive gaming as a pyramid. We see a lot of tiers. It’s an incredibly exciting space. Esports is what we see at the professional level, focused on all the excitement we’re seeing now. You saw the Turner Sports numbers that came out yesterday. It’s what we see as event-based. It’s an important part of the ecosystem.
Our focus, however, is making stars out of all of our players, looking at the base of the pyramid: 60-70 million young players who aspire to be part of esports. The real action that we see, where we can help build community and build out the ecosystem, is at the base of that. We see a better term for that, which is competitive gaming.
GamesBeat: So even if you’re playing your friends, you want to know who’s better and rise from there. Whereas traditional esports is very high-level professional players. That’s what they do as their job. EA obviously sees it as a funnel that has a lot of people at the top. But one question a lot of folks have — EA thus far — I don’t know if this is fair to say or not, but I’ll say it anyway — it doesn’t feel like EA has a big competitive game yet.
Moore: That’s fair enough.
GamesBeat: The sports stuff is huge, but — you guys have done the Madden Challenge for many years. It hasn’t crossed over to the level of some of these other games.
Moore: We’re in a 12-step program. We’re no longer in denial. We have been what we like to call, quite frankly, some of the pioneers in esports in the FIFA Interactive World Cup. Ironically I was on the other side running Xbox, where we dragged EA to Zurich to meet FIFA, explained to FIFA what the internet was, and figured out how we would build massive online tournaments as part of the Xbox 360 launch plan.
But we’ve never scaled. When we look at what esports, competitive gaming is today, we’ve got games that are somewhat relevant, but we don’t have games yet that scale. It’s very much a patient, thought-out, three-year strategy for us to bring engagement as the key to what we see in competitive gaming. That starts at the bottom, building ladders, tournaments, matchmaking, anti-cheating — we see it at a platform level. And getting the right games.
Our sports games, FIFA and Madden, are huge opportunities, but we have to build modes in those games that make them pertinent and relevant. Shareability, spectator mode, building in-game ladders and tournaments. We think matchmaking is incredibly important, particularly when you think about working your way up that pyramid to finally be a part of esports.
We’re not in denial. We know the work we need to do. But as you’ve seen over the last couple of decades, once we get going on something and put our mind to it, we can serve competitive gaming well.
GamesBeat: FIFA is a massive game globally. Can FIFA be as big as League of Legends?
Moore: It’s a good question. On the pro side, you have the world’s biggest game, soccer. You have the world’s biggest sports video game, FIFA. You have certainly a global reach. Whether you’re a soccer fan or not, you can watch soccer and understand it. I love League of Legends. Do I really understand it? No. You have that accessibility.
On the flip side, competitive gaming currently is a PC free-to-play MOBA-dominated environment. That’s great. We need to complement and add to that with games that have broader mass market reach, that give relevancy and credibility to competitive gaming, to people who don’t even understand video games. FIFA is the best opportunity for that. Closely followed by Madden NFL as well.
The conversations we’ve been having over the last few months with both FIFA and the NFL are, how do we work together as partners to build — patiently, over a three-year period — these two games to complement everything we see right now with the excitement that surrounds competitive gaming? That’s our goal. And then a little thing called Battlefield, obviously. You could even squint and see a Titanfall 2, or a Plants Vs. Zombie: Garden Warfare as very powerful esports games. But it’ll take us a little while.
GamesBeat: Years ago, when I was doing stuff on Spike TV, we had a partnership with you guys for the Gillette EA Champions of Gaming. Which was ahead of its time. Big athletes playing with real fans.
Moore: Tiger Woods, Roger Federer, Thierry Henry, Derek Jeter.
GamesBeat: That’s the other thing that presents an opportunity with sports, tying in the real athletes in an interesting way and making it more mainstream.
Moore: In New York City — I just saw a tweet, J. R. Smith in a Bayern Munich uniform as we’re launching FIFA 17. Bayern Munich is in New York City playing against other gamers. So you’re right.
The idea of competitive gaming is, at its very roots, you versus me on the couch. We’ve done that for decades as an industry. Where we’re at today is millions of people competing. To your point, when we look at the potential that is FIFA, and the potential in particular of a global competition bringing China, the balance of Asia, even thinking about how we start bringing African nations into this — certainly we have the western world wrapped up. The potential is huge. But we have work to do. We’re not in denial about what we need to do.
GamesBeat: Do you think the idea of people watching virtual sports can scale?
Moore: Plus and minus with virtual sports. The plus, it’s sport. Everybody understands it. It’s watchable because you understand the rules of the game. You know when a goal is scored. You know it’s a corner kick or a penalty in FIFA. The minus is there’s a real alternative to watch. League of Legends, DOTA 2, CS: GO, Overwatch, there’s no real alternative. It is the real thing. The challenge we face is we’re competing with the sport itself.
We’re coming off a summer where you had the Euros in France and Copa America right here. At the same time, hundreds of millions of people are watching that. You have to nudge your way in there. It’s all going to be about the calendar. The one thing we’ve learned over the last 10 to 12 years is, what we haven’t done well is give a FIFA gamer or Madden gamer 12 months of the year. What Valve and Riot do brilliantly, and Activision Blizzard, is they’re now getting into a rhythm where every weekend there’s something. Something to compete in.
There’s content, the shoulder programming. Let’s get the stories behind these players. The very basics. You were at the Madden Challenge at EA Play. We had a big upset. Stiffmeister comes in and beats Problem. That was an upset, like in real sports. We had a kid from New Jersey — 28 is a kid to me — only been playing Madden for three years. It was an emotional moment from him.
Tell you a little story. He comes off to the side stage having won, big upset, and he’s crying his eyes out. We’re about to go on stage together to present the trophy and ESPN is doing it live on ESPN2. He says to me, “OK, I’ll pull myself together.” I said, “Don’t pull yourself together. This is just fine. Show the emotion. Show what this means to you. That’s what sports is all about. You’ve just won a big competition. You’re about to go on ESPN and accept a trophy. This means a lot to you.”
This juxtaposition we’re now seeing of traditional sports with esports and competitive gaming is exactly what we need. We need the emotion of sports. We need the relevancy of big prize money. We just announced a million-dollar pool for Madden. I’ll be making a FIFA announcement in Germany in a couple of weeks as regards what our competition looks like there. All of sudden we’re catching the attention of Turner, with E-League. They posted some big numbers yesterday. ESPN, they’re showing games that have zero linkage to sports itself.
We as an industry have done brilliantly over the last 20 years at inserting ourselves into the conversation of broad-based entertainment. When I launched the Sega Dreamcast with my team, it was the biggest 24 hours in entertainment history. $99 million. It’s been usurped many times over since, but as an industry we’ve constantly felt we needed to insert ourselves. We’re an $84 billion business in the last calendar year.
With what we’ve been talking about today, VR and AR, and certainly with competitive gaming, these are the accelerants that will keep pulling this away from movies and music. Everything we do is interactive. That’s always been the key. I can’t think of anything more than competitive gaming as regards millions of people now coming together on singular platforms with the goal of being that world champion. And shame on us as an industry if we can’t get broad spotlights on that, get the recognition we deserve. Somebody can go all the way to win the FIFA Interactive World Cup deserves the adulation and respect that a traditional soccer player does when he or she wins a medal, wins a cup. That’s our goal at Electronic Arts.
GamesBeat: One thing I’m sure you think about EA, you have sports games with yearly iterations. You reset the clock every year when FIFA 17 or 18 comes out. You look at DOTA, CS: GO, these are platforms. They upgrade the game, but the players are all on the same base. How do you think the idea of these yearly updates to games correlates to esports? What challenges do you have to overcome because you do a new game every year?
Moore: We update every single day in both FIFA and Madden with Ultimate Team. If you’re not familiar with Ultimate Team, it’s a mode in both games, as well as hockey, that allows you to build your own ultimate team. Whether you’re playing for the Maple Leafs or Liverpool or the Patriots, you can be selected as part of the ultimate team.
The key to that whole thing is, how do we compete with each other? There’s a strategy element that then puts us on par with League of Legends in a mental way. What team do I need? I’m about to play Keighley’s team. He’s strong in midfield. Who do I get for my midfield players? It’s not that I play as Liverpool. I play as Peter FC. That becomes the real wild card of people getting excited every day. My team, Liverpool, are playing right now in St. Louis against Roma. People will be watching that and playing their ultimate team. They’ll be looking at players. How is he playing tonight? They’ll adjust their lineups, millions of people around the world.
You have this breathing organism now. The old model was, the FIFA team in Vancouver deliver a great game, go to the beach for two weeks, rinse and repeat. Forty percent of our dev team now is live operations. They stay and focus on what’s happening in the real world of soccer. What’s happening on the pitch is impacting what’s happening on hard drives. They focus on bringing that excitement of sports back and merging the lines.
If we can capture that in competitive gaming — it’s different from what League of Legends and DOTA and CS: GO and Overwatch and Hearthstone do, but in the same way, it defeats the problem we had where these games were annual iterations. They’re daily iterations now. They reflect what goes on in the real world. We can bring that to life with competitive gaming.
GamesBeat: A lot of folks here are thinking about the market, about business opportunities. TBS is doing leagues. You have MLG with Activision, ESL, all these other leagues. How does EA look at that market? How do you work with these? Are they partners are competitors? Will you run your own leagues?
Moore: We see the entire ecosystem as an open platform. We have the greatest respect for ESL, who’ve worked with us for a number of years now. You meet with the Dreamhack people and you love what they’re doing.
Our job over the last six months was to learn where we thought the opportunities were. We look at platforms like Twitch. We acknowledge and revere Twitch for what they’ve done in bringing competitive gaming to life for anybody that has a PC. They can watch what it’s all about, learn the strategy, learn about the personalities, and bring it to life in a way that traditional media like television couldn’t. God bless what Turner’s trying to do, but it’s challenging to do that in a world where our gamer is more likely to be in his or her bedroom with their rig going, watching Twitch and playing League of Legends at the same time.
We’re talking millennials, right? Going into the living room, sitting on a chair like this, waiting for a sitcom to come on at 8:00 is ridiculous to them. They’re an on-demand culture. They believe in streaming. If they can’t find it live they’ll go find it on YouTube. That’s what we see, again, as the secret sauce of what competitive gaming brings.
GamesBeat: When you look at what you’re doing at EA with any of these games, are you looking for partners to bring these to life? Are you going to create your own league and run it like Riot? What’s the strategy?
Moore: I certainly love, again, what Twitch does. It’s an open platform strategy for us.
GamesBeat: You work with everybody.
Moore: You have to. The strategy is simple. You build community. We’re not in denial, again. We don’t have a community around FIFA or Madden yet that comes anywhere close to what the powerful competitive games have — the MOBAs in particular. We even look with awe on what MLG did in the old days, which obviously caught Activision’s attention. They continue to build their own platform, and that’s fine. But we have to build community. The best way to build community is to make it open.
What you don’t want is to shut down points of distribution that gamers are used to going to and watching. They want to watch and participate and learn. They want to learn tactics. They want to have teams. They want to go watch Evil Geniuses or Fnatic or Cloud 9 play and learn from them. It’s very much an open platform strategy. If you as a media distribution outlet are going to benefit competitive gaming, then good for you and we’re in.
GamesBeat: When you think of all these games, is EA interested in running its own league? Is there a circumstance under which you would do that?
Moore: With the Madden Challenge, what we said there — whether it’s a league, it’s tournament-based. FIFA Interactive World Cup may be the world’s first competitive gaming league. It goes back to 12 years ago when I grabbed Clive Downie from EA and said, “Let’s go to Zurich and build this thing.” And we did. We ended up with the FIFA Interactive World Cup finals in the shadows of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin at the 2006 Germany World Cup. We had the winner of the FIFA Interactive World Cup on stage at the Ballon d’Or, which is the world’s best players. We had Shevchenko, Ronaldinho, and Thierry Henry, and then a young man from Brazil stood there sheepishly on stage because he won the FIFA Interactive World Cup.
It’s part of the strategy. You have to get what we do on par with traditional sports. We don’t get respect yet, but we will. It’s very much an open platform strategy, though.
GamesBeat: You say you don’t get respect. What do you mean by that?
Moore: I’ve been on enough panels in the last two-three months where, when you use even “sports,” which is why I try to not use that word — that seems to be a lightning rod of discontent. Look, I love sports. I played. I came to this country to play soccer. I still run and work out. I see myself as an athlete. I get what that means. But millennials coming through have a different point of view.
Our friends at the NFL, our partners, and our friends and partners at FIFA will say their number one concern right now is that they’re not refreshing their consumer base with the next generation. There are so many distractions. Electronic media, social media, esports coming up in every single conversation. Our job is to convince them not to eschew it, not to marginalize it and push it away, but to embrace it.
GamesBeat: The NFL is worried that League of Legends is taking screen time away?
Moore: The NFL, rightly so, smart people, say that they have to be a part of this. They can’t, because of what they call “the shield,” stay blind to what’s going on. This sounds ridiculous, but you have to go into the bedroom and grab them. Or you have to be part of a Twitch community. You have to be part of competitive gaming. That’s what we’re working on with the NFL. They get it. They understand it. Same with FIFA.
The biggest issue is the big brands. They’ve previously, for decades, relied on my kids watching television and choosing Coke versus Pepsi. McDonald’s versus Burger King. All of a sudden they’re not in the living room anymore. That chair in front of the TV is empty. What do they have to do? They have to chase those kids. I hate to use the analogy about chasing them into the bedroom, but that’s typically where they are. What’s the best platform to do that? Competitive gaming.
The engagement numbers, the amount of time spent — 90 to 120 minutes — if you can do it well, as a non-endemic sponsor, and not feel like you’re trying to insert yourself where you don’t belong — well, first of all they have no choice. Otherwise they’ll not have the platforms to be able to speak to this next generation coming through. This is what we say.
Our global media solutions group here in L.A. — every brand is saying, “How do we do this, but do it properly? How do we do this where we’re seen as supporting rather than sponsoring? How do we see this as ‘Powered by Coca-Cola’ rather than ‘Sponsored by Coca-Cola’?” That’s the challenge. We’re seeing a tremendous amount of interest from the big brands in being a part of it. But again, being a part of growing it rather than just slapping a logo on.
GamesBeat: What role do you think TV has in this? I spent ten years doing television. Now I’ve moved to doing things like the game awards all digital, all online, because that’s where the audience is. Even the E-League did well on Twitch. The TV numbers were OK, but not great. Is TV an important part of the strategy to mainstream this? Or is it not needed?
Moore: TV plays a great role in packaging it up, maybe doing the highlights, but what TV can do really well — ESPN does this brilliantly. We’re about to see the Olympics in Rio. What does NBC do brilliantly? They make us care. Do we care about synchronized swimming? Not really. But do we care about the girl who’s fought her way from a disadvantaged youth to be a swimmer and go to college — all those tear-jerking stories that NBC has done, NBC makes us care.
What we need to do is build stories around Stiffmeister. Why do we care about him? Because he’s a hard-working kid from New Jersey who spent three years learning Madden and practicing. He supports his family now through video gaming, which as you know thousands of people do. He’s a great story.
Just before we came on stage I was at the Adidas MLS challenge on Friday night in San Jose. The winner of that, the FIFA competition, got so excited — I met his girlfriend that night. At 10:30 at night we were chatting. The next day he says to me, because of the excitement of winning the championship, he proposes and she says yes. What a great story, right? Those are the things we have to package up.
We have to make people care about competitive gamers. They can’t be seen — this is the perception — as nerdy, cheese-Dorito-chomping, Mountain Dew-guzzling — not that there’s anything wrong with that. But recluses in their mom’s basement, that’s the perception the mass market has, and we’re not that. I was on a panel with Andy Miller, who owns NRG. He had to explain that he has nutritionists down here where NRG is based. They have training sessions. They focus on strategy. They live in a house together. No different than a traditional sports team.
We have to get that message out. Otherwise we’ll always be marginalized as nerdy kids who can’t do real things, so they live in virtual worlds and they try to make money that way. Nothing could be further from the truth.