Regardless of World Cup, EA Sports Predicts an American Triumph

Landon Donovan's miracle goal on Wednesday did far more than propel the United States to the World Cup's knockout stage. It's made America the No. 1 soccer video game market on the planet.

So says Electronic Arts, whose FIFA series of console games is both the biggest-selling and highest-rated sports video game in the world. Already expecting a surge of newcomer interest thanks to the World Cup Finals, the American success has Matt Bilbey, EA Sports' vice president of football, predicting North America will overtake the United Kingdom for sales this year.

"The U.S. market was our No. 4, in the world, four years ago," Bilbey said. "This year it will be our No. 1 market.

"I made that statement to the general manager of our U.K. territory," said Bilbey, himself an Englishman, "he's taken that as a personal mission to see to it that does not happen."

Granted, EA Sports has shipped one more soccer console game in 2010 than it does in regular years - that being 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa, the standalone title featuring all national teams and the world tournament itself. But by the time FIFA 11 deploys in October, Bilbey expects America to be the world's leading footballing nation, at least in video games.

EA's latest research - "We probably know more about soccer fans than any other business," Bilbey says plainly - pegged North America with about 20 million people who either owned a PlayStation 3 or an Xbox 360 and identified themselves as soccer fans. That was before the World Cup kicked off in South Africa on June 11.

After Donovan's goal past the 90th minute against Algeria raised the United States from elimination to the winner of its group stage, Bilbey's counting on more coming to the sport. "If we were to re-run that study today, those (console owners) ticking the box where they either like or love soccer, you probably add another five million," Bilbey said.

Compare that to England, a nation mad for football but practically saturated in the market sense. "The U.K. audience in comparison is still a great opportunity, but it's probably half the opportunity," of the U.S., Bilbey said.

At last check - in February - FIFA 10 had sold nearly 10 million copies, trailing only Modern Warfare 2. The World Cup game released in late April, adding to that total. So, the shot at a record above those figures definitely snaps EA's head to attention.

"Let's say, this week, it's been a lot easier to get things approved," Bilbey chuckled.

Wednesday, he and the FIFA team reported for work at EA's Vancouver offices at 7 a.m. local time, going directly to a campus auditorium where both the England-Slovenia and U.S.-Algeria matches were playing on a split-screen. "We avoided the 7 o'clock beer, considering the work we had to do later," he said. "But the celebration we had afterward, I probably jumped higher when Landon scored than when England scored. You couldn't have written that any better."

Regardless of World Cup, EA Sports Predicts an American Triumph

Though a devout England (and Tottenham Hotspur) partisan, Bilbey's joy for the U.S. national team is still personal. Donovan has a visiting relationship with EA Sports FIFA going back to its 2002 World Cup title on Xbox, GameCube and PS2, and will occasionally Tweet video game challenges to other players. "He's a longtime fan and friend of EA Sports," Bilbey said.

Clearly, that means Donovan's got the North American cover for FIFA 11, right? FIFA typically reveals its cover subjects in August, and so Bilbey steadfastly avoided any answer.

"Fortunately, we already have a relationship (with Donovan)," Bilbey said, "whereby if he wants to be a part of the game, we agree to it."

The lay speculation has it that the only way Donovan doesn't return to this cover (he's appeared on FIFA 2003 and 2007 in the States) is if he and the Americans do something so extraordinary he becomes too expensive even for EA Sports. Such a situation beggars the imagination.

But in a sense, EA's gains have already been made, although something unprecedented - like an American semifinal berth or ... well, let's just leave it there - would shovel more coal into the soccer furnace here. The simple fact is nothing will ever stain the memory of Wednesday's dramatic victory, already called the greatest in American history, and fans will at minimum remember that when it's time to buy.

And, typically, they stay. The last World Cup year, 2006, FIFA had just begun its stunning turnaround in quality, the U.S. suffered two awful defeats, didn't advance, and the game still saw a 30 to 35 percent spike, Bilbey said. "Some take a year off, but in that year, new people also come in," he said. "It does have a sustainable or a continued growth effect, multiplied to a certain degree."

But for all the excitement on this side of the Atlantic, EA Sports could be managing hurt feelings in markets on the other. Italy, the defending champion, couldn't advance past the group stage. Other European football powers have absorbed disappointing or questionable results that temper their fans' enthusiasm. "We are in the footballing gods' hands," Bilbey said. "Our French market is probably not going to do as well; soccer is now a dirty word in France for at least the next three or four weeks," following a set of shameful tantrums and a winless capitulation that have fomented a national crisis there.

But Bilbey's most extreme scenarios for 2010 are not of the worst-case variety. He believes the U.S. have an excellent chance to reach the semifinals, despite having never won more than one elimination game (in 2002) in its history. England are on the opposite side of the bracket. In the way are elites such as Germany, Argentina and, not least, the nation that retired the tournament's first trophy, Brazil.

So it's fun for Bilbey to daydream about his two best customers meeting July 11, in a clear-the-decks epic that goes something like five goals each in full time and then into a tiebreaker echoing that seen at Wimbledon on the same day America beat Algeria.

Put on the spot to pick a winner - between his country and his business - Bilbey does not hesitate.

"I was brought up family first, and I would never be allowed to step foot in my family home if I say anyone but England," he said. "And I have to stick with my roots. It's been too long since we've won."