Global Economics

Soccer Cup's Online Parallel Universe


EA Sports launches a virtual version of UEFA Euro 2008 where European fans can lead their country's team to victory

The scene is a public park in Geneva. Fans are waiting to watch the June 8 European soccer championship match between France and Romania on a giant outdoor screen. One impatient 12-year-old decides to take matters into his own hands, and sets the teams' players in motion on the pitch via a true-to-life game on his palm-size Sony PlayStation Portable console.

The video game, called UEFA Euro 2008, allows the young fan to simulate the match before the real one starts. "He wanted to take part and predict what was going to happen," recounts Matt Bilbey, marketing director at EA Sports, a division of U.S. gamemaker Electronic Arts (ERTS), who chatted with the young video game player at one of Geneva's so-called fan parks.

EA Sports has licensed naming rights from the Union of European Football Assn. (UEFA) and has for the first time launched a console-and-online game in parallel with the quadrennial European soccer championship. The three-week event, known this year as Euro 2008, kicked off June 7 and includes matches among 16 national teams.

Be Captain of Your Country's Team

This year's UEFA championship will be the most Web-centric in history. More than 100 million visitors are expected to visit the tournament's official Web site during the period surrounding the event. EA Sports hopes to entice many of those cybersurfers to participate as well in online "virtual" soccer matches via their game consoles. Some 250,000 people already have taken part in EA Sports's Euro 2008 online competitions since they launched on May 20, Bilbey says.

To take part in the online match, players start by installing EA's new UEFA game (which is being sold only in Europe) on their Sony (SNE) PlayStation or Microsoft (MSFT) Xbox console. Once connected, gamers can become captain of their country's team and play on the same team with up to three friends. The package of console game and online access, priced at around $93, lets players simulate scheduled championship games or create their own scenarios.

One especially enticing feature: Fans in countries such as Britain that did not make the finals can still win bragging rights by participating in an online Battle of the Nations, a game that allows any one of 52 European national teams to enter the finals and vie for the title. "The only way that my fellow countrymen and I can enter the finals is via this game," says Bilbey, who is British.

The Interactive World Cup

Think of it as a new form of fantasy football—one that further blurs the lines between the virtual and physical worlds of sports. EA Sports has been heading in this direction for some time. Some 15 years ago it launched a series of soccer games under the FIFA label—using the name licensed from soccer's global governing body, the Féderation International de Football Assn. (FIFA). Since then, the game franchise has generated $2 billion in revenue, and EA now hosts its own "virtual" annual football season that culminates with an Interactive World Cup.

As the real world UEFA championship was about to kick off, the virtual FIFA season was heating up. Around 32 of the world's best interactive footballers met face to face on May 24 to compete for the title of FIFA Interactive World Player 2008. Spaniard Alfonso Ramos beat American Michael Ribeiro by a score of 3 to 1, winning $20,000 in prize money and an invitation to the World Player Gala in Zurich on Jan. 12 to rub elbows with real football stars.

It's All Over But the Game

While there is no similar prize planned for winning the European cup's Battle of the Nations game, there is plenty of enthusiasm among Europe's fans for the EA event because what's at stake is not just the honor of their teams, but of their nations. "As of this morning the French were winning," Bilbey said during a recent interview. "Nothing like how they have been playing in real life."

As for the real UEFA Euro 2008, EA Sports says it has determined who could be the victor. Using the simulation engine in its video game, EA Sports tested all 16 teams playing in the competition and determined Portugal would win 2 to 1 against Italy to capture its first European championship. In the simulation, goals from Deco and Cristiano Ronaldo gave Portugal a 2-0 lead early in the second half of their playoff, before mid-fielder Andrea Pirlo scored in the 75th minute to bring the Italians to within one point of the championship. In the end, however, Portugal survived a frantic final 15 minutes in cyberspace to capture the Henri Delaunay Trophy.

Fans will have to wait until June 29 to see if the real world results match that of the virtual season.

Schenker is a BusinessWeek correspondent in Paris.

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