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It's been really enlightening to watch the furor around FIFA on the Nintendo Switch. When EA opened its business lounge yesterday, it was one of the most popular games to play.
When I tweeted out a quick screenshot, it became one of our most popular social media posts of the day, prompting much debate among sports fans and Switch owners alike. Later, Eurogamer called it "the best portable FIFA ever," but added that they wouldn't want to play it on their living room television, spurring even more debate.
FIFA 18 on Switch. Impressions: Looks, plays like pre-Frostbite FIFA as expected. Has AI improvements from FIFA 17 pic.twitter.com/2OQxpI5I26— USgamer (@USgamernet) June 10, 2017
Fair or not, it feels like FIFA is being treated as a kind of litmus test for the Nintendo Switch's long-term viability. Does it look like a game that belongs on the previous generation of consoles? Is EA taking the Switch seriously? Do traditional third-party games have a future on the platform? It's unfair to put so much weight on one game, but that's what feels like is happening with FIFA on the Switch.
The thing is, though, FIFA has always been a weird fit for the Switch. Sports gamers are a finicky lot, and they want an experience that comes as close to replicating the real-life game as possible. That immediately puts the Switch at a disadvantage.
But it's about more than just graphics, or the fact that The Journey won't be included in the package (a concession that producer Andrei Lazarescu says is down to the fact that it's native to Frostbite and can't easily be ported to Switch). As I see it, FIFA on the Switch is facing a couple massive hurdles.
1. FIFA fans have already bought in to the current generation: The PlayStation 4 has a massive install base of more than 60 million users. Xbox One is smaller, but it still has a mature fanbase. Sports fans have long since made the transition to the current generation, where the best possible iteration of FIFA currently exists. Given the choice, they're apt to choose the "good" version of FIFA, with the Switch version being a distant second.
2. The online ecosystem is going to be too small: Ultimate Team and Career Mode will both be available on the Switch version of FIFA, which is a relief. But modern sports games thrive on their online ecosystems. Will there be enough people playing online on the Switch? More importantly, will their be anything resembling a FUT community on Switch? I'm guessing there won't be given that the FUT community is already firmly established on the game's other platforms.
Anecdotally speaking, it's pretty rare for people to play FUT on more than one console at once. Generally speaking you make your investment on one console and focus your efforts there. FUT is a costly and time-consuming mode. Why in earth would you invest on the Switch, where the community can't help but be much smaller, and the actual graphics and gameplay are far behind that of the other versions?
When I put this question to Lazarescu, his main argument was that the Switch is selling well enough to have a healthy ecosystem. "We are definitely look at how best to tune that market and that ecosystem, and there will probably be certain things that we do in the backend to make sure that it's fair, secure, balanced, and everything. But for me as a player, I would not expect to have any different experience than I would have on the Xbox One and PS4. Switch has sold quite well so far, and I don't expect it to have any problems."
Even with the Switch selling very well, though, it's still up against the much more mature ecosystems of the PS4, Xbox One, and PC. EA pretty much has to hope that existing fans will double dip, or that they will bring in a new generation of fans on the Switch, because it's hard to imagine it being the "primary version" for anyone other than the random dad who bought a Switch for his kids and want something to play themselves. It's not helped by the fact that FIFA 18 frankly looks amazing this year—a year with Frostbite has made a giant difference—opening an even bigger gap between the Switch version and the rest.
As it stands, the Switch version's main selling point is its portability. EA makes no secret of the fact that they see the Switch as a portable system, and that they aim to make FIFA on the Switch a portable game. It's the right approach, but it needs to land with a significant audience that primarily values career mode over Ultimate Team or online play, and wants to be able to play FIFA anywhere they go. Unfortunately for EA, Ultimate Team is by far the most popular way to play FIFA, with career mode being a distant third. In that regard, FIFA on the Switch ought to have extremely niche appeal.
For what it's worth, EA is not putting this thing out to die like I initially thought they were. The Switch version utilizes a custom-built engine, and most of the defensive AI enhancements make the transition intact. It definitely looks a lot worse than the current versions—basically a lot like the pre-Frostbite games on PS4/Xbox One—but it's not as noticeable on the Switch's little screen. Lazarescu calls it a "stepping stone," offering hope that it's not going to be another Vita situation, where EA continually put out the same version year after year with no improvements.
But realistically speaking, modern sports games just aren't a great fit for Switch. Sports games thrive on their graphical fidelity and their online ecosystems, and the Switch offers neither of those things. It's playing to an extremely niche audience: the career mode fan who wants to play on the go. Even local players are apt to choose the PS4 version over the Switch version (and why wouldn't they?)
Ultimately, the Switch is selling well enough, and FIFA is popular enough, that it ought to sell enough copies to avoid being an abject failure. But as far as being a success in terms of what EA understands it—millions of copies sold and massive revenues from FIFA Ultimate Team—I'm not seeing it.
If EA actually wants to tap into the Switch's audience, they'd do well to consider reviving the EA Sports BIG label from the PS2 days. Bring back NBA Street, FIFA Street, and NFL Street and put them on the Switch. Those are the games that will thrive on Switch, not FIFA. For better or worse, the Switch is a very different animal from the other consoles. Sports games won't really thrive on the Switch until EA understands and embraces that.