In 2019, Barcelona signed a deal with game developer Konami to be a global partner on their PES eFootball brand.
As reported by Sports Pro Media, it was meant to be a headline deal, with then-Barca star Lionel Messi on the front cover and the blue and red featuring prominently throughout the title. At the time, it felt like a groundbreaking move between one of the world’s top clubs and an exciting football title lurking in the shadows for years.
To add context, football games are big business, and by signing a deal to become an official partner, Barca were effectively expanding their marketing strategy. On home consoles, gamers have been enjoying matches ever since the early eighties, playing the likes of Sensible Soccer and FIFA. That’s the same for mobile gamers, with everything from Football Manager to Dream Team Soccer giving players a football experience. There’s even a football title to be found featured on Gala Bingo, namely 11 Champions, which doesn’t put you on the pitch but does play on the recognised imagery of the game. Plenty of other titles do the same; there’s a runner-themed game named Cristiano Ronaldo: Kick’n’Run that has no goal scoring, no flicks or tricks but it is still accepted as a football game.
That last title, mobile-specific and not featuring on-pitch action, typifies the reach football games have. By linking Ronaldo’s name to the game, the developer boosts sales whilst the player earns some money. That’s how Barca must have seen the eFootball deal in 2019; mutually beneficial. They earn money; their brand reaches a wider audience and the developer shifts units. Everyone was a winner, but the opposite is the case as we approach the final year.
The issue is the slow decline of both parties. For Konami, Barca’s appeal was not just the club but the cover stars, the likes of Messi. They didn’t only buy the famous red and blue, the legendary Nou Camp roar, but also the faces and names of some of the world’s best players, many of whom have now moved on. Our crop of exciting young players might be of interest to Barca fans, but do they have the weight to carry the title into a marketing battle with bigger games? Probably not.
Konami needs something to drive their game forward because a disastrous rebrand as eFootball flopped. Still using the Barca players and branding, the game was released last year and quickly became a laughing stock. The graphics looked more like 2002 than 2022, and the gameplay was horrible. For the first time, Konami had plenty of licenses and lost the essence of their PES games; playability. The game was pulled, and even a recent update has not brought players to their screens. Their online play had fewer than 10,000 online at any one time; contrast that with EA Sports’ FIFA series, which has almost 500,000 at any one time, and close to 5m every month. Barcelona are Champions League level, but they’re tied to a game that’s strictly Tercera Division.
Both parties are entering a critical year in terms of their relationship. If Konami is to renew, they’ll need to see the emergence of new stars, global heavyweights that can help drive customers to their flagship title. Of course, the blue and red should be enough, but given how poorly the game has been received, it may not be. As for Barca, they’ll be hoping that eFootball once again rivals EA Sports’ title, especially as the FIFA branding will be gone by 2023. The value of the partnership, in financial terms, is almost certain to be affected by in-game sales and Barca needs good marketing partnerships to increase the playing budget.
The world of football video games is changing, and the next 12 months will be critical in finding out whether Barcelona and Konami will experience that change together, or not.