After Smallpools’ “Dreaming” popped up in the FIFA 14 soccer video game, singer Sean Scanlon noticed something had changed: his Los Angeles electro-pop band began booking more college gigs. The fans reacted differently, too. “We’d get to the soundchecks, and we’d have students who wouldn’t even know what our band was called go, ‘Yo, FIFA’s here!’” Scanlon says. “We’d kind of be branded with that. That was huge for popularity on the younger front.”
As the FIFA World Cup opens Sunday (Nov. 21) in Qatar, the 29-year-old video game franchise based on the international sport, which allows Playstation and Xbox users and others to simulate tens of thousands of real-life soccer stars, is maintaining its global popularity. The 2023 version is at No. 8 on the NPD Group’s list of the year’s global best-sellers, and the FIFA series has scored 325 million sales overall, according to Electronic Arts. This sales power has been a unique song-breaking opportunity for artists going all the way back to FIFA: Road to World Cup 98, which licensed Blur‘s woo-hooing “Song 2.”
Over the years, the game has used music synchs from Kasabian (whose “L.S.F.” appeared in the 2004 game, the first of many for the band) to Billie Eilish (“you should see me in a crown” was in FIFA 19) to Glass Animals (whose “Heat Waves” was in the 2021 game, then hit Billboard‘s Hot 100, where it rose to No. 1 in March). “You see a noticeable uptick in streams,” says Adam Faires, manager of U.K. electronic-music duo Jungle, whose “Busy Earnin’” was in FIFA 15 and has since streamed nearly 120 million times on Spotify and has 30 million YouTube plays. “You can almost pinpoint it to the exact moment that the game comes out.”
The game provides different looks for synchs — some artists hit the soundtrack, airing prominently throughout the game, some are in marketing trailers, and certain stars, such as Jack Harlow and Rosalía, design custom uniforms as kits to be unlocked during the game. “It’s a little ahead of the curve. They’ve done a great job of breaking artists over the years,” says David Nieman, Interscope Geffen A&M Records’ senior vp of sports and gaming, who has placed Tierra Whack, Louis The Child and other synchs in FIFA. “We see followers increase, we see streams increase, then we see other people wanting to license that song after FIFA is taking that risk.”
Game giant EA Sports launched FIFA in 1993 as an international counterpart to its American-focused Madden NFL franchise, but the soccer game didn’t turn into a song-breaking fixture until the early 2000s. That was when Steve Schnur, an early MTV programmer who’d been a promotions, marketing and A&R exec for Elektra and other labels, took over the music. Schnur’s vision was to turn FIFA into its own music company, scouting and breaking new acts.
“The producer at the time wanted to record a symphony to do an orchestral score,” Schnur recalls. He had grander visions. He instructed EA’s music staff: “We’re going to make the real estate of FIFA really important real estate, where people discover their next favorite band with no global barriers.” After that, FIFA soundtracks expanded, breaking tracks by artists old and new, including Ms. Dynamite, Avril Lavigne, The Dandy Warhols, Junior Senior and even Radiohead.
“All of the artists got it,” says Schnur, Electronic Arts’ worldwide executive and president of music. “They knew that they not only played games, but their audience played games.” Artists featured in FIFA often expanded their touring business, reaching “a huge part of the world that potentially terrestrial radio and streaming services don’t have the same impact,” says A/J Jackson, frontman for pop-rock band Saint Motel, which landed “My Type” in FIFA 15. “We noticed in our shows, especially in the U.K., we were getting football fans and hooligans jumping around and chanting their team name. It exposed us to a lot of new people.”
The FIFA game sound, as defined by Schnur and Electronic Arts music supervisors such as Cybele Pettus, has a “particular mix of that DNA,” including world, electronic, hip-hop and pop, says Jonathan Palmer, BMG’s U.S. senior vp of creative synch, who has placed many tracks in the game over the years. Looking at artists on this year’s soundtrack, including Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Biig Piig, Black Thought and Danger Mouse, he adds, “That’s a great day at Lollapalooza.”
When Palmer worked on synchs for Columbia a decade ago, he placed Foster the People‘s “Call It What You Want” in FIFA, which helped extend the band’s post-“Pumped Up Kicks” run. “This just felt like a good fit — not just for the tone and style for the music, but also for the fact that they’re massive football fanatics. It culturally made sense,” he says. “People were showing up at shows and telling the band, ‘I heard your song in the game.’ This was making a difference.”