FIFA 21, the latest entry in the long-running football video game series, boasts of featuring over 17,000 real-world players. Two high-profile footballers from that large database, however, have questioned the use of their names and likeness in the game, shining light on the complex world of footballers and their image rights.
On Monday, AC Milan striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic tweeted that developers EA Sports were “making profit on my name and face without any agreement all these years”. Tottenham winger Gareth Bale later joined in with the hashtag “#TimeToInvestigate.”
23 years after he was the cover star of FIFA 98, David Beckham is back in FIFA 21 as an icon.
The graphics have come on a bit 😅 pic.twitter.com/MnK6r5G1Bp
— ESPN UK (@ESPNUK) November 18, 2020
The comments come after The Mirror reported details of David Beckham’s deal as an ‘icon’ with FIFA, claiming the former Real Madrid and Manchester United star will be appearing in the game on a three-year contract worth £40 million — “more money for being in the game than he did kicking a ball for real”. EA Sports called the figures “sensationalised.”
Ibrahimovic has been part of the series since the FIFA 05 edition. Bale has been playable since FIFA 07 and was the cover athlete for FIFA 14 and 17.
FIFA 21 video game series: How have Ibrahimovic, Bale reacted?
Ibrahimovic claimed EA Sports had been using his image without his permission, and also questioned the right of players’ union FIFPro to sell his likeness.
“Who gave FIFA EA Sport permission to use my name and face? @FIFPro? I’m not aware to be a member of Fifpro and if I am I was put there without any real knowledge through some weird manoeuvre. And for sure I never allowed @FIFAcom or Fifpro to make money using me (sic),” the former Barcelona and Manchester United star wrote. “Somebody is making profit on my name and face without any agreement all these years. Time to investigate (sic)”
Ibrahimovic’s agent Mino Raiola later tweeted his client’s post, adding: “Hope we get the answer to our letters now @Ibra_official (sic)”
Raiola, whose other clients include the likes of Paul Pogba, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Marco Verratti, Gianluigi Donnarumma, Matthijs de Ligt and Erling Haaland, later directed another tweet to EA, saying, “FifPro and AC Milan do not have players individual rights as I’m sure you know and as we’ve told you many times @easports (sic)”
Bale responded to Ibrahimovic’s tweet, saying: “@Ibra_official Interesting… what is @FIFPro ? #TimeToInvestigate. (sic)”
Bale’s agent, Jonathan Barnett, told Guardian that potential legal action was “something that is being looked into”.
“At the moment, the players don’t get paid. Our big gripe is that Fifa are coming out with lots of rules and regulations saying that they are looking after the best interests of players but obviously they don’t,” Barnett said.
According to The Athletic, several leading players are poised to follow suit and protest against the use of their likeness.
What are image rights?
A player’s image comprises name, nicknames, likeness, image, photograph, signature, autograph, initials, statements, endorsement, physical details, voice and other personal characteristics. Image rights can be used by brands if they sign a deal with a player, but it can get a little more complicated when football clubs or other such teams come into the picture.
The tussle over image rights points to the changing dynamic between a club and a signed player. With footballers increasingly part of the entertainment and brand space, clubs look to acquire high-profile players and monetise them to boost revenue. This can include commitments to broadcasters, team sponsors, social media activities and, yes, a video game. FIFA 21 is the official video game of both AC Milan and Tottenham.
The “image”, however, can be exploited collectively — by broadcasters and clubs as a group of players — as well as by individually through third parties, sponsors and, again, the club. These deals therefore are negotiated as the parties see fit. 📣 Express Explained is now on Telegram
What have EA Sports said?
In a statement to BBC Sport Wales, EA Sports said: “EA Sports Fifa is the world’s leading football video game, and to create an authentic experience year after year we work with numerous leagues, teams and individual talent to secure the rights of player likeness to include in our game.
“One of those is a long-standing relationship with the global representative of professional football players, Fifpro, which partners with a number of licensors to negotiate deals that benefit the players and their unions.”
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What is FIFpro?
FIFPro — Federation Internationale des Associations de Footballeurs Professionnel aka the International Federation of Professional Footballers — is a players’ union consisting of 65 national associations.
In a statement on its website, FIFPro describes one of its key principles as “A player’s name, image and performance may only be commercially utilised with his or her consent, voluntarily given.”
The union negotiates the naming and image rights deals on behalf of the member nations and players. Other duties include supporting players through welfare programmes. This year, FIFPro offered financial help to players whose contracts were terminated due to the Covid-19 pandemic. In September, with several European countries enduring the second wave of infections, the union held an urgent meeting with FIFA to discuss concerns regarding international games.
Interestingly, while Ibrahimovic claimed not to know “what is FIFPro”, the Swede was included in the FIFPro World XI in 2013 and collected his award during the Ballon d’Or ceremony in Zurich.
What are the current rules for EA Sports acquiring the image rights of players?
FIFPro negotiates a collective bargaining agreement with video games’ manufacturers and usually passes the money to national unions to pay the players. For countries which are not members, FIFPro may strike special deals. In other cases, the names, likenesses might be held by an individual player himself, his club or the national federation. Premier League clubs, for example, sell their licensing rights for video games collectively.
Italy’s Serie A is the only one among Europe’s top-five leagues which does not collectivise its video game licensing rights. Deals with video games in Serie A thus are on a club-by-club basis. Juventus, for example, signed an exclusive deal last year with Pro Evolution Soccer (PES) — FIFA’s competition from the Japanese company Konami. FIFA 20 therefore couldn’t use any Juventus imagery and had to field the Italian giants under the name ‘Piemonte Calcio’. Cristiano Ronaldo, however, was present in both games, hinting that the superstar owns his image rights.
So, while AC Milan signed an exclusive deal with FIFA this time around, Ibrahimovic’s move suggests that the club may not hold the 39-year-old’s image rights.
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Have there been such situations before?
Brazilian players have often resorted to legal action as the country doesn’t have an arrangement with FIFPro. In 2017, more than 20 Brazil-based footballers — including Santos goalkeeper Vanderlei, former Brazil full-back Kleber, and Maxi Biancucchi, Lionel Messi’s cousin who plays for Bahia — won damages for money “owed from as far back as 2007”. According to The Athletic, 450 players in Brazil won a settlement of R$6.5 million in June this year on similar grounds.
One of the earliest, and most high-profile case, of a footballer suing a video game company for image rights was Oliver Kahn’s in 2003. The legendary German goalkeeper won a lawsuit against EA Sports for featuring him in the FIFA World Cup 2002 video game. While the makers had obtained the licence to use real players from both FIFPro and the Bundesliga, Kahn wasn’t part of the collective deal. As a result, the game was banned in Germany and Kahn never appeared in a FIFA game. He did return to the virtual field with an appearance as a ‘legend’ in PES 2016.
In 2016, president of the Icelandic football association (KSI), Geir Thorsteinsson, disallowed EA from featuring the team or its ‘Viking clap’ celebration.
“They are the ones buying these rights and they almost want it for free,” Thorsteinsson told BBC Sport. “I really feel if we are giving away rights, or offering rights, it has to be proper negotiations and fair fees. I didn’t feel that this was done in a fair and open manner. The performance at the Euros show that we are quite a good team and many would like to play with our team.”x
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