Can UFL find success by hitchhiking on the Ronaldo effect?
As far as footballing games go, EA FC has now monopolised the industry, with main rival Pro Evolution Soccer being driven to the retirement home in favour of a free-to-play eFootball title, which hasn't made a dent into EA's armour.
The FIFA series, now under EA FC, has been almost untouchable. The only other footballing games to have succeeded have pivoted to the party genre, if you can actually include Mario Strikers and Rocket League.
Now though, a new challenger has been stirring in the wings. As UFL nears a Beta test launch, it has earned the backing of its major flagship star, as the legendary Cristiano Ronaldo has plundered $40 million of his own cash into the title.
The Ronaldo effect could see UFL launch with mass interest
On the list of already-approved licenses, UFL has a range of teams and players signed up. Some notable teams include West Ham United, Monaco, and Celtic, while ambassadors such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Oleksandr Zinchenko, Romelu Lukaku, Kevin De Bruyne, and Roberto Firmino will all help pioneer the game.
What might be one of the best licensing deals of the footballing era is UFL's handshake to get $40 million of Cristiano Ronaldo's money. By taking the Saudi Pro-League's rise in popularity as a case study, through the Ronaldo effect, UFL's launch could get off to an absolute flying start. It's thought this may be why delays have come into play to make sure the title is ready to impress.
According to Transfermarkt, the Saudi-pro league saw a rise of viewership in stadiums by over 60% in the 22-23 season after Ronaldo moved to Al Nassr FC. This figure is set to increase by another 12.5% in the 23-24 season if the average attendances continue in the same fashion as the first 19 games of the 34-fixture league, taking the Ronaldo effect to a 72% increase in bums-on-seats since he joined.
But his effect is best relayed globally, as, according to FirstSportz, TV viewership soared 700% in the first week that Ronaldo signed for the Saudi team. This has also led to a massive TV rights deal from DAZN to push the league even wider.
With UFL benefiting from the Ronaldo effect, his loyal fan base could easily be swayed away from competitor titles, just as La Liga and Premier League advocates are now tuning into his fixtures.
Put that alongside an already massive football game market that could be swayed to ditch the EA FC 25 $70 price tag for a fun free-to-play game, UFL does actually have all the makings to kick off on the front foot.
Will the UFL gameplay hold up?
Getting the ball rolling in the right direction doesn't win football matches, meaning you have to put the ball in the back of the net to take the lead, and this is where UFL's existence will be won and lost. First things first. UFL is not going to directly be an EA FC replacement.
The game is a completely online title that will remove all elements of pay-to-win. This is a dig at EA, which doesn't necessarily sell pay-to-win items in FC 24 (although this could be on the cards amid Evolutions and a possible Player Market like NBA 2K), but does allow for gambling purchases to be made over and over - where better-value packs can be bought to include better-rated and higher-performing players.
Strikerz Inc has also openly revealed that their genre is not "arcade" like EA FC and will be more of a middle-ground between arcade and simulation/realism, but also allowing for different metas to be formed.
In this case, tactics will come more into play over the repetitive arcade feel of perfecting certain skill moves that manipulate the opposition AI. For example, again comparing it to FC 24, EA deliberately made dribbling the main focus of this title. The best way to succeed in the game is to perfect wing-play, using skill moves and dribbling techniques to create space to cut the ball back and use shooting PlayStyle+ features to find the back of the net.
So far, the gameplay appears to allow for many more realistic playstyles. Think Pep Guardiola's tiki-taka, Jurgen Klopp's gegenpressing, or Sean Dyche's route-one counter attacks. Each team has a different style, players with different habits, and that usually doesn't translate to football games. So, here UFL will let players find their own style, and while some tactics will be more 'meta' it won't be as repetitive as its competitors.
Early footage of UFL does raise suspicion. The developers have openly admitted to disliking their own through ball system, which will undergo treatment before the next wave of playtests, and questions have arisen as to how the AI will move.
From the gameplay footage released, the AI appears to be quite robust and robotic to the tactics, leaving little room for fluidity, something that EA FC has conquered.
For UFL to keep that influx of players it will inevitably get from Ronaldo's influence, it does appear that the game needs to lean into its off-the-ball gameplay a bit more, and allow players to worry about what happens when the ball is at the feet of CR7.
Still, there is a gap for a clever football game, and who is to say that UFL can't be a worthwhile competitor to the market that can topple the giant, or at least live in cohesion with EA FC akin to VALORANT and CS:GO?
It's a bit David vs Goliath, but when your right hook has over 750 million followers on social media (Instagram and Twitter combined), one punch might be all it takes to win the fight.