In 1999, EA Sports made an agreement with the famous UK singer Robbie Williams to feature his latest single "It's Only Us" as the opening song for FIFA 2000. The publisher had licensed popular music in the past, cutting deals with the likes of Blur, Chumbawamba, and Fat Boy Slim. However, this time, the terms were slightly different. Williams, a self-professed FIFA fanatic, didn't request a ton of money for the use of the track, instead asking the development team for two favours in return: that they add his favourite club, the first division side Port Vale, to FIFA's team selection, and that he be mo-capped and allowed to appear somewhere in the game himself.
Over the last few months, here at Time Extension, we've been speaking to a bunch of former FIFA developers to look into the history of the series and they told us more about the unusual way in which this incredible collaboration came together, pinpointing a random comment that the star gave during a televised awards show as the catalyst for the crossover.
As Tom Stone, EA's former vice president of European marketing, recalls, "It was 1999 and Robbie Williams was at the Brit Awards. He’s won everything: most popular recording artist of that year, and probably three years before that and three years after. He comes out of the Brit Awards and the interviewer says, ‘What are you going to do now Robbie?’ And he said, ‘I’m going to go home and play my copy of FIFA 99.’ So we heard this, we called his management, and said, ‘Was Robbie serious? Was he really playing?’ And they go, ‘He loves FIFA.’"
Marc Aubanel, the senior producer of FIFA 2000, remembers, “Chris [Taylor, FIFA’s audio director] watched that and said, ‘I know his record label’, so he phoned them and they said, ‘He’s going to be in a ski mountain out in Alberta.’ So we were in BC, which was only one province away; that's a two-hour flight. So he hopped on a plane, talked to his manager, and flew over a week later. That was done so fast. And yeah, that was absolutely 100% based on him going on TV.”
There were a lot of people who thought he was wrong for the game because they still saw him as Take That.
If you're wondering what Williams was doing in Alberta at the time, he was in the process of playing a number of shows across North America to capitalize on the minor success of 'Angels', which had peaked at number 53 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100. The star hadn't yet achieved the same level of fame stateside as he was experiencing back home, and still carried with him the stigma of being a former boyband member.
Aubanel recalls, "It wasn’t an easy choice for FIFA. There were a lot of people who were on board because they saw the celebrity and his media reach. But there were a lot of people who thought he was wrong for the game because they still saw him as Take That and his bad thing with the press. His manager at the time was saying that he was making a change from a teen star in a boyband to being a solo artist and he's too old to have 12-year-old girls fawn after him. They said, 'We want him to be more lad-based and connect with the male audience and not be this heartthrob', so they thought this was a branding opportunity. Robbie didn’t care about the [money] at all. He’s like, ‘If you get me in a mocap suit and I can be mo-capped and put into the game, I’ll do it for free.’"
Stone corroborates this: "I think very little money was involved. Because he wanted to do it. He said, ‘I’ll do this for nothing’ and his management was going, ‘Wow, wow, wow, Robbie! I don’t think Robbie means that.’"
As mentioned, Williams ended up contributing his latest single "It's Only Us" to the opening of the game, but he also became one of the motion capture talents used to model the player's movements (alongside the England defender Sol Campbell and MLS star Eddie Pope). He was even given a 3D model affectionately named "Cyber Rob", which appeared in the game, the song's music video, and on Williams's website in the form of a flash animation.
"We built a really good positive relationship with Robbie," says Sean Ratcliffe, one of the marketing people at Electronic Arts Europe responsible for promoting FIFA 2000. "One because he was super passionate about football. He was a massive Port Vale fan. Two, because he loved the game."
He would do things like run out of a cab in Vancouver and just start playing pickup soccer. He was like, ‘I can go anywhere. I can do anything.
"It was a really interesting experience to have the pleasure of hanging out with him," adds Aubanel. "It was also interesting to see because we didn’t have the sense of being a British pop star and not being able to go out in London without having a million photographers photographing every step you take. He would do things like run out of a cab in Vancouver and just start playing pickup soccer. He was like, ‘I can go anywhere. I can do anything. I’m completely anonymous. No one gives a shit who I am.’
Reflecting on his experiences on this North American tour, Williams wrote on his website, "No one knew who I was so I was able to let my guard down and be myself. I chatted to people and they chatted back because they wanted to, not because of who I am. People seemed to be more genuine and that's something I miss. But the best thing I did was just walk. In all seriousness, it was so refreshing to be able to go out and walk down the street without worrying."
When FIFA 2000 was released, the reaction to Williams' appearance was mostly positive, with EA Sports and Williams both agreeing to team up again for another one of the publisher's sports titles: Knockout Kings 2001. Williams again agreed to be mo-capped and was intended to appear as an unlockable boxer. However, it appears that he never made it into the final game, with the reasons for this remaining a mystery. We tried to do some digging into what happened, speaking to former members of Electronic Arts and Black Orbital to find out the cause, but unfortunately, no one could remember the exact details surrounding the crossover and whether any work was actually done on it.
Today, celebrity cameos in video games are becoming increasingly common, but it's amazing to see just how much of an interest the star ended up taking in the project. With the star currently traveling around the world, we have to wonder if he has found time yet to check out EA Sports FC 24, the latest installment in the series and the first to launch without the FIFA branding.