Mobile Apps, NFTs, and the Metaverse: How FIFA is Innovating its Way to the 2022 World Cup

By Collin Robisheaux |  March 25, 2022

The wildly popular FIFA World Cup, which will bring an estimated 1.5 million football fans to Qatar this November, is fast approaching. Benjamin Stoll, the Director of Strategic Alliances and Innovation at Zurich-based FIFA, football’s governing body, is one of the people responsible for making it an unforgettable experience – on and off the soccer pitch. 

FIFA is synonymous with football. The organization financially and logistically supports over 200 affiliated clubs in different countries; licenses its brand to EA Sports to create FIFA video games; and hosts some of the most-watched soccer tournaments in the world.

“Innovation is a word that can mean everything – and nothing,” Stoll says, unless innovation activity is tied to tangible value creation for FIFA and its constituents. Stoll reports to the Director of Commercial Revenues, and often works with a FIFA innovation task force to execute on ideas. “It’s all about making incremental value creation accessible – and basically, being helpful,” he says. 

FIFA’s “Innovation Programme” has produced several ideas designed to enhance the sport and improve the fan experience, including player performance tracking systems, new kinds of artificial turf, and player scouting systems that leverage AI. Measuring the success of these ideas and determining an execution strategy is the responsibility of FIFA’s innovation team.

We spoke with Stoll to discuss how FIFA is testing out new technologies and exploring the possibilities of NFTs (non-fungible tokens) and the metaverse.

Our approach. We don’t have a centralized approach to innovation at FIFA. Any innovation needs to deliver the respective results.

My colleagues from the football technology and innovation division — they have created goal line technology and video assistant refereeing — they are also looking into standards around electronic player tracking, for instance, and turf quality. They are doing a lot of research and defining standards around everything that’s happening within the game. Then, we have the members’ associations, where we’re looking into what can we provide as services in order to help them as football administrators. We see a larger role that technology can play in the future. Then, looking at it from a commercialization perspective, and also offer a fan-first perspective, what services can we offer? And what’s the why behind that? What are the objectives, and what are the KPIs to measure that?

We are basically organizing the biggest cultural event on Earth, but for a very constrained timeframe. It’s basically one month every four years.

For instance, for an in-stadium app, it can be just the fan satisfaction. But beyond that, there are a lot of models, when you look into food and beverage, when you look into hospitality, when you look into merchandise, where you can increase the spend-per-customer as well. And also acquire really valuable data in order to leverage this relationship to do follow-up communication, further improve the relationship, and then also drive commercial value.

France celebrates with its trophy after winning the FIFA 2018 World Cup against Croatia.

The testing challenge. The challenge [for us in testing new offerings is] that we have is that we don’t have match days, as most of the clubs do, week in and week out. We are basically organizing the biggest cultural event on Earth, but for a very constrained timeframe. It’s basically one month every four years.

We are following a very iterative approach. We only want to launch some products for the FIFA World Cup if we are 100 percent sure that we can deliver those at scale and quality, because the responsibility against the brand is just too high.

To give you an insight, what we’re working on is basically an in-stadium app where we are augmenting the action on the pitch with live data and live information. We are also looking into how can we leverage augmented reality — not only to show to the casual fan who is who and what is their story, but also to leverage graphics and statistics in order to better explain the actions, and give you insights into the match, and then drive completely new narratives around that. 

We are constantly testing. Can we do it end-to-end? Yes, we can. Can we do it at scale in a stadium? Where within the stadium does that work? Where doesn’t it work? What does that mean in terms of concurrent usage? What does it mean in terms of latency? A lot of those things are really complicated. Several technologies need to work together in perfect synchronization. The other [thing] we are testing is the stadium as a multimedia surface. 

At home, when you can jump on Twitter, you have all the replays, so you’re in an advantaged situation. We want to make sure that we can bring all this tech to the spectators within the stadium as well. So they can also jump at any point of time into the action [by selecting a] camera, and then navigating frame-by-frame in order to to find out if it was a handball or not, or just enjoy the goal as many times from whatever angle that they want. This is also a scalability challenge and a latency challenge, because when you look into the fabric of a FIFA World Cup, we not only need to do that at one stadium — we need to do it at eight stadiums, at the highest possible quality… with as many concurrent users as possible.

Then there are things around the rules and the regulations of the game. You’re probably familiar with video assistant refereeing, where we also want to give the spectators the opportunity, as a lean-in exercise, to just pull up their mobile phone and then have a look themselves when an incident is happening. From a pure consumer perspective, just looking at a [referee] who’s looking into a screen, and not knowing what’s happening, is probably not the most satisfactory spectator experience. So those are the things that we are testing.

Will we be ready for the FIFA World Cup 2022? Already, we are in the final stages of the due diligence. But I’m convinced it’s not if we will do that. It’s more a question of when we will do it, and when the technology is ready.

When you look into volumetric video [capturing and replaying video in all three dimensions], for instance, are we already there to make that happen for football? Probably not. But we are looking into what is the benefit to certain client groups, especially spectators. And can we actually deliver that? And how can we prototype around that? And what does that mean for the future, in terms of engaging with younger audiences? I think that’s a really exciting task.

We are really excited about the potential of NFTs as a technology to make football more accessible and more democratized.

NFT strategy. First and foremost, [non-fungible tokens are] a technology that’s accessible to everyone out there. A lot of the clubs around the world already have different partners in order to unlock a variety of different values they are seeking. What we are focusing on is leveraging our assets upon a clear strategy, in order to hopefully lead via doing something for the global football fans that has sustainable value generation — beyond just minting assets as NFTs, but also building community.

We’ve followed how that market has evolved and is further evolving. You can see that the early adopters are often crypto “whales.” But looking into our vision statement — to make football truly global — we are really excited about the potential of NFTs as a technology to make football more accessible and more democratized. [We] also [want to] build capabilities not only for FIFA as an organization, but further in the future, for football as an industry. But I think it’s always good to [take] the first step and then learn along the way, from the fans and everyone involved, in order to refine and optimize the strategy and the product propositions.

[Blockchain and NFTs are] something that, one year ago, most sports organizations like FIFA didn’t even have on the roadmap. So there’s a bit of, “Let’s look into the future and have some assumptions [about] where we can create some value.” But then also when you see that Dapper Labs with NBA Top Shot is exploding, [you want to be] reacting to the market, because the technology hasn’t really changed — only the consumer adoption has changed. All of a sudden, there was verification that you can actually create something meaningful with this technology.

Entering the metaverse. There are many definitions out there [of what the metaverse is]. For me, the term “virtual reality” falls a little bit short. That gives you the picture that it is basically goggles on your head. In the end, I think [the metaverse is] software-rendered words, and the hardware [products], in any shape or form, are just the access devices to that.

We’re always trying to explain to leadership, from a kid’s perspective, how they are growing up, with Fortnite and Roblox. This is the new social habit for them. This is the playground. They’re growing up in virtual worlds, which is part of their socialization. We need to look into how we can leverage virtual world technology and experience design in order to bring the fascination of, as we call it, “the beautiful game,” to them, and then design meaningful experiences. 

This is the new social habit for them. This is the playground. They’re growing up in virtual worlds, which is part of their socialization.

We’re living in a world that is full of opportunities around entertainment and gaming and [other] things that you can spend your time with. We need to bring the joy, the heritage, and the values of football to them in new and meaningful ways. We need to find a way [to] enter those virtual worlds, but also being very mindful that it needs to be [done in] an agile way, where we constantly need to learn from the next generation — because I’m just another white dude with an opinion. I think we need to learn from the next generation what we need to build in order to create relevance.

We want to be as inclusive as possible. The 40-year old that watches football regularly — I think they will watch football in the future, regardless of whether FIFA is part of the metaverse or not. But for the younger generation, we really need to think about how we create appealing experiences based on football, and joy, and the fascination of football, and also bring the the FIFA World Cup, as one of the biggest cultural events on Earth, in new shapes and forms that can be experienced…

EA launched the first FIFA videogame in 1993. It has since sold more than 325 million copies, making it the world’s best-selling game.

Gaming. When you look into how strong gaming is with the younger generation, and also as an industry, and how it is growing, I think it’s really important for us to think about how we can leverage gaming to drive audiences, but also to drive commercial value with partnerships.

I used to work for FC Bayern Munich [the top tier German football club]. We did a partnership with EA Sports a couple years ago. And especially in the US, we learned that with a lot of younger kids, their first contact with soccer, and a certain club, and a certain player was actually via the [FIFA] video game [series]. When we did a couple of focus groups, and you ask kids why they are a fan of Bayern Munich, they tell you that they discovered the club on the PlayStation while playing FIFA. That’s also how they formed a relationship to certain players. And then they figured out, “Wow, this club is existing in reality, and this player is existing in reality.” So I think gaming is… a really important funnel, where we need to be very smart about how to reach and engage with the audiences of the future.

We need to be reactive to trends, learn about trends and new technologies, but always put the human first, and think about to what extent does that really drive unrivaled value…

Our innovation process. [The process we use] really depends upon what we want to achieve. Is it from a marketing function perspective? Is it from a commercial function perspective? Is it from the audience development perspective? There’s not something like a master strategy. Also, we are quite conscious of the fast development in the tech space. Right now, we are talking about the metaverse and NFTs and Web3, whereas one-and-a-half years ago, hardly anyone knew what that actually is. We need to be reactive to trends, learn about trends and new technologies, but always put the human first, and think about to what extent does that really drive unrivaled value towards our objective — or not?

So there’s a constant prioritization exercise here. In terms of the process, it’s basically collaboration with cross-functional stakeholders, and not putting innovation first, but leveraging innovation as a way to help achieve goals.

What is innovation from a FIFA perspective? We really need to solve challenges, and [address] fans’ needs, players’ needs, administrators’ needs, and helping also our commercial affiliates, like the sponsors and the licensees, to achieve their objectives. There’s a lot of strategy work going into that — defining the what and the how, and, of course, making it measurable.

New partnerships. The strategic alliances part [of my job] is basically looking into forming partnerships based on a commonly-defined impact and purpose. 

Our marketing team has concluded a strategic alliance with Universal Music, for instance, around podcasts. I think that’s an interesting example. Beyond that, we are looking into interesting opportunities around health, well-being, performance optimization, and education that team sports bring, so [we are having] a lot of really interesting conversations here.