How bootstrapped Serbian startup Nordeus beat EA’s FIFA at its own Facebook game

Of all the sports games on Facebook, soccer-themed games reign supreme, accounting for more than half of the 40 most popular sports games on the platform.

The leader of the pack is Nordeus — a bootstrapped Serbian developer founded by three former Microsoft employees. Its game, Top Eleven – Be a Football Manager is a detailed football management sim, and despite its complexity, has 3.6 million monthly active users and 1.2 million daily active users, far above its closest competitor, the officially licensed title EA’s FIFA Superstars, which currently has 1.9 million MAU and 300,000 DAU according to AppData.

However, what may be most interesting about Top Eleven is the game’s slow burn. Unlike the average Facebook game, which typically sees most of its growth in the first six months, Top Eleven is still adding players 21 months in and is the most popular its ever been. Since the game’s launch in May 2010, Nordeus has taken Top Eleven cross-platform to iOS and to Android and introduced a raft of new features and updates, but has so far been silent about upcoming projects.

Inside Social Games had a chance to interview Nordeus’ co-founder and CEO Branko Milutinović and ask him about the success of Top Eleven, and what’s next for Nordeus.

Inside Social Games: Top Eleven is the most popular sports game on Facebook right now. Why do you think the game has been so successful despite the fact that its competing against officially licensed games like FIFA Superstars?

Branko Milutinović, Nordeus co-founder and CEO (pictured right): As well as double the MAUs, Top Eleven also has over four times more DAUs. That’s really important for us because it means our users are engaged and coming back to play regularly!

But to answer your question, we took the risk of developing a technically very advanced platform that enables rich gameplay, synchronous multiplayer experience and truly cross platform gaming (i.e. it’s exactly the same game on Facebook, Top Eleven.com, iPhone and Android). This gave us the opportunity to offer our users a game they find challenging and exciting to play with their friends.

Another thing we’ve focused on and think is crucial is the level of realism. We’ve tried to be as close to the real world of football management as possible, including a complex match simulation engine based on English Premier League stats. Actually, the only thing missing to bring us to the absolute realism is licensed brands, everything else we’ve covered.

ISG: When you released Top Eleven in 2010, Facebook was a very different platform. Since then user acquisition costs have risen quite dramatically — what are the challenges you’re facing now and how has Facebook changed as a platform?

Milutinović: The platform has changed a lot in the previous two years. We know the Facebook team is working hard to improve the platform for everyone, both users and app developers and most of the changes we find really positive.

From a developer point of view it is true that user acquisition has changed dramatically with viral growth channels narrowed, but I can understand that Facebook had to do that to preserve user experience on the platform. User acquisition is becoming a big obstacle for newcomers and companies that cannot rely on cross promotion from their other games, which is why we think publishing other studio’s games is going to become more common. At Nordeus we look at the changes as challenges we need to overcome. It’s evolution. We improve ourselves every day and try to adapt to the new conditions.

ISG: In September you revealed your relationship with Facebook was “very close” – can you reveal more about how Nordeus and Facebook work together?

Milutinović: Some time ago Facebook launched an initiative to strengthen the collaboration between platform and the developers. We were recognized as one of the brightest examples of how to leverage the platform, build a great product as well as a successful company around it. Since then we’ve been working with Facebook to implement new updates the platform, building the best possible experience for our users. That probably helped Top Eleven to be voted as The Best Sports Game of 2011 by Facebook based on user satisfaction.

The Facebook team is also doing great job in fixing bugs we report and we’re proud that we’ve helped the platform to become better, especially when it comes to Android and iOS support.

ISG: Are you interested in taking on partners for any reason such as publishing, acquisitions, etc?

Milutinović: We’re always open to new opportunities, but on the other hand have full belief in our own capabilities. When it comes to publishing I can say that we are considering the idea of publishing others’ games, but given that developing games is in our DNA we will probably focus all our effort on getting our titles that are under development right now to the market as soon as possible.

ISG: You’ve said before you want to be “the Zynga of Europe” and that you wanted to consolidate the talent in Southeast Europe. What is Nordeus’ long term strategy around this?

Milutinović: When it comes to hiring our long term strategy is actually to continue doing what we’ve been doing in the previous two years, especially in the last few months. We want to combine best young talent of the region with the most experienced experts from the industry. Examples of that effort include our new Head of Business Development who joined us after over 5 years of running sales and user acquisition for Eve Online, as well as a college hire from Caltech, both relocated to Belgrade. (If you’ve ever been to Belgrade you’d understand why ;)).

We’ve also organized initiatives to attract the best talent, like the game development hackathon we held two months ago. Over 200 of the brightest computer engineering students and graphical designers from the region applied. We’ve already hired ten of the students that took part, with more interviews ongoing. We strongly believe our people and company culture are our strongest assets and we will continue to nurture that.

ISG: What’s next for Nordeus? You’ve released iOS and Android versions of Top Eleven. Are you developing a new game or games? Will they be sports strategy games? Will they be on Facebook?

Milutinović: Unfortunately I can’t share as many details about specifics as I’d like to, but we are working full speed ahead on the next generation of games, which will introduce a lot of new concepts. They will continue to carry on our philosophy of unified gaming experience throughout devices, so they will definitely be available on Facebook, Android, iOS, and other platforms as well.