Since the beginning of this year we’ve seen a growing number of soccer games on Facebook, from Playdom’s Bola to EA’s FIFA Superstars. Now another well-established company has joined the mix: Watercooler, which has teamed up with Fox Soccer Channel to release Epic Goal on Facebook and Fox’s own soccer site.
But despite the professional sports broadcasting affiliation, Epic Goal is intended for a casual audience. So where EA’s recently-released FIFA game plays a bit like a fantasy sports match, asking users to build a team out of real-life pro soccer players, Epic Goal starts out by assigning you a basic team and giving the players the names of your friends.
That’s not where the differences stop, either. Unlike FIFA — but like Bola — Watercooler decided to make Epic Goal a live action game. On Facebook, that strategy can be a risky bet because of existing player preferences and technical hurdles; FIFA’s creators chose safety by essentially making the game a glammed-up version of Mafia Wars, with no input at all from players during matches.
Epic Goal, by contrast, is all about hand-eye coordination. After picking your team logos, you’re immediately placed on your team’s training field, a dingy square with a cartoonish coach in one corner. Each section of the field is marked for a specific kind of training, and it also serves as the home screen between matches.
Following a couple training sessions, the tutorial heads straight into your first game. Here, things work much as they have in console sports games for years; both teams play automatically, but you can briefly take control of individual players, usually those closest to the action.
This is where the biggest risk for Epic Goal lies; with Bola, for instance, we found the control scheme to be frustratingly difficult. But Epic Goal immediately shines. While in most soccer games the players dart back and forth across the field, presenting a huge challenge for point-and-click operation, Epic Goal’s childlike players progress across the screen at a speedy toddle. When there’s an opportunity to pass, tackle or shoot for a goal, huge, colored rings appear to be clicked on.
While the resulting game wouldn’t be particularly interesting to watch, it’s pretty fun to play, even for someone who’s not a soccer fan. Of course, it doesn’t take long to find out that player involvement is somewhat less important than the training level and skills of your characters. And following the initial sessions, training can take quite a long time and has to be carefully managed with regular logins — giving Watercooler the opportunity to sell users stat boosters and speed-training packages, alongside more typical virtual goods like team decorations.
Live action, unfortunately, isn’t the only risk that Watercooler took in building Epic Goal, something the company is keenly aware of. “If you look, there aren’t really a lot of sports titles that have clicked on Facebook,” said COO Chris Carvalho when we spoke with him about the game.
To try to conquer player disinterest in social sports games, Fox Soccer Channel will begin running animated TV ads for the game next week — something few (if any) social game companies have tried to date. Fox Soccer Channel is broadcast to about 37 million households in the US, according to Carvalho, so it could provide a not-insignificant starting boost to the game.
Watercooler is also working to localize Epic Goal, starting with a Spanish-language version that will be released next Wednesday, and following later with other European and then Asian languages.
It may in fact be soccer’s broad international appeal that will give it the chance to succeed. Although the North American audiences for games like baseball and football are large, they may not be large enough by the mega-volume standards of social games. Soccer, on the other hand, likely has a worldwide audience running into the billions.