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, 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?