LEIPZIG, GERMANY: Microsoft Corp. joined forces with computer games giant Electronic Arts Inc. and FIFA to launch an interactive soccer tournament on Thursday they hope will boost online gaming.
Kicking off in October, the FIFA Interactive World Cup will be a series of tournaments played around the world both over the Internet and offline under the auspices of world soccer's governing body, with the final in December.
The short October-December "season" for the virtual tournament coincides with the vital sales period in the run-up to the Christmas holiday, and may kick-start demand in the small but growing online gaming sector.
The companies hope one million people will take part in the tournament, helping Electronic Arts' (EA's) hit "FIFA Soccer 2005" game reach sales of around 6 million copies.
EA is well known internationally for its dominance in sports in the $17-billion games software market although it faces tough competition in soccer from the Konami Corp. franchise "World Soccer Winning Eleven," a consistent strong seller.
The global market in online games is expected to be worth more than $1 billion this year, but simple games such as solitaire and puzzles still make more money than the multi-player games on which much of the industry is focused.
Nonetheless, ScreenDigest's executive director, Ben Keen said, "The console player park is so enormous that even if you get relatively small percentages going online that's still worth a lot."
EA's European sales chief, Jan Bolz said virtual soccer players around the world would be able to compete head-to-head in real time in the tournament.
"A Bayern fan in Munich can play a United fan in Manchester," he said at the launch in the German city of Leipzig.
The game will also be playable on rival Sony Corp.'s PlayStation 2 games console but only players using Microsoft's Xbox will be able to take part in the competition.
Although the companies expect the tournament to be global, not all countries will be able to participate online as the Xbox Live console is only available in some regions -- primarily in North America and parts of Europe and Asia.
The companies also said that Microsoft would be the official licensed video game console for the 2006 FIFA World Cup, which will be played in Germany.
Microsoft is widely expected to release a new console, code-named "Xenon", by the end of 2005. It was not immediately clear how that new console, if it is released, will tie in to the World Cup promotion.
Mitch Koch, corporate vice-president in Microsoft's Home Entertainment division, said there was "no news" about Xenon's expected launch date.
Microsoft said last month it had shipped 15.5 million Xboxes worldwide since its launch in late 2001, and has around 1 million subscribers to its online gaming service, which it expects to boost to 1.5 million by the end of the fiscal year.
Sony had 59 million PS2s installed worldwide at the end of 2003, according to London-based consultancy Screen Digest, while Nintendo had 13.5 million GameCubes installed.
(Additional reporting by Ben Berkowitz)