When players open the fanatically popular FIFA 21 today, they’ll have access to the game’s newest star. Thirty-year-old Kiyan Prince is at the pinnacle of his career, flying high with some of the best skill ratings in the game and backed by marquee sponsors such as Adidas.
But Kiyan Prince has been dead for 15 years, killed on May 18, 2006. At the time, Prince was arguably the brightest young soccer prospect in England. He was stabbed to death while trying to break up a fight outside of his school.
His dad, Mark Prince, founded the Kiyan Prince Foundation (KPF) after his death and has been campaigning against knife crime and for better community and educational support systems to prevent it. Now, as part of its “Long Live the Prince” initiative, KPF is bringing his story to life for a new generation by making him a player in the most popular soccer video game on the planet.
KPF worked with EA Sports, creative agency Engine, digital artist Chris Scalf, and VFX powerhouse Framestore to bring Prince to the screen. FIFA 21 players will be able to select Prince for their teams in career or “Ultimate Team” mode, or play him as a member of his childhood club, Queens Park Rangers. Players will also see contact information for KPF and have the ability to learn more about its services from within the game.
Engine chief creative officer Billy Faithfull says this work goes beyond a typical PSA campaign by making Prince and his story an active part of the game, as opposed to just a passive ad. “The idea is to create this moment to inspire FIFA 21 players to look up who Kiyan was and learn more about his story,” says Faithfull. “That then spreads the net wide for people who can come to Mark and the foundation for help and inspiration.”
The hope is that the increased awareness will also result in more financial contributions that can help the foundation take its message to schools across the U.K. and set up a permanent base. The elder Prince’s foundation work earned him an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 2019. That same year, Queens Park Rangers renamed its west London stadium the Kiyan Prince Foundation Stadium.
While putting Prince in the game will undoubtedly raise awareness for the foundation and its efforts to engage at-risk youth—the game sold 1.5 million copies in its first month alone, back in October—Mark Prince is more excited about it as an avenue for engaging these young people directly. “It’s about making it easier for young people to get support,” he says. “They don’t want to go to social services; they don’t want to pick up the phone for a help line. But they’ll go to the game, and it’ll be right there. Whatever support you need—mental health, depression, whatever the challenge is—contact KPF and if we don’t have the answer, we’ll find someone who does.”
James Salmon, EA Sports’ global marketing director for the FIFA franchise, says the game has never done an initiative like this in the franchise’s 28-year history. “Virtually recreating any player is significantly complicated; from the outset of the project, we were committed to representing Kiyan as authentically as possible, from aging his appearance using images from his teen years, to developing his on-pitch characteristics and style of play,” says Salmon. “We wanted to ensure Kiyan featured in-game as the superstar he would’ve been and to build on our work to date supporting the Kiyan Prince Foundation.”
Last year, EA Sports worked with KPF and Engine to drop a digital tifo of Kiyan Prince in the game (tifos are fan-generated visual displays in the stands of a stadium), which the companies say went over well with gamers and sparked outreach to the foundation. Now, making Prince a fully playable player, they’re hoping to build on that.
Framestore’s global real-time director Karl Woolley says the key to creating an accurate portrayal of Prince was to make sure they captured his spirit and how his virtual image would feel. “We’ve created many humans, digi doubles, and superheroes in the past, but Kiyan was on a different level,” says Woolley.
To create the virtual Prince, designers at EA Sports and Framestore—the company behind Avengers: Endgame and Bladerunner 2049—used 3D scans of his father, siblings, and grandfather, along with photos from friends and family. Because Prince was killed just before smartphones gained widespread popularity, there wasn’t much footage of him to work with. The companies also teamed up with Professor Hassan Ugail at the University of Bradford, who typically works on forensic aging for criminal and missing-person cases.
As a part of the game’s launch, there’s a short film to engage vulnerable kids, along with a series of ads fronted by the virtual Prince. This was done through a mix of cutting-edge development and some secret sauce: Framestore and Scalf created “synthetic data” to train its technology on, then used two hero shots of Prince that Scalf had crafted and 20 minutes of body-double movement data to train the system. “Leaving the GPUs to churn away for a few hours, we then composited all of the above into the end shot of the film you can see today,” says Woolley.
Prince says the process of bringing his son back to virtual life was an emotional one. “I’m not going to pretend it’s been easy,” he says. “You have to find the right people to help, Kiyan’s friend’s, people he played with. It’s been a difficult process, but I knew the minute it was posed to me that this was a part of the journey I was supposed to be taking. It was such a great fit.”