FIFA Ultimate Team: how modern gaming has devolved into modern gambling

I’ll admit it. Rather ashamedly, I spend far too much time on video games for the average 19 year old. From my very first Pokemon adventures, to split screen experiences on Mario Kart, to slow slogs through Call of Duty campaigns, playing video games was a big part of what I did in my childhood and adolescence.

And one video game in particular that’s stuck with me throughout the years is FIFA.

Inspired by my love for the beautiful game, I’ve grown to love playing FIFA. It’s the dominant football video game on the market today, and its’ producer EA Sports is a true gaming powerhouse. Everyone knows FIFA. Everyone knows who EA are. And unfortunately, everyone knows how bad FIFA and EA have become.

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To fully understand just how far the FIFA franchise (not the actual FIFA governing body, that’s bad enough) has fallen in terms of quality and approach, one must know about FIFA’s main mode: Ultimate Team. It’s EA’s proverbial cash cow, and generates the company millions upon billions of dollars every single year.

From Ultimate Team’s (henceforth referred to as FUT) inception, FIFA fans have been able to obtain packs for playing the game. These packs give you the chance of packing new players for your club, as you build your ‘Ultimate Team’ to use against your opponents. Sounds simple enough? It all seems fine, right?

Wrong. Since 2009, FIFA has offered its players the opportunity to use real life currency to purchase these packs. These range from small payments of £1.69, to mammoth sums of money nearing £100 at a time. With an ever expanding player base comes more and more players willing to spend their money for even a percentage of a chance of obtaining Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, or Kylian Mbappe for their team.

This has had a negative impact of changing EA’s focus from quality of their game to trying to find ways to make their player base pump more money into the game. From ever increasing numbers of in-game promotions (special events with special limited time cards on offer, most only available through packs) to more advertising space for ‘FIFA Points’ across the in game menus and even on their packaging.

EA themselves have become addicted to its players getting addicted.

Though the first game with micro-transactions (in game purchases) was ‘The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion’, more and more mainstream titles like Call of Duty and Overwatch have adopted the ‘FUT model’ of offering more additional content behind a paywall for its customers.

The key difference is that whilst CoD and Overwatch’s micro-transactions are purely accessories and “offer no competitive advantage” to its players, FUT’s doesn’t match this. Someone who uses Fifa points within FUT is much more likely to have a better team than their non-spending opponent, even if these players spent the same amount of time and effort into the game.

What’s more ridiculous is that for games like FIFA, which are released on an annual basis, there’s no progression from one game to its sequel: the game is designed to only last between 9 and 12 months, unlike say Call of Duty with its recognised lifespan of 1-3 years, if not even longer. EA Sports expects its customers to continue to part way with their money year after year with no continuity nor progression from one installment to the next.

So, FIFA points within FUT has been around for well over a decade, so why talk about this now?

In recent news, the Spanish Minister of Consumer Affairs Alberto Garzon, continuing with his increased efforts to tackle gambling issues in Spain, announced he was seeking to have micro-transactions and loot boxes within video games legally labelled as gambling. This would force EA Sports to either remove the FIFA point option from Spanish versions of FUT, or have the game sold with an 18+ rating, instead of the PEGI 3+ age rating we have in the UK.

Does that news seem familiar? That’s because the Belgian government did the same thing last year, and they were ultimately successful in outlawing FIFA points for Belgian users.

Belgium and Spain however only small cogs in the EA’s financial machine. A franchise like FIFA is infinitely more popular in the UK and US markets. And there’s been increased talk within the governing bodies of both countries to introduce legislation prohibiting the sale of loot boxes in video games.

As much as politicians joke about “Britain holds all the cards” in regards to Brexit, this is strangely a much more applicable situation.

When could we expect to see a major public debate about the legality and morality of gambling within the medium of video games? No one knows. All we can really hope for is that the legislation proposals in Belgium and Spain can act as a domino effect for more and more countries: more and more sources of revenue that would force change.

This is something we should all really want. Modern gaming has devolved into modern gambling. And that’s just not what we grew up with as children, nor should it be what we have to bemoan in gaming as adolescents and adults now.

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This piece was inspired by a great, thought-provoking by writer Tom Usher on the Guardian earlier this month. Give it a read here

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