Why we as a football community deserve more from a football video game…
So, it is time for us to talk about something different. Let’s talk about football video games.
If you are a younger football fan, around the age of Vikram and I especially, it is very likely that you have played a football video game at some point in your life. While there are many to choose from, it is very likely that the game you played was one of EA Sports’ annual FIFA games. Having been regulars in the football world since the 1990s, EA Sports has quickly become the premier football video game company, well surpassing Konami’s Pro Evolution Soccer series through an incredible marketing ability, capturing the name and image rights of the world’s best teams, players, and competitions, and through an addicting, arcade-style gameplay that makes matches on FIFA consistently entertaining. It became the go-to method to settle household disputes, spend time with friends, or just prove a point. If you had a score to settle, you hopped on the sticks and played on FIFA. You always randomized teams three times. You always played by house rules. It was a thing for everyone.
As time went by, the game expanded and added more game modes, becoming the one-stop shop for all football gaming stories. Want to manage your beloved team to Champions League glory? What about taking control of a single player and guiding him from the lower leagues to starting in the Premier League? Hop on Career Mode. Want to build a team with your friends and play against other groups of people online? You can play Pro Clubs. Want to relive the joys of the old FIFA Street games? Play Volta.
The game formed stars of the players that were fun to use on there. Adebayo Akinfenwa formed an entire internet persona and became a successful social media personality on the back of being mentioned in a few videos by Youtube star KSI for how good he was on FIFA 13. Ex-Fenerbahçe and Spartak Moscow striker Emmanuel Emenike also rose to internet fame (or meme status, depending on your perspective) when KSI discovered his effectiveness on FIFA 13. Aiden McGeady, Victor Ibarbo, Seydou Doumbia, Fredy Guarín, Jack Butland, and Ryan Kent are just a few of the names that hardcore FIFA fans will remember, or shudder at the sight of, due to their incredible effectiveness in certain editions of the game. This was a part of the culture and experience of the game, finding those players every year that were incredibly good in the game despite not being as good in real life.
Even beyond this, the one thing that catapulted FIFA from a very popular sports game to one of the most popular and most purchased video game series of any genre on the market was the introduction of the game’s most popular mode: Ultimate Team. For those who are not familiar, Ultimate Team is essentially if a football video game met a Panini Sticker Book collection. Every player in the game has a card, and you can buy or earn packs to open to potentially pull one of those players. The higher rated players in the game, like Messi or Ronaldo or Neymar, were obviously much more rare, and in turn more valuable, than more common lower rated players in the game. You can then take the cards that you have and form a team with them, using that team to compete in games against others online.
There are obviously a lot of nuances to this, but here is a fairly general overview of the details. There is a card for every professional player in a team that EA Sports has the name and image rights to (and some that EA does not have the rights to, since they lost the rights to Roma and Juventus recently), as well as cards for the around 100 different Football Icons that are in the game, including the likes of Pelé, Johan Cruyff, and Zinedine Zidane. There are different themed promos throughout the year where players involved get boosted player cards. These include, but are most definitely not limited to, a weekly “Team of the Week”, where the best 18 performers from the previous match week get an upgraded player card, and a yearly “Team of the Season”, where the best performers in each league over the season get a massively upgraded card. There is a “Transfer Market” where players can buy or sell player items for in-game currency, with prices of the items fluctuating based on supply and demand. For instance, while you could buy Harry Maguire’s player item for maybe a few thousand coins, it would likely take a few million coins to buy a Cristiano Ronaldo card.
The last, and most important, nuance, one that is the most relevant to this story, is that you can buy these card packs either with coins, the in-game currency that you earn through playing games or selling players, or “FIFA Points”, the in-game currency that you can buy with real money. This fact is central to many of the issues that have plagued FIFA the last few years.
As FIFA and Ultimate Team evolved over the years, it seemed that EA realized the cash cow that they had on their hands, and they seemed to realize the centrality of FIFA Points to that cash flow. As time progressed, more cards were added into the game. There were more promos, more higher rated “must get” cards. Squad Building Challenges (SBCs) were introduced to offer more higher rated players for a limited time. They would also introduce “Lightning Rounds”, where a limited number of packs with a higher likelihood of pulling better players would be released for a limited amount of time. The whole purpose of these changes was to drive pack sales, creating a sense of FOMO (“Fear Of Missing Out”) that drove people to sink money into FIFA Points to make up the difference in cost for a SBC or for the very small chance to pull a very good player. EA continued to pump in the content and the shiny new cards, just watching the profits roll in from FIFA Point sales.
Just to put this into perspective with an example, say we are at Team of the Season time. The Premier League Team of the Season is out, and everyone wants to pack Salah or De Bruyne or Kane or whoever else is in the Team of the Season. EA would release a Lightning Round of good packs, let’s say around 50,000 each for Playstation, Xbox, and PC (as each console has a different transfer market and pack store). Those packs cost 2,000 FIFA Points, or a little less than $20 USD. If they all sell, then that is $1 million USD in revenue. They obviously do not keep all of that, but you see my point, right? This is just for one Lightning Round, which lasts for about an hour. There are often three or four Lightning Rounds per day with varying prices of packs when a new promo comes out, sometimes doing these three or four times a day for three or four consecutive days at a time. All of this for maybe a 1-in-75 or 1-in-100 chance at best to pack a Team of the Season player. You are starting to see an issue, right?
As time went on, EA added more players and more pack opportunities. This seemed to be their entire focus, as other aspects of the game became much weaker. Other game modes became starved of new features as EA sunk more of their resources into Ultimate Team. While you could almost guarantee there would be a new promo in Ultimate Team at least every two weeks, Career Mode, probably the second-most popular mode on the game, went several years without an overhaul or even any sort of update. Even when the system was changed and features were added for FIFA 21, the mode suffered from a horrendous amount of bugs that often went unresolved for months at a time. Online servers and match-making, even in Ultimate Team, suffered from serious issues and lack of reliability over several years. Gameplay went from fun and arcade-like to sometimes dull and often incredibly frustrating, where you get the sense that your success or failure is often quite random and based on luck or chance rather than skill. Perplexing and infuriating moments happen at an alarmingly high rate that seem to defy not only the common sense logic of football but sometimes even the laws of physics. Instead of being able to see where you are lacking and understand how you can get better, the game often leaves you wondering what in the world is going on.
And this is where we are currently. FIFA 21 is near the end of its “life cycle”, but many came to the realization before I did that this just is not a fun game to play. The fun and enjoyment comes from opening packs and rewards, seeing what you get from your Weekend League rewards or seeing who you can get from the latest promo packs. The gameplay is just a chore. It is simply the grind you have to get through in order to get to the packs or to get the new player, the things you have to do in order to find the little enjoyment you can in the game. I have even seen this reflected among YouTubers and Twitch streamers who create content around FIFA games. Much of it now is people opening packs, and the number of viewers is not as high for those who are actually playing the game. I have even seen some lose viewers when they transitioned away from packs and toward gameplay. It just is not fun. I myself have rarely been in a better mood after playing an hour or two of FIFA than I was before I sat down.
And this is where I think the design philosophy from EA Sports transitions away from simply being not that good at their job toward being predatory. EA knows that more exciting promos and exciting cards means more hype, and more hype tends to mean more packs. The little fun left in the game is the experience of packing new players and trying them, so leaning fully into that by dangling FIFA Points in the faces of players is a strong money-making scheme. This also goes hand-in-hand with promoting content creators and the gameplay itself. If someone is watching a Twitch streamer open packs during Team of the Season and sees them pull Cristiano Ronaldo, they are more likely to look at those same packs in the store on their game and think they can do the same, leading to them to pay for FIFA Points and rip a few packs open, invariably getting nothing in return. I know exactly how this sensation feels because I have fallen victim to it before. The gameplay, specifically the frustration that the gameplay causes, is also an effective driver of FIFA Points. If you lose a few games in a row and feel like your team is not good enough and your players are not performing, you are more likely to want to get the better players in the game. If you do not have the ability to pay for those better players using game-earned coins, then you are more likely to pay for FIFA Points in the hopes of packing them or earning enough coins from the extra packs to buy them from the market. Again, I know this personally, as I have fallen victim to it.
And this is where EA steps in. I am not saying EA is making the gameplay bad to purposely drive pack sales, and I am not backing the internet rumor that there is a “Red List” of EA-backed content creators that they give better pack odds to in order to drive pack sales. But EA certainly does their fair share to capitalize on these methods by making Ultimate Team, packs, and FIFA Points front and center on every menu screen. You cannot avoid them. Even when booting up the game for the first time, the very first menu screen you see will more than likely have an advertisement for whatever promotion is live on Ultimate Team at that moment, and clicking on that ad will take you right to the pack store. You can see one of each of those advertisements on basically every screen of the home page on Ultimate Team. It is unavoidable, it is the sun around which this mode revolves.
And it becomes really, really, really awkward when you realize that quite a significant amount of the player base of this game are kids.
FIFA is not exclusively a kids game, of course. It is among the most popular video games in the world, so it clearly appeals to all age groups, but there is certainly a large percentage of this player base that is quite young and quite impressionable. You might be thinking that this fairly predatory marketing tactic should not be utilized in a game with a large youth player base, and you would be right. You do not have to search far on the internet to find news headlines talking about how kids and teenagers take their parents credit cards to spend hundreds, sometimes even thousands, of dollars (or Pounds, or Euros, or whatever) on FIFA Points. And if you see that many stories reported, how many like them go unreported?
EA have made a lot of effort to distance themselves from accusations of packs being a form of gambling, going to often quite ridiculous means to cover their behinds and protect themselves from legal action. But let’s call a spade a spade here. FIFA Points and packs are gambling, and the fact that this happens and is so widely promoted in a game with a significant player base of children and teenagers is despicable. The fact that this even happens at all, let alone involving children, is horrendous and nothing short of predatory and exploitative. Microtransactions have been a hot-button issue in the video game industry for ages now, and while some games at least have the decency to restrict in-game purchases to purely cosmetic things that are not wildly promoted in the players’ faces or even go as far as making their base game free-to-play, some games do not show that level of respect for their fans. I do not think I have seen a developer that has been more awful to their fans, more exploitative in their use of microtransactions, than Electronic Arts, and it is especially true on FIFA. Above all else, above the poor gameplay and lack of support for other modes and seemingly money-first priorities, the sheer insistence to predatorily market gambling to their player base and lie when people call them out for it is what ultimately broke my desire and love for a series I have played for so long.
We are around the time of new announcements and gameplay trailers and reveals for FIFA 22, which comes out in two months. This is when EA take some mechanic that is simple or minute, slaps a fancy-sounding name on it, shoots some live action footage of guys in motion-capture suits, and calls it a new feature. This is around the time we hear about new “features” for all the game modes and hear no actual detail about anything apart from Ultimate Team (though, to be fair, they are changing stuff in Career Mode). This is when we fall for the idea that EA have actually made significant changes to the game, only to get to the Spring and realize that nothing has changed and we have fallen for the trap again. And, to my surprise, this is the time when EA revealed that they have taken feedback from the fans from FIFA 21 into perspective when designing the new game, and they want to create a game that pleases the fans. I was downright shocked that noted good-company Electronic Arts was worried about their image with fans. Well, if anyone at EA happens to stumble across this blog on a random corner of the internet, here is some feedback for you:
I have bought every FIFA title since FIFA 13 (except for FIFA 16 for some reason), and I have been playing this game on and off dating all the way back to FIFA 08. I am an obsessed football fan, someone who lives and breathes this sport, a member of your game’s core marketing demographic. I will not sit here and lie to you and say I will not be buying FIFA 22, cus I very well might. The changes to Career Mode, including a “create a club” feature and an online career mode, sound very enjoyable and refreshing, and could potentially be used for blog content as well. But I will not buy the game at launch because I am going to wait and see what others say. And I will not be playing a single minute of Ultimate Team, and I will not even touch that game mode until FIFA Points for buying player packs are removed from the game.
If this game is more of the same, more barebones modes paired with Ultimate Team, more unresolved bugs and glitches in career mode, more illogical gameplay, more exploitative gambling for teenagers, I will not be buying FIFA 22. I will not buy another FIFA game until something changes, until you show that you care about making a game that your fans want to play instead of caring about a game that just makes you money. I strongly urge everyone reading this blog to do the same.
EA Sports has exploited our passionate fandom, our obsession with football in order to line their pockets and prey on the same fans they claim to care about. We deserve much better.
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