‘See you in October’
An annual, anticipated ritual took place last month: The release of the world's most popular videogame of the world's most popular sport. FIFA 21 will no doubt make over $1 billion, as each entry in the series has in recent years. But the latest version of the iconic football (soccer, to Americans) simulator is only marginally notable for its minor aesthetic updates, niche gameplay tweaks or reheated rosters. To legions of FIFA players the new title really signals the start of a fresh season of Ultimate Team.
For the unfamiliar, FIFA Ultimate Team is the most popular feature in the game, and the one that's come to define the overall experience. It's the main game within the game. Premier League pros Sergio Aguero, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang play it. Essentially, you indulge the armchair expert's fantasy of building a dream team of your favorite players and competing with them against others'. Played over the course of real-life football’s autumn-to-summer seasons, it's Panini stickers or baseball cards crossed with fantasy football — and you get to play as your signings.
Fundamental to the game is opening loot boxes, known as packs — which consciously appropriate the Panini aesthetic — from which you acquire new, random players. The chance of receiving, say, Lionel Messi, is microscopic — but theoretically possible. You can earn packs in-game or purchase them with real money.
The effect is that Ultimate Team feels more like a freemium game lodged inside a $60 title. Everything that this entails is the nub of much dismay in the FIFA community. Yet there is still a buzzing industry of YouTubers cracking open pack after pack, Patreon accounts offering trading tips for the fluctuating in-game transfer market and illicit websites peddling virtual currency.
For publishers EA, it’s an absolute cash cow. Last year Ultimate Team modes in all EA Sports games — such as Madden NFL and NHL — made $1.4 billion. That's 28 percent of all EA's revenue, a company that also publishes Apex Legends, The Sims, and every new Star Wars game. Ryan Gee, an interactive entertainment analyst at Bank of America Merrill Lynch who has covered EA since the mid-2000s, estimates that FIFA Ultimate Team alone probably accounts for about $900 million. Having launched just over a decade ago as a FIFA add-on, Ultimate Team is now a cornerstone of the business model of one of the gaming industry's biggest players.
"There's only two games every year that sell 20 million copies: FIFA or Call of Duty," said Gee. Tim Sweeney, the CEO of Epic Games, has said that the only game that cuts into Fortnite playtime is FIFA.
This year's pandemic, which closed cinemas and concert venues and even nixed most live football for several months, has only benefited the makers of games that can fill the sports fan's void. Over the summer, EA said Ultimate Team revenue was up 70 percent from the same quarter last year, with 7 million new players. "This is off-the-charts different," said EA's COO Blake Jorgensen at the time. The pandemic is not about to end soon; analysts believe video game spending will only increase.
"There's only two games every year that sell 20 million copies: FIFA or Call of Duty" - Ryan Gee
So everything should look rosy for FIFA. Yet Ultimate Team seems to be under attack from every angle. Regulators in Belgium banned paid loot boxes — the only way that EA makes ongoing revenue from Ultimate Team — in 2018 , specifically investigating FIFA among three other games; the Netherlands recently upheld a €10 million fine against EA for violating gambling laws (EA has said it will appeal). Recent class-action lawsuits against EA in California and Canada claim FIFA loot boxes are essentially unlicensed gambling. The latest in a long timeline of EA's public controversies flared up just the week before the launch of the new game: a FIFA advert to spend real money on microtransactions in a children's toy catalog.
Most notable, though, is hostility from the players themselves. "No one enjoys playing it," said Donovan Hunt, known as Tekkz, in February — of the game in which he is a top-ranked player. Forums like Reddit vacillate between outright disdain for the game and pleading to the possibly-watching EA devs for more content. Gamers with gripes are nothing new, and Ultimate Team complaints can be as basic as persistent server connectivity issues or irritating bugs. But among them there's a curious self-awareness of the players' own inability to stop doing something they say they don't want to do. A typical gallows humor response to an anti-EA screed might simply refer to the season's restart: "See you in October."
The distress from fans extends across EA's titles. Madden NFL 21, EA's other 'football' game, garnered one of the lowest Metacritic user scores of all time upon its release in August. It still ended up the best-selling game in the US that month according to The NPD Group.
Two things are clear: A vocal contingent of both pros and casual players dislike FIFA Ultimate Team. Yet they also keep playing it in droves. Someone who knows this contradiction well is Jonathan Peniket.
Peniket was 12 years old when he first bought a pack. Growing up in Hertfordshire, just outside of London in the U.K., he'd spend no more than £200 ($260) on packs in each cycle of FIFA in the years that followed, he said.
A football fan and capable FIFA player, Peniket followed YouTubers like AA9skillz, MattHDGamer and KSI. He needed to purchase the player packs, he said, to keep his team competitive in a game his friends also played. "The pay to win aspect is absolutely huge," Peniket told Engadget. "You'll know that if you spend more money on packs your team will be better."
The turning point came when Peniket was in his final year of secondary (high) school. By this time, he had a debit card. That meant potential access to impulsive, frictionless spending on his PS4. Previously, he'd have to buy physical PlayStation Store vouchers from UK retailer HMV and furtively hide them from his parents between the pages of books.
This was also the year his mother was diagnosed with cancer, only the year after a friend had also passed away. Now, Peniket barely played a match of FIFA, but spent hours opening loot boxes every day. In the family's spare room, he was dropping £20 per sitting, then £30, £40, up to £80 — four or five times a night. "The time when I spent the most money was probably one of the times when I was playing [the fewest] actual games of FIFA," he said.
"You can always, always chase something better." - Jonathan Peniket
Peniket wasn't addicted to FIFA. Instead, he said he was addicted to opening packs. The "buzz of chance," as he put it, around potentially unveiling a top player. It was a reliable rush for him, a soothing mechanism when life otherwise seemed miserable. He obsessed over fine-tuning his team on websites like Futhead and Futbin — popular for their databases detailing players' stats — over revising for the exams that would get him into university. At one point he downloaded a third-party pack-opening simulator onto his phone.
The game seemed endless. No matter which players popped out of his packs, the game always released another better one, so his team was never complete. The high of a lucky draw never lasted long enough to stop him putting down more cash. "You can always, always chase something better," Peniket said. "There was never 'oh, I'm just spending until I get to this point.'"
The guilt built up and the money ran out. Peniket told his mother one night he thought he'd spent £700 on the game. His parents looked up the statements and it turned out he had spent £2,700 — savings that included money gifted from his granddad, a church worker, as an 18th birthday present. His mother told him he'd broken her heart. “Hearing that broke my heart," he said. Peniket didn't tell anyone else about this for a year.