EA Sports is no stranger to controversy when it comes to its FIFA games, but the recent EA Gate scandal has highlighted just how mishandled the product has become over the years. In doing so, a door was allegedly opened to make way for a black market corrupting the overall mission behind FIFA Ultimate Team.
Images of conversations were posted on Twitter by @FutArcade showing alleged transactions for large sums of cash. Some alleged $2,500, others more. In essence, these employees were, allegedly, selling the rarest and most expensive items in the game. EA Sports was quick to respond on social media, posting the following statement on its FIFA account.
"We are aware of the allegations currently circulating within our community related to FIFA 21 Ultimate Team items. A thorough investigation is underway, and if we identify improper conduct, we will take swift action. We want to be clear - this type of behavior is unacceptable, and we in no way condone what is alleged to have happened here. We understand how this creates concern about unfair balance in the game and competition. We will update the community as we get more clarity on the situation."
One sentence of that statement sticks out above all: "We understand how this creates concern about unfair balance in the game and competition."
Those 14 words highlight why these allegations show on the largest scale why EA Sports' Ultimate Team system is untrustworthy and broken. Why is the game mode at a point where players are going beyond regular means to obtain cards for a competitive and financial advantage?
For those unaware how FIFA Ultimate Team works and why this scandal is so problematic, here's a quick rundown.
One of the biggest news stories from the past three years in gaming was loot box systems. Numerous titles, such as Overwatch, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Rocket League and more, rose to popularity in part thanks to their system in which skins and other cosmetics or items of varying rarities were rewarded in loot boxes that could be acquired in-game. The systems were likened to gambling, and many companies have since been required to divulge the probabilities of receiving certain items from a box. Rocket League creator Psyonix even went as far to remove the system from the game and implement an item shop akin to Fortnite, following its acquisition by Epic Games.
FIFA Ultimate Team is driven by a card collecting system. Every year, throughout a game's cycle, Ultimate Team players open packs in hopes of getting a high rated, top tier card for their teams. Those items can also be sold for in-game coins or on a Transfer Market where other users can spend a specified amount to obtain the card. Players can also choose to spend money on an in-game currency called FIFA Points, which bypasses that market.
Players collect and use cards throughout a title hoping to climb ladders and place as high as possible in FUT Champions, the game's most competitive playlist.
A major component of the system is promotions that are ran at multiple points of the cycle. These promotions include special items that are added to packs. The specificities of promotional items released through in-game objective aren't important right now, just focus on items that are added to packs.
These cards released are higher rated, have better stats, and perform different in-game compared to their base versions. Additionally, some promotions carry more weight than others. Those parameters are determined by EA Sports and also through community tendencies developed over years. For example, the Team of the Year promotion is more anticipated than something like Ones to Watch for a variety of reasons.
Team of the Year features the best performing players from around the world of football in one promotional squad. These items receive the biggest singular statistic boosts of any other cards in the game. Perhaps they even have custom animations EA Sports codes into the game to add on to the boosts. Someone like Cristiano Ronaldo has special animations compared to other cards in the game. Adding up those features only adds more value to a card.
They are difficult, some would argue near-impossible, to pack, they are the most expensive versions of players for a predominant part of each cycle, and difficult to obtain for most of the player base. They are only available to the entire player base in packs for an extremely limited time.
At the end of the day, succeeding in FUT does come down to how individually skilled the actual person playing the game is. Still, it's tough to deny the impact the best rated cards have compared to others. You'll have your outliers like Harry Hesketh who can have a perfect weekend in FUT Champions with a Bronze squad, but that's not the normal.
So, it comes down to one question: how did we get to a point where players allegedly decided to buy FIFA Ultimate Team cards on a black market? Well, I'd argue that EA Sports has made strategic decisions to incentivize players to spend money on the game.
Three such decisions stand out. Decreasing the values of packs from completing Squad Building Challenge segments, splitting promotional teams into two weeks creating a divide where free-to-play users have to make the decision on when to open packs, and mishandling the Icon program.
Squad Building Challenges, first introduced in FIFA 17, were a means to acquire special items through turning in other cards. A revolutionary change in how FIFA Ultimate Team has operated. Multiple segmented SBCs have packs assigned once completing a single segment. Over the years, EA Sports has consistently reduced the value of packs rewarded for completing a segment. Ergo, the average player has a harder time making their money back. There should be a trade-off if you decide to invest in an untradeable item, but the game shouldn't punish you for that decision.
Next is the two-week promotional team decision. In the past, EA Sports would release a special team for a given event and make those cards available in packs for a limited time. Since FIFA 20, EA Sports opted to double the amount of cards during certain promotions by having two teams. More special cards isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it hurts free-to-play users. Instead of grinding and saving packs for a chance at getting a special item, that player base was put at a crossroads. Do you save your packs for one specific team, or do you hold out and assume the next team will have better items? Not to mention, having two teams had the effect of hurting the first set in packs if players weren't desirable on a gameplay front.
Finally, the Icon program has been utter chaos. EA Sports removed Icon SBCs, a popular and arguably necessary resource, from FIFA 20 and replaced it with Icon Swaps. The new promotion was designed to reward players by having them earn tokens and then submit them for the Icon. It devastated the FUT Transfer Market considering players had no use for items like Sergio Busquets or Toni Kroos. Cards that were high rated, but not anywhere close to a high-level gameplay standard. Fodder, if you will.
On top of that, Icon Swaps was just an unrewarding system following inception. The objectives required players to go into Division Rivals, the second most competitive game mode, in order to earn the tokens. Not to mention, the Icons available during each promotion were not worth your gameplay effort. Either they weren't top tier cards, as Icons should be valued at, or they were priced too highly.
Icon Swaps was revamped for FIFA 21, making players do the objectives through a separate playlist. The same issues remained with cards not being worth it and EA Sports even opting to include special pack options in the token set.
Following player backlash, EA Sports announced Icon SBCs would return in FIFA 21. The developer even went as far to say they were creating the "most comprehensive, accessible and exciting Icon program ever." Well, sure your program was comprehensive and accessible considering you brought back SBCs and improved Icon Swaps to some degree, but it wasn't exciting by any means. Swaps is still a mess and the Icon SBCs are far and few between with few releases praised by the community. The best-of-the-best Icons still remain exceedingly difficult to obtain.
Content creator Anthony "AA9Skillz" Machado talked with me about the issues surrounding EA Gate. "Why is the game in a state where someone has to sell these cards? There's just not enough of them on the market. The one thing about FIFA that used to be so awesome was that I used to showcase a Road to Glory. You can start from nothing, and obtain these awesome teams without spending any money."
"I'm a firm believer in if your product is good, the money will come. EA has such a great product, since this thing started Ultimate Team is a great thing. You don't want everything obtainable in two weeks...It has to be a chase, but a chase where you know there's a road at the end," Machado said.
Machado rightly points out that there will always be players that spend money on the game. EA Sports needs to balance where time and potentially money spent on the game is rewarding. If it's not rewarding, people will find other things to do with their time. This hasn't even begun to call into question actual FIFA 21 gameplay.
There are two pillars in which FIFA Ultimate Team is essentially built on. Content and gameplay. Content includes everything from promotional teams, objectives, rewards and more. Machado is in the camp that fixing gameplay is the first step. The gameplay issues aren't necessarily directly related to EA Gate, but just know that FIFA 21 has been a tumultuous year when it comes to simply playing the game. It has more to do with the struggle of, "Why am I spending my time or money trying to earn cards when it's not even fun playing the game?"
Machado believes having better gameplay is the priority EA Sports should focus on. "If the gameplay was good, the expectations [for content] wouldn't be so high." It's a fair argument to make. Why should players put their effort or money into a game if they aren't going to end up using those items? Yes, card collecting is a big part of FIFA Ultimate Team, but it's not the modus operandi. It's about building a squad, taking into playlists and trying to achieve a goal.
The other side of the argument is that changing how players are rewarded would quell complaints about gameplay. Whichever side of the aisle you stand on, it's not a good sign of where FIFA Ultimate Team is trending because both sides agree that both need to be fixed. The overall assumption is that EA Sports won't fix both at the same time or in a timely manner.
The EA Gate scandal has made it abundantly clear that FIFA Ultimate Team needs change. Players shouldn't be incentivized to spend money on a game to succeed. I believe spending money should be a faster track to that success, but it shouldn't be the driving force. Players shouldn't have to be put in a position where they even consider the idea of a black market purchase to gain an upper hand. And, other players shouldn't suffer because they don't decide to go outside the game's boundaries.
EA Sports needs to reevaluate how it perceives its player base. Financially, I'm sure they look at the numbers and believe they're making the right choices. But, when it comes to your dedicated player base, you can't keep spurning the players that continue to purchase and play your game every year.