Inside FIFA Esports: Career Sustainability, Pay-to-Win and the Future of eMLS

Inside the FIFA esports industry, professional players from the eMLS gave their opinions and experiences to discuss whether FIFA is a pay-to-win game.
Inside the FIFA esports industry, professional players from the eMLS gave their opinions and experiences to discuss whether FIFA is a pay-to-win game. | Photo courtesy of EA Sports

Inside the FIFA esports industry, professional players from the eMLS gave their opinions and experiences to discuss whether FIFA is a pay-to-win game. In addition, the future of the eMLS is discussed by the leader of eMLS gaming initiatives, Bion West. 

The 2018 FIFA eWorld Cup signaled the beginning of the FIFA esports industry’s fast growth since it first kicked-off at the FIFA Interactive Cup in 2004. Leagues have also formed in conjunction with their pro soccer league as the likes of the Major League Soccer and English Premier League have entered the sports industry. 

What Does it Mean to be a Professional FIFA Esport Player? 

Players and fans have their own definition, but there is a general understanding among the professional FIFA community. 

Vancouver Whitecaps eMLS representative Alex 'exraa' Gonzalez-Aldana stated that a pro player can be defined as "people that are signed and are earning money for playing FIFA."

Similarly, New York Red Bulls eMLS representative and recent eMLS Cup winner, George Adamou, said that a, "pro player is anybody who is signed to a club or has qualified to a major tournament," in reference to the FUT Champions Cup.

Inside FIFA Esports: Becoming a Pro FIFA Player 

According to the eMLS Cup Champion, Adamou states that to become a pro player, lots of hours are needed to be put in to not only develop skills, but also confidence. 

Here is how aspiring players can become professionals: 

  • Players need to register their intent for competitive play which usually occurs in October and January.
  • Become a FUT Champions Verified player by winning 27 of the 30 Weekend League matches by March.
  • Receive invites and play in qualification and official tournaments for exposure and the chance to earn prize money.

By this stage of the process, some players have already met the definition of being a pro player.

To further progress, players will need to earn FIFA Global Series Ranking Points by placing high in official tournaments by playing at home or get signed onto a contract with a pro team or agency. The biggest honor, an end goal, is to become the world champion, the FIFA eWorld Cup winner.

In addition, according to Exraa, Vancouver Whitecap’s young, fast rising eMLS player, states that becoming a pro player can be difficult for parents to support as the game might not show instant or physical results. Some could be skilled enough to compete, but without invitations or prize money, no physical results are shown, nor can expenses be repaid.

Training Schedule and Intensity of a Pro FIFA Player

Unlike other esports, FIFA players don’t need daily training like League of Legends or Counter Strike: Global Offensive players. 

Instead, Vancouver Whitecap’s eMLS representative Exraa, states that he and other pro players are able to only play Weekend League to keep "fit." Similarly, Bundled player, Curtis 'Papsity' Poole, who also represented Dutch powerhouse AFC Ajax in the 2019/2020 eDivisie, refers to this as muscle memory and reveals that grinding periodically comes when a new patch arrives as there could be some new mechanics to learn. 

Players have a separate mode to use during weekdays, but it doesn't provide the same competition traditionally as the Weekend League. The other mode, while used as a stepping stone to qualify for the Weekend League at first, is relegated to being less competitive and a mode for players to complete objectives.

Exraa and Adamou both shared the same initial training schedule each year when the game was first released. Getting adjusted to the new game is one aspect of the heavy training schedule, but finding new tricks and gaps in defense is vital and a key aspect to being a pro player. With every release each year, pro players grind the game to find sneaky tricks and ways to abuse mechanics against players to win matches. It is these small, difficult to create moments that show differences in skill between players.

In addition, it can decide matches at the pro level where little to no mistakes are made. Adamou, the recent 2020 eMLS Cup winner, credited his eMLS Cup success to the 120-0 run that he completed on FUT Weekend League prior to competing. Adamou impressively went a month undefeated and stated that the undefeated run played a big part in preparing for the competition whilst many may have taken a break.

Also, pro players can multitask by training and socializing with other pro players and close friends by playing friendlies against each other as revealed by Adamou and Papsity.

Costs of a Being a Pro FIFA Player: FIFA Points, Squads & Road to Glory

FIFA players would usually spend real money for its in-game currency, FIFA Points. That helps improve their squads quickly and use strong individual players who fit into the meta.

FIFA Points

As the story goes, packing players is based on chance, but those chances can be increased by spending real money on FIFA Points to open more packs.

The chances are extremely low for Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo with players feeling like or have spent hundreds of dollars to only get nothing in return. The "pack luck" issue has been a cause for concern for many years that players faced.

According to Exraa, at the start of each edition, the player estimated that pro players spent around $1,500 on average for each year's edition. This amount has grown, according to Papsity, who said "as the years go on, you have to put more and more money in."

A Bleacher Report FIFA 19 survey found that 45% of players did not spend any money in FIFA 19. This drastically changed as another Bleacher Report survey showed that only 16.5% of players have never paid real money for FIFA Points. This has resulted in a common theme in FUT for both casual and pro players, as some players splurge one year, then take a year off to earn money.

This was the case for Papsity when he started off as the player took some time off at the beginning of his career to earn some money to pay for FIFA Points. Papsity commented that with his skill level, all he needed was a little boost to help his team go from average to a decent competitive team.

Players do have the option to complete a Road to Glory (free-to-play) type of career and squad, but it's a lot tougher and will require more time. A high-rated or meta player can be sold on the market for coins to buy other players or packs to help create a better team. The latter is a more risky method as it will purely be based on chance. In addition, a free-to-play account will be considerably lacking in the early stages of the game, compared to those who pay to get an early boost.

Players & Squad Value & Ratings

Although EA Sports says FIFA is a skill-based competition, players at qualifying tournaments sometimes believe otherwise. Players feel that the game is favored toward those who pay and feels more like a pay-to-play/win game than free-to-play or skill-based.

According to Jamey Cane’s Twitter post, The FUT Economist revealed the average FIFA 19 squad cost 32 million coins at the 2019 January FUT Champions Cup. Teams included the likes of Team of the Year stars Kylian Mbappe, Ronaldo and Messi, and Icons such as Ruud Gullit and Paolo Maldini. Not only are they meta players, they are each expensive, costing at least one million coins per player. 

Cane converted the 32 millions coins to an approximate value of $27,000 worth of FIFA Points, which could purchase around 324,000 FIFA Points. Equivalent to roughly 162 Ultimate Packs, players will be able to pull around 4,860 Gold Rare players but could end up only pulling 88 rated Diego Godin from Inter Milan. A great CB overall but not considerably useful in-game with only 60 pace when compared to 80 rated Joe Gomez from Liverpool FC with 81 pace.

Exraa stated that he has no issues with teams at the professional level as the majority of players have similar teams being given "unlocked accounts." By being given unlocked accounts, players can create a team of any value with any player that has been released in the game so far.

Still, at online or qualifying events, Exraa does express concern about the big gap that can be seen between players who have spent money and those who don't. Skill is definitely needed, but team differences start to stand out even if two players are equally skilled.

Road to Glory: The Alternative, Free Gaming Experience

Road to Glory, RTG for short, is essentially any account that chooses not to spend money on FIFA Points. The chances of becoming a professional player using an RTG account can mostly be determined by two factors, pack luck and time.

Obviously, skill is a major factor but to compete in Weekend League, or qualifying stages of tournaments, a solid or good team is needed. It would be questionable to expect a normal player to spend $1,000 on average a year like Exraa stated, but to see players spend $27,000 a year would be unimaginable and ridiculous.

A RTG account in can create a team worth $27,000, but it would require ridiculous pack luck and an insane amount of grinding. Earned coins can be traded for players on the market, one method to get good players. Better players start to become purchasable at 10,000 coins which would take at least 10 games to earn, approximately three hours if no opponents leave early.

Lucky players might pack Ronaldo or Messi early on, but RTG players are still limited in the amount of packs they can earn and open.

In addition, EA Sports releases special cards each season and during promotional events in packs. There are cards earned through completing objectives or Squad Building Challenges, but it just adds on to the time consumed. Especially considering EA Sports has historically become more and more strict with requirements and objectives.

RTG players will also be dependent on time as higher rated players are released as the game gets older. If hours are put in to have a strong team in the first few months, more time will be required to cope with the power curve that inherently arrives. 

Outside of having high pack luck and getting lucky with content drops from EA Sports, RTG teams will always pale in comparison for time spent on the game to pay-to-win players. It doesn't mean RTG accounts aren't viable. In fact, some prefer a "pure" approach to the game and have respect for those that put in the time and effort.

Inside FIFA Esports Finances: Contracts and Prize Money

According to Bion West, eMLS contracts would usually come with a salary and other benefits. He said that this varies on a club to club and player to player basis, with some players also taking up extra work by doing content creation such as streaming and YouTube.

For non-contracted players, expenses would come out of their own pockets, meaning they would need a stream of income to provide for themselves other than FIFA. The main difference is that a contracted player can earn money without losing time training or playing FIFA.

That extra one or two hours could be the difference between players at the start of the game as maybe they haven't played against an opponent who abused a certain gameplay mechanic or team tactic. As a result, this could also affect the amount of prize money they might receive as it varies depending on their placement in the competition and the competition itself.

The 2019 FIFA eWorld Cup prize pool was increased to $500,000 but compared to other established esports, FIFA is still considerably lacking in prize money. 

This is how the prize money was spread at the 2019 FIFA eWorld Cup:

  • First: $250,000
  • Second: $100,00
  • Third and Fourth: $25,000
  • Fifth to Eight: $12,000
  • Ninth to 16th: $5,000
  • 17th to 32nd: $750
  • 33rd to 64th: $0

This is how the prize money was spread at the 2019 Fortnite Solo World Cup:

  • First: $3,000,000
  • Second to Fourth: $1,000,000 - 2,000,000
  • Fifth to Ninth: $900,000 - $300,000
  • 10th: $225,000
  • 11th to 20th: $150,000 - $112,500
  • 21st to 100th: $50,000 

Comparison

Compared to FIFA, Fortnite is a baby but already boasts a stronger professional esports scene and prize money despite only hosting its first World Cup in 2019.

Those who qualified for the Fortnite World Cup were already guaranteed to earn more than those who placed third and fourth at the FIFA eWorld Cup. In addition, the Fortnite World Cup winner earned 12 times more than the winner of the 2019 FIFA eWorld Cup. Even the player who ranked 10th already earned $225,000, just $25,000 below what the FIFA eWorld Cup Champion earns.

Although significantly smaller and with strong outcry from the FIFA community, there seems to be a collective, professional understanding about the current prize pool. Exraa and Adamou both acknowledge that the sport definitely can improve its prize money but understand that the FIFA esports industry did not start to take off till 2018 and is relatively young. They're happy to see that each year it has increased and hope that it continues to do so as the esport becomes more popular. 

Leading the eMLS and other gaming initiatives at the MLS, Bion West gives an additional viewpoint that adds onto the growth of the FIFA esport industry. West expresses that "FIFA has been around for decades and it's got this massive, massive, casual fanbase," whereas, "Overwatch or League of Legends....were built with esports and viewership in mind." West also states that it was probably a big priority for those games compared to FIFA when it was first released, a major factor when comparing esports.

Adamou provided an insightful perspective that illustrates both sides.

"It is a completely different aspect with Fortnite, because Fortnite has a much bigger player pool. Also, Fortnite brings in a lot more viewers so it's reasonable for the prize pool to be higher in Fortnite than it is in FIFA." 

So, is a professional FIFA esports player worth pursuing and will it be a good, sustainable career choice? 

Is it a Sustainable Career? 

Papsity revealed that "the process is long," and states that players will need to obviously put in "countless hours," but it will be "definitely worth it." The pro player states that the challenge is sometimes the result of the lifestyle change as "you go kind of from a normal life to playing as a professional." 

Training schedules changes on a player-to-player basis but overall, there is still a lot of time for players to have a social life and do other activities. That also includes friendly matches and socializing with other pro players and close friends. This is one of the benefits a professional FIFA esports player has compared to other esports careers such as Fortnite and League of Legends.

Unless a player's skills are at the top or will give competitive players a run for their money, their efforts might be wasted. Attention is hard to earn for players who don't consistently produce good results or place high in tournaments. Even the chances of consistently earning prize money is a lot lower and limited in the FIFA esports industry compared to other esports. Even with good performances, scouts might not notice a player until they place in the top four in official tournaments.

In addition, to compete with the best, money isn’t necessary but is usually spent on the game and puts free-to-play players at a big disadvantage. This disadvantage was expressed by the pro players and despite being decreased with better skills, the additional boosts a player's stats gives may prove to be the difference in a match.

The chances of an average free-to-play gamer becoming a pro will be significantly less than those who pay-to-play. Even a highly skilled free-to-play, RTG player might fall victim and lose to a pay-to-play opponent simply due to team differences and player stats. If EA Sports and FIFA fixed this issue, then becoming a professional FIFA esports player would be considerably more worth it.

Maybe, the best method to start an esports career is to practice after work and once steadily performing well, take the next step. This could possibly even be done with a RTG squad as players can test out different tactics and players, especially with new players being released each week. For younger players, this is different as they can be supported by their parents or caregivers. This also takes into account the idea that a little boost in FIFA Points will help players quickly create a stronger squad.

By taking the jump, players can leap into the FIFA esports industry and competitively perform without having to worry about electricity being shut off or not being able to eat. Having that platform and stability will also help ease a player’s stress and set up a strong foundation to build upon.

This begs the question, is FIFA pay-to-play or pay-to-win?

The Big Question: Is FIFA Pay to Win?

Money seems to be a big factor in all esports and FIFA has its own fair share of disgruntled fans. Many players have felt the game leans towards paying players despite EA Sports firmly stating on forums that the game is based on skill.

Therefore, the quick answer to this question is, yes, FIFA is pay-to-win. EA Sports might quickly rebuke this answer but to an extent, pro players and RTG players would agree that FIFA is pay-to-win. In addition, a majority of FUT players, especially those playing in Weekend League will agree or feel that FIFA is pay-to-win or favored to those who opt for a free-to-play style.

Even in the professional industry, players can see the difference between those who pay and those who keep their wallets shut. Exraa, like other professionals agree that "you definitely need to open your wallet if you want to really give yourself the best chance," after commenting that to an extent, the game is pay-to-win. 

Exraa and Adamou stated that even if a player is slightly better than their opponent, a decent team cannot compete with one which has been paid to get. These team differences are areas of the game that stand out compared to skill where the pros rely on 'exploits' or mistakes to win games. 

In addition, contracted players have an advantage as they don’t lose hours practicing when the game is first released as their job is to play FIFA. As a result, non-contracted players or players who aren’t placing high won’t be able to give the game their full attention as they have to worry about how to pay off utilities and FIFA Points.

Both eMLS representatives strongly convey their dislike with this disadvantage and are hoping FIFA 21, which is set to be released in October this year, is fixed. Adamou even stated that he hoped "for EA to be able to maybe give us (players) an account with all players so everyone has a fair chance of qualifying for tournaments."

Since “unlocked accounts” are given at live and official tournaments according to Exraa, the game clearly shows off its skill-based aspect. If this was fixed at the qualifying stage like Adamou suggested, then FIFA esports can be considered to be free-to-play and a skill-based game.With the eMLS growing, the league and its representative players are excited to see the future of not only the eMLS, but also FIFA esport industry as a whole. 

The Future of the eMLS

Speaking with Bion West, who leads the gaming initiatives for the eMLS, the future of the esports league is going to continue to grow. The first eMLS event was the eMLS Cup in April 2018, and is still growing, according to West who just saw the end of the third eMLS season. 

Growing from a single event season, the eMLS is planning on staying with its three events each season according to West. At least in 2021, expect there to be the eMLS League One and Two Series that leads into the eMLS Champions Cups.

There are no signs of slowing down for the eMLS or viewership numbers as the 2020 eMLS Cup was the biggest and longest broadcast they’ve ever had.

According to statistics given from an eMLS spokesperson, it broke the previous record by 74 minutes and set new records for viewership numbers. The 2020 eMLS Cup saw a total of 2.7 million views on Twitch, nearly 200% more than the 2019 eMLS Cup. In addition, according to statistics given from an eMLS spokesperson, the 2020 eMLS Cup peaked at over 64,000 viewers with the average being at least 37,000, all new records for the eMLS. The eMLS Cup allowed esports players to spend more time on the game and gave focus to the industry as regular sport fans desperately searched for a new entertainment source, whilst the COVID-19 pandemic continued to spread.

Unsurprisingly, the majority of viewership comes from North America, but West is hoping for more international exposure in the future. In addition, according to West, Europe is the second largest viewership demographic and with Atlanta United signing Brazilian player Paulo Neto, a whole new fan base has potentially been unlocked. West believes the first ever international signing is a sign for more to come and has hopes that other continents such as Asia can be reached in time. 

Right now, West and the eMLS are focused on the current fan base. West stated that the aim is “to help grow the existing eMLS fan base and help cultivate new fans that we have” as reaching out and retaining fans will help not only develop the league itself but also the culture of the eMLS. 

Speaking of culture, West has seen the combination of the eMLS with the MLS and hopes for it to continue. West stated that the eMLS “are really trying to blur the line between digital and physical soccer” with the 2018 MLS Cup strongly remembered by West where fans were previewed to the game via FIFA. 

The virtual game took place before the physical game, where the two eMLS representatives “predicted” the outcome of the match which shockingly came true. West expressed that “it was a nice way to kind of have that gaming connectivity” and hopes to see more in the future as FIFA esports and soccer grows more popular.

In regards to prize money West stated that the league is still young and rapidly growing. Each year they have increased the prize pool and also distributed the prize money better instead of it all going to the winner.