How FIFA Ultimate Team Re-Defined Gaming Digital Goods
…and what they did wrong.
FIFA Ultimate Team is perhaps the most profitable single game mode/concept in gaming history. Its rise lifted its producer to the position of EA CEO, and its approach led to countless copycats, but also improved iterations of the concept, creating better, more consumer-friendly microtransaction funnels. To celebrate the launch of FIFA 21, we’re going to take a look at how exactly EA built their model and compare it to our bread and butter in the form of Counter-Strike Global Offensive trading. Let’s start from the beginning…
Ultimate Team first launched in the Xbox 360 version of a FIFA spin-off, “UEFA Champions League 2006–2007”, a game series that was often used by EA to test concepts without the pressure of their main yearly release. Back then, the mode was much simpler than what would come later, but it possessed the core aspects that would later define the game mode.
The mode was based around the very familiar concept of trading cards/Panini stickers and allowed players to build their team around them. To add some complexity to the idea, EA introduced a concept called Chemistry to the game. This meant that players would get stat boosts if they were from the same Leagues, Nations, and/or Clubs.
This didn’t mean that much when it came to the limited roster of the spin-off game, but once Ultimate Team arrived in FIFA 09 as a DLC for the game, the popularity of the mode exploded. The appeal of Chemistry meant that people were able to build fancy teams, while either filling them with their favourite players or overpowered “beasts” who’d be cheap, have good chemistry, and dominate the gameplay due to their unique stats.
The biggest feature of the game, however, turned out to be the market. While most mainstream games at the time didn’t have functionalities that allowed players to exchange items between each other for currency, FIFA allowed them to both trade cards and list them up for auctions to earn coins from other players.
This meant that suddenly, the prices were fluid, dictated by supply and demand. This made the market feel much more organic, and the items as having tangible value.
The fact that the items represented real-life players also helped EA build a certain kind of emotional connection. You had players you loved, and players you hated. Players you discovered on accident and fell in love because of their in-game skills, and your own sports heroes who you adored.
This definitely made these items tangible, very much like real-life sports cards. At the same time, they actually helped you win the game, unlike the cosmetic items that would come. This places FIFA cards as extremely similar to a certain card game.
Rules of the Game…
Magic: The Gathering actually shares a lot of similarities with FIFA when it comes to how cards are valued. Their price is a combination of rarity, power, and state. That’s why you’ll see valuable Magic cards be quickly laminated and protected as if they were the Koh-i-Noor.
How does this relate to FIFA? Well, EA controls the rarity of cards through pack weights. The higher-rated the card, the rarer it is, however, there are theories pointing to more powerful cards with lower ratings also receiving lower pack weight, and being less prevalent on the market.
This is because a high rating doesn’t mean that a player is useful, just like in Magic where a card being rare doesn’t mean that it is necessarily valuable as a gameplay tool. Sometimes this means that a relatively low rated card (say 85/99) may be more expensive than a top-tier goalkeeper card rated 91/99. Finally, wear is also reflected on FIFA cards in a way. Since the cards tally up stats for both the current and previous owners, some players prefer purchasing “clean” cards, making top-tier players rise by a few % compared to their “used” counterparts.
However, there is a big difference between Magic and FIFA, as well as other monetization models like Valve’s semi-open approach. Namely… You can’t legally make money off of FIFA coins. They’re in a totally closed ecosystem, and what’s worse, cards become virtually worthless with time. Since FIFA is on a yearly cycle, the insane amounts of money pro players have to invest to retain a competitive advantage are basically reset on a regular basis, as are the profits of “pro traders” — players who have mastered the market to the point of beating pay-to-win players in profits with relative ease.
This means that every year a vicious cycle forces players to either pay for randomized packs or grind their way to them in what is an equivalent of a full-time job, while still never being able to legally sell their team or players.
…and how to break them.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that people didn’t try. YouTuber Craig “NepentheZ” Douglas was fined over 90 thousand pounds for gambling law violations due to running FUTGalaxy, a website that allowed players to use their FIFA Coins to bet on games and various other casino games, while in America, a group of hackers were convicted of wire fraud for glitching their way into millions of Ultimate Team Coins.
In an ironic twist, EA’s closed-market approach led to a Wild West of coin selling even outside of the two high-profile cases. By FIFA 15, the ability to trade cards between players was removed, as many people used it to circumvent EA’s systems. This, of course, led to a wild west of scamming, cheating, and even “click-farms” being created in Asia.
Is it fair play?
Since our work is very closely related to the Steam and CS:GO marketplace, we know that the games we support have seen controversies of their own. However, to Valve’s credit, they took steps to ensure that sites using their APIs have the appropriate licenses and operate within the limits of the law. Had it not been for the UK gambling authority, Douglas’ business would’ve likely kept going, since EA’s refusal to build a fully fledged API for their game also means a total lack of control over who uses it, and scam prevention becomes much harder when some of the websites literally need your login details to perform quick coin-sale transactions.
Of course, this works out for EA either way. The closed-market model forces their players to spend thousands of dollars to get “esports ready” teams by unpacking enough valuable players to get the coins to build their dream team.
We recently told you about how Valve has turned CS:GO into a juggernaut by analyzing player needs, and adjusting their market to be consumer-centric rather than centred around profits. Their approach still made them heaps of cash, while avoiding a lot of the consumer dissatisfaction stemming from EA’s model, who easily could’ve created a similar system given that they’re one of the few companies who actually own a platform comparable to Steam in some ways.
While EA’s system certainly isn’t the worst monetization system in AAA gaming (that still goes to the market-less Hearthstone and Overwatch), the fact is you can’t really turn your extremely expensive players into the real cash they’re worth or keep them for longer than a single game cycle. It’s suspected that with Games-as-a-Service becoming more and more of a reality, FIFA might eventually switch Ultimate Team to a constant game mode and stop doing yearly releases.
Until then, however, their market will always serve as an example of both the earning power of digital goods, how they can become tangible objects (my love for Francesco Totti’s cards from FIFA 15 until 17 will never die), and yet can fall short of the impact Valve’s concept had.
After all, FIFA cards are just short-term in-game items, the sales of these items aren’t driven by their beauty or uniqueness, but by the fact that they are required to win in the game. While FIFA Ultimate Team is going strong now, what if Konami’s 2021 edition of Pro Evolution Soccer surprises us with a better system? Consumers are already waiting for an alternative, while even the mighty Riot Games couldn’t really compete with CS:GO’s stranglehold on the competitive PC FPS landscape.
It is visible that Valve’s success is built for the long-term, whilst EA’s tight grip on players’ pockets might turn out to be short-lived, unless they move away from a model that even their biggest fans see as unfriendly to consumers, at best.
We’ll see what the future holds, but the truth is that as of right now, EA built the foundations for making digital goods tangible, all while ignoring the need for true ownership. Other developers have used their experience since… to varied success. This story doesn’t have a moral just yet, though. EA’s profits are still doing great, as are Valve’s. In this battle of two business philosophies, we’ll only be able to see who did it right when the dust settles…
We’re still putting our bets on Valve, building our digital goods trading solutions on top of their pioneering foundations.
We’re still putting our bets on Valve, building our digital goods trading solutions on their pioneering foundations.