A recent earnings report revealed that EA makes 28% of its money from Ultimate Team alone. While Madden and NHL account for some of that, the vast majority comes from FIFA. We don’t know the specifics, but it wouldn’t surprise me if FIFA accounts for over 75% of total revenue generated by Ultimate Team . Unless your name is Mr. or Mrs. EA, that makes for some pretty bleak reading.
Gaming is a highly capitalist industry, and games will be killed, tweaked, or have new modes stitched into them if it makes the publishers more money. Games are art, et cetera, but it’s a cash driven artform, especially at the top of the industry. To be annoyed that a game is making money seems fruitless, even if I wish the industry wasn’t so unceasingly cash-driven. What’s more concerning is that a huge chunk of this cash is coming from one specific mode in just three games – which is really FIFA and two tagalongs. This 28% accounts for $1.65 billion, just in case you were unaware of the sheer scale of money we’re talking about here.
EA is one of the biggest developers in the world. Mass Effect, Dragon Age, The Sims, Need For Speed, Star Wars, Apex Legends, Battlefield, and more make up the other 72% – actually, so do FIFA, Madden, and NHL. That 28% comes from Ultimate Team alone, with sales of those sports titles and any associated merchandise all going into the remaining 72%.
This is bleak for a few reasons. Gaming seems to be moving beyond the microtransaction era of lootbox heavy mechanics into the more sustainable battle pass or season pass model, but Ultimate Team has managed to feint its way past criticism with all the grace of Allan Saint-Maximin dropping the shoulder out wide. That’s particularly surprising when you consider that FIFA Ultimate Team is probably the worst culprit of the lot.
In Ultimate Team, you open packs that mimic football trading cards to build your team. The more expensive packs have a better chance of having great players in them, and you can either earn the money for packs in-game, or just buy it with real cash. Every player has chemistry based on who you play them with, and you need to buy contracts to ensure the player is available for selection, but it’s fairly straightforward. It can become more complicated if you want to gain those fine margins, but Ultimate Team is successful because it requires very little explanation.
The problem is that it resets every year. Whether the annual sports titles are the same every year is a boring debate to be had another day – hopefully while I’m off doing something else – but what’s undeniable is that progress is reset. You might get a bonus pack or two for having played last season, but regardless of how much money you spent on your team, you’re back to square one, ready to start all over again. It’s particularly insulting when you factor in the $70 cost of the game itself. This reset keeps the 28% of Ultimate Team money at a healthy level for Mr. and Mrs. EA, but it also means that while the industry has evolved its money making to a system that retains high profits while being slightly more consumer friendly, Ultimate Team is showing that the old ways still rake in the profits. Players vote with their wallets, and the winner by a landslide is lootboxes.
Not every game has the global pull of FIFA, and with Ultimate Team having been in place since FIFA 09, FIFA has plausible deniability in the way other games do not. This has been part of the fabric of FIFA for over a decade, and so it’s much easier for it to resist change than it would be for a new game to try and construct an Ultimate Team for itself. There are also few things in the world quite so collectible as football stickers. It’s not just for games less profitable than FIFA that the Ultimate Team earnings point to a worrying future either – it spells trouble ahead for FIFA itself too.
I play FIFA every year, and only briefly engage with Ultimate Team. I build as good a team as you can realistically construct without injecting your own money, but then quickly get bored as the contract issues start to kick in. Why would I spend hundreds of pounds hunting for Mane and Salah cards when I can just play Career Mode or hop Online as Liverpool and play as them both for free?
It also means innovation has stalled. It’s a football sim, and aside from my niche complaints about system players, double pivots, and real-world shithousery, it’s a pretty great one. Every year there’s a minor improvement on the pitch, but FIFA doesn’t need much of a gameplay fine tune by this point. There are other ways the game could add new features, but everything has been subpar recently. Career Mode has had aesthetic changes and a more involved transfer system, but it’s still riddled with silly inaccuracies and feels cold. Volta has potential as a FIFA Street spiritual successor, but is hamstrung by receiving far less care than Ultimate Team, making the characters repetitive, the gameplay fiddly, and the online matches impossible to find. Creation Centre has gone, only to be replaced with nothing.
More and more, the game is being built around a single game mode, and when that mode makes 28% of an entire publisher’s profits, it’s easy to see why. With FIFA 22 just around the corner, don’t expect things to get any better. It’s fitting, in a way. Football has always been a deeply working class sport, but the success of the Premier League has gentrified it from beneath our feet. Enjoy your prawn sandwiches while you open those gold packs, yeah?
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