If you’re not in any way interested in football – or ‘soccer’ as some would have it – it’s likely you’re not really a regular player of EA Sports’s annual behemoth, FIFA. In that case, one of the biggest scandals in gaming may have just passed you by… and who doesn’t like reading about a good scandal?
First, a bit of background. If you have even a passing interest in video games, you’ll know that each FIFA release is a massive money-maker for EA. The reason being is that, beyond the point of sale, every FIFA game since FIFA 10 has contained a mode called FIFA Ultimate Team (or FUT), a card-trading game in which players are encouraged to spend real-world money to beef up their roster. Card packs are bought with FIFA Coins – in-game currency that can be earned through grinding – and EA Points, which are bought for real money.
It’s a mode that allows EA to rake in billions year in and year out, since FUT is the most played mode in FIFA every year. Yes, more played than the online mode, the manager mode, the story mode and the rest. It’s a mode that has proved so lucrative that it may explain why EA has tried to shove similar ‘pay-to-win’ modes into other franchises – Need For Speed and Star Wars: Battlefront among them – and gotten into hot water for doing so.
The reason being that one’s wealth doesn’t give them the overriding edge with card packs one would expect. It’s possible to spend a king’s ransom and end up with some marginal to decent players. It’s also possible to grind for about half an hour and – if the gods are smiling – net a brilliant player with your first purchase. Essentially these card packs are loot boxes – or ‘surprise mechanics’ as EA would have it – and punters never know upfront exactly what they’re paying for.
The rise of FIFA’s #EAGate
Got all that? Great! Here’s where things get messy.
Early last week reports – in the form of complaints with accompanying screenshots of a text exchange – emerged that a FIFA 21 player and an alleged EA employee were engaged in a deal in which the latter was trying to sell rare FUT items on the black market.
According to a report on Goal.com, the cards on sale are ‘extinct’ – essentially unavailable for current FUT players to buy through the legal channels. All of them are either incredibly rare or impossible to get hold of, and they all come with high-ratings, making them invaluable additions to anyone’s team roster.
As one would expect, they are being sold for exorbitant amounts of money. Some range from around $890 to $1,190, while others sell as high at $2K. Right now, if you’re living locally and doing the exchange rate in your head, you’ll realise these cards are capable of netting the seller a small fortune.
Leaving aside the fact that these transactions clearly violate EA Games’ T&C’s when it comes to FUT, it has also left a lot of players fuming – why bother to grind, or pay real money (beyond the initial point of purchase, incidentally), when backroom deals like this are going on? It’s prompted the community to break out the digital pitchforks and the hashtag #EAGate started trending.
EA responds to #EAGate
EA, to give the company its due, has moved swiftly to address these shenanigans. To begin with, it announced an investigation into the incident and promised that heads would roll should the allegations surrounding an EA employee allegedly being involved prove true.
— EA SPORTS FC (@EASPORTSFC) March 10, 2021
“We are aware of the allegations currently circulating within our community related to FIFA 21 Ultimate Team items,” EA said in a statement.
“A thorough investigation is underway, and if we identify improper conduct, we will take swift action.”
“We want to be clear – this type of behaviour is unacceptable, and we in no way condone what is alleged to have happened here,” the statement went on.
“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.”
Gaming the system
The reaction from the FUT community has been both voluminous and clear. Many are disappointed. While some have been somewhat guarded in their responses – criticising what has been going on, but refraining from lashing out at EA as an entity – others have been unequivocal in their flaming.
So we grind/trade/open packs and can’t touch these PIM players but EA employees sell them to people secretly for $1,700?!?! LOL I respect the grind but my god… pic.twitter.com/CCnhjZbcgH
— Nick 🇨🇦 (@Nick28T) March 10, 2021
Some have even started opining that FUT shouldn’t be a ‘pay-to-win’ proposition to begin with – especially if it’s open to this sort of abuse. While EA’s investigation into all this is ongoing, we won’t comment on the parties that may or may not have been involved. But there are a loud number of players who are understandably angry that their grind, along with the real-world money they have paid for cards, might as well have been all for nought. What the #EAGate scandal has thrown into sharp relief, is that it is a system that can be – albeit illicitly – gamed.
And that may prove to be a huge issue for EA. The way card pack buying is set up in FUT, players aren’t paying for what they want, they’re paying for the chance of obtaining what they want. This is the situation that landed EA in trouble over Stars Wars: Battlefront II. Already there are numerous countries opining that the entire loot box system of FUT and other games constitutes unregulated gambling. The last thing FIFA needs is more attention like this.