Football is a game of two haves — the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’. There is always a champion and a loser. There is always a veteran and a youngster. And there are always the rich, and the poor.
Wealth hasn’t just transfixed modern football, but the video games that simulate it. The FIFA series has epitomised this in recent years, becoming ever more cinematic, polished, laden with all the bells and referee whistles. Yet, underneath the shiny surface there is a darker price being paid for entertainment.
Last month, the UK government published a report on ‘immersive and addictive technologies’, a compelling commentary on modern life. In the report was a section on ‘loot boxes’, gaming mechanics that effectively amount to gambling by asking players to pay money in a game of chance, in the hope they will receive a desirable item or result.
At the heart of the report? FIFA’s player card packs, which bring in hundreds of millions of euro for EA each year.
“One gamer told us that this cycle resulted in them spending ‘almost £800 to £1000 a year annually on FIFA,’” the report says.
Anyone with even a passing interest in Fifa will know someone who has spent more than they wanted on those card packs. After a night in the pub, it’s hard not to splash the cash like you’re an Irish oil baron. The process is simple — you pay for a pack and hope that you land a special player, or at least the player you want. The truth is, there is a real satisfaction to the game of chance, to landing the motherlode in a rare Messi or Ronaldo, or getting exactly the player you need to round out your team.
But that would be simplifying a much more complicated issue. The Ultimate Team mode is completely tailored around card packs and progress is painfully slow without them. The game has been designed to create impatience and dissatisfaction if you aren’t willing to spend extra money.
And so, the vulnerable among us — children and those who have addictive tendencies — are likely to suffer. The average gamer may regret spending an extra 20 quid here and there, but others simply won’t be able to stop. “Children are especially vulnerable,” reads a quote in the UK report, “because they lack the maturity to understand that these purchases are manipulative, and their parents may not understand that these purchases are entirely unnecessary.”
FIFA developers EA have defended their loot boxes. Before the UK government’s report was published in early September, an EA representative was invited to parliament to speak on the issue of loot boxes and gambling.
The EA representative said players enjoyed these game designs and called them ‘surprise mechanics’, a defence that became reviled and ridiculed across sections of the internet.
For those familiar with modern gaming, the only surprise here is that is has taken regulators so long to catch up.
Loot boxes aren’t just a feature of FIFA, in the form of player packs, but across many of gaming’s biggest titles, like Call of Duty. The design of big budget games is often changed to encourage slow, grinding progress and trap those people vulnerable to extra purchases.
The UK report acknowledges that current gambling laws do not account for loot boxes or games of chance in video games. However, it recommends that the law is revised soon.
In the meantime, another annual update of FIFA has hit our shelves, in FIFA 20. It has a new ‘Fifa Street’ style mode and a tweak in how defences work. But really, until something changes with FIFA’s player packs and the predatory games of chance they inspire, we no longer care.
The real game of football has been irrevocably altered by the chase for money, but at least the players themselves have been rewarded. With FIFA’s card packs, ultimately, it’s the players who lose out — and some far more than others.