There are a lot of excellent FIFA players in the world, but there are only a few who can afford to compete as a professional.
At January's FUT Champions Cup—a staple of the FIFA esports calendar—players were using teams with a real-world value of approximately $27,000, per FUT Economist. Qualifiers for this competition had to rank among the best in the world using their own teams and home setup, even though every player on the game became available for those who made it to the live tournament.
If you strip back the high production values, lavish venues and spectacle, it's obvious the competitive scene is laced with barriers that halt many players who have the potential to play FIFA for a living.
The "pay to win" formula has been a point of discussion for years, and in FIFA 19, it's difficult to deny that having cash to spend provides an advantage. As such, FIFA Ultimate Team—the game mode used for most official tournaments—has a vice-like grip over its playerbase.
B/R ran a survey on the spending habits of average FIFA players and to uncover how they feel about the lurking need to continually invest to maintain pace with the crowd.
The majority of people who responded have spent less than $500 on their team in FIFA 19's FUT game mode.
FIFA games live in an annual cycle, so whatever players spend on this year's title will not carry over to FIFA 20. It's common to spend big one year and ease off the next. At some point in FUT's decade-long history, a significant portion of players have felt the need to spend real money on top of the retail cost of the game.
As the numbers show, opening packs that contain randomly generated player cards (which, at base level, come in the form of gold, silver and bronze packs) is something many have tried, especially if you look at the all-time scale.
Like any effective gambling system, the big prizes—say, Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo—are not going to appear often but always seem within reach.
This can lead to accumulating massive spends without knowing. A common response to the survey was players admitting they didn't realise how much they'd spent until they sat down to work it out.
One user estimated spending $280,000 across a decade, with a 10th of that coming on FIFA 19 and around $80,000 on FIFA 18. Other respondents racked up $100,000 all-time spends, with the most on FIFA 19 standing at $45,000 at the time of the survey in March.
Shocking, yes, but the circumstances around such large outlays could be one-off. Perhaps the heaviest spenders are YouTubers who make their investment back or are rich enough to be without a financial care in the world. FIFA's grasp on getting players to spend beyond the base game, though, is more accurately shown in the mean results.
Packs are extremely slow to come by if you're using the in-game currency of FUT Coins, which can be generated by playing matches and trading. For example, players will earn 500 to 800 coins per match, with the lowest-rated gold pack costing 7,500 coins.
These packs are usually a disappointment to the player, often containing one low-rated footballer who isn't going to contribute much to their team. It's not a great reward for playing around 10 matches, or approximately four hours of FIFA.
The value of grinding for coins decreases further if you opt for more expensive packs. At the top end of the scale is the Ultimate Pack, priced at 125,000 FUT Coins, which equates to roughly 208 matches for 30 rare player cards.
At around 20 minutes per match, with time for loading, tactics and finding a game included, this is approximately 69 hours of play if you're not competing in Division Rivals (which anyone can do) or the Weekend League (requires qualification). Both of these modes offer rewards that can significantly dent the cost of packs, but vitally, they push casual players into the realm of those who take FIFA seriously.
With this comes the increasing need to spend and the sudden elimination of easy-going play. Popular YouTuber Nick (RunTheFUTMarket) believes EA Sports has its playerbase "trapped," telling B/R Football, "Compared to FIFA four years ago, casual play is absent. The online tournaments are gone, and there is no true chill mode to play FIFA anymore outside the menus."
Looking to the competitive scene, Nick believes "certain players are qualifying based off resources," although it's not a lifestyle he would recommend:
"I think the format has become extremely 'pay to win' in comparison to previous FUT years. Players are now being forced to invest large sums of money into their teams to compete at the highest level. A lot of these players aren't breaking even, and the lifestyle isn't sufficient for a casual to want to become pro to make this a job."
This is amplified by the recent ePremier League tournament, in which none of the competitors received a financial reward despite representing England's top football clubs.
While there's often $50,000 on the line for winners of the biggest events, per EsportsEarnings, it's not uncommon for top-10 players to receive just $250 to $750 at tournaments they've travelled across the globe for. This means "pay to win" isn't necessarily a profitable lifestyle for the vast majority:
Not many things I agree with @Kurt0411Fifa on, but regarding the reward structure for pros, I can't help but echo his sentiments. It's a joke that the 5-8 best players get $750, especially considering the money EA make. All the while fortnite participants get 50k to show up! https://t.co/z59p6ABlAB
Who is to blame for this culture?
It is understandable that EA's main purpose is to make as much money as possible. It is a business that functions on selling games and downloadable items. Players have more responsibility in maintaining the success of these practices than they may think.
Every year without fail, the FIFA community is vocal over problems with the latest release, yet players keep buying. Social media is awash with angry messages from those who slam the game while simultaneously loading up another match.
"I don't think necessarily there's any emphasis from EA on spending in FIFA; it's something that's come from within the community," a FIFA team manager who asked to remain anonymous told B/R. "It feels like a lot [of players] are pretty desensitised when it comes to spending $99 on 12,000 FIFA Points, which is a crazy amount of money to be dropping each time."
"There's also the effect of seeing certain pros spend money at the start of the season and get great results, which makes the chasing pack feel like they have to spend harder at the start of the following year to keep up."
Instant gratification is the key. You could spend weeks grinding matches for that one shot at a good pack, or you could pay money to get it instantly. And then pay again when you don't receive the player you want. Such spending is happening on a global scale, and the echoes to real-life Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain—where cash has led to success—shouldn't be lost on players.
FIFA 19 is the first title to show the rough odds of receiving cards of different ratings, but the system remains unclear. Odds will often say there's "less than one percent chance" of landing an elite player who is rated 89 or higher, but the breakdown isn't enough.
The amount of each card on the market suggests you are still far more likely to pack Giorgio Chiellini (90-rated) than Ronaldo (94-rated), with no specifics on each individual.
EA underlines this on its own website: "Some campaign-specific categories, for example, Ones to Watch, feature rare content. In some packs, the rarity of this content category may be less than one percent, and within that there will be a wide range of probabilities."
There is no discernible end goal in sight, especially with better cards being released all the time. It is "complete gambling," according to Nick, who believes EA is using the pack system as a "loophole" to get around showing the true probability of receiving the best players.
In January, we saw the first significant step in the fightback against FIFA Points. Four months prior, the Belgian government "launched a criminal investigation into EA after the publisher refused to modify FIFA's randomised card pack loot boxes" after FUT and other loot-box systems were declared "an illegal game of chance," per Wesley Yin-Poole of Eurogamer.
After initially refusing to follow the examples of Blizzard (Overwatch) and Valve (Counter-Strike: Global Offensive) in discontinuing loot boxes in Belgium following the ruling, EA eventually removed FIFA Points from sale in the country. This is likely to have huge implications for Belgian pros who need to invest to remain competitive. It could also serve as a test case on just how much spending creates opportunities for success in the game.
"I think the impact is going to be huge in the Belgium esports scene," PSV Eindhoven and Belgian pro Stefano Pinna told B/R. "If we don't have the ability to buy FIFA Points anymore, it's so difficult to compete with other countries. Hopefully there are still possibilities to buy FIFA Points for pro players in Belgium."
Pinna expects players to find ways to get around the new laws. "Maybe using another IP or opening packs [provided] from PSV [a Dutch club exempt from the laws]. I think if we want to compete on the highest stage, we need to get around the system."
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It's possible talented players are losing out because they don't have the means to spend alongside professionals who often have their purchases funded by a team.
"There have been cases where players have struggled to qualify online because of their team and then excelled at the events they've managed to make," the anonymous team manager said. "So I think it's fair to say the tournament lineups wouldn't be the same, but I think ultimately, when getting to the final stages of a tournament, it would be mostly full of familiar faces."
When asked what changes could help even things out, the manager mentioned a "pity pull" system.
Like EA-published juggernaut Apex Legends, players would be guaranteed something of value after a handful of bad packs. In the Madden NFL franchise, another EA property, "bundle toppers" reward those who spend in bulk. While these methods help manipulate luck, it still always comes down to spending for a reward.
"The ideal scenario is no 'pay to win' anymore in competitive FIFA," Pinna said, whose sentiment is backed up by many.
Earlier this month, U.S. senator Josh Hawley proposed a ban on loot boxes (and, by extension, FIFA Points) that "prey on user addiction" and exploit children.
The issue is a wide-reaching one in gaming, with other powerhouse titles such as Fortnite and Apex Legends normalising spending on games that can be downloaded for free. A recent study of 1,000 Fortnite players by student loans company LendEDU showed 69 percent of them spend on the game, with the average spend total being $85 (h/t Paul Tassi of Forbes).
With Sweden also investigating loot boxes and the Chinese government's restrictions on the amount of loot boxes players can buy per day, the conversation isn't going away.
FUT's endless cycle puts players in danger of not realising just how much they've given up for the game. It is far more than a monetary commitment; this is a game that begs for your time and attention. Forget work, family arrangements and a social life—miss too much, and you're seriously behind the curve.
B/R reached out to EA to discuss the aforementioned issues but were instead provided an official statement by an EA Spokesperson:
"We believe that EA SPORTS FIFA is developed and implemented ethically and lawfully around the world and take these responsibilities very seriously. We care deeply that our players are having a fun and fair experience in all of our games and take great care to ensure each game is marketed responsibly. This year in FIFA 19 we began publishing pack probabilities for all FIFA Ultimate Team packs, which players can access before purchase. Additionally, all of FIFA Ultimate Team can be played fully without spending any money—purchases are entirely optional. A player's ability to succeed in FIFA Ultimate Team is not dependent on spending in the mode."
That last sentence should stick in the minds of all players. There is a danger the community has been exposed to an extremely effective marketing strategy without ever being educated on the risks of it.
"FIFA is the game I love and everyone [in the community] loves, so we hope to see people realise what it's turning into," Nick said. "It can still be fixed if there is more community awareness."
People stick with FIFA because they love football and they love gaming. There is no other footballing product on the market that can match FUT's addictiveness and production values, and there likely never will be.
The danger is that thousands of players are now numb to what FIFA entails and will proceed with the zombie routine year-on-year. The real-life impact of this can be far more expensive than a few zeroes on a bank statement.