The Black Market Of FIFA Ultimate Team

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The Black Market Of FIFA Ultimate Team

EA’s most recent scandal has the FIFA community in uproar as it seems the game is more pay to win than originally thought.

Football, or soccer, is one of the most popular sports in the whole world. It isn’t a surprise to many that the EA Sports FIFA franchise also makes up for a lot of their yearly revenue. This is attributed mostly to their micro-transaction-driven game mode FIFA Ultimate Team (“FUT”). Ultimate team has become one of the most important factors of EA’s earnings, making up about $1.49B USD during 2020.

The game mode has not been without major controversies such “Scripting”, Loot Box Bans and more recently the emergence of a black market around some of the rarest items in the game. This latest scandal seems to have really hit home to a lot of fans and content creators alike.

FUT Early Days

EA Sports FIFA has been around since 1993 with the first release being FIFA International Soccer, since EA have done a yearly release. To find the first instance of FUT we need to look at FIFA 09 where EA decided to release a paid expansion to their game. A move that shocked users as it was unclear what the game mode was trying to achieve. At first glance, it looked like a card collecting game, where you could open packs and try to build your very own “ultimate team”.

A screenshot from FIFA 2009 showing three player cards, one bronze, one silver and one gold, for the Ultimate Team.
Image of the early looks of FIFA Ultimate on FIFA 09.

The following year EA Sports decided to release FUT as a free DLC, which gained more traction. They also started tying in the game to the real world with the release of the very first Team of The Week(TOTW). By FIFA 12, the once separate DLC was now integrated with the physical disc, plus the addition of even more rare and unique card types.

FIFA 13 to the present

Going into FIFA 13, the game mode had been growing exponentially hitting near seven million users in the previous title, EA took this opportunity by the horns and introduced FIFA Points. FIFA Points are in-game currency that can be used to buy a variety of packs. In theory, the packs you spend money on would have a higher chance of picking the better players in the game. For FIFA 14, EA introduced ‘Legends’, initially exclusive on Xbox, these were cards set to represent some of the most iconic players in football history.

A long infographic for the FIFA franchise, highlighting the development from 2014 and providing statistics about Ultimate Team.
Image used by EA to showcase the evolution in the first five years of FUT.

Now FUT has gone through a lot of changes, some more nuanced than others but one thing remains true. The best cards in the game are not easily attainable, at least not for the casual fan of the series. There are three main ways of getting cards in FUT, getting them from packs, buying them with in-game currency (coins), or getting them through squad building challenges (“SBCs”). In terms of buying packs, you can also use in-game currency or FIFA points.

The Iconic Revamp

In FIFA 18, we saw an enormous change to the old Legends cards. To start off with the cards were now no longer exclusive to the Xbox market. That in itself saw the name changed to Icons. Each Icon would have three different versions released throughout the game. A base version, usually detailing the beginning stages of a player's career, mid version, usually being a player past their prime, and lastly a prime version. Some icons would change drastically through each version with a variety of Stats and positions. This caused some of the “meta” icons to have an inflated version of their highest-rated prime version. Towards the end of FIFA 18, all Prime icons were available through Squad Building Challenges, these usually required players to submit other players that fit certain criteria to unlock the icon.

Prime Icon Moments Introduced

The following year we saw much of the same from EA, some prime icon SBCs released once prime icons became available, but this year EA had an ace up their sleeve. They wanted to release a new version of icons, this was of course to celebrate some of their most iconic moments. This caused several issues with the community. To begin with, some players had already completed prime icon SBCs believing that those would be the highest rated version of the card in the game. Only for a couple of months later for that not to have been the case.

Towards the tail end of the game cycle, EA released the final batch of icon SBCs but notably, high-end icons such as R9, Ruud Gullit, Patrick Vieira, Pele and Ronaldinho were only released as prime icons and not their prime icon moments variations. When EA saw pushback from the Twitter community they released a series of tweets saying that the community wanted to work towards their favorite icons, due to these icons being higher than their desired threshold they wanted to do good by their community and release them as their second-highest versions.

Problems with Prime Icons

The main issue with this was the fact that prior to an SBC being released of said players you had to rely on luck from opening packs, or buying them from the transfer market. The average price of the high-end icons was $15M coins. The thing is that even if you had $15M coins you could not find a Ruud Gullit, Pele, or R9 on the market. These became the rarest cards in the game. A symbol of prestige would be acquired if you contained any of these cards. Very few were able to do so and even FIFA YouTubers known for spending a lot of money in the game would struggle to obtain these cards due to the rarity.

In FIFA 20 things did not improve as EA decided to take another approach and released Icon Swaps, an objective-focused approach at letting people play for the icons they wanted. The fact was that even though you could play for more icons many of the icons in this objective section weren’t as desirable. EA also decided to take the approach of not giving Icon SBCs to guaranteed cards but more so SBCs that would give you a pack for a random icon. This again made it extremely unlikely to get to the best icons in the game.

The Black Market Exposed

On Wednesday, March 10 some images of people buying select high-end cards from an “EA Employee”. Tweets by many of the popular FIFA content creators started to investigate and try to find any sort of proof, that people were spending real-life money to buy Prime Icon moments and Team of The Year Cards (TOTY). One particular Twitter page posted “evidence” they had received of multiple people finding a rogue EA employee. It also seemed that the price of what you could get from these black market deals would vary drastically from who you found. One of the screenshots shows that you could buy three moments icons and two TOTY cards for around $2.4k USD.

This was also not the only black market deal that had come to be. On certain sites, you could buy prime moments R9 or Ruud Gullit. Both of these are currently extinct on the FUT 21 transfer market. The catch? You were actually paying someone for the opportunity to list the card on the market. So not only did you have to spend real-life money but you also had to have the 15M coins in-game to buy these players. If all went well then you would receive your player, but there was always a chance that someone could “hijack” the deal.

EA's response

Two days after the incident, EA released an update through their “Pitch Notes” article. “While a full investigation is underway, we wanted to share an update on the issue, including what we’ve learned to date, an overview of the FUT content granting process, and the actions we’re taking to tackle this serious problem.” EA stated, ”The alleged behavior is unacceptable and in no way do we condone granting or purchasing player items in exchange for money. This practice runs counter to the game's competitive integrity, is a violation of EA’s User Agreement, and is not something we tolerate. We do not allow the trade or sale of items outside our game for many reasons, including that it would create an unequal playing field for our community.” EA also stated that any accounts that used outside sellers to buy these high-end cards, would be permanently banned.

EA’s Horrific Week

This was just the beginning of an awful week for EA. On March 15, many FUT players shared online that they had received some of the most expensive packs in the game for seemingly no reason. These included some icon packs as well. Using their direct communication Twitter, EA said, “When providing those players with the missing rewards, we also incorrectly provided some non-impacted players with additional content. Those players will be able to keep that content.” This again sparked controversy for the many fans that did not receive any sort of compensation. As EA had previously stated they don’t want the game to have “an unequal playing field for our community.” Due to them not giving all players the packs that had been improperly given back, this in itself gives an uneven playing field.

A day after this incident Mirror Football released an exclusive interview with EA. Here the gaming giant tried to clear the air of anything that might have occurred. While doing so they also said that all items in their game are attainable without the need of spending money. They also state “Any professional competitive player needs to demonstrate the skills of the meta-game in order to be considered proficient enough to compete at an Elite level, which includes trading, economy monitoring, squad rotation and challenge completion.”

Community outcry

Without any surprise, many fans, pro players, and content creators alike felt this was purely incorrect. Add that to the fact that many players also get temporary bans for trading, many even went on to point out how ridiculous these statements were. The fact that these extremely rare and prestigious items are currently only “available” on the transfer market. Many times, even if you did have the coins, you would not be able to buy them as many of these players are currently extinct. Many content creators sparked the analytical breakdown of how long these would actually take to accomplish according to EA.

EA has a lot of work to do to regain balance in one of their most popular game modes. Many feel like it is time for a complete revamp to ensure that these players could be gained by the wide array of methods that EA has described. Until this happens, it feels unjust to invest time and money into a game that will not give back. The fact that this game also resets each year and asks their players to pay $60 USD is ludicrous considering how much users put in every year. We will have to wait and see what is EA’s response to the community dubbed #EAGate.

Manny Gomez
Manny ‘Manstr’ graduated with a degree in game design and development but fell in love with the thrill of esports. Manny has always enjoyed talking about professional League of Legends and FIFA. He has been a published video game journalist in Colombia for two different publications. Twitter: @Manster415