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Pay to win? Why FIFA 20 won't change Ultimate Team despite video game gambling controversy

FIFA Ultimate Team (FUT) first appeared in 2008 with the launch of FIFA 09 and since then it has grown into the most popular game mode on EA Sports' best-selling video game series.

It is also one of the most lucrative ventures dreamt up by the game's developers, creating a consistent revenue flow which now reportedly accounts for over a quarter of EA Sports' annual earnings, per PCGamesN .

As well as earning income through the sale of the base game itself, FUT facilitates real-currency in-game purchases, which according to Forbes , is bringing in approximately $800 million (£650m) a year for the games company.

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However, the in-game purchase aspect has come under scrutiny in recent years, with concerns arising from a number of quarters that there is a gambling element - sometimes dubbed 'pay to win' - that is unsuitable for such a game.

EA Sports has argued against those concerns and, for now at least, it appears that the existing model will continue in FIFA 20 as it has done in previous editions of the game.

FIFA Ultimate Team gambling controversy

So what's the fuss about FIFA Ultimate Team and gambling?

In 2018, a study carried out by computer scientists in England identified a strong link between in-game spending in video games, such as that in FIFA's Ultimate Team, and gambling.

The governments of a number of countries across the world have been alerted to complaints regarding the nature of FUT (among other games), with its 'loot box' offering - whereby players can pay real or virtual money for a random selection of items in a 'pack' - identified as a particular problem.

Essentially, the more money you spend, the better players you are likely to get, but, as one parent discovered earlier this year when his children unwittingly spent nearly £550 ($680) on packs, there is no guarantee that you will get the highest-rated players like, say, Lionel Messi.

Gamers can now see what their chances are of landing a premium player in an Ultimate Team pack before they purchase, but that tweak has not made the issue go away.

Authorities in Belgium, for example, have declared that 'loot boxes' in video games constitute unregulated gambling and, in January 2019, EA Sports subsequently made the decision to alter its policy to prohibit FIFA players in Belgium from purchasing points in order to get their hands on FUT packs.

Lionel Messi FUT19

However, they appeared to confirm their decision through gritted teeth, emphasising in a statement that, "while we are taking this action, we do not agree with Belgian authorities’ interpretation of the law, and we will continue to seek more clarity on the matter as we go forward".

In the UK, FUT packs have been debated by members of parliament (MPs), with representatives of a number of games companies also being quizzed about certain issues in September 2019.

'Loot boxes' such as FUT packs have not been ruled as being a violation of gambling laws in the UK, nor in the United States, but politicians and activists have urged games companies to do more to avoid gambling-related problems arising.

"I think the games industry should assume a much more proactive responsibility," Damian Collins MP, chair of the UK government's Digital, Culture and Media select committee, told Sky News .

"It gathers the data about how people play and how much they spend, it can identify the outliers: people who are suddenly playing a lot more or for a long period of time have been playing a lot more.

"I think it should take an interest in the welfare of those players and not leave it up to the players themselves to self-refer and think 'oh no, I'm playing too much' or leave it to parents or others.

"The games companies, who are making money out of these players, should do that."

Will EA Sports make changes to Ultimate Team?

Despite developments in Belgium and increasing pressure in places such as the UK, it seems unlikely that EA Sports will change its model any time soon when it comes to Ultimate Team.

The company has already put up stern opposition to attempts to characterise the real-money purchase aspect of Ultimate Team as a form of illicit gambling, instead preferring to compare the practice as like buying Panini stickers or a Kinder Egg.

Indeed, Kerry Hopkins, EA vice president, contradicted the view that loot boxes - which have been described as 'surprise mechanics' by the company, no doubt to avoid negative connotations associated with the former - are harmful, suggesting that they are actually "quite ethical and fun" for gamers.

Of course, considering just how lucrative the business of Ultimate Team is, it suits EA Sports to frame its offering as being simply as innocuous as a hobby or a chocolate treat containing a surprise gift rather than something which is, or could lead to, potentially harmful gambling.

In their statement regarding the Belgian decision, EA Sports said the impact of the change was "not material to [their] financial performance", but if other governments followed suit, then it could well become material to the business' financial health.

In such a scenario, EA Sports would be forced to explore alternative revenue sources, but until then it will carry on with their tried and tested product.

Indeed, if the Belgian precedent is anything to go by, only sustained pressure from authorities will force a re-think from the makers of FIFA and their fellow games developers when it comes to this issue.