EA has said it needs to work on “real solutions” for FIFA players who lose control of their spending.
But it failed to commit to fundamentally changing the way FIFA’s controversial Ultimate Team monetisation works, even in the face of a potential change in UK law.
EA has come under pressure in recent years for Ultimate Team’s loot boxes, which some UK organisations have said should be considered gambling.
Ultimate Team lets you obtain players of varying effectiveness via virtual packs of cards, which can be bought with an in-game currency obtained through gameplay, or with real-world money. These loot boxes display pack probabilities, but players never know exactly what they will receive.
EA made $1.62bn from Ultimate Team in its last financial year – and most of that was from FIFA. Net revenue from Ultimate Team represented 29 percent of EA’s total net revenue during fiscal year 2021 ($5.6bn).
While Ultimate Team is one of the biggest money-spinners in all of gaming, it is highly controversial. It has been labelled as gambling, not least by some governments, is called pay-to-win, and has been slammed as exploitative.
In recent years there have been a number of stories that have emerged about players, some of whom are children, who have admitted to spending too much time and money on FIFA Ultimate Team. In April this year, new research “robustly verified” a link between loot boxes and problem gambling, and found that large numbers of children are opening loot boxes.
Speaking to Eurogamer as part of a wide-ranging interview on EA’s attitude to loot boxes in its hugely-popular FIFA series, Chief Experience Officer Chris Bruzzo pointed to a number of recent initiatives EA had implemented into FIFA, such as the Playtime dashboard and the chance to preview a loot box before buying, but said work still needed to be done.
“I do think we need to talk about the extremes,” he said.
“I do think we need to work on real solutions for those players who find themselves in the extreme situation where they’ve lost control of their time where they’re spending. I agree.
“And again, we are taking action. We’re not just talking. We’re taking action. We’re putting more information in front of players. We’re driving awareness around parental controls. And we put in preview packs as you know. We are ready to continue to engage in solutions. We really are.”
However, when asked if EA would go as far as to consider removing the ability to spend real-world money on FIFA’s loot boxes, Bruzzo said “the ability to spend real-world money in the game represents choice for players”, revealing eight out of 10 FIFA players do not spend money at all.
In January 2019, EA announced plans to stop selling FIFA Points in Belgium following government pressure over loot boxes.
In April 2018, the Netherlands Gambling Authority declared FIFA Ultimate Team’s loot boxes contravene the Dutch Betting and Gaming Act. On 15th October 2020, the District Court of the Hague affirmed the NGA’s decision. EA appealed the District Court’s order, and the NGA’s decision is suspended through the appeals process.
In the UK, video game loot boxes are not currently classed as gambling, but the government is investigating to see if the law should be applied to them. In December 2019, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport launched a review of loot boxes alongside a wider review of the Gambling Act 2005, and in June 2020 announced a public call for evidence. The government commissioned Abertay University to assess this evidence, and the hope is a report will be issued by the end of this year. If so, the government may act at some point in 2022.
While EA maintains Ultimate Team’s loot boxes do not constitute gambling, in a recent regulatory financial document the company acknowledged a change in the law could significantly impact its business.
Bruzzo said EA will work with the UK government if it comes down hard on loot boxes.
“We are ready,” he said. “We’re already at the table. We continue to bring actions all the time. We’ll bring more. We’re ready.”
But, Bruzzo insisted, EA will continue to look to monetise Ultimate Team in much the same way it does now.
“I don’t see that changing,” he said. “I think players are clearly responding to the fun that they’re having with ongoing content being distributed in the game. I think we’re gonna continue to do that.”
Piers Harding-Rolls, Research Director, Games at Ampere Analysis, told Eurogamer if loot boxes do come to fall under gambling laws in the UK, there will be “significant implications” for the company.
“Use of loot boxes, especially in games played by kids, has been under the legal microscope for many years,” Harding-Rolls said. “I think the industry could have been more proactive in self-regulating use of loot boxes, say five years ago, to head off extensive governmental oversight, but that’s the situation we find ourselves in today. The industry has taken some steps – introducing better parental controls, declaring loot box odds and introducing alternatives to loot boxes but it has been a relatively slow process and ad-hoc in nature.”
Ampere estimates the FIFA franchise is worth $2bn in net revenue to EA annually across all versions of the game and its related activities. Ultimate Team itself is estimated to have generated over $1.2bn in net revenue during the last fiscal year, and the UK is considered an important market in the context of global sales.
And children are an important part of that market. In Ampere’s most recent UK consumer online survery, taken during the second quarter of 2021, 31 percent of respondents aged 13 to 15 said they had played a FIFA title in the last three months. 20 percent of 16 to 24-year-olds said the same. “There is no doubt that younger gamers are important to the FIFA franchise in the UK,” Harding-Rolls said.
“As a result, if loot boxes do come to fall under gambling laws in the UK, there will be some significant implications for EA in the context of FIFA. If EA wants to continue with unseen loot box-based player packs in the game that can be bought with real money, it will likely need to secure a gambling licence. Holding a gambling licence comes with various conditions, all of which will increase operating costs to manage.
“It will also need to provide a tiered experience for under-18s by removing these premium packs from the game for these players and implement an age verification solution. There are both technology and in-game economy implications here.
“EA has implemented preview packs on a timer that sit alongside premium loot box packs. A wholesale shift to only preview packs would alter the Ultimate Team experience for many adult players and would, in my opinion, require a significant reworking of the Ultimate Team mode. However, I’m sure EA is testing changes to the mode based on potential regulatory outcomes and is looking closely at ways to maintain engagement and monetisation even with substantial changes.”