Last week, Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU) announced that it shut down a cryptocurrency mining operation that allegedly stole electricity from the grid—and curiously, it was filled with thousands of PlayStation 4 consoles, which aren’t designed to mine crypto. However, a new report suggests that the operation wasn’t actually mining cryptocurrency, but was instead farming valuable in-game currency in EA Sports’ popular FIFA video game.
Energy theft in search of crypto mining profits isn’t unheard of: after all, Malaysian police just crushed 1,069 mining rigs seized from miners convicted of stealing electricity. What made the purported Ukrainian mine so peculiar was that it apparently didn’t rely on powerful, custom-built PC mining rigs that can yield the greatest mining profits. Instead, it used some 3,800 PS4 consoles, which have only a fraction of the crypto mining power compared to today’s top-end PC rigs.
In addition to the SBU’s initial release stating that the PS4s were part of a cryptocurrency mine, a mining expert told Motherboard that the odd choice of hardware could work since the electricity was allegedly free. However, Ukrainian publication Delo.ua now reports that unnamed SBU sources confirmed that the operators weren’t using the PlayStation consoles to mine cryptocurrency, but rather to “farm” items in FIFA 21’s Ultimate Team mode. Essentially, the consoles could be modified in some way to allow bots to automatically play the game, thus generating in-game currency in the process. Those digital coins, or the accounts containing them, could then be sold on the black market.
Although SBU sources reportedly shared this information with Delo.ua, both the SBU and regional electricity provider JSC Vinnytsiaoblenergo would not officially confirm such details with the publication.
The prospect of using PS4 consoles to farm in-game FIFA coins might seem even wilder than using them for cryptocurrency, but FIFA’s Ultimate Team mode is enormously profitable for publisher Electronic Arts. It lets users create their own fantasy-style lineups using current and former pro soccer players, all by collecting digital trading cards. Those cards can be purchased either with coins earned through gameplay or by spending real money on randomized “loot boxes,” which some have compared to gambling.
Earlier this year, Electronic Arts announced that Ultimate Team modes across its EA Sports games generated $1.6 billion in revenue during the 2021 fiscal year that ended in March. That tally includes similar modes in EA Sports’ other franchises as well, including Madden NFL, but EA specified that “a substantial portion” came from FIFA. EA’s take from Ultimate Team modes has grown substantially year over year, according to analyst Daniel Ahmad.
Given how much money is at stake, it’s no surprise that the FIFA Ultimate Team community is racked with fraud. Many websites offer cheap Ultimate Team coin and card bundles, but are actually a front for phishing scams. Earlier this year, an EA employee was accused of selling rare Ultimate Team cards for thousands of dollars in a scandal that fans dubbed “EAGate.” And in 2016, a California man was convicted of wire fraud for defrauding EA for $16 million worth of Ultimate Team coins via the use of PC software that manipulated the game.
EA itself has faced allegations of questionable tactics around its Ultimate Team mode. Earlier this year, the CBC reported on a leaked internal presentation that suggested that EA is pushing players towards the money-making Ultimate Team mode. While it’s possible to play Ultimate Team without spending real money, the best and most valuable cards are incredibly difficult to obtain purely by playing the game that you already spent upwards of $60 to purchase. That’s why it’s such a growing money-maker for EA.
The aforementioned loot boxes are a controversial element in FIFA and many other popular games, and have been banned or restricted in certain countries. In 2019, EA removed FIFA loot boxes from versions of the game sold in Belgium to comply with a legal ruling. Just recently, the publisher allowed players in other parts of the world to preview a loot box’s contents before opening it, in light of continued regulatory pressure.
Loot boxes tease potentially valuable digital items within, but the slot machine-like allure can be addictive and potentially damaging to players. In 2018, Waypoint explored the impact of loot boxes in modern games, and how they are engineered to tempt players into spending until they hit the jackpot—sometimes with severe financial and emotional consequences.
While it’s ultimately unclear what exactly went down in that Ukrainian warehouse filled with buzzing PS4s, the strong possibility that it was a bot farm for a virtual soccer simulator adds yet another layer of intrigue.
Motherboard reached out to EA Sports for comment on the Delo.ua report and methods it has for dealing with potential manipulation of game accounts, and will update this story if we hear back.