Players of EA Sports' famous FIFA football sims can loosely be divided into two categories. You've the social ones, fans of the series who are proficient at each game but don't queue up at an out-of-town supermarket to buy the latest incarnation of the game every September; and then you have the Ultimate Teamers. If you identify exclusively as the former kind of FIFA fan, content to keep your squad of choice as it turns out on a standard Premier League weekend, FIFA Ultimate Team, or FUT, has probably passed you by. But to give you an idea of the popularity of it, the two founders of futhead.com, FIFA's foremost online community, made $1m [€920k] when they found a gap in the market and created a "canonical source for information" on all things FUT.
As its bombastic name suggests, FIFA Ultimate Team represents the very peak of the game's appeal for the straight-upstairs-for-a-four-hour-sesh-after-school crew. It works pretty simply. You start off with an average squad of players and work your way up the ten online divisions, winning coins to spend on higher-rated acquisitions as you go. All sounds fairly straightforward so far, right? But things get murkier when you consider the fact that the most desirable players in FUT float on the game's own free market, with prices set by gamers themselves.
Winning a match will get you around 400 coins, and getting promoted will get you somewhere between five and ten thousand; but elite players can sell for hundreds of thousands, or even millions. Presuming you don't want to settle for a mediocre team – and the addictive nature of FUT means you won't – you're left with two options: either clock up an ungodly amount of hours, saving up coins, or buy player packs with the in-game currency or legal tender, a route that offers only a slim chance of bagging you a great player on the cheap. It's not hard to imagine pupils turning to dollar signs at EA HQ when they figured out they could monetise a hugely popular side of their market-leading game, leading to headlines like "My Teenager Spent €4,200 on FIFA Microtransactions" from 2015, and a more recent situation in Canada where a kid ran up a bill of over €6,600.
In practice, neither of the "regular" means of building a FUT squad full of superstars are satisfactory – saving up takes too long, and packs are rarely worth the money. But history has shown that when there's demand for something that's not being supplied through official channels, the black market will soon find a way to prosper from the situation, and FUT is no different. It goes underground, and a Tour de France-style doping situation develops where everyone playing at the top level seems to have a souped-up team. With high-profile YouTubers and regular gamers alike spending big money on FUT, you either get ahead or get left behind.
Buying coins online from third-party sites is the most popular, but by no means only, way of enhancing your team – head to an unofficial dealer and you'll find 10,000 coins (a good few hours of gameplay) selling for something like £1.20 [€1.6]. But it was when I came across a niche subculture of Twitter users acting as bookmakers, taking bets with FUT coins on real-life sporting events, that I realised how deep this all went. I vowed to get to the bottom of it.
And unfortunately, I immediately found myself up against it. The cloak-and-dagger world I tried to engage with was difficult to penetrate and its inhabitants had an inherent distrust of outsiders who might report their gamer tags to EA. Understandable, I suppose. I persevered though and, channelling my inner Donal MacIntyre, slid into a coin seller's DMs.
Maybe it was always going to be hard to get a self-styled PS4 Al Capone to talk, but after initially resisting he did let his guard down enough to confirm some of my suspicions before reverting to speaking in riddles. On one hand I admired his dedication the hustle, but I also knew that according to many, not least EA, he was part of the problem threatening to ruin the enjoyment of FUT for the average player.
The Twitter bookies were none too keen to talk to me either, but they inadvertently led me to polished websites offering the same service on a much larger scale. But why would anyone bet with coins when they could bet with actual cash? Even though the sites claimed their users had to be over 18 it quickly became clear that this wasn't always the case. Everyone knows that there's no such thing as a poor bookmaker, and even though gambling with virtual currency is clearly a grey area legally the implications of it left me feeling uneasy.
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But I'm only one man and despite my best efforts I couldn't get a grasp of everything that was happening on my own, so I reached out to a FUT game Julian Assange to lift the lid on these undercover happenings and what they meant for the game in general. I hoped that Rodrigo Lopes, an admin at fifauteam.com, would be that man, but what he said didn't completely fit my burgeoning narrative.
"Coin selling isn't FUT's main problem," he tells me. "EA don't want to admit that the real problems are coin glitches and other bugs, but most of the community believe that coin selling and coin promotion are the problem because that's what EA says.
"In my opinion, EA focus on coin selling and promotion so much because it affects the sale of FIFA Points, which are used to buy packs"
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After all the hours I'd lost to fan sites and forums I still had more questions than answers, but a few things seemed clear. The FUT community is slowly but surely losing patience with EA, and accusations that they're exploiting the popularity of it while neglecting various problems within the game are growing. With "deluxe" versions of FIFA 16 geared around FUT extras selling for £65 [€85,5], the flagrant bad value of packs and the energy being spent on catching coin sellers, it's not hard to see why.
In some cases these trends go beyond FIFA; accumulator culture already pervades football and the presence, however small, of betting in FUT is a bleak side effect of this. I'm not here to moralise – I like a bet as much as the next guy – but the link between football and gambling is already so inexorable that it's impossible to watch a game without Ray Winstone trying to force a tasty little 4/1 shot down your throat. The fact that the most popular football video game in the world is now complicit in nurturing the view that sport and pissing £20 [€26] up the wall every weekend go hand in hand is pretty grim.
There's nobody worse than the "football's just 22 millionaires kicking a pig's bladder around a field" crew, but FUT is a case of video games imitating life, as the team which has had the most money pumped into it is always most likely to win. Okay, we're in the midst of one of the weirdest Premier League seasons ever, but generally speaking it's a pretty sound rule of thumb. The possibility of escapism is the main allure of many video games but by contrast FUT offers only pure, unrelenting realism – a microcosm of the capitalist slog of 21st century football with a couple of morally contentious issues thrown in to boot. But what else did you really expect from a game that the Fédération Internationale de Football Association lends its not-so-fair-anymore name to?
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