Love it or hate it, there can be no denying that FIFA Ultimate Team is the quintessential example of micro-transaction in a sports game, turning the concept of a digital sticker album into something much more addictive and putting even Valve’s 'Hat economy' to shame in the progress. Having captured the hearts and minds of players everywhere, it's hard to believe it once started out as DLC before becoming the powerhouse it is today, leading EA's charge as a fundamental core of the yearly FIFA instalment.
And the small secret to it being the leader of the pack is simple: it's fantastic. This is a game that, even back with FIFA 14, could boast that every 90 minutes, nearly half a million matches were being played.
Looking at the bigger picture, however, there are things EA do with Ultimate Team that every other sports game could learn from. It harnesses every angle to make you never want to stop playing, and although it's not magic, it has to be lauded for doing something that sports games once couldn't dream of: keeping you playing for the entire life-cycle of the game.
Innovation, development and community
It's a testament to the popularity and quality, that even as the new game is on the cusp of being released, people are still playing FUT every day. EA Canada ensure this by keeping a steady stream of updates coming. Even if you may have grabbed that sought after Messi card through a pack earlier in the season, you probably haven't got the Team of the Season or Team of the Year Messi card.
Now there are even end of season awards run by EA themselves, known as the Futties, which ask the community to vote on players "of variety, notoriety and the best of FIFA 15 Ultimate Team". It's genius, and ensures that even as the real football season closes, FUT players are still invested and involved with the game they love. Who wouldn't want to stick a vote in for Lee Cattermole in the 'In for the tackles' category?
This all resonates especially well with the younger audience, who've taken on and created a whole new terminology and language for FUT. Nowadays, 'packed' no longer refers to something you did before you went on holiday – this describes the simple function of who players got in a recently opened FUT pack. This interactivity is unparalleled elsewhere, and is an enormous part of the FUT success. Those young kids are now asking for FIFA points for their birthday, so they can blow them all quickly on opening packs like their favourite YouTuber.
YouTube taps into a brand new audience
That younger audience is also the one that consumes new media the most. Kids are always on tablets or mobile devices, and most of the time they are watching personalities opening packs and reacting. EA is smart here, too. It knows that people are watching, so gets these people involved with the launch of the game, giving them pre-release access like other media. While MyClub was a welcome addition to PES 2015, Konami could benefit greatly by getting high profile celebrities involved in the launch, to bring it properly into the public eye, so it's not just the hardcore fans that are excited each year.
With 1.5 million subscribers, MattHDGamer's YouTube channel is almost exclusively FUT-related. But more than that, he even discusses real-world transfer possibilities and rumours using FUT cards. It's something that EA has tapped into, especially with the likes of KSI, who was at one point an official ambassador for the brand. Then there's W2S with his 4.6 million viewership. This market is ever expanding, and FUT feels almost designed for it. The pack opening videos are everywhere, and EA encourages others to join in by offering free packs from time to time. Recognising YouTube's value is a key to FIFA's success, especially when it comes to FUT.
The auction house and EA’s crackdown on coin selling
Although not a new thing, these days the FUT auctions offer hope for those who don't play obsessively enough to easily afford a top tier player. An eBay for FUT cards, bidding on a Bale seemed impossible and many turned to the dodgy practice of buying coins just to be able to get him. EA is on top of this, it seems, and have changed their policy for players, introducing a price range system that means you can't over-price (or under-price) players for nefarious reasons. It drills into collector mentality, too, and it's like a videogame version of collecting Panini stickers for an album.
Initially met with skepticism, arguably these pricing changes have made for a more level playing field after the shift in methodology evened out over time. It's made the rare players actually feel worth more. Now you won't see as many of them across the market because even the people with outlandish levels of coins or cash can't be sure they'll find one, as nobody is selling.
It's hard to understate the impact of this: no other developer is doing anything like this. Where most publishers will release a game and not worry about it six months down the line, this update was a huge one that impacted the community in a very real way. Commendably, this is a publisher that knows how valuable FUT is, but more importantly, knows how important the end-user is.
On top of that, the mobile app means that you're always able to keep up with the action. The app itself has undergone multiple changes over the years (both aesthetically and in terms of actually ensuring the connection to the server is better), which further shows the commitment to the player. Keeping players in the game is a key part of retaining interest, so being able to buy and sell players on the tube, on the toilet, or even sneakily at work, is a massive bonus that every other game should be trying to recreate. Given the 3.7 million users on Android devices alone, this is an area no serious contender can afford to ignore.
Use what you’ve got
While it may seem a little unfair to praise EA for having the licenses and likenesses of the world's most expensive players, at least they don't rest on their laurels. The introduction of Legends is an example of trying new things. Though it's currently exclusive to the Xbox family of consoles, having names like Pele on your books sure does show a love for the beautiful game.
But more than that, FUT now has loan players. One universal truth is that if you want someone to spend money on your product, you need to give them a taste for free. Starting a new Ultimate Team and having Ronaldo available to you for a few games is both the best and worst teaser. Now you know how great he feels in your team, but you can only get him by playing lots of the game. But if you don't have time to play the game to earn that many coins, you can buy packs with real money. Argue all you want, but this is a model that works. We don't know the figures for how often players will randomly appear in packs, but here's betting you don't know many people who have 'packed' Ronaldo either.
Compare FIFA to another game in EA's stable: Tiger Woods PGA Tour is now Rory McIlroy PGA Tour, but that game has been released feature light and to very little fanfare, despite a two year gap between titles. EA Canada doesn't take its audience for granted the way other studios perhaps do. It's also rather baffling that EA aren't leveraging the success of FUT in games that need a new lease of life. Imagine NBA Live having Ultimate Team in it, along with the Legend cards. Who wouldn't want to get Michael Jordan in their NBA Live team?
Understanding the Importance of value
FUT is the marquee mode for FIFA. The days of it being downloadable content are long gone, and EA shows understanding of its value by leading the charge in how it's handled. Pre-order the ultimate edition and you get a pack a week for a year. How many people spend that extra money to ensure they get their weekly dose of pack excitement?
If EA wanted to, it could release Ultimate Team as a standalone product, a free-to-play game with the micro-transactions that they already know work so well. Indeed, FIFA World on PC was (and still is) an interesting experiment that showed EA know that coins, microtransactions, and packing aspects are the keys. Although it's undergone an engine update, that F2P PC-only version surely can't be too far away from showing up on consoles, not when former PC staples like mods, early access and even MOBAs (the other genre doing free-to-play right) are invading the living room.
Other sports games can't compete with FIFA, but they can learn from it. Continued support, respecting the audience, and innovation are the three pillars of their success. FIFA feels like a product you get your money's worth from, unlike a game like F1 2015 (another sports game just coming to the new console hardware, but launching feature light), so now it falls for the other games to follow suit, and do the same.