As esports continues to boom in popularity, why is opinion split over FIFA?

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If you were to ask a random esports outsider to pick a video game they’d imagine would do really well in professional, competitive play, they might well point to FIFA. After all, it’s a game that simulates an actual, real-life sport. So it stands to reason it would translate brilliantly as an esport, right?

Well, the consensus within the community is certainly mixed rather than a resounding yes. In terms of data and metrics, the picture is pretty positive. The FIFAe World Cup was a big success in 2019, and whilst the increasingly popular world of esports is still being dominated by the likes of League of Legends, CS:GO and Dota 2, FIFA 21 did become EA’s most-watched esports event on a single day and drew an average minute audience of over 250,000.

Recent reports estimate that esports audience and revenue are on the path to achieve double-digit growth year-on-year until at least 2024, and with FIFA currently dominating the football-game market, EA is well-positioned to reap the benefits of this global growth. So why is there still a feeling of discontent amongst some members of the community? 

The reasons are complex, with disaffection among professional players and fans building up over time. Last year, for example, there was widespread criticism of FIFA 20, which was dubbed a “dumpster fire in terms of content and gameplay” and “off, broken and unbalanced” by some online reviews, with many singling out the bouncing, unpredictable ball movements and inaccurate passes. “You have to be patient, and play slowly,” said a Wired reviewer.

Whilst some will welcome that, viewing it as a more realistic style of play, and EA’s commitment to an ever-evolving game trying to close the gap between reality and video games, others have struggled to adapt.  Some, like pro player Donovan ‘Tekkz’ Hunt have gone a bit further in their own criticism, previously calling FIFA 20 “unrewarding” and saying “no one likes playing the game”.

There have also been some technical issues – most notably the now-notorious moment during the prestigious FUT Champions Cup last year, when Shaun ‘Brandsha56’ Galea and Hasan ‘Hasoo19’ Eker were unable to connect with each other due to server problems. A key fixture was at stake, and the winner had to be decided not through a game of FIFA but with a game of rock-paper-scissors.

“I can’t believe it,” Galea tweeted. “We literally had to play a rock-paper-scissors [game] because we couldn’t find each other to invite in an EA LICENSED QUALIFIER… I am done.” 

Another player, Jamie ‘Jamodo’ O’Doherty, had even harsher words about how administrators have failed to deal with unscrupulous players allegedly exploiting system glitches to edge out opponents.

“I honestly have no words anymore to describe the absolute incompetence of this esport at times,” he said last year. “We put countless hours and thousands of dollars into this game to be able to compete and it all gets thrown back in your face like this.” 

Then there’s been the ongoing controversy over the game’s Ultimate Team mode. First launched back in 2009, it allows players to curate their own squads, with a big emphasis on adding new players through the purchase of randomised packs. It’s morphed into a monster hit for EA – in 2020 alone, Ultimate Team brought a staggering $1.49 billion in revenues for the company. With these huge earnings have come pushback from some fans and campaigners who regard buying Ultimate Team packs containing mystery players to be little different to online gambling.

EA has defended itself by pointing out that you can improve your squad by playing games, earning FIFA Coins and nabbing players through the transfer market. However, there’s no denying that hordes of players choose to spend real-world money on purchasing packs, which probably won’t even provide the kinds of players they’re looking for.

Although the game now displays pack probabilities, so you know the rough chances that a particular card will yield players of certain rankings, it’s still a highly opaque process. As players have pointed out on FIFA forums, to be told there’s a less than 1% chance of a Messi- or Ronaldo-calibre player emerging from a pack could mean anything from 0.05% to 0.9%, which is a significant difference. 

For some fans, the issue is not necessarily that microtransactions are such a key aspect of Ultimate Team, but rather the lack of transparency surrounding odds and chances of pulling a valuable card. Many have likened it to a footballing casino, but would argue casinos are subject to much stricter regulation and licensing rules – more information about these can be found here, where lists UK licensed gambling sites.

The pragmatic need to purchase game packs to improve squads in reasonable timeframes has led to many regarding FIFA as a prohibitively expensive esport to enter. Tweeting about FIFA costings, Jamey Cane – aka the FutEconomist – said that an average team playing in the FUT Champions Cup would cost a player $27,000 to assemble.

Grinding away to qualify for esports tournaments can therefore be as pricey as it is time-consuming. Add to that the technical glitches and general antipathy towards EA that’s widespread in the gaming community, and it’s not exactly a recipe for generating goodwill and enthusiasm for FIFA esports.

Even if such issues were all magically resolved, it’s arguable that the game mechanics don’t necessarily make for a particularly engrossing spectacle. Ruminating on the issue, pop-culture commentator Adam Koscielak pointed out that “esports fans love seeing mechanical skills come to the forefront. Can they really when 10/11 players are controlled by a (very faulty) algorithm. It’s like if CS: GO tournaments were played 1v1 with 4 bots. Fun as a novelty. Boring as a competition.”

All of which isn’t to say that FIFA can’t climb back up the league and position itself as a more attention-grabbing esport. The popularity of football as a global sport and EA’s exclusive licensing agreement means sales are virtually guaranteed every year, and from a gameplay perspective, it’s not to say the potential isn’t there.

Constant updates and changes to the ‘meta’ do show attempts to neutralise some of the more unpopular aspects of the gameplay, but EA faces the familiar challenge of many devs – one overpowered mechanic gets fixed and another takes it place. 

So getting to that point will require some tough thinking on the part of EA, and ultimately, perhaps the difficult decision to alter the Ultimate Team mechanics, jettison some profits, and invest more in the esport to make it a more inclusive and welcoming experience for the players looking to escape the more pay-to-play model of FUT. 

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