In early March, EA issued a lifetime ban to a FIFA Ultimate Team player who racially abused Arsenal football legend Ian Wright on social media. EA was praised for taking a strong stance against the former player, and Wright himself applauded the company's actions, saying: "they stepped up for me."
"We are committed to continuing our work in positive play, through actions that will make our communities fun, fair, and safe for everyone," EA said at the time.
Despite EA's welcome efforts here, its FIFA game is far from free from racist behaviour. And while it's the controversial Ultimate Team mode that often grabs the headlines, a Eurogamer investigation has found extensive racist user generated content in another online mode that flies under the radar: Pro Clubs.
Pro Clubs is an online mode in FIFA 21 that allows you to create a virtual player and play your position on the pitch with teammates in 11v11 matches. You're also able to create a club, fighting for points in an online ranking mode. EA describes Pro Clubs as "a true representation of online football".
It's this ability to name clubs and players in Pro Clubs that provides racists with an opportunity to force disturbing content on other players - and given FIFA's 3+ age rating, children may unwittingly be exposed.
Toxic user generated content in Pro Clubs has been around since 2008, when the mode made its debut in FIFA 09. Racist players, using the "banter defence", have abused the commentary system to, for example, set their player's commentary name to "banana" in order to nickname black players with the term. Some players would also change their player commentary name to "negro" (using footballers whose surname is Negro), or "Khune" (using the commentary for Itumeleng Khune, the South African goalkeeper for Kaizer Chiefs F.C.), to cause offense. Players have also reported running into racist caricatures via custom-made player faces.
There are scores of examples online of FIFA players asking the community how to report racism in Pro Clubs, whether it's offensive club and player names or commentary terms. All this has combined to give Pro Clubs the reputation for being a mode riddled with racism. 13 years after the mode was introduced, it's still a problem.
Eurogamer has seen screenshots of Pro Clubs in FIFA 21 that show club names in support of far-right Islamophobic organisation The English Defence League (EDL), that mock the Black Lives Matter movement, and push homophobic slurs.
Eurogamer has also seen screenshots of offensive individual player character names that are slight variations on famous mass murderers, racists and paedophiles.
Eurogamer spoke with one regular player of Pro Clubs mode in FIFA 21, who asked not to be named for fear of an online backlash from the FIFA community, to get an insight into the state of the game right now. This person told us they see at least one of these types of offensive clubs during each play session with friends. They often come up against "EDL" types, the person said, who play with what some in the FIFA community consider to be "bants" clubs.
In a single 90-minute session of Pro Clubs conducted in late February, the person encountered a team with at least five offensive player names, and four clubs each with a racist name. In a play session the following evening, the player encountered a club named after a highly offensive racist term.
"It's disappointing to see these crass, offensive names being used whether it's the club name itself or the individuals," the person said. "Sometimes, when you look closely, they've not just named themselves something offensive but they've also gone to the effort of renaming the AI players as well.
"This isn't new either. It's been around as long as Pro Clubs has existed, but it seems more prevalent than ever - we can't go a single night without seeing at least one 'casually' racist name. Most nights it's three or four."
Offensive user-generated content in video games is nothing new, of course. It's a problem in hundreds of video games that have online play. Major publishers have filters designed to prevent common problematic names, and EA uses one for FIFA. But players easily get around this filter by using inaccurate spellings - an easy dodge the FIFA games apparently struggle with.
Publishers also rely on moderation and community reporting to tackle toxic behaviour, and EA is no different. Specifically in Pro Clubs, you can report a player's club or avatar name, or AI player name by pausing the match, opening the players list and selecting the online ID you want to report. But this feature is not made obvious in the game itself.
What's clear is that even though EA is made aware of offensive club and player names via in-game reporting, the company is struggling to review and action flagged accounts fast enough to make a dent in the sheer volume of offensive content. And so, the perception is there is little to no consequence for creating offensive user-generated content in Pro Clubs.
EA Sports discussed the issue of offensive club names in its NHL video game. In a tweet published in February, the company said it was just two weeks away from implementing new tech that would let EA Sports review and action offensive accounts and content on a mass scale. However, there has been no mention of this since, and EA Sports' FIFA social media accounts have not announced a similar plan for FIFA.
When contacted for comment by Eurogamer, an EA spokesperson said the company has banned over 9000 accounts and issued over 25,000 warnings or suspensions as a result of inappropriate or offensive content since the launch of FIFA 21 last year. EA also stressed it is working to improve in-game reporting tools, and revealed new technology designed to combat this very issue will be released in the coming months.
Here's the statement in full:
"Both Electronic Arts and EA Sports are committed to making our games and experiences fun, fair and safe for everyone. We filter user-generated content in areas such as in-game chat and EA Account, player and team names, to block profane text that might be used to demean or harass.
"Under our Positive Play Charter, our teams are focused on improving in-game reporting and moderation tools, along with a players' ability to report any offensive content at ea.com/report. This helps ensure that when people don't play by the rules, there are easily accessible channels to report problem players or inappropriate content.
"We take all reports seriously and regularly action against our findings. Since the launch of FIFA 21 we have banned over 9000 accounts and issued over 25,000 warnings or suspensions as a result of inappropriate or offensive content.
"We're committed to continuously advancing our tools and solutions to address new challenges, including more intelligent monitoring and mitigation technology that will be released in the coming months."
FIFA isn't the only game with a racism problem, and EA isn't the only publisher struggling to clamp down on it. But it's a big issue for FIFA and EA given the kind of game we're talking about here. This is a football simulation meant to be played by everyone - aged three and up. And it is a game that has for some years now promoted an anti-racism message, with everything from in-game messages of support to the Black Lives Matter movement, to virtual kits that promote the Premier League's No Room for Racism campaign.
"Whether it's gaming culture or football culture, or a toxic mix of the two - it certainly doesn't look good on Electronic Arts nor the FIFA licence they hold so dear, especially when you consider this is a PEGI 3+ rated game," said the Pro Clubs player Eurogamer spoke with for this story.
"I know it's not their mess, but the buck has to stop somewhere."