EA has had a tough month. It's money-printing FIFA series has come under fire from multiple angles, but perhaps most shocking of all is the accusation an EA employee allegedly sold coveted Ultimate Team cards for thousands of pounds.
Unconfirmed direct messages unearthed by the FIFA community appeared to show a company employee selling Icon cards in packages priced €750-1000. In one WhatsApp message, three Prime Icon Moments cards are offered for €1700.
EA's investigation is ongoing, but it has already admitted "one or more EA accounts, which were either compromised or being used inappropriately by someone within EA, directly entitled items to these individual accounts".
It is a development that has rocked the FIFA community - and shone a light on the shady mechanics of FIFA Ultimate Team - a mode that already stands accused of being pay-to-win and encouraging gambling via loot boxes.
But first, it's worth running through why FUT's Icon cards are so prized - and why someone would spend over a thousand pounds trying to get one on the black market.
Icon cards are among the most sought after in FIFA Ultimate Team. They include legendary players such as Brazilian Ronaldo, Pele, Ronaldinho, Zinedine Zidane and Ruud Gullit, and are near impossible to obtain through the mode's controversial loot boxes.
Even rarer are Prime Icon Moments - special versions of Icon cards that mark one game or tournament that was special for the players. Of the four versions of each Icon in FUT 21, the Moment is the highest-rated.
Players are known to have spent thousands of pounds on packs in a bid to obtain these super rare Icon cards, and EA has been criticised for not revealing the exact probability when the chance to obtain a card of a certain quality is below one per cent, as is the case with Icon cards. Making matters worse, you can get duplicates of an Icon card you already own.
The suggestion is FIFA players are willing to pay someone thousands of pounds for powerful Ultimate Team cards because they are pretty much impossible to obtain through legitimate means.
When you consider Ultimate Team essentially resets with the release of each new game in the series - this year FIFA 22 is expected to launch in October - and you are not able to bring your cards across to each new game, then these prized possessions have an effective shelf life of around nine months.
Last week, EA issued a statement to The Mirror in response to questions around the ongoing EA Gate scandal.
"FIFA Ultimate Team is a multi-faceted game of skill," EA insisted. "It's important to note that you can acquire all items in the game without ever spending money, with purchases being entirely optional."
While it is technically true that you can acquire all items in the game - even these Icon cards - without ever spending money, realistically it's almost impossible, players say.
Last week, a tweet from a FIFA player who attempted to work out exactly how long it would take to obtain his dream team went viral because it exposed FUT's grim innards.
Twitter user ScudzTV revealed his dream team, a "mere" 100m FUT Coin team that includes 11 Icons such as Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Maldini and Pele.
Lets talk @EASPORTSFIFA (#FIFA21 A THREAD)— ScudzTV ? (@ScudzTV) March 16, 2021
You claim that everyone can get all players they desire without spending money on the game ...
Here's my dream team, a mere 100 million coin team.
So this is "achievable" & here are my options according to you;
The 100m coins estimation comes from adding up each card's value on the FUT transfer market.
ScudzTV said that, assuming an average of 1500 coins were obtained from each FUT game, including weekly rewards, it would take 66,666 games to obtain 100m coins.
Assuming an average of 1500 coins a game (accounting for weekly rewards) that's 66,666 games. At an average of 20 minutes a game, that's 22,000 hours of gameplay - or 916 days of gameplay 24/7.
But what about playing the FUT market to obtain 100m coins? Well, that's pretty unrealistic, too.
Assuming an average of 10,000 coins profit per trade, ScudzTV said they'd need to make 10,000 trades.
"Assuming I trade 10k every 10 minutes, I will need to trade for 1650 hours or 69 days of trading 24/7."
2?"monitoring the market" ... 100 Million Coins of trading— ScudzTV ? (@ScudzTV) March 16, 2021
Assuming an average of 10,000 coins profit per trade I need to make a mere 10,000 trades
Assuming I trade 10k every 10 minutes, I will need to trade for 1,650 hours or 69 days of trading 24/7
And finally, there's the option of throwing money at the screen. Can you spend your way to 100m coins? Assuming an average of 100,000 coins profit per 12k FIFA Points bought (this profit is an estimate derived from selling all the 'loot' you don't want from these packs), you'd need to buy 1000 x 12k FIFA Points to get 100m coins. At a cost of £79.99 per 12k FIFA Points, you'd need to spend a total of £79,990 on FIFA Points. That's right - just short of £80,000.
You need to understand, the options you put in front of your community do NOT allow everyone to achieve whatever they desire in your game within reasonable limits.— ScudzTV ? (@ScudzTV) March 16, 2021
You have put the high end content behind an extreme paywall or an unachievable time wall.
It's an eye-watering situation - there is no reasonable, realistic way to earn enough coins to be able to buy ScudzTV's dream team from the transfer market - and with the probability of packing an Icon from a loot box being so low, luck is not an option, either.
If profits are your aim, then congratulations you win, and do continue the way you are.— ScudzTV ? (@ScudzTV) March 16, 2021
However if compassion for your community and running a game that offers a fair playing field for the best is your aim then you are failing miserably.
Shame on you @EASPORTSFIFA (7/7)
"These items are in-game - so even if it's 0.000001 per cent of the player pool people should be able to achieve this team through an achievable amount of time and money," ScudzTV told Eurogamer over email.
"Weeks of 24/7 trading or £80,000 spent is not achievable or realistic even for full-time content creators."
One of the big problems here - apart from the fundamental pay-to-win aspects of a loot box-driven competitive game mode - is the scarcity of these Icon cards on the transfer market.
The very best cards are rarely available to buy on the transfer market. The Prime Icon Moments version of Ronaldo, for example, is currently not on the transfer market - and hasn't been for some time. If it were to pop up, it would be snapped up - or "sniped" - almost instantly by players.
The standard Ronaldo Icon card is available on the transfer market - at a cost of nearly 15m FUT Coins.
This rarity - and remember, EA has set this rarity itself - has contributed to the desire from some to use the FUT black market to obtain cards through illicit means.
UK-based FIFA pro Zelonius told Eurogamer EA only has itself to blame for the current situation with Ultimate Team.
"If people are willing to spend $1000 over WhatsApp with someone they're not even sure they can trust, they probably have the coins in-game," he said. "They just can't actually get these cards.
"I've never seen him [PIM Ronaldo] on the market. I've never searched for him and seen him. He is there sometimes, because I've seen people tweet that they've bought him. But if he gets put on the market, he goes like that."
And there's evidence to suggest the problem is getting worse. For FIFA 21, EA has made some Icon cards, such as Gianluca Zambrotta, Edwin van der Sar and Roberto Carlos, available via Squad Building Challenges. These SBCs do not require players go through the loot box system to obtain their rewards. But, crucially, the most sought-after Icon cards have not so far been made available via SBCs - Ronaldo, Gullit and Maldini, for example.
This is in stark contrast to SBCs in previous FIFAs, Zelonius said.
"FIFA 18, we had an SBC for Prime Thierry Henry in November. The best player we've had available on this game - and it's mid-March - is Moments Ballack or Nedved. EA would argue to the average consumer they released Prime Cannavaro two months ago, and Cannavaro was a Ballon d'Or winner. But anyone who plays the game knows Cannavaro is not that good on the game. In terms of actual high-end meta cards that suit the game, they've released three: Moments Nedved, Ballack and Prime Kaka.
"But these still aren't the top cards. No-one with the best team is running around with these guys, but they're good. I see these tweets going around every few days where people retweet tweets from two years ago, where mid-March EA were releasing SBCs for Prime Gullit, Prime R9, Prime Pele, and Prime Maldini. So it's very much gone backwards.
"And when you do these SBCs, the packs you get back from them are a lot worse than they used to be. They used to be tradeable. They're now untradeable. EA's counter argument would probably be, we release Prime Icon packs, Mid Icon packs all the time. But everyone knows the odds of actually getting a good one from these is so low. I've seen people getting Inzaghi three times in a row. And he's untradeable every time. Unfortunately someone like Filippo Inzaghi is probably worse than gold Wissam Ben Yedder in the game. That's just the way the game works. That's a whole other issue. Someone like Christian Vieri, who was an amazing striker in his prime, is useless in FIFA."
Icon duplications, Zelonius argues, has been a long-standing issue with FIFA Ultimate Team that EA should tackle.
"I saw a story the other day where a guy did the Prime Cannavaro SBC, did a Prime Icon pack and got Cannavaro again, did a Mid or Prime Icon pack and got Cannavaro again, and then did a Prime Icon pack the other day and he got him again. So, four SBCs in a row, he got Cannavaro. He's probably spent three or four million coins just to get the same player, which to me is just not fair."
For Zelonius, the Icon cards players really want from FUT are Moments versions of Maldini, Gullit, Viera, Cruyff, R9, Zidane and Eusebio.
"In this year's game, it's nigh-on impossible to get these players without spending lots of money," Zelonius said. "This year I personally spent two grand. For me it's a business expense. It's part of my job and I've just accepted it. I hit top 100 nearly every week so I get the best rewards, and I can barely afford Moments R9, who is the best player in the game at 15m. So never mind how much it would cost to get the best team.
"I've probably spent five grand in the last three years on the game, and I've packed two Icons in three years. If you spent five grand on any other game you would get the absolute best cosmetics. And that's the problem with the pay-to-win on FIFA. It is literally built around getting a better team to compete and do better. Every other major esport, all spending money really does is give you cosmetics. FIFA, it's a one-year cycle. So anything I spend this year is null and void on 1st October this year. It's just crazy. I hate the system. Once I retire as a pro, I'll spend nothing on the game and just do Road to Glorys every year."
There is some suggestion that the extreme rarity of these Icon cards is set deliberately to balance the virtual books. If a PIM Ronaldo is valued at 15m coins, and lots of players nab it from packs, then that's a lot of players who end up with 15m coins from a sale on the auction house. Flooding the market with this virtual cash may ruin the FUT economy, some say.
FIFA content creator Karasuno Mav addressed this issue in a Twitter video, below, telling EA: "this is your fault... this is all on you."
"Don't release a Moments R9 for 15m if you're not willing to stock the market with it," he said. "And stocking the market with it means that some people are going to get lucky and make 15m coins. That's what you have to accept. You've created this card. You've created this market. It doesn't matter if you don't want to give people 15m coins. You have to do it. You've created the card."
One of the counter arguments I've seen from some is that FUT players should not expect to have a team full of the best players - Icon cards, for example. That these cards should be extremely rare. This argument suggests March is too early in the game's life cycle for any player to have a team full of the best players, and that this should only happen later in the year - if at all.
But Zelonius rejects this argument.
"The fact it's called Ultimate Team means you should be able to get your ultimate team," he says.
"I don't want people to a week into the game be able to get the best team. I wouldn't enjoy that. I'd get bored of that. I get it's a journey over the year. The fact is it's March. It's a 12-month cycle, but it's not really a 12-month cycle. Last year, I probably only played the game nine months, and it's my full-time job. The game tends to start dying around now. We have Team of the Season coming up in April or May - and then it might last a bit longer this year because of the Euros - but the last three months of the cycle, no-one really plays it.
"So at most I can say nine months is the cycle. And do you really only want to be able to get the best team possible with a week or two to go, or do you want to be able to enjoy the game for the whole year?
"If you spend £50, which isn't cheap, that's a triple-A game price, and you spend an hour or two a day, which is a lot of time for an average person to invest into a game, every day for six months, you should be able to access all the content.
"But right now we have the opposite, where someone like me, who probably spends six to eight hours a day and gets the best rewards because I get the top rewards in Weekend League, and put two grand on the game, I can barely afford the best player, never mind the full best 11 and bench. Anyone who knows the mode right now would say it's very inaccessible at the top."
The FIFA esports community was further angered last week by EA's statement on Ultimate Team because of comments that suggest pros should master the economics side of the game in order to compete.
"Any professional competitive player needs to demonstrate the skills of the meta-game in order to be considered proficient enough to compete at an Elite level, which includes trading, economy monitoring, squad rotation and challenge completion," EA said.
"Although the goal is to win matches, FUT isn't just about playing simulation football in the stadium, just as football isn't solely about performance on match day - there are many areas where players need to be better than their peers in order to create advantage on the pitch.
"Progression is a prerequisite if you intend to be a professional player in any sport and esports are no different."
Zelonius called EA's statement "laughable".
"I'm supposed to be a professional player trying to compete at being good at the game," he said.
"I'm not a director of football or a business manager at Arsenal, or something like that. The way they worded it was making out that part of the skill of being a pro on this game is being able to run the business side of your ultimate team.
"Can you imagine telling a Call of Duty player that they need to learn how much the new assault rifle costs and they need to trade to be able to get it? Or a Rocket League player that needs to learn the Rocket League economy so they can afford boosts for their next game? Or a League of Legends pro would need to be able to understand the market better to afford the upcoming champion to compete. I just find it crazy. The lack of self-awareness from EA to even mention that.
"I think outrage would be the right term. This the first time we've really ever seen EA acknowledged it. And it was just so blasé, and it felt like a slap in the face to the community."
Will things change? With revenue from Ultimate Team booming, it's unlikely EA will change the way the mode works unless it's forced to. With governments, including our own, looking closer at loot boxes, perhaps one day soon EA will be forced into change. Perhaps then we'd see a battle pass system like other games use so successfully.
EA has had a torrid time with FIFA of late, and I sympathise with FIFA's developers, many of whom will no doubt be looking on in horror at events they have no control over. I'm sure there are plenty within the company who feel uncomfortable with the way Ultimate Team works, but feel powerless to change things. And I'm equally sure that when these developers - who just want to make the best football game they can - see EA say "you can acquire all items without spending money", they wince.
It is a statement that the FIFA community has found simply does not hold up in reality.
"EA didn't technically lie in the statement, saying you can access every card for free," Zelonius said.
"But it is basically a lie in the sense it isn't actually possible within the year of the game coming out. I just want them to make the cards more accessible, reward the community more who put in a lot of effort - because there's a very passionate, big community that plays FIFA, a lot of people love football and want the best for the game. When I'm tweeting, or putting videos out about this topic it's not because I just want to moan about EA. I want to praise EA and say the game's great. But right now the issues with the pay-to-win and how I feel like the community is getting mistreated, are just holding the game back."
When contacted by Eurogamer for this article, EA issued comment as a position on the topic. In reference to "recent speculation on what it takes to have a great FIFA Ultimate Team in EA Sports FIFA", EA said that "while we respect the effort and creativity to map out possible paths to greatness, we challenge the premise of these theories".
"There are a lot of assumptions being made in the calculations," EA said. "For example, you can't accurately calculate how many coins you would earn from trading as that would depend on your skill as a trader."
ScudzTV, author of the tweets in question, explained their working out for their claim it would take 69 days of trading 24/7 to amass 100m FUT Coins - the estimated cost of their ultimate team if the cards were bought from the auction house.
They told Eurogamer that, yes, "it's impossible to put an exact figure" on the amount earned from trading in FUT, but the 10k profit per trade they went with was a figure "straight down the middle" - and it would be a lot less for the casual player.
"For a casual player with zero interest in trading, they will likely make 200-500 coins a trade and struggle to make 10k an hour let alone 10 minutes," ScudzTV said. "However, for a 'pro-trader', they can make 100-150k an hour easy. This is based on my experience of trading income."
EA also pointed to other aspects of FUT that help build your club, including SBCs, Objectives and Draft, "which have to be accounted for as well."
"As importantly, FIFA is a game of skill," EA continued. "The skill of the player is the greatest factor in the outcome of matches or challenges in FIFA - a strong player can be successful whether their team is bronze, silver, gold or a mixture of all three."
EA insisted that fielding the top 11 players in FUT - like ScudzTV's imaginary ultimate team - is possible "if skilled enough with substantive time investment", but it also revealed the developers do not intend for that to happen.
"You don't need the highest-rated players in the game in order to win," EA said. "In the real world, no football club has the world's highest-rated players in each of the 11 positions. While it's possible to field the 'top 11' in FUT if skilled enough with substantive time investment, it's certainly not intended or expected that players would field a squad like this.
"To say otherwise disrespects the many players who spend time learning and loving the game; mastering a skill-move, set-pieces, timed finishing, pitch vision / passing lanes; working their craft; building/tearing down/rebuilding their team like so many managers, and working on the tactics to help them win. That's the magic and fun of the game for those players.
"Investment is a choice players can make, just like in the real world. Some teams build through investment, and that's a choice for owners, front offices and managers in real-world sports, just as it's a choice in EA Sports FIFA.
"If the premise here is that players want the best players in the world on their team so they can improve, compete online and play against the best, they can do that in FIFA for no additional investment - you can play as Liverpool or Man City or PSG whenever you like.
"There's no one path to winning the league. There's no one path to the Champions League. There's no one path to the World Cup. And there is no one path to being successful in EA Sports FIFA. That's as it should be."
It's worth pointing out that EA has so far not addressed the problems caused by the scarcity of some of the FUT items in question, such as Prime Icon Moments Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Zidane, Gullit and Maldini.