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Alittle more than a decade ago, the rivalry between EA Sports’ video-game series FIFA and Konami’s Pro-Evolution Soccer (PES) used to be a riveting affair—sales numbers were neck-and-neck and gameplay differences were debated passionately. And despite EA’s franchise having the upper hand, owing to its licence to use player and team likenesses, Konami’s PES built a cult status among gamers, so much so that in 2007, FIFA outsold PES by only a fraction: 6.55 to 6.37 million units.

Today, the story is quite different. Various sources indicate that FIFA’s sales in 2018 were nearly 20 times that of PES—safe to say, then, that EA enjoys an unprecedented monopoly in the field of football simulators.

The key to this upturn in fortunes happened 10 years ago, when EA launched online game mode FIFA Ultimate Team (FUT) as part of FIFA 09. The first year saw one million players using the FUT game mode—where users were randomly pitted against others: Suddenly, FIFA went from playing against the computer and your neighbour to playing against the world. By the time FIFA 15 was launched, more than 20 million users were playing FUT.

Real-life players appear as cards in ‘FUT'
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Real-life players appear as cards in ‘FUT'

The key to its success is the constant drive to win against other humans in a bid to earn EA’s virtual currency, FIFA coins, which can be used to buy virtual players to build the “ultimate team". Players—popularly known as “cards" because of the way FIFA presents them—can be sold and bought on the FUT market, a real-time online transfer market where prices are dictated by user demand and supply.

FUT game modes also reward victories with certain “packs". Unless overtly specified, a user doesn’t know which players he will get in a particular pack. The more a user wins on FUT, the better the packs he scores, and the higher the chances of getting a top player. The sheer thrill of opening a pack—the mystery of whether you will get Cristiano Ronaldo or Mohamed Salah, Lionel Messi or Kylian Mbappé—keeps the FUT hype going.

It was a brilliant move to have FIFA users around the world compete against each other. But even as EA welcomed the FIFA world in one large group hug, it opened doors to immense scrutiny of the game. FUT is a complicated behemoth and those who grasped it made careers out of the FIFA franchise—either as YouTubers, pro gamers, or both. While the excitement of what EA will do next to please the insatiable FIFA fan keeps the avalanche rolling, loopholes have been dissected ruthlessly on social media.

As FUT celebrated its 10th birthday in late March, #ItsInTheScript was trending on Twitter as a taunt to EA’s “It’s in the game" tag line, part of an uproar against gameplay inconsistencies where Artificial Intelligence controlled match events (in a 1vs1 matchup, a human can only control one particular player on the field at a time—the other players are all controlled by AI) would apparently start favouring a particular side in a 1vs1 online match on FUT. This led to ridiculous anomalies garnering traction on EA forums and Reddit. One of these posts has a video of Real Madrid goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois scoring a very unlikely 94th-minute winner against a player. It reads: “Not only is Courtois the best goalkeeper on the game, he can also finish like Ronaldo apparently."

“The core of the game is not satisfying this year. The mechanics are getting exploited, like centre-backs scoring bicycle kicks from near post corners, and is probably taking the game away from reality," says Mumbai-based Siddhant Srinandan. The 18-year-old has more than 75,000 subscribers on his YouTube channel, prompting EA to make him part of its “game-changer" group of users.

EA has released game updates to fix these issues, but the moment it plugs a hole, another one opens up. The game, released in late September, has already gone through seven title updates.

Gamers playing ‘FIFA 19’ in Cannes, France.
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Gamers playing ‘FIFA 19’ in Cannes, France.

“The skill gap shouldn’t be on how quickly you tap a button. If that’s what you want, you should play Street Fighter. A football game should also reward build-up play and passing and tactics. The skill moves need to be nursed. On FIFA 19, you can literally take the ball from half line and score by using just the new Andrés Iniesta-based La Croqueta skill move. It doesn’t make any sense," Srinandan adds.

Kartikeya Behl, the only Indian to have won an international FIFA tournament and sign up for an international FIFA eSports team, talks about the “luck factor" and “randomness" in the game.

“An example would be users complaining that if a team gets a red card, the game starts favouring it. The 10-man team’s passes will suddenly connect better and everything will start going in. FIFA has stepped into e-sports in a big way, and, as a pro, results should not be affected by the game’s randomness. I started to believe very recently that in some matches, you simply can’t do anything to win. But as a professional, you can’t complain. Just try and eradicate your mistakes in tournaments," says Behl, who plays for former Premier League champion and Leicester City player Christian Fuchs’ e-sports team “No Fuchs Given".

While pros complain about the “randomness" factor making it annoyingly okay for anyone to beat anyone, the casual FIFA player is finding it difficult to adjust to continuous tweaks to the game—EA launched its latest update in late March—it was the 12th version of the title. While this shows it cares about eliminating mistakes, it is also an admission of how flawed the game was at launch.

Ayush Sewani is the only other Indian in the FIFA game-changer community. He was contacted by EA after a detailed post on their forum suggesting some tweaks and new features for the FUT mode. He says EA has made communicating with top gamers easier and has corrected many gameplay issues, but will continue to get bashed because it’s difficult to please every gamer.

“After all, it’s a video game and works on coding, so there will always be some things that work better than the other. It just gets noticed more with millions of players playing the game. A few YouTubers find these gaps and make videos which thousands of people view and from there, it just rages on and every other gamer is suddenly exploiting the mechanics," Sewani says.

One of the big FUT pulls is the online transfer market. EA plans promos on FUT all year long, releasing new packs and player cards to keep the gameplay fresh. An example would be its latest FUT birthday promo, when it released packs which had a striker version of Liverpool centre- back Virgil van Dijk. These packs can also be bought by spending real money by using FIFA points. Currently, the price of 100 FIFA points in India is 76.

These unique ideas have made FUT a cash cow. In March 2017, EA said FIFA’s Ultimate Team mode itself was generating $800 million (around 5,570 crore) annually. A Forbes 2016 report said that by 2021, FIFA is expected to sell more than 20 million copies and earn more than $3 billion annually for EA.

“There was a theory that the online transfer market had crashed early on FIFA 19 because players had stopped playing the game, but when EA released their pack promos, people would spend thousands on FIFA points. That’s a marker that FIFA is still incredibly popular and continues to mint money via sales and selling FIFA points. They ideally don’t have to listen to us, but they are, and by the time they release FIFA 20, they need to make sure the title does not have game-breaking glitches," says Sewani.

The internet is full of stories of users raging over FIFA, smashing their controller to bits out of frustration and promising to quit the game forever—before returning barely a day later.

As Sewani says, it’s just one of those games with which players will always have the ultimate love-hate relationship.

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