Is FIFA Ultimate Team Gambling: Delving into the Loot Box Debate (2024)

Discover the world of loot box gambling and Ultimate Team modes in gaming. Explore the debate, risks, and associations with this controversial topic.

Contents

  • 1 A bit of preamble from the writer
  • 2 What is a loot box?
  • 3 Loot boxes navigating legal quagmire
  • 4 Studies into loot boxes and Ultimate Team as a form of gambling
  • 5 Final thoughts on if FIFA Ultimate Team is gambling

Loot boxes and Ultimate Team modes have been called gambling by gamers, but not by many governing bodies. This is an exploration for gamers, parents, and all other interested parties into the loot box gambling debate.

Scourge of the gaming world for some, just a cost that needs to be paid for others, loot boxes seem to both be maligned and enjoyed by millions of gamers around the world. In just about every official sports game, the most popular modes are intrinsically tied to a microtransactions economy based on randomized rewards.

Since the first microtransaction-enabled Ultimate Team of FIFA 09, there have been droves of reports from outlets all over citing children spending massive amounts on these in-game purchases. It’s brought increased attention to what, on the outside, look like gambling mini-games made available to kids and those at risk of problem gambling.

Here, the aim is to debunk some commonly trotted-out associations, explore the elements that do and don’t make loot boxes and Ultimate Team a form of gambling, and other key aspects that may increase the risks created by such mechanics.

A bit of preamble from the writer

If you were hoping for a quick and direct answer to the question, “Is Ultimate Team a form of gambling?” I shall apologize in advance. As you will have gleaned from the lack of regulatory movement, it’s a very complex matter, and a nuanced understanding of gambling, social psychology, video gaming, and even lawmaking is needed to come to any firm answer.

Few individuals can offer an in-depth perspective from all of these facets on loot boxes as a form of gambling. While certainly not an industry expert, I have been able to draw upon my long history of playing video games – including several seasons of Ultimate Team – as well as my closely associated professional history and education for this piece.

Through research via resources made available publicly, I feel that this article explains the loot box dilemma and debates Ultimate Team as a form of gambling in a fair and objective manner. It should be disclosed, however, that the focus will be on EA Sports products as they are the most prevalent, and my personal experience doesn’t extend to the likes of 2K games or MLB The Show, for example.

Electronic Arts were contacted for a comment on the piece before it was written and published, and if a response comes, it shall be added to the page.

What is a loot box?

https://twitter.com/EASPORTSNHL/status/1667280215868071937?cxt=HHwWgoDT_bmhr6MuAAAA

A loot box is a virtual item that can be purchased with in-game currency that will then reveal a randomized or a group of randomized items of varying value to the player. The items within can range from cosmetic items to gameplay-impacting items, such as the sports stars in Ultimate Team packs. Some also refer to them as “gacha games.”

Loot boxes have only been made so lucrative by the emergence of microtransactions. These have empowered the freemium mobile gaming space since Apple’s June 8, 2009 announcement, per The Verge, to cater to in-app purchases. Now, they’re commonplace in both premium and free-to-play games. Most allow you to skip gameplay hours if you land a rare item. That rarity, the potential grind, and often online competition are used to persuade people into making the purchases.

Taking the Ultimate Team versions of loot boxes as the prime example, many will argue that they’re a fun element of randomization that adds to the game. When Star Wars: Battlefront II released in 2017, the application of loot boxes, microtransactions, and very high bars set to unlock iconic characters without paying non-virtual money sent shockwaves through the industry.

It was worked out that the time required to unlock Darth Vader could be up to 40 hours of gameplay, as explained by VG247, and as little as 11 hours, according to some outlets. It also didn’t help that the customer service team said that this combination of grind and paywall was to, infamously, “provide players with a sense of pride and accomplishment.” The backlash was so intense that all microtransactions were removed and all heroes unlocked.

The backlash and perceived backing down by EA haven’t stopped their loot boxes from continuing to print money. On May 25, 2023, Statista relayed that in EA’s last fiscal year, just under half their $4.3 billion extra content net revenue came via Ultimate Team and Apex Legends in-game purchases. It’s a very profitable arm for EA and several other companies, which also demonstrates the popularity of loot-box-powered game modes.

Isn’t Ultimate Team just virtual trading cards?

Ultimate Team both is and isn’t like trading card games or even sports trading cards. They are like trading cards in the sense that you pay money to get a randomized pack, open it, and hope for items that are valuable either to fellow fans or in the context of the game. Ultimate Team isn’t like trading cards in the sense that the cards don’t hold long-term value – as some sports trading cards do – and can potentially offer a far greater advantage in a game than the vast majority of cards in popular trading card games as those rely on a balance of power.

Posted on Medium in 2019, the writer made a point that EA’s Ultimate Team packs aren’t like trading cards because they don’t hold real-world value outside of the game mode itself, making the point that the monopolized ecosystem has enabled such a lucrative part of the gaming industry. Aside from black market sites that the likes of EA can’t really control, this is true in the monetary sense and an easy fallback for many lawmakers.

Still, as other sections address on this page, value doesn’t have to be in the form of redeemable money. Value can come from the thrills of winning, both when opening randomized packs to get lucky and on the virtual playing fields. Paying for packs fast-tracks this. Ultimate Team cards aren’t like sports trading cards because they don’t hold monetary value in the real world, and yet, they do have perhaps greater value to the player and in the context of the game than in trading card games. In both, randomization is a selling point for pack buying.

The “They’re just like slots” argument

Another go-to argument is that Ultimate Team is a form of gambling because the packs are basically just slot machines. There was a case to be made for this when NBA 2K20 had MyTeam (the Ultimate Team equivalent) come with a slot machine – as Rock Paper Shotgun recounts.

There are certainly links to be made in Ultimate Team – from the randomization element; the potential for greater value prizes than the cost; and the animations, sounds, and presentation of pack opening – but Ultimate Team packs aren’t inherently video slots in disguise.

If anything, it’s only the outward appearance and face value of Ultimate Team packs that can liken them to slot machines. Then again, the process of them both, on the face of it, would seem very similar:

Ultimate TeamVideo Slot
Step 1Make a deposit of money into your account to convert to virtual currency.Make a deposit of money into your account.
Step 2Select the Ultimate Team pack that you want to purchase.Select the video slot that you want to spin.
Step 3Confirm the purchase and open the pack.Set your bet size and press the spin button.
Step 4Watch the animation slowly reveal if you got a high or low-value prize.Watch the animation spin the reels to reveal if you won or the size of your win.
Step 5If the value of the item wasn’t to your liking, pay again to open another pack.If the win wasn’t to your liking, or you lost, press the spin button to play another round.

Many mechanics go into slot machines, but two of the main governing factors are the return to player percentages (RTP) and volatility.

The RTP marks a percentage of the total amount of money paid in that will be returned to the players over time. Volatility (also known as “variance”) determines the regularity and size of those payouts on average. Most online video slots have an RTP of over 94 percent – leaving six percent profit – and vary from low to high volatility. High volatility, on average, means that a slot will pay much less often, but usually in higher sums.

Ultimate Team packs, to uphold the rarity principles, essentially have a digital stock of cards, or at least a program that determines the likelihood of each card being revealed that acts as a way to create rarity in the market without actually running out of the cards. Every player has the same chance of getting each item in a set pack, with some packs being more expensive to increase the odds of you pulling rarer items.

So, there isn’t an RTP as the packs don’t care about how much has been paid in before it releases one of its items, nor is there volatility, as there are rewards every time of completely randomized amounts. Ultimate Team packs aren’t online slots, but the presentations and excitement generated by the build-up to random results are heavily drawn from video slot games.

Furthermore, in both instances, the majority of players are using money to engage with the randomized mechanics. In Ultimate Team, some funds will be earned in-game, but a company doesn’t make billions of dollars on a player base that has the majority of its users earning virtual currency rather than paying for it with money.

The “surprise mechanics” argument

In 2019, the UK government was digging into the issue of loot boxes. Headed up by the Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport Committee, they held an oral evidence session, which EA’s vice president of legal and government affairs attended. During the session, the EA representative dropped a few gems. One was that they don’t refer to them as loot boxes, but rather as “surprise mechanics” and that surprises have “been part of toys for years.” Although, as was once pointed out by Jim Sterling, EA refers to loot boxes as loot boxes when it’s good for publicity.

https://twitter.com/EAStarWars/status/1116917677115760640

Further, the loot boxes are products that people enjoy in a healthy way, and they enjoy the element of surprise, likening Ultimate Team packs to “Kinder Eggs, Hatchimals, or L.O.L. Surprise!” On the strictest face-level basis, this is a fine argument. Both have hidden contents, children pay not knowing exactly what’s inside, and they enjoy the build-up to seeing what’s in the eggs or packs.

However, not even children are under any illusion that the toys in these hatch eggs aren’t small, somewhat naff, and will only provide a small bit of fun from the surprise and, perhaps, completing the six or eight-piece collection. Ultimate Team packs can have much greater value as they are actively used by the player, can be sold on for additional value within the game’s marketplace or otherwise, and enhance the player’s social standing.

Loot boxes navigating legal quagmire

In 2018, shortly after the heat from the Battlefront II disaster, loot boxes looked to be getting cracked down on by government bodies. In Belgium, the Gaming Commission (established under the Gambling Act of 1999) ruled that loot boxes in some specific games constituted offering gambling products without a license.

FIFA was joined by Overwatch and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive in their loot box ban, which forced EA, in 2019, to stop allowing players in Belgium to purchase the in-game currency with money via a deposit. For the Belgian gambling authority, this cut the ties between the gambling mechanics (loot boxes) and the ability to gamble money on them (via a deposit). Players can still earn and open loot boxes in Ultimate Team, but now can’t pay to do so.

In the Netherlands, 2020 saw the Gaming Authority state that EA was to pay €500,000 per week that Ultimate Team continued to run in the country as it infringed the nation’s gambling laws. It was similar to the stance taken in neighboring Belgium, but the ruling was short-lived.

A few months later, the €10 million fine accrued was wiped, and the Dutch Administrative Jurisdiction Division said that Ultimate Team wasn’t gambling. Polygon quotes the court as stating that the decision was made because the packs are “part of a game of skill and add an element of chance to the game” – more on this perceived skill element further down.

More recently, in February 2023, a court in Hermagor, Austria, enabled a player to claim the money spent on FIFA Ultimate Team packs back as their presence was illegal under the country’s gambling laws. The Austrian Gaming Act was infringed, as Eurogamer reports, due to the uncertain monetary value of the packs, which makes them a form of gambling.

As Sony doesn’t hold a gambling license and allowed for the purchases through its software, the console giant was asked to repay the plaintiffs. On top of this, EA was asked by the court to label its Ultimate Team packs in games like FIFA as “gambling games that require a license.” Elsewhere:

  • United Kingdom (2023): The long-awaited Gambling Act reform wouldn’t extend to cover loot boxes despite findings of problem gambling (The Guardian) and the government response stating that loot boxes shouldn’t be readily available to young people.
  • United States (2018): Bills introduced to Hawaii’s state house and senate to ban loot boxes for those under the age of 21 appear to have not gone anywhere.
  • United States (2022): Similar cases in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California decided that loot boxes and their items can’t be cashed out and can only be used in-game, thus can’t be things of value (Lexology).
  • Finland, Spain, and Australia (2022): All seek to bring loot boxes under the purview of their gambling authorities and laws or otherwise have them labeled as a form of gambling, thus requiring an 18+ age rating (GamesIndustry.biz).

Legally speaking, very few places define loot boxes or Ultimate Team as a form of gambling. Still, that’s not to say that Ultimate Team isn’t a form of gambling activity, merely that governing bodies are yet to term it as such.

Digital items hold value

Lawmakers who don’t want to delve too deeply into the topic of loot boxes often have the same fallback: digital items don’t hold value and are just part of the game. It’s an ever-weakening argument, especially given the boom of interest in NFTs and other digital assets. Digital items are now accepted as holding monetary value, let alone further value where they can be used as an enhancement.

One of EA Sports’ most anti-consumer practices is the annual sports game release. It essentially wipes clear all of the progress and loot box purchases made the year before, and they make you pay another premium price for the new game. This does help the company in this debate because, within its own annual economy, Ultimate Team cards don’t have any value beyond the end of the season.

The big difference that many will say matters is that you can cash out any money gambling winnings, but the value of the Ultimate Team cards remains within the game’s ecosystem. Other than through third-party means, such as black market sites or as an enthused “influencer” with hundreds of thousands of young people watching, you can’t make money off of Ultimate Team packs.

However, this isn’t to say that Ultimate Team’s digital cards don’t offer value to the players. Ultimate Team is a pay-to-win game mode. At any one time, you’re only in control of one of your 11 players on the pitch. This means that the quality of the other ten in each phase of play is vital to getting wins and succeeding in the game. It’s this element that also sees much of eSports proper ignore team sports video games: there’s just too little input for them to be video games of skill.

Further, Ultimate Team cards – which become the players that you use on the pitch – tick the boxes for having value over standard digital items. The Harvard Business Review surmises that most people don’t feel ownership for a digital item because they can’t “touch, hold, and control it.” In Ultimate Team, via a controller, you do control the digital items, giving this sense of ownership, and thus, value.

It should also be argued that Ultimate Team items hold monetary value. There is a barrier lessening this line of thinking, of course, through the need to deposit money into virtual currencies that don’t follow an easy conversion, so it feels like they’re not money purchases. Even so, players who get cards that can sell for large sums on the in-game marketplace can and will convert the potential income into game hours and money equivalents.

On top of this, better players from paid packs can lead to an enhanced ability to earn the virtual currency more quickly. To put a fine point on it, Ultimate Team packs absolutely hold value through the digital items that they randomly deliver. Players are risking money by converting it into virtual currency to then try a luck-based mechanic in an attempt to get more value out of it for a better experience.

Studies into loot boxes and Ultimate Team as a form of gambling

Unfortunately, as one trying to offer a balanced argument where possible, it’s very difficult to find publicly available, peer-reviewed, or even semi-credible studies that find loot boxes to not have close ties to gambling. Most reports find that loot boxes in modes like Ultimate Team are gambling or, at the very least, are potential gateways to gambling activities. Here are the simplified summaries of some of the more prominent findings:

  • Be Gamble Aware (2021): Players are pushed via endowment effects, price anchoring, and the obfuscation of costs (via the virtual currency purchase step) into making more loot box purchases and that “value” extends beyond the legal definition of “money’s worth” in gaming. Furthermore, higher spending doesn’t correlate with higher loot box spend, but rather that profits are generated from at-risk individuals.
  • National Library of Medicine (2022): General population samples reveal that 13- to 14-year-olds are more prevalent loot box purchasers than 16- to 24-year-olds and adults.
  • Spice, Fullwood, et al. (2022): Harmful patterns of purchasing loot boxes can develop among problem gamblers who engage with loot boxes.
  • PLOS One (2019): The classification of subjects’ gambling risk (problem, moderate-risk, or low-risk) was significantly linked to their loot box spending.
  • Puiras et al. (2022): Participants bought loot boxes for the thrill, social aspects, competitiveness, for the chance to win awards, and to help their progression.
  • Loughborough and Newcastle Universities (2022): Loot boxes do put young people and children at risk of financial and emotional harm, and digital items are highly desirable, which drives repeat purchasing behavior. It’s also noted that clear gambling techniques are used to encourage further spending.

For more studies into the loot box, problem gambling, and problem video gaming issue, check out the long list at Sage Journals.

Children highly value winning, and that’s integral

Indeed, you can play hours upon hours of FIFA, Madden, or NHL; buy packs with in-game currency; gradually get better at the game; and perhaps even draw a high-value card to improve your team in the ways that matter. However, Ultimate Team packs are there to offer you quick competitiveness and improvements, being able to skip the grind of building a team from scratch to hit an increased level of competitiveness quickly.

While adults and young adults can see the challenge of this building up as enjoyable, even seeking out the additional challenge of facing stronger teams with weaker virtual players, children mostly can’t. For children, competition is a huge driver of behavior, particularly in social circles.

As was written in Psychology Today, displaying ability is essential to a child’s self-esteem, especially younger children. Both boys and girls are noted as being impulsive and strong-willed, while boasting and winning offers temporary relief from any other sense of shortcomings or envy.

NPR notes that kids enjoy competition from five-years-old, but between the ages of seven and eight, “totem poles of social comparison” are formed in their minds. It establishes social winners and losers among peers, and those who lose in communally competed activities will take hits to their self-confidence. Ultimate Team is built around online competition, with children playing against friends and others around the world, which fuels these social and psychological implications.

Another aspect that plays a major role is the child’s development into a consumer. The pack buys may come from a parent’s bank card, but it’s the child who issues the purchase. Looking at the development of a child into a consumer, Valkenburg and Cantor (2002) found that between the ages of eight and 12-years-old, the opinions of peers play a heightened role, an eye for detail develops, and they care much more about realism and real-life heroes, like sports stars.

Combine the competition, which feeds the opinions of peers, with the desire to make realistic purchases, such as their sports heroes that can be added to their playable team, and you can see how the mechanics of Ultimate Team encourage particularly young people to buy the packs with their money. This is only further inflamed by EA Sports’ masterful use of social media to present the sports stars themselves debating and promoting Ultimate Team by comparing their in-game cards, and having “influencers” promote new card releases or pack openings.

This is all to rationalize how and why children can easily end up spending great sums of money on Ultimate Team without understanding the consequences. The competition drives them to improve their social and psychological standing quickly, and the packs offer that option. You don’t need to play more games to unlock this quick route to higher self-esteem, as a simple deposit of money will get you the virtual currency needed to get the packs. Then, as young people don’t understand that lows come after an extreme high in randomized products, like lucking into a good player in an Ultimate Team pack, Psychreg explains that they’ll keep chasing that gratifying feeling.

Final thoughts on if FIFA Ultimate Team is gambling

The FIFA Ultimate Team gambling debate is tricky to navigate from the stance of most existing laws, which is why so few have successfully deemed the practice as a form of currently unlicensed gambling. Above, we have discussed that packs in Madden, NHL, or FIFA Ultimate Team – soon to be EA Sports FC Ultimate Team – are not slot machines, certainly can’t be likened to surprise toys like Kinder Eggs, but do offer real value, even if only for up to a year and without the chance of withdrawing the value as money.

You can find heaps of peer-reviewed studies that find strong links between loot boxes, like those in Ultimate Team, and problem gambling, but close to nothing to the contrary. The activity itself of exchanging money to play a game that randomizes its rewards that have different tiers of value certainly looks like a form of gambling. Then, the aesthetics used in the presentation of packs and loot boxes only magnify this view.

Indeed, you cannot withdraw money from Ultimate Team within the purview of publisher EA Sports, but that’s not to say that players aren’t gambling for value. Further, particularly young people are coerced into making these money purchases and engaging with Ultimate Team’s gambling-esque packs to achieve social and psychological gains more quickly than through the limited rewards of the gameplay itself. This, too, is designed to funnel players to making deposits and buying packs with their money.

Once a modern definition of value is applied (digital items have real value that doesn’t have to be of the monetary kind), it’s very tough not to see Ultimate Team as a form of gambling. The value may not translate to withdrawing money, but you’re still paying money to have a chance at getting more value in return. It should also be made clear that the game mode enjoyed by millions wouldn’t be getting so much attention if it didn’t offer the means to deposit money to partake in these gambling-like mechanics.

As it always does, it will take a lot of time or, unfortunately, a very serious incident for governing bodies to address this admittedly grey area of gambling. In the meantime, the industry can’t be trusted to self-regulate with such profits on the line, as highlighted by Eurogamer’s report on research into video game ratings.

Hopefully, anyone who has made it this far will understand how and why Ultimate Team games can pose a risk to potential problem gamblers and especially to young players. The mechanics used to tick the boxes for risking value in the hopes of getting greater value as a result, and that is the essence of gambling.

Let us know your thoughts on the loot box and Ultimate Team gambling debate, and if you think there are more points to be made in favor of or counter to those made in the article above.

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Is FIFA Ultimate Team Gambling: Delving into the Loot Box Debate (2024)
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