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Thursday, June 13, 2024

Leaked EA documents lead to more FIFA loot box scrutiny

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The CBC says that leaked internal documents provided to it by a “gaming insider” show that Electronic Arts wants to “funnel” FIFA players into the game’s Ultimate Team online mode, which enables them to spend more money through the purchase of loot boxes.

One page of the document, apparently part of a “Run Up to FIFA 21” internal presentation from last year (FIFA 21 was released in October 2020), says that teasers and messaging “will drive excitement and funnel players toward FUT [FIFA Ultimate Team] from other modes.” Another notes that the return of pro soccer “is only going to help us and plans are ready to flex.”

“Players will be actively messaged + incentivized to convert throughout the summer,” the document states. “FUT is the cornerstone and we are doing everything we can to drive players there.”

None of this is likely to come as any surprise to FIFA fans, or engaged gamers of any just about any stripe. Loot boxes have long been a source of controversy: Parts of the industry have defended them, governments have considered (and in some cases imposed) restrictions against them, and some developers and publishers have struggled to find ways to keep them viable without diluting their value.

Because, ultimately, loot boxes are extremely lucrative: Electronic Arts said in its most recent financial report that the number of FUT matches had grown by 177 percent year-over-year, while FIFA live services have enjoyed a compound annual growth rate of nearly 50 percent over the past ten fiscal years.

“We delivered another strong quarter, driven by live services outperformance in Ultimate Team and Apex Legends,” chief financial officer Blake Jorgensen said in a statement. “We are raising our net bookings outlook for the full year on the strength we continue to see in our business.”

At the same time, the backlash against loot boxes has not died down. Ratings agencies including ESRB, PEGI, and Ukie have declared that loot boxes are not a form of gambling, as have gambling regulatory bodies in France and the UK. Some governments have disagreed, however, and are taking aggressive action against them. In October 2020 a Netherlands court issued a €10 million fine against EA over FIFA loot boxes, and more recently, Germany imposed stricter rating requirements for games with loot boxes. The US government has also made noise about tightening up loot box regulation.

EA is taking heat at the consumer level as well. A class action lawsuit filed against the company in 2020 accuses it of running “an unlicensed, illegal gaming system through their loot boxes.”

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In light of all that, the CBC report doesn’t seem especially insightful or illuminating. If anything, the leaked documents are almost indistinguishable from slides in a conventional business presentation, or something said to investors, such as the comment below from EA’s Q3 2021 earnings call:

“As the scale of our EA Sports FIFA player audience expands, including a growing Gen Z population, we will offer more great content on more platforms with our long-standing partners across all the top leagues and teams in the sport. We are bringing FIFA Online to new territories, including Russia, Poland and Turkey, with a combined audience of 80 million players. We are also accelerating our focus on mobile with 6 new soccer mobile experiences in development today for different regions and genres.”

What is interesting, however, is that even though the conversation about loot boxes has cooled off a little among gamers—compared to the huge controversy around Battlefront 2’s release, for example—the world at large is still very curious and concerned about the topic. That may be bad news for EA’s hope that making its loot box systems friendlier and more transparent will be enough to help it escape scrutiny.

Update: In a statement, Electronic Arts said that it is “disappointed” in the CBC report, calling it “a sensationalized story with a misrepresentation of the facts” that ignores important information and context.

“We always look for opportunities to introduce more players to modes in our games. Our FIFA players are expecting fresh content that makes the service exciting, so that’s a constant focus for us,” EA said. “We do not ‘push’ people to spend in our games. Where we provide that choice, we are very careful not to promote spending over earning in the game, and the majority of FIFA players never spend money on in-game items.”

EA said the leaked documents don’t point to anything nefarious, but are rather a sign of its commitment to supporting its game and players. It also disputed the claim that loot boxes in FIFA or any other games are a form of gambling, and expressed confidence that it will win out in the lawsuits filed against it.

“Recently, a U.S. Federal Court judge dismissed a related case noting that “the lack of any real-world transferable value to items takes them outside” of the gambling laws,” it said. “So again, supported by all of these perspectives from authorities, we do not believe any aspect of EA’s games constitutes gambling.”

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