For both EA Sports and its players, the FIFA franchise is essentially just an avenue for Ultimate Team. The game mode generated more than $1.6 billion in fiscal 2021 across FIFA, Madden, and NHL — good for 29 percent of the company’s overall revenue. (FIFA is still by far the most popular outlet for Ultimate Team).
It should therefore come as no surprise that FIFA focuses its efforts on the multifaceted game mode that allows, if not encourages, players to exchange real world currency in an effort to build the best team. New content is rolled out on a daily basis, while key promotions throughout the year such as Team of the Season and Team of the Year are anticipated like holidays.
Despite how important Ultimate Team is to EA’s bottom line, it also feels like the company knows it has its player base captured. When it comes time to purchase the annual title, it’s less like buying a brand-new game than it is paying for an annual subscription. Updates from game to game are far less essential than the cycle of content that keeps players hooked, which allows EA to get away with faltering through the former.
To the developer’s credit, FIFA 22 has seen a series of revisions for Ultimate Team. Division Rivals and FUT Champions, two online competitive modes within Ultimate Team, have been restructured in a bid to make rewards more accessible. The problem is that the changes do the precise opposite.
Under the new system, players progress through a tiered ranking system within Division Rivals on a seasonal basis that lasts approximately six to eight weeks. There are 10 numbered divisions, with Division 1 being the highest possible rank, and wins allow players to progress through stages before moving to a higher division.
In previous titles, FIFA would give out rewards each time a player progressed to a new division as well as rewarding success on a weekly basis. Now, rewards are no longer given out for that progression but based purely on that week’s result. For example, if a player were to rise from Division 7 to 4 in a week, they would no longer receive rewards for each promotion but instead based purely on the number of games they had won in that week. It’s a frustrating change, making players feel stiffed for climbing up the ranks.
For all but the most elite players, gaining access to these highly covetable cards is now more difficult
Even more dispiriting is the rearrangement of FUT Champions, considered the premier competition within Ultimate Team. Previously, players could qualify for the weekly competition by accumulating enough points in Division Rivals. Once entered, players would then compete for access to special red versions of Team of the Week cards that are much more difficult to obtain otherwise.
Under the new system, players now have to undergo two qualifying rounds for a chance at the red cards. First, they have to qualify for the FUT Playoffs based on Division Rivals results. They then have to gain enough points within Playoffs to gain access to weekly Finals, and only then do they have a chance at winning a red card. For all but the most elite players, gaining access to these highly covetable cards is now more difficult, making EA’s promise of greater accessibility a false promise. And if this all sounds convoluted, that’s because it is.
Meanwhile, the changes to Ultimate Team that don’t isolate players ultimately ended up underwhelming. A reconfiguration of the menus to make navigation more logical isn’t exactly groundbreaking, and neither are the Preview Packs that give EA plausible deniability against accusations that its loot boxes are a form of gambling.
Preview Packs allow players to see which items are in a pack before purchasing and were first previewed this summer in FIFA 21 as part of the Futties promotion. Then, a wide variety of packs were available for preview and were legitimately helpful for boosting your team. Now permanent, previews are only available for Premium Gold Packs and Premium Silver Packs and are significantly less valuable.
A few of these problems can be easily adjusted on the fly. EA could make more types of packs available for preview at any point. And although it’s unlikely, it could also decide to give out more valuable rewards in Division Rivals to account for this year’s changes.
The question is, what would motivate EA to do so? Micro adjustments within each title and macro changes year over year don’t seem to influence the player base nearly as much as the opportunity to participate in the promotional cycle. If the game were really about building the best team, you could continue to play FIFA 21 with a high-powered team that came from a year of work. Instead, it’s all about the pursuit of such a team — and now matter how difficult it may be, EA knows you’ll be coming right back.