‘FIFA 21’: Can you have fun in Ultimate Team without spending money?

Dissecting the fiscal framework behind one of the world’s most popular game modes

When I was in my early teens, I used to take my pocket money and go to the local shopping centre to buy Microsoft Points so that I could head home and spend them on Ultimate Team packs. It was something that most of my friends in school did, and nobody questioned it. It felt like we were collecting trading cards, except the rewards were not useless thick paper – they were living, breathing players who we could use as a vehicle to earn social capital, as we played against each other after school over Xbox Live.

The next morning, there’d always be chatter about who won and who lost, as well as talk of snapped discs, lucky pack pulls and victors rubbing it in the forlorn face of the players who had lost the night before. We were kids, and it felt like the natural next step after Halo 3 and Red Dead Online. The mickey money framing of the in-game currency made it easy for us to distance the questionable process from the cold-hard cash that was funding it.

I really should have saved all that money and bought a camera or something.

FIFA 21
FIFA 21. Credit: EA Sports

Now that I’m in my ’20s, I do my best to steer clear of Ultimate Team because of the operant conditioning it put me under in my teens. Regardless, every year I still play it for work purposes, and every year I’ll eventually uninstall it when I feel the muscle memory coming back. It seems to awaken a subconscious demon in my brain that has a thirst for the glitz and pomp of a pack opening, that glamorous runway that is engineered to give me dopamine.

But Ultimate Team is such an addicting system that it has now become its own industry, with resellers and influencers spending thousands on FIFA Points to open randomised packs in chase of content that is lapped up by an even younger and more vulnerable gaming demographic. It’s been so off-putting to see it grow like that – how Ultimate Team has leaned so hard into the most predatory parts of its business model instead of focusing on the fun factor. It creates a race to the bottom where whoever has the most money wins.

But this year, I decided that I’d had enough of all that. I stuck with the meagre rewards you get for being a returning customer and built a team around a player that I cared about regardless of their statistics. Kazuyoshi Miura is a Striker for Yokohama FC in Japan’s J1 League. He’s also 53 years old, which makes him the oldest player in FIFA 21. He’s a bona fide hero, but by Ultimate Team standards, he’s also a Bronze Common with 25 Pace and 21 Stamina, which is likely unappealing to most players, but not me.

We all remember when David beat Goliath, don’t we? By building a team around Miura, I wanted to prove that the entire Ultimate Team system is a farce, and through my performance art, potentially liberate the suffering masses who bet big on packs to get Ronaldo on launch day. I had already made those mistakes, so I wanted the next-generation to reconsider.

FIFA 21
FIFA 21. Credit: EA Sports

I wanted to build the rest of my team out of cheap Japanese Bronze and Silver players, but I noticed that in the first Team Of The Week there was an in-form Andres Iniesta, who currently plays in the J1 League with Miura. So I used the coins I’d collected with my pack abstinence and Squad Battles to slot him in midfield, bringing another aging legend to my team. I wanted my monied online opponents to see World Cup Winner Iniesta supply Miura with a clinical pass, only to watch the inimitable ‘Kazu’ with his gorgeous mop of grey hair slam in a precision strike to close out a match.

I thought that if anything was going to instigate an existential crisis in the pack-buying populace, it would be seeing Miura’s 59-rated Bronze card appear at the half-way line in the wake of a killer goal. This would be visual proof that the plucky underdogs can prevail, no matter how much money they’re up against. In my grand experiment to humble my opponents, I never encountered a team with anything less than a full Gold lineup, as you might expect. I imagine that all of the players I matched up with likely thought I was joking when they saw my team. But they soon learned that I wasn’t when Miura was through on goal with a point to prove. It was like playing FIFA on triple the difficulty, but all this did was make my victories so much sweeter.

Sure, I got beat by more than three goals on a few occasions, but I took it in my stride and was able to have fun in defeat without spiralling into a panic about my team’s credibility – an avenue that can only lead to expenditure. I found the joy in FIFA again because I had nothing to lose. I was always trying to score the most interesting goals and set up tactical plays, even if my stats were lacking and my opponents were passing along the box to make sure I didn’t embarrass them. But what interested me the most about the matches I played was the psychological effects that scoring early with a Bronze player had against an expensive team.

It seemed to rattle my opponents, and would often result in brash slide tackles galore (we’ve all been there) and, if Miura scored a brace, a quick trip to the main menu for an early forfeit. I noticed that in spite of many losses, I won most of the games where I scored early simply because of the impact that would have on the psyche of my rival.

FIFA 21
FIFA 21. Credit: EA Sports

It exposed the sunk-cost fallacy of Ultimate Team. If you put money into the game, over time, you’re expecting to have an advantage. If a player with a similar team beats you, you’re made to think that if only you had X player you could have turned the tide, so you put your hand deeper into your pocket to improve. But if you lose to an opponent who isn’t playing by those rules, then your brain is left with few rational conclusions. Hopefully, it will make you think about why you started playing in the first place.

Ultimate Team is already so stagnant thanks to players who buy teams full of expensive footballers with no intention of using them properly. This framework incentivises conservative play to protect the mirage and earn more money in order to improve your squad. But the introduction of weekly rewards and squad-building challenges in recent years have made it so that you can have fun without spending money in Ultimate Team, that is, if you change your attitude towards it.

There’s a more interesting version of the beautiful game waiting for players who don’t want to be part of the rat race. A style of play that looks away from stats and focuses on endearing narratives, where even the most outclassed striker can turn heads on the main stage. That’s the kind of football I love watching in real life, and as I found out, it’s also the kind of FIFA I want to play.

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