After first implementing Ultimate Team in 2009 as a downloadable expansion to FIFA 09, EA Sports announced its return in both FIFA 10 and Madden NFL 10 for seventh-generation PlayStation and Xbox consoles. The mode became available on all platforms two years later and has proven the main appeal of EA Sports titles ever since. By finally allowing users to pick and choose the world’s best athletes in pursuit of their ideal team, EA enhanced the user control of the existing franchise modes with online capabilities. Fans were ecstatic with the sports series’s direction and gravitated toward the promising new mode.
Concurrently, Ultimate Team’s core pack and auction house features added a significant revenue stream for Electronic Arts. The last fiscal year alone, from March 2020 to April 2021, saw Ultimate Team modes rake in a colossal $1.62 billion in extra content sales. This total has continued rising with each passing Madden NFL, FIFA and NHL installment, cementing EA Sports as a pioneer and major benefactor of the modern gaming era’s microtransactions. The introduction of Ultimate Team was a true win-win for players and developer alike. The game developer had a clear direction for the decade that followed, and players gained a reason to purchase an updated game every fall. Each new release meant an entirely new team to build, a new mode to grind and fresh mechanics to learn. Or, at least, that’s what one would expect.
Instead, EA Sports and Ultimate Team have proven either stagnant or regressive in each of these regards. The additions since to the Ultimate Team mode and the sports genre alike over recent years pale in comparison to the leap taken back in 2009. In lieu of any significant expansions to their games, stale code, recycled content, general laziness and the shortcomings of a pay-to-win format are all that players have been offered from EA Sports titles. Even worse, EA has shown little to no will to strive beyond mediocrity.
Every year, the latest Madden title releases alongside a guaranteed wave of 6-out-of-10 reviews. As for FIFA, the soccer title generally hovers around a 7 from critics. A little bit better, certainly acceptable, but neither of them noteworthy. Both the developer’s premier titles and the audience’s expectations for them have fallen into complacency, regardless of what extra content sales would indicate. So, why? The answer is short yet effective: profits. Rather than overhaul the existing gameplay or dedicate staff to a risky new project, EA fastens its pockets by banking on the dying appeal of an increasingly restrictive Ultimate Team.
Shortly after its 2012 general release, EA redirected its focus primarily to the infantile Ultimate Team game mode. Its potential as a cash-cow, now fully realized, made the pivot an obvious choice for the developer, and admittedly the right one. However, the consequences have come twofold. First, EA gradually made the mode harder for players unwilling to spend their real-life money. In Madden NFL 22, for example, the developer lowered coin rewards for solos, increased the amount of non-auctionable players and implemented a far-stricter ban system that outright punished players for grinding solo challenges. It has become virtually impossible for frugal users to attain the mode’s best players, and deliberately so. For EA’s interests, the best player is a paying one, but only so many are willing to cough up additional funds for a game they already paid for. For that reason, Ultimate Team’s unbalanced premise discouraged many. Those players were forced back into the games’ archaic modes, which were left underdeveloped.
The predecessor to Ultimate Team, Franchise Mode, is one such mode. Fans originally grew to love the Franchise mode for its ability to put the player in the seat of a club manager, but with that basic concept inevitably comes the desire for expansion and realism. Players want to scout players, maintain their league deep into future seasons, collaborate with other users and customize their experience. Yet, the lack of fresh features gives soccer and football fans little incentive to acquire the latest title. Fans are still waiting on a revamp to the dust-collecting mode and will likely have to wait some years more. The unfortunate reality is that the Franchise Modes of years past are fine substitutes for the latest title, even as far as gameplay is concerned.
By doing the cost-effective thing and repackaging a slight variation of the previous title as a new game, the titles’ ever-present features remain, but so do their nagging issues. The gaming industry may have grown tremendously over the past decade of technological advancements and industry shifts, but that hasn’t been reflected in the sports titles during that time. Even as a new generation of consoles enters players’ homes, EA clings to its existing formula. Madden hasn’t seen a new engine, the foundational code for gameplay mechanics, since it adopted Frostbite in August 2017. Many of the same glitches and flawed physics from 2017 remain even in Madden NFL 22, which was just released across two platforms on Aug. 20. These inherent, unresolved flaws alienate true football fans, while unmoving strategies frustrate devout gamers. In short, little innovation came to EA Sports franchises between the years.
With little change, there becomes increasingly less incentive to fund a company that offers its users a subpar performance each year. Frustrations have even grown to a point where some players proposed a single Madden or FIFA title that EA could then offer roster updates and patches for over the years. Suggesting either a paid DLC or a subscription service, fans have jokingly encouraged EA to do away with the yearly releases and admit that any gameplay changes are marginal at best. However, it would prove unreasonable to expect such a format from EA Sports. Regardless of the games’ repetitive natures and the lackluster reviews, Madden NFL and FIFA titles still retain a high enough player-base to justify annual releases.
Additionally, there isn’t enough pressure from competitors for EA to sweat its current rate of complaints. The NFL extended its contract with EA Sports, ensuring that the developer remains its sole gaming partner through 2026. Similarly, Pro Evolution Soccer, FIFA’s largest competitor for years, simply doesn’t possess the capacity to compete with such a powerhouse. FIFA 21 alone sold over 325 million copies by February of this year, and its international recognition makes any prospective competition ill-advised.
As consumers and sports fans, players’ hands are tied tightly behind their backs. Without another option readily available for our electronic football fix, it would require an absolute exodus of the existing player-base to provoke any genuine change from EA. Whether the players are up for such a protest is unlikely, as demonstrated by the still-rising extra content sales. In all likelihood, the dynamic between users and the game developer will endure in its present state. Players will buy the game, complain to the developer, observe little progress anyway and repeat the following year. Sadly, it’ll be a long time until the investment in Madden and FIFA titles shifts from the consumers back to Electronic Arts. Because what’ll ultimately drive EA to change its ways aren’t Twitter complaints and average reviews, but an observable loss to its greatest earner: Ultimate Team game modes.