How Ultimate Team cards helped the FIFA video game do a number on all-comers
It seems that Michael Müller-Möhring has the ability to anger any professional footballer on the planet right now
The German is not a coach, a president or an agent. In fact, for all we know, he has never kicked a ball in anger.
However, he does control the ratings on the video game, FIFA.
Around this time of year, those familiar gold and black Ultimate Team cards start to stalk us. They are the first wave of publicity for the release of this year’s version of the perennially best-selling console game in the world.
In the early days, the publicity was a simple picture of a player holding a large cardboard replica of his stats.
Smile. Snap. Done.
Since then, it has leapt forward in tandem with the influence of the game and the media of the age. Video ‘reveals’ are prepared for the big players and released to newspapers. Copa90 have been unveiling stats to specific stars for years. This year, there was ‘reported’ to be a leak of the top 10. Hmm.
On the face of it, this is just the usual blather of PR designed to prise pennies from an audience in the prime of their disposable earning income potential.
But it isn’t.
For my 10-year-old son, these stats are THE yardstick for a player. He sprinkles in the stats to our conversations about real-life games. He also bores me with endless YouTube videos of bedroom-based ‘personalities’ unboxing their latest packs. A world in which, shouting ‘oh my God’ at the top of your voice before revealing your disgust at getting ‘only three golds’ constitutes content.
(This is clearly a rights-of-passage moment for my son, something that my disdain and lack of appreciation only serve to support. See rock and roll in the 50s, the punk in the 70s, for further details)
However, a major ingredient must be added to the mix … many of the players genuinely care about their rating.
This article was prompted by David Meyler’s incredulous response on Soccer AM after being presented his FIFA18 statistics.
Last year, Harry Kane was unhappy with his shooting stats, Anthony Martial felt his pace numbers were incorrect while Eden Hazard was concerned with his looks in the game.
Fortunately for all concerned, Roy Keane has been unavailable for comment regarding his Legends card.
Joking aside and taking account for sales-induced faux reaction, the players are invested.
Then again, the generation of Kane (24), Hazard (26) and Martial (21) was getting into gaming when FIFA was hitting its stride. Every football-mad kid has played this game to some degree for the past two decades.
And it is more than a game now. It has history. So these ratings are more than just ‘marks out of 100’. They are the only universal, individual judgment of a player’s ability.
Reportedly, Müller-Möhring, Triple M as he is known, has a team of 9,000 data reviewers helping to create ratings for 18,000 players in 700 teams. This involves a mighty 5.4m data points.
Some of the reviewers are professional scouts or coaches but many are mere season-ticket holders at their club.
Yes, they admit, there is guesswork until they get their eyes on a player. (Click here for or more on their methods.) However allegiance to realism, and with it, deep, accurate player data, has been at the heart of FIFA’s success against its main competitor, Pro Evolution Soccer (PES).
In the early years, EA Sports set out to make the game as lifelike as possible so it agreed licensing deals for team names, developed ever increasing likenesses of players as well replicating stadia, fan chants and all the peripheral pageantry you normally expect.
In contrast, PES was a more stylised, almost cartoonish version of the game. Authentic names were never important. Even in this year’s version, you will select “Man Red” or “Man Blue” for the Premier League’s two Manchester teams or “North East London” for Tottenham.
Still, for many years, the two ran neck and neck in terms of reputation. A proportion of gamers liked the slicker feel of PES, as orchestrated by Konami's games guru Shingo Takatsuka. FIFA’s stringency for realism was perceived to have slowed the gameplay. However, it would evolve at a greater pace.
In recent years, FIFA has caught up and then, with its expanding universe, swallowed up PES. Reportedly FIFA17 sold 40 times the copies of its rival last year. The additional revenue from Ultimate Team realised $650m last year.
In 1993 the first cover star of “FIFA International Soccer” was England midfielder David Platt, and all the players looked the same. Real names came in three years later. At the millennium, there were 12 different covers for different markets, and by 2011 it was available in 18 languages. At the same time “Manager Mode” became “Career Mode”, a change that added another arm to the game and enticed the Championship Manager crowd. Likewise, 2017 saw the introduction of “The Journey” in which players guide the fictional Alex Hunter towards success. The year before that saw the introduction of female players and team. An online petition by Spanish professional Vero Boquete attracted 20,000 signatures in 24 hours.
Public pressure is normal. FIFA’s leading personnel are used to threats over changes to the format.
Players have not gone that far. But a poorly-rated attribute on their Ultimate Team card will be an affront to many.
Jamie Vardy famously headbutted his old card after a stellar season with Leicester City saw his rating rocket while, only this week, Michy Batschuayi asked for an upgrade via Twitter following a hat-trick in the Carabao Cup.
Let’s not take all this at face value in the run-up to the release of a new game.
In many ways, the mechanism is the same as the Wisden Cricketer of the Year, reported to be the oldest award in sport. Five players are feted for their achievements in the previous year in a stunt that is timed neatly for the start of the English season and the publication of that famous yellow almanac. Statistics are at the heart of the decision, no-one can be chosen twice while the odd controversial choice stokes it up a little and provides welcome headlines.
Only three players have been deemed significant enough to be the sole recipient in a single year. Perhaps the most famous of that trio was WG Grace, who became the first solo winner in 1896, seven years after the award started.
Grace was a prolific all-rounder who, like Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali, was bigger than his sport he played.
However, his talent masked a character widely-known to be money-oriented, self-centred, egotistical and intimidating to officials. Basically, all the negative qualities projected onto modern footballers, whether they deserve it or not. He even had extreme facial hair!
After being given out LBW in an exhibition match, Grace famously snapped back at the official “they came to see me bat, not you umpire” and stayed put.
Gargantuan sporting egos are nothing new. My point is that FIFA18’s statistical 'award' and reveal is not original either. It is, however, executed incredibly well.
Its strength has been the excellence of the game over time, strict adherence to its USP of realism, constant evolution and a numbers game par excellence.
It is has created a unique scoring system that everyone respects, cares about and wants to debate. This sells the main game and provides increasingly significant revenue from extra content.
It is a near-perfect tool for the digital era.