Seven Days In The Thrall Of FIFA Ultimate Team

By Graham Smith on October 18th, 2013 at 5:00 pm.

Synchronised dancing is a poor defensive tactic.

You might not know it, but FIFA 14 is a strategy game. Not just a game with strategy in it, but a real-time strategy game with units you command against an opponent. It’s also a roleplaying game about levelling up, a management game about economies and trading, a fighting game about manual dexterity and timing moves, and a collectable card game with all the charm of Panini stickers or baseball cards.

It’s a foot-to-ball game, but you don’t need to know anything about the sport to love it. I mean, I got into foot-to-ball because of FIFA, not the other way around. I have played perhaps a thousand hours of it over the past three years. And now, with FIFA 14, I’m taking my first steps into FIFA Ultimate Team. Let me explain to you why GManhattan FC is now my favourite club in the world.

Day One

Ultimate Team is a game mode, added in FIFA 09, in which players create their own team and are randomly assigned a group of real players. You then play matches to earn in-game gold, and use that gold to buy individual players on a player-driven transfer market, or to buy packs of players for a random chance at someone good.

Despite hundreds of hours with previous iterations, I’ve never played the mode before. That’s partly because I’ve resisted FIFA every step of the way these past three years. When I first started playing it again, I hadn’t been interested in football in around ten years, and I hadn’t played a foot-to-ball game since PES2006. I didn’t want to go back.

I eventually tried it with FIFA 12, when the series reached parity across all platforms, and the PC version was no longer based on the old PlayStation 2 engine. I liked it. I liked it too much.

I create my first team, call them GManhattan FC, and begin to peruse my starting players. They’re all bronze players – the worst, after silver and gold – but they’re not terrible. The game starts you off with a mediocre bunch from which you can begin to climb the rankings.

Right away, I’m annoyed by the interface. It’s clunky to cycle through your players, see all the information you need about their stats and fitness, and to swap them out if necessary. The only thing I like is the animation when you first open a new pack – golden pieces descending upon the pack, forming a ball, and spinning to reveal its contents. It’s a tiny PopCap flourish I wish the game would display more of.

With the mediocrity of my team in mind, I decide to focus on playing offline tournaments against the computer. Advancing through and winning trophies will earn me the in-game currency I need to start improving my players.

Day Two

Right. I’ve played lots of matches and won lots of tournaments, but I’m running into problems now.

When you open packs of Ultimate Team cards, you don’t just get players. You also get consumables, such as contract extensions, fitness boosts and injury healing cards, and cosmetic items like new balls, stadiums, football strips and badges.

The contract system is the thing that most frustrates. Each player is only good for a certain number of matches, after which their contract needs renewed. Contract cards can only be found by buying packs.

It’s an obvious mechanic to remove funds from the marketplace, to make sure good teams can’t horde resources, play the best players forever, and never spend anything.

It also adds this unpleasant anxiety to my early matches in the game. I’ve become attached to certain players on my team – mostly Kone’s weird affection for shooting with the outside of his foot, and looping the ball into the top corner – but that means I need to make enough in-game money to keep buying packs to keep getting cards to keep those favoured players on my team. It ends up feeling a little too much like an Energy mechanic in a Facebook or mobile game. A little nag you can avoid, but which edges you towards spending real money. I’m never going to spend real money.

Day Three

I spent real money. I know, I know, I said I wouldn’t! But I looked up the rates, and £6 would buy me a lot of gold packs, and I wanted some good players quickly.

My pathetic collapse isn’t surprising. The last two years have been a steadly collapse into old foot-to-ball habits. I mean, I used to spend my lunchtimes charting careful economic progression in the vast robots wars of Supreme Commander: Forged Alliance, but after I started on FIFA 12 I couldn’t stop. Soon I was playing every day. Soon I was watching Sky Sports on the weekends.

What’s surprising about my spending real money is that I don’t regret the decision. I pore through the cards I unlock in each pack and feel… excited. I feel like I did when I would pick through the packs of football stickers I’d buy as a kid. Intrigued to know what I had in my hands, excited that there might be a player of real value amongst my colletion.

In this light, even the interface begins to make sense. If opening a pack spread out the cards in such a way that you could see them all at a glance, then it would only take a few seconds to work out what you had, what you were keeping, and what you would place in the market. By obfuscating that information just a little, Ultimate Team drags the process out, making it about slowly and satisfyingly revealing the treasure in your hands.

I get some great players out of the batch, including Vorm, a shiny, golden goalkeeper with an 81 rating, and Contract cards to keep my best players on the pitch for dozens of games to come.

Day Four

By this point, my team is pretty good: all gold players, four-and-a-half stars overall, and I’m winning most of my matches because I’m great. Naturally, I feel a little disappointed.

I’ve played a lifetime of FIFA matches, in friendlies and tournaments and online thingers. I had hoped that Ultimate Team would raise the skillcap, and provide a whole new meta-layer as context for individual matches in such a way that I could just keep grinding away forever.

Already it seems like my team is as good as it needs to be, and I’m earning enough in-game money from won matches that I can regularly buy good, individual players from the marketplace. They tend to cost about 4000-10,0000 fakebucks.

Idly, I wonder how much Lionel Messi costs. He’s arguably the best player in the world, he’s always been absurdly good in FIFA games, and he’s on the front of the box. I look him up on the transfer market.

His Buy Now price averages around 2,100,000. 2.1 million. 210 times more than the next best player I’ve looked at.

I look around, and there are other players who are on the similarly high levels: forty to fifty foot-to-ballers who aren’t just good, but who are superstars, and who act as Ultimate Team’s endgame.

Laser tripmines mean someone is playing dirty.

Day Five

I’m not even close to being able to afford any of those expensive players, and I can barely fathom how I’ll ever get there. If I win a match and do so in style, I get around 750 gold. If I sell a player, I normally get a couple of thousand gold. If I’m ever going to buy a Messi, it looks like I’ll need to grind for a lifetime.

I start looking around the internet for guides. There’s a lot out there, but not a lot that’s clear. What I learn is that to make money, I need to stop being attached to my players, and I need to spend less time playing matches and more time playing the markets.

Each week, EA pick eleven players for the Team of the Week. Those are the players who, in the real world, are currently in the best form. Those players, naturally, become more expensive for that period of time, and their prices crash as soon as a new team of players are selected.

That means that if you’re smart, and buy at the right times, you can predict and manipulate those spikes and drops. There are other factors, like how prices peak during peak hours when everyone is playing and trading, and crash late at night. I’m unlikely ever to stay up till 3am solely to buy cheaper football stickers, but I like that it’s an option.

Day Six

FIFA is my comfort game. Do you have one? I always have at least one game that I’m playing constantly, daily, in the background, in between, as a break, before and after whatever it is I’m supposed to be doing. Right now, it’s Spelunky and FIFA. Right now, it’s mostly FIFA.

I’m no longer ashamed of it. I’m a zealot. I think everyone should play FIFA, whether they like football or not. It is all of the games.

I’ve settled into a pretty good rhythm with Ultimate Team now. I’m not sure if I’m ever going to reach the heady heights of managing Lionel Messi, but I’ve got a team I like, with players I’m weirdly bonded to, and I play a few matches every night.

I win a lot and that helps, but mainly I’m enjoying the community. There’s no voice or text chat with strangers in FIFA – or at least, if there is, it’s off by default. Instead, you get a feel for your opponents through the matches themselves.

Who have they got on their team? Are all their players Brazillian, to maximise the Chemistry bonus? What formation do they play? Do they skip the replays or force you to re-watch their goals? What celebration do they perform every time they score?

I’ve had matches where I’ve gone 3-0 up and my opponent has started scoring own goals. I’ve had matches where a losing opponent has very obviously put the controller down in the middle of a match and walked away from the computer, without quitting. I’ve had matches where a losing opponent has started messing around, doing keepie-uppies in his own half, or a winning opponent has started showing off with the skill stick.

Despite the reputation of foot-to-ball fans, it never feels mean-spirited. It feels like a nice community who isn’t taking things too seriously. It’s relaxing to play with them, and so I’m playing with them every night.

Day Seven

Here is my team. Click to make it bigger.

Fall into my football web.

I haven’t much bothered with maximising chemistry, and they’re all knackered constantly because I play so much. Also, Forlan is great up front, because he hits the bar and the post a lot. He’s the best at missing and, weirdly, missing is sometimes more fun than scoring.

Ultimate Team is mad and it will make you mad. But then, FIFA will do that generally. Here’s the spreadsheet Rich McCormick and I kept over the course of 438 games of FIFA 13. I’m so proud of it.

I’m hooked on Ultimate Team now. I just spent another £6 on players. I’m never coming back. Don’t look for me.

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43 Comments »

  1. luke_osullivan says:

    Great piece, Graham. I’ve been playing Fifa on the PC (and intermittently on consoles) since 1995 so have watched it become the behemoth it is today. I’m not really into UT although I dabbled in Fifa 13 a bit, but I’m enjoying the new seasons mode and you’re right, it’s all of the games. I’m enjoying the new RPG-ish elements of managing as well as the action on the pitch!

  2. Premium User Badge deadfolk says:

    Hang on…

    So a full price EA game has microtransactions for in-game currency. Not DLC, not content…but mobile/facebook style in-game cash for real money.

    Wow.

    • Zankmam says:

      They’ve been doing this since FIFA 10, at least.

      I thought that it was widely known.

    • Graham Smith says:

      Since FIFA 09, even.

      Everything you can buy with real money, can also be bought with in-game money. There are lots of things, even, that can only be bought with in-game money, and nothing that can only be bought with real money. It feels like a fair system to me.

  3. Skull says:

    I played FIFA a lot when I was younger but got distracted by other things. I really got back into it when I tried FIFA 12 on a mates PS3 and bought it for my PC. Really competitive and with just as much strategy and depth as Starcraft, which is surprising to see in a big commercial sports title.

    I would still be playing it regularly but the yearly release and the hefty price tag really puts me off. I am very glad it exists and have a game out there anyone (apart from those who despise football) can sit down and play.

    • Zankmam says:

      Glad that someone is at least realistic and respectful of the game and the people that play it.

      Most people just shake their head and say:

      “FIFA and all those other sports games are dumb, bad and aimed at bro-dude casuals .

      No no, it doesn’t matter that it offers a wide variety of interesting, deep, complex and interesting single-player and multy-player modes – it’s ‘football’, so it doesn’t count.”

      “Core gamers” being really disrespectful towards sports titles is an annoying trend that I have noticed recently, and it really really irks me. Things like TotalBiscuit just barely mentioning the release of FIFA 14 in his Content Patch and simply saying “I don’t really need to say anything here” is incredibly infuriating, as if it isn’t a mayor release with enough interesting talking points.

      It’s funny how the sports genre is so scrutinized and ignored by the “core gamers”, utterly dismissed simply because of its subject matter.

      I guess the stereotype of geeks being bad at sports is true.

      • goettel says:

        Concluding your post about disrespect because of stereo-typing with disrespectfully affirming a stereo-type is stereo-typically disrespectful IMO.

        • Zankmam says:

          That was, indeed, the point.

          I’m as geek as they come, I’m only passable in real-life football and throughout my life I’ve only been interested moderately in it.

          Yet I love the FIFA/football games.

          Likewise, although I have no interest in things like Gridiron football, I don’t go around saying that Madden is bad, aimed squarely at bro-gamers, not a “real game” or anything like that.

          • goettel says:

            Oh I agreed with you, just thought I’d make some fuzz, it’s friday night!

      • Stochastic says:

        I’m kind of surprised sports games aren’t more popular among us geeky types. I mean, sports are like the holy grail for stats nerds (see: sabermetrics), RPG elements can be easily incorporated into sports games without feeling contrived or forced, and most of them have enough tactical depth so that they don’t get stale quickly.

        Also, you really ought to try a 100 chemistry team Mr. Smith. And nice write up, it’s good to see more writers joining RPS so we see a broader range of interests/expertise.

        • Zankmam says:

          I agree. Although there are places to improve, I see things like Career mode as legitimate “single-player experience with RPG elements” – emphasis on the “role play” part in my case, lol.

  4. lautalocos says:

    you have been consumed by it.

    the only mercifull thing to do is to put you down. im sorry.

    just to be sure, this is a joke

  5. Bostec says:

    Any words on PES 2014? I have been thinking about getting a football game this year but not sure which one. PES 2014 is about £20 so i might end up getting that one, I heard its the better football game even with EA domination of the clubs licenses. But then this Fifa ultimate team sounds like crack and who doesn’t like a quick whiff of the crack now and again.

    • Graham Smith says:

      I haven’t tried it, unfortunately. PES2013 was abysmal, and I’ve heard promising if slightly mixed things about 2014.

      If I get a chance to have a play, I’ll pop some words up on the site, but I’m not sure the others could stomach another foot-to-ball post.

      • DrGonzo says:

        It is promising, but has keepers that are so bad they entirely ruin the game unfortunately.

        • Inglourious Badger says:

          This. After trying the demos I went back to PES for the first time in a few years. The passing game is lovely, the engine looks great (their shorts sway in the breeze!), the pitch feels full size and the players feel real in their inertia and collisions. It is better than FIFA in the respect BUT! BUT! BUT! The goalies are atrocious. They’re so bad I have stopped playing already, they are just too calamitous. It ruins games when a tense 80 mins is ruined by your keeper leaning AWAY from a shot, or their keeper punching your wayward shot into the goal. Such a shame

    • Zankmam says:

      No, friend, I implore you not to play PES 14.

      PES was better than FIFA (and thus a viable competitor and alternative) in 2005 and 2006, with PES 5 and PES 6 (the best one ever).

      PES 2010 is the last good one, legitimately.

      PES 11 was a disaster if you ask me, and instead of starting again, they’ve been “working” on that same game since.

      Hell, PES 14 is maybe even *worse* than PES 13, despite promising additions that were supposed to make it good.

      Pros of PES 14: Good animations and graphics (technical standpoint)
      Cons of PES 14: Everything else.

      This is not an exaggeration.

      Gameplay: Stale, slow, stiff. Unrealistic, ironically as result of attempting to be realistic. Incredibly weak shots, players that move like they are in giant sacks/they are wearing boots filled with cement, bad AI, bad keepers, a bad “new advanced” through ball system, bad build-up play, players and teams don’t feel authentic despite claims of otherwise…

      Visuals: Again, decent graphics with good animations *utterly ruined* by the horrible art style that they have been pushing since PES 11. The players look like wax figures and the game itself looks incredibly washed out, almost cartoon-like. The color palette is, apparently, entirely made out of pastel colors.

      I dare you to look at the player’s faces. The horror.

      Audio: Well, the quality is fine, I guess. As for the atmosphere during games – decent at best.

      Soundtrack: Weirdest soundtrack I’ve heard in a long time… Not really appropriate for a modern football game. *You* (a random individual) may personally like it, but objectively, it’s incredibly archaic and inappropriate for a modern game in an objective sense.

      Commentators: Both dudes sounds like amateurs and their repertoires are small and repetitive. Bad overall, with or without comparison to FIFA.

      Menu design *and* game modes: Straight outta a 2004 PS2 game. Japanese one, at that. Ugly, clunky, unnecessarily complex and – magic word that describes this game – archaic.

      More specifically for the game modes, besides being outdated and archaic, they offer nothing new, both in single-player and mutly-player. The Master League mode has become a synonym for “Bad” if you ask me, and this installation is no better. FIFA’s SP and MP modes blow PES out of the water.

      Licenses: Still poor and seemingly random. They’ve (unfortunately) got rights to the Champions League, Euro League, AFC and Copa Libertadores, despite not having enough licensed teams for these competitions… And the “authentic experience” this offers isn’t really anything special.

      Optimization: Eh, nothing wrong.

      Conclusion: If you want to play a good game of PES, get old school PES 6 *or maybe* PES 2010, as the only good current-gen game. Otherwise, just play FIFA 14.

      PES vs FIFA back in the old days: PES was harder and more complex, but rewarded you with great football gameplay and depth. FIFA was easier to pick up and play, sure, but it was outdated, archaic and too arcade-y.

      PES vs FIFA now: FIFA is a very realistic simulation of football – a bit still too fast, to be fair – but it is very well balanced, fluid and fun, while offering a nice amount of depth, having in mind its low-to-moderate complexity. It’s fresh, modern and overall a very well-made package.

      PES, on the other hand, is bad at almost all aspects. Ironically, now PES is the archaic and outdated game that doesn’t provide players with a good and realistic football experience, and bad game modes don’t help satisfy the player at all. Complexity is off the charts due to a badly designed game while depth has stayed the same at best.

      I am, to be honest, always very critical of Japanese games due to the tropes in both content and design that they tend to have, but, god-damn, I really want 2K sports or a random rich company like Activision to buy the PES license from Konami and, you know, actually make a legitimate modern football game.

      So, yeah. It’s sad and unfortunate. PES 14 is literately no competition to FIFA 14 and I hope – for the sake of the players – that Konami relinquishes the PES licenses to someone competent.

      • Inglourious Badger says:

        I agree with a lot of what you say, certainly FIFA is still the recommended title, but PES feels more realistic IMO, I guess it’s what you’re used to watching/playing but PES feels like a football game with all the scrappy, snappy, pass-pass-pass possession play required to hang on to the ball before you even think about setting up a killer ball or crafty run. FIFA was too reliant on easy long balls to fast wingers and shots from space going in, even if they were a mile from goal. The demo of 14 didn’t show any improvement there but I might be wrong.

        Unfortunately, the answer is neither is perfect, and new engines and console generations will only delay foot-to-ball nirvana. Once again I promise not to buy one for a few years (note: I’ve said this every year and failed to keep my promise). Oh well.

        • Zankmam says:

          Obviously, opinions are different, but I just don’t see how PES matches up in any way to FIFA this year nor how it has improved. I honestly, to take it that far, don’t even see any important aspect of PES 14 to be a positive one.

          From what I’ve played of it so far, speedy wingers and annoying through balls have indeed been nerfed. It’s better now, IMO.

      • Ztox says:

        Absolutely love this, agree with almost everything here. PES 6 with the mods was easily the best football game ever when it came out and probably even kept that status for one or two years afterwards. I remember the days where in FIFA you could take the kick off, hold towards your opponents goal and mash the sprint button. You would just run past/through the entire opposite team and then at the end there was about a 2% chance that the keeper would make a save. I could never understand how people could defend it.

        Now, it’s the complete opposite and has been for a few years. I have a team with a few friends on the Pro Clubs mode and we get on Teamspeak and play most nights. Those are my probably favourite gaming experiences these days over any other games I can think of. Although the 15-18 person Artemis session I last night was pretty epic :)

        I just wish more people would play on manual controls, haven’t played with assists since ’11. Once you get the hang of it, it’s becomes a much better game and a much better sim with all the arcade removed. You have more freedom to do whatever you want and when you do pull off that perfect long ball or fantastic finish it’s much more rewarding as it was all you. Also, pressure can actually have a genuine affect on you, with a chance that even the simplest pass can go horribly wrong. It’s becomes a real game of skill. If anyone into FIFA hasn’t tried it before, in the controller settings put everything on manual (I do leave player switching on air balls, nightmare otherwise) and give it a go for a few games, see what you think.

        But yea, great foot-to-ball game and great game too.

  6. Krouv says:

    Did you see that ludicrous display last night?

  7. Monkeh says:

    I was planning on getting FIFA14 on the PC, until I found out the PC gets the same old engine from FIFA13, whereas the console versions get an upgraded engine. Boycot that shit!

    • Stochastic says:

      It’s sort of understandable seeing as the Ignite versions won’t be ready until November. But if EA does the same again next year (and let’s face it, they almost certainly will), there’s no excuse.

      • SuicideKing says:

        EA’s excuse was along the lines of “consoles have unified memory so PC sux and we lazy and can’t code shit”, so i don’t think so.

        • Zankmam says:

          Not really, they said that the type of PC needed to play FIFA with the Ignite engine is not the type of PC that the PC FIFA gamers usually posses.

          Supposedly.

          • Joriath says:

            While I disagree with EA’s policy on this, to play devil’s advocate at least it spares them the inevitable ‘OMG, this new ignite engine won’t run on my netbook/90s hardware computer’ complaints that graphical advances seem to attract.

          • SuicideKing says:

            From what i remember, they said “consoles, unified memory, better than PC OMG, can’t do it on the PC” and yes, added that Ignite won’t run on PCs that most people have or something like that.

            Here’s the deal though: If CryEngine can run on a range of PCs today, I’m pretty sure Ignite will run just fine.

            Engines are made to be able scale on hardware, so if Ignite isn’t, I’m assuming it’s down to laziness. Seriously, it’s FIFA. Not a game i’ve ever considered in the last 15 years that i’ve been gaming to be the the “bestest graphics ever” one.

        • Stochastic says:

          Honestly, I wish they just released a current-gen and Ignite version. Buying the game would grant you access to both, and you could choose which to install based on your system specs. I suppose that’s too much to ask from EA, though.

  8. Radiant says:

    On a similar note I’m COMPLETELY addicted to Tekken Card Tournament web browser game.

    It’s free to play but holy shit am I:
    A) Brilliant at it.
    B) Pouring real money and time into it.
    C) NO REGRETS

    Google it. It’s brilliant.

  9. Drovek says:

    I went from not being interested in FIFA at all (and I largely don’t follow sports), to buying the Android version of 14, and becoming so absorbed by it that I bought the PC version a few days after. Now I play it on a daily basis and I keep the FUT web app open on a browser tab almost all day checking out on cheap contracts/players.

    Last year I would’ve laughed at you for mentioning that I would *like* to play FIFA any time soon.

  10. SuicideKing says:

    Second screenshot reminds me of FIFA 07…

    Nicely written though, Graham. Not really a FIFA fan so don’t share the same emotions, but i have played quite a lot of 03, 06 WC and 07 so yeah, i can understand.

  11. Premium User Badge The King K says:

    Beautiful spreadsheet. Tried to do something similar with a friend of mine, but he wasn’t interested in preserving our matches for posterity. Though we did play an all teams worldcup once, him always taking the away team and me playing the home team. Romania won.
    And lol @ Tijuana and the Netherlands.

  12. derbefrier says:

    So this is why I caught my friends playing this before our weekly DnD game. I shall have to try iy out. I always liked the old madden games because of the strategy aspect so why not give this a try.

  13. greywolf00 says:

    I tried MUT when they added it to Madden but couldn’t get into it. Clearly designed not just as a money making opportunity but also cleverly plays off of addiction traits like achievements. Not sure if I’m more impressed by publishers’ understanding of psychology, or disgusted that they exploit it so well.

  14. Marblecake says:

    Heh. And I thought I was the only one who got interested in football *after* getting interested in FIFA.
    I just started playing because a non-geek friend and console-fiend played it. I usually played Borussia Dortmund against him because he was a Bayern Munich fan. Fast forward a couple of years and I watch almost every Dortmund game on Sky, can name most players of most teams in the Bundesliga and what their strengths and weaknesses are…because I’ve also started a fantasy football league. This shit gets addictive.

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