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Subscriptions for sports games? Ultimate teams stand in the way

They were made to keep a disc in the tray

FIFA 18 Griezman EA Vancouver/Electronic Arts
Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

Last week, Electronic Arts’ chief executive raised some eyebrows when he said he was open to the idea of a subscription-based model for the publisher’s biggest sports titles, like the Madden NFL and FIFA series. Andrew Wilson was also the boss for EA Sports before he ascended to the company’s top seat in 2013, and he comes from a development background, so even if his comments were non-committal, they can’t be taken lightly.

Sports video gamers have wondered about an MMO-like release structure for their favorite series for as long as I’ve written about them. A persistent game, as opposed to an annual release model, would certainly be friendlier to a player — even if a subscription ran $59.99 or slightly higher each year. If rosters are updated weekly in Madden NFL mid-season, and gameplay balances are served monthly in FIFA, why wouldn’t a publisher apply that kind of development agility — short-cutting all kinds of distribution costs, too — to a sports franchise?

My answer? Ultimate Team.

Conceived about eight years ago by EA Sports in its FIFA series, this mode of play — since copied by every maker of a licensed sports video game — now generates about $800 million in revenue for Electronic Arts annually. The parent company of 2K Sports just boasted that its “recurrent consumer spending” — i.e. the microtransactions in NBA 2K’s MyCareer and Grand Theft Auto Online — accounted for 42 percent of the entire company’s revenue in the last quarter.

To my mind, the big reason this is such a moolah firehose is because modes like Madden NFL Ultimate Team and NBA 2K’s MyCareer require players to start over every year — if they want to play the most current edition of the game, that is. It doesn’t matter how far you get on the “Road to 99” that NBA 2K18 marketed this year for its microtransacted-to-death MyCareer mode. That will all be moot once NBA 2K19 launches, and everyone starts over with a 60-rated player.

Let’s clear up a mistaken impression: The players who don’t pay aren’t the dedicated hard core. They’re the casuals, who get their asses handed to them on NBA 2K’s blacktop over three games and then slink back to the single-player modes. The dedicated players are more likely to pony up. They know what is available in the game’s dizzying array of dunks, crossovers and dribble moves. They expect to use them — especially in their created stars — and they know how to use them to great effect. They will, in fact, pay to see these things demonstrated explicitly.

Users estimate that it would take 240 NBA games in a single-player career (in MyCareer, a created character has a league career as well as a street-ball career against human users) to reach an 86 rating in NBA 2K18. That gets you to the level of Kemba Walker of the Charlotte Hornets. That’s a lot of grind to become a one-time all-star. Players are much more likely to pay cash to skip to the good stuff. If a publisher can make them do that year after year, where is the incentive to let users carry over a career? The only licensed sports video game in which players can load a previous version’s save into the newest edition is MLB The Show — whose Diamond Dynasty does not carry over.

I don’t see how a sports video game moves to a persistent, subscription-based model and still reaps the same kind of money as it does from people buying a new game each year and starting over in their ultimate modes. I also don’t see how a subscription-based sports video game could then reset these modes every year and erase their players’ hard work — even with some “Hey, it’s a new season!” messaging — without all hell breaking lose.

You think this past week was something with the pitchforks and torches marched up to Battlefront 2’s farmhouse? If a FIFA player logged in on the last Tuesday in September and found her team with the chemistry she’d worked so hard to build; the two big stars she’d scraped out of Elite card packs; the role-players she’d never heard of before but developed attachments to because of how they delivered in those rough early days; the kit and stadium she splurged on in the auction house to support her favorite side — if she and millions of others saw all of that erased, it would make the Battlefront 2 blowback look like toy soldiers in a sandbox.

Ultimate Teams were conceived in a time when sports publishers rightly saw that consumers would never accept a price point above $60 and that DLC extensions, like map and character packs, had almost no relevance to a simulation-quality game. Sports licenses cost enormous amounts of money before the first line of code is laid down; the companies that can afford them are all publicly held. The golden rule of a publicly traded company is growth. Show growth, any kind of growth, in revenue, or the stock price will be punished. The ultimate team model was their solution. It’s an open-ended revenue stream.

And it’s now a bigger set of golden handcuffs to sports video game makers than the ancient contractual obligation, to their league licensors, to deliver a new video game each year.

Whenever I met with him at E3, Peter Moore — the EA Sports president from 2007 to 2011, preceding Wilson — would tell me his number one concern was keeping his games in the tray of players’ consoles. How do we create longer lasting value, that was his ongoing rhetorical question.

Perhaps more than any other publisher, EA Sports was terrorized by the used games market. GameStop would run promotions encouraging players to trade in the NCAA Football game they bought in July for the Madden that arrived in August. “Oh, yes, once upon a time we had a back catalog,” Moore said acidly in our 2010 sitdown.

Ultimate Team, not “Season Ticket,” not the hated “Online Pass,” turned out to be the thing that would keep games in the tray. Much like a mobile phone, whose library of app purchases represents a sunk cost a user is unwilling to part with, the Ultimate Team model kept players invested. You can’t ditch that game when you’ve pumped so much time — if not real money — into your side.

So here we are. Electronic Arts came up with something to keep a disc in the tray. It worked.

Roster File is Polygon’s column on the intersection of sports and video games.

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