The Evolution of FIFA's Ultimate Team Mode

EA Sports has been a top name in video games for a long while, bringing several different franchises to gamers across a variety of platforms.

Few could claim to be as successful as their soccer game, FIFA. The latest incarnation, FIFA 20, has kept fans enthralled across the globe during the recent crisis as top players and teams compete virtually, rather than in person.

The game boasts an ‘Ultimate Team’ mode, which is where online players build their teams and qualify for weekend leagues, which in turn leads to them climbing the ranks and possibly qualifying for lucrative tournaments. It is hugely popular and incredibly rewarding for EA. IGN suggests they make $1.3bn per year from additional content in their games, half of which comes from Ultimate Team, known as FUT.

Ultimate Team arrived as part of a downloadable content plan for FIFA 09. Players were asked to pay $10 to register and, much like today, demand was so intense that EA suffered server problems. Much of the core concept of the game from 09 remains; chemistry, cards, three tiers of packs and the microtransactions all made an appearance in the first incarnation of the mode.

FIFA 10 added a few minor touches, such as being able to add contracts to players and play in tournaments, but it was still a mode you had to pay extra for. By the time FIFA 11 came out, EA had made it free to play and stumbled upon the most lucrative game mode in their history. They also introduced the Team of the Week cards (TOTW), which recognized the best real-life performers across the globe and gave them a new, boosted card.

That set the transfer market alight and with new tournaments coming online, micro-transactions became commonplace. Bwin Sports explains how the FUT market is a whole other game, with players eagerly trading cards right up to the present day. Cards have values that rise and fall much like the stock market and in recent years, some players have made their team great simply by buying and selling at the right time, rather than performances on the field.

Whilst FIFA 11 made the mode free to play, FIFA 12 was the first to include it as a core part of the game. There was no extra download; it simply came as one of the game modes. It is inconceivable now to think that FIFA ever came without FUT, with plenty of players ignoring career mode or whatever else EA tack on, heading straight into their challenges and squad building. FUT 12 also developed on the TOTW cards, with ‘In Form’ cards and even Team of the Season (TOTS), which are now staples of the game.

Between 2013 and 2015, the game was beset by problems, but it did not stop 11 million players picking up their joypads. EA introduced a web app which allowed players to track their teams, but where there are microtransactions there is real money to be made and some players hijacked the app. Coin sellers sprang up online and whilst the game developed on-screen at a good pace, the problems began to put people off. PS3 players, and later PS4 were hit too, as Microsoft and EA signed an agreement to have legends cards, such as Pele and Zinedine Zidane, on the Xbox 360 and Xbox One only. That changed in recent seasons, but it did help drive a wedge between some PlayStation owners and FIFA, opening the door for their rival Pro Evolution Soccer, although it does not have a comparable mode.

By the time FIFA 17 dropped, EA had begun to combat the coin sellers and regulate the market in a fairer way. Also, noticing players accumulated a lot of cards, they introduced a squad building challenge which constituted a mini puzzle game outside of the normal soccer action. FIFA 17 also saw the arrival of the fabled ‘Weekend League’, the tournament which has attracted so many viewers over the last four years. The best players from the week qualify for a grueling 30-game tournament in which they strive to boast the best record, but it is challenging and only the absolute best players make the grade.

Minor changes over the last four years have seen new cards come in such as ‘FUTMAS’ at Christmas, and even Future Stars where young players finish with 90+ rated cards at the end of the year. However, it is still that vibrant transfer market, the squad building challenges and the Weekend League which dominate a game mode that goes from strength the strength.