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It is becoming increasingly difficult for the FIFA series to make any substantial innovations. After all, there is little point in reinventing the wheel when each iteration of the game fulfils its primary purpose so beautifully. FIFA remains the most immersive footballing video game, giving players the chance to not only control legends like Lionel Messi but, through the rich graphical detail, to feel like they have become Lionel Messi. Through the much-anticipated inclusion of the UEFA Champions League on FIFA 19, EA Sports have brought their game another step closer to reality.

Perhaps the main distinction between the FIFA series and its main rival, Konami’s Pro Evolution Soccer, is in its authenticity. People are quick to point at the bizarre PES team names, with the Manchester derby being competed by Man Red and Man Blue, but that easy criticism overlooks that PES has often had more engrossing gameplay. Therefore, it was essential that FIFA doubled down on its realism by acquiring the rights to the Champions League.

Reviews have commented on how the iconic Champions League anthem and authentic graphics have contributed to making FIFA 19 appear more like a television broadcast. It helps that the tweaks to the gameplay largely back up the visual appeal, but the arrival of the Champions League has undoubtedly reinvigorated the career mode. The chance to watch unlikely players in unfamiliar teams being serenaded by the Champions League anthem will likely inspire many an ambitious career mode challenge.

Making Messi even better

Yet, the allure of the Champions League extends beyond the career mode into the area in which the FIFA series shows its main strength. FIFA 19’s Ultimate Team mode will benefit from the official licensing and images of the Champions League, with EA announcing the inclusion of UEFA Champions League Edition items. Every player eligible for the real-life Champions League this season will be boosted by a new player item type, with their overall rating and their value in the six main attributes being increased by +1. The special Champions League cards can only be acquired through special reward FUT packs, but once received these players can slot straight into your squad.

If you thought a 94-rated Messi was intimidating, wait until you meet the 95-rated Champions League Messi. Those Liverpool fans unhappy that Mohamed Salah only earned a rating of 88 on FIFA 19 will find some solace in hoping that they open an 89-rated Champions League Salah in a pack. Also, this boost will enhance the stats of those youngsters making their mark in the Champions League who had perhaps not received a FIFA 19 rating that truly reflects their current ability. Few would agree that Jadon Sancho is currently demonstrating the skills of a 72-rated player, but his Champions League card at least nudges him up to a slightly fairer 73.

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Champions League stars like Jadon Sancho will be given a ratings boost. 

This merging of FIFA 19’s main addition and the series’ most popular mode is an unexpected bonus for gamers. While seeking to win the Champions League in a career mode can be a rewarding pursuit, it can’t compare with the thrill of online competition. The AI has a finite number of possibilities, with experienced gamers able to spot patterns that enable them to exploit weaknesses. There is no such luxury when playing against a human, unless it is a human that you know particularly well. With that added element of taking on the unknown, victory becomes sweeter when it is achieved in online competition.

Taking on the world

Gaming developers are increasingly aware of the demand for online modes. A new game can have a gripping narrative and a rich open world, but the absence of an online mode reduces the chance of players returning to the game once the main story has been completed. Games like Grand Theft Auto V and Red Dead Redemption 2 thrive on their vast environments and interesting plots, but the former’s online mode is integral to its continued relevance and fans of the latter are already eagerly awaiting the release of an online option.

The natural extension from an online mode is the provision of online tournaments, giving players a structured format through which to achieve supremacy. Sporting games inevitably fit well with the tournament format, but the popularity of online tournaments extends beyond games like FIFA and Madden. Games like League of Legends and Dota 2 have proven so effective at delivering engaging online modes that they have become some of the world’s most popular eSports.

Those online tournaments have not only presented lucrative opportunities for the world’s finest players, with vast tournament prize pools often exceeding those of more traditional sports, but they have also attracted audiences of millions. Watching an individual taking on a computer is not quite as compelling viewing as watching the FIFA eWorld Cup or The International Dota 2 tournament, where some of the world’s finest gamers go head to head.

By providing that competitive edge, emotions are heightened. Euphoric moments are enhanced when there are team-mates to share it with, or opponents to lord it over if you are so inclined. The thrill of a tournament is so appealing that even non-competitive games have become the focus for tournaments. Online slot machine tournaments take what is traditionally a single-player affair and give it a more competitive edge, pitting individuals against each other in the hunt for the jackpot. Minecraft has witnessed a similar shift, initially popularized as a non-competitive building game but now starting to provide the basis for tournaments across the world.

It is that chance to connect with players from different parts of the globe that contributes to the appeal of online gaming. Fortnite Battle Royale has attracted millions of gamers who appreciate the thrill of being brought together with gamers of various backgrounds and skill levels. Like Fortnite Battle Royale, FIFA’s Ultimate Team thrives on the ability to offer short matches that can be slotted into a spare half hour. Yet, Ultimate Team also benefits from its longer-term purposes, with players’ enthusiasm to develop their team driven by heady aspirations of becoming the best FIFA player in the world.

It is that possibility of online greatness that makes Ultimate Team so compelling; while you can load up a game to play against a computer-controlled Barcelona, it is nothing compared to taking down a top Ultimate Team player. The addition of Champions League cards gives an extra dimension to FIFA’s online mode, making it more feasible than ever to create the ultimate team.