On August 13, a California law firm filed a class-action lawsuit against EA. In the lawsuit, plaintiff Kevin Ramirez alleges that the packs available for purchase in FIFA Ultimate Team (FUT) violate California gambling laws. The lawsuit is another in a growing trend of legal issues with “loot boxes” in games.

The History of FIFA Ultimate Team

FUT Gold and Premium Gold Booster Packs
FUT Gold and Premium Gold Booster Packs

If you play an EA Sports game, you’ve probably heard of Ultimate Team. FIFA 09 was the first game to introduce Ultimate Team as a downloadable game mode expansion. Back then, Ultimate Team gave you the freedom to build a team with any players you owned. You could buy, sell, trade, and auction players online. However, the fastest way to get more players was to buy FUT booster packs. FUT booster packs came in three categories (Bronze, Silver, and Gold) at different price points.  Gold packs cost 100x more than a bronze pack, but players had a higher chance to pull rare cards. In FIFA 09 you could use in-game currency earned playing matches to buy packs, or you could spend real-life money on Microsoft points use those to buy the packs.

The option to spend real money on FUT boosters is a staple of Ultimate Team. It is also the crux of Ramirez’ lawsuit. As reported by Video Game Chronicle, the lawsuit against EA’s Ultimate Team alleges that EA “relies on creating addictive behaviors in consumers to generate huge revenues” and that FIFA Ultimate Team packs “are predatory and designed to entice gamers to gamble.” Honestly, it’s an accusation worth looking at.

Money Talks

EA revealed its net revenue from the Ultimate Team platform in a report filed last November. Ultimate team revenue for the first half of fiscal year 2020 was $716 million. That’s a 40% increase over the $509 million in first half of fiscal year 2019. Daniel Ahmad, a Senior Analyst at Nike Partners, tweeted in May that EA had made over $1 billion on Ultimate Team in fiscal year 2020. That’s three consecutive years of $1 billion+ revenue off of Ultimate Team alone.

It’s hard to deny that EA is finding a ton of success selling randomized booster packs to FIFA players. Free-to-play games find similar success selling semi- or completely randomized “loot box”-style packs to players who can’t stop rolling until they find what they’re looking for. In the EA suit, Ramirez estimates he has spent more than $600 on Ultimate Team alone since 2011.

The Road to “Loot Box” Regulation

Overall, there is no legal consensus on whether or not “loot boxes” are considered gambling. Not for a lack of trying, though. In 2018, legislators in Hawaii drew up two different bills to try and regulate “loot boxes.” House Bill 2686 proposed that retailers not be allowed to sell video games that included “a system of further purchasing a randomized reward or rewards,” to anyone under 21 years of age. House Bill 2727 would have required game publishers to post publicly the odds of obtaining items in “loot boxes,” or in-game booster packs.  It’s worth noting that several games already do this, thanks to legislation passed in China in 2017. HB 2727 would require publishers to put “a prominent, easily legible, bright red label,” on their packaging warning of randomized in-game purchases.

EA’s Experience With Regulation

EA is no stranger to microtransaction controversy. In fact, calls to regulate randomized in-game purchases in the United States began in response to another EA game. Star Wars Battlefront 2 handled its “loot boxes” so notoriously poorly that they removed them from the game entirely. Despite this, EA Vice President of legal and government affairs Kerry Hopkins defended the use of these mechanics in the UK’s House of Commons in 2019.

“Well first, we don’t call them loot boxes. So what we look at as surprise mechanics… If you go to a – I don’t know what your version of Target is – but a store that sells a lot of toys and you do a search for surprise toys, what you’ll find is that this is something people enjoy, they enjoy surprises. And so it’s something that’s been part of toys for years, whether it’s Kinder Eggs or Hatchimals or LOL Surprise.

“We do think the way that we have implemented these kind of mechanics – and FIFA of course is our big one, our FIFA Ultimate Team and our packs – is actually quite ethical and quite fun, enjoyable to people.”

In September of that same year, UK’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee released a report in which they suggest bringing “loot boxes” under gambling legislation and regulation.

More information on the lawsuit against EA’s FIFA Ultimate Team will be available by November at the earliest. The initial case management conference is set for November 19.