In FIFA, as so many fans of EA's all-conquering football series know, you can buy FIFA Coins with real world money. And with those FIFA Coins you can buy packs of cards for use in FIFA Ultimate Team, the series' most popular mode and the one that makes EA so many millions of dollars each financial quarter. Pay your money, buy a pack and roll the dice. Will I pack Ronaldo? Or Messi? Or an in-form? There's only one way to find out.
I'm a big FIFA fan and I have a confession to make: I love opening packs. There's a thrill to it. Maybe this time I'll get a walk out! My mind dares to dream in the tantalising moments before I press the buy now button. I know I'm being played here. I know the house always wins. But I can't help but grind for more FUT Coins, the in-game currency you can use to buy packs, then, when I've enough, roll the dice once again. Rinse. Repeat. Better luck next time, mate.
I've yet to spend real world money on FIFA Coins since FIFA 18 came out, but I have teetered on the edge, usually at night while my wife and toddler sleep. They won't know, I smirk. I'll pay with my account, not the joint. Thankfully, FIFA 18, with its dad friendly Squad Battles mode, dishes out FUT Coins and card packs in a, well, I wouldn't call it a generous fashion, but I've so far done well enough to have an 80-rated team with limited play time. The thing is, I want better players and a better team. I will always want better players and a better team. There is no end in sight. I realise this. And yet I live for each inch I crawl forward in the pursuit of the perfect Ultimate Team.
As the debate about loot boxes and gambling rages, I can't help but wonder about Ultimate Team. Are buying card packs gambling? I go back and forth on the answer. Sometimes I think, well, it's just like buying football stickers. Of course it's not gambling. Then, usually when I'm desperate for one more hit, I find myself convinced it is.
The law says loot boxes are not gambling because the items obtained from them cannot be exchanged for real-life money. Here's the blurb, from the Gambling Commission:
"Where prizes are successfully restricted for use solely within the game, such in-game features would not be licensable gambling."
The problem is, these prizes - or in FIFA's case, cards - are not successfully restricted for use solely within FIFA 18. You can, quite easily, cash out.
There are a raft of websites, some of which look pretty slick and even have narrated tutorial videos, that will buy your FUT coins off you for real-world money. These websites ensure everything involved in your standard Ultimate Team card pack transaction has a real world value, albeit indirectly. Say you get a player you don't want. Successfully sell him on the official, in-game auction house for FUT coins. Then, you can sell those FUT coins on a third-party website for cash. So, the virtual card has an indirect real-world value. It might not be much, but it's there.
The FIFA Ultimate Team black market is huge, despite EA's attempt to combat it over the years. Frank Lewis, head of marketing at MMOBUX.com, a marketplace that matches up those who want to buy in-game currencies with real money from sellers, says the market for FIFA coins has grown steadily since the release of FIFA 15 back in 2014.
"Although EA tried to prevent it a few years ago by setting a price range, players are still looking for a way to buy coins," he says over email.
"In addition, thousands of people are willing to even sell coins to suppliers."
Here's how it works: the most popular method of conducting a black market FIFA transaction is through a player auction. After a buyer places an order, they will inform a seller which player they are selling, so they can make the exact profit with the amount of purchased coins. Then, the supplier buys the player.
Alternatively, there's the 'comfort trade', which involves giving over your account to a supplier to let them provide coins directly. As you can imagine, this method carries a great deal of risk.
And finally, you could just sell your entire account. As with so many other games, your FIFA Ultimate Team account has a real world value.
You might wonder how FUT coin sellers get so many FUT coins to sell. According to Lewis, there are three methods. The first is for coin websites to have people grind themselves.
"These guys have their own gold farms, mostly located in China or Southeast Asian countries, and keep farming coins like crazy," he says.
The second is simply buying coins from other players.
The third is most problematic: hacking. It's probably a good idea never to give your account details to anyone.
This black market has bubbled under the surface of FIFA for years now, and it seems EA is powerless to stop it.
"One thing they should understand that there's a rule of supply and demand," Lewis says.
"The RMT market cannot exist if people do not want to buy gold. Not everyone has enough play time to earn coins themselves in order to get desired players, while buying packs does not always fulfill their wish.
"Therefore, instead of targeting RMT activities, it is better to focus on improving the gaming experience and security system."
And so, we come full circle. It seems obvious to me that Ultimate Team pack items have a real-world value, and so should come under increased scrutiny. But what isn't obvious to me is who's to blame, or, perhaps better put, who should be responsible for clamping down. Should EA be tasked with going to war with the third-party FIFA coin websites? Or should the Gambling Commission take them on? I suspect neither party wants the responsibility.
Either way, I feel there's a more important concern that's been lost amid the din of the loot box furore. This concern revolves around the ethics of Ultimate Team. This is a mode adored by millions of children and young people around the world. So many rush home from school to smash some Ultimate Team before dinner. So many FIFA YouTubers made their millions from young eyeballs desperate to see their favourite personality lose their shit over packing 91-rated in-form David de Gea. FIFA, like real football, is a young person's game. And herein lies the problem.
Does Ultimate Team exploit young people? Does the card pack system teach gambling tendencies to young people, even subconsciously? Is it addictive? And the answer to these questions is yes, should parents be warned about what's going on?
I've seen first-hand how problematic Ultimate Team can be among young people. My 11-year-old nephew was recently banned from his Xbox One for months for spending over £300 on FIFA coins behind his mother's back. It was clear the incident had caused a massive row and a huge deal of upset, so much so that when I brought it up there was a deathly silence in the room. When I asked my nephew about it later, he told me he just likes opening packs.
So do I, I replied.