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As EA backtracks on loot boxes and pay-to-win, I'm left wondering: what about FIFA?

Game of two halves.

Two moments from EA's E3 2018 media briefing stuck with me long after I left the blazing heat of Los Angeles.

The first was EA's dramatic Champions League trophy reveal, up close and personal as it was for me as I sat in the tiny chairs squeezed into the Hollywood Palladium's mosh pit. It made me gasp. I knew an announcement about FIFA finally getting the Champions League after years of exclusivity on PES was coming (thanks, old-school Dutch commentator who clearly doesn't understand what an NDA is). But as a football fan, seeing the actual Champions League trophy within touching distance had the hairs on the back of my neck doing a merry dance.

The second was EA boss Andrew Wilson's closing remarks, which I've struggled to shake because, well, I'm not going to pull any punches here - they stank of hypocrisy.

Cover image for YouTube videoFULL EA PLAY E3 2018 Press Conference

Wilson spoke about what he - what EA - hoped those watching would take away from the company's media briefing, which included gameplay reveals for everything from BioWare's Anthem to a crowd-displeasing Command & Conquer mobile game.

Here's the quote:

"I am blessed to be able to work with some of the most creative people on the planet who come to work every day to create amazing entertainment. And what I can say about all of those teams, and what I can say about us is we are always trying to learn and listen and strive to be better.

"And so, as you look at the 10 experiences you saw today, and as you play games this week, there are some things we hope come through. First, that at the very core is choice, is that you as players get to choose how you play, what you play, when you play and what devices you play on; that in making those choices you feel you were treated fairly, that no-one is given an unfair advantage or disadvantage for how they choose to play; that for every moment you invest we know you put so much of your life into the games we make, and that for every moment you invest you feel like you are rewarded and you are given value for that investment. And most importantly, that the games are fun, that we move past the grind, and that these are experiences that truly enhance your lives.

EA CEO Andrew Wilson speaking during EA's E3 2018 media briefing.

"And so, as we think through all of the things we're trying to do, know that we want to be better and that we want to make great games."

The line "no-one is given an unfair advantage or disadvantage for how they choose to play" is the problematic one here. Clearly, this line - in fact Wilson's entire spiel - was in response to the great Star Wars Battlefront 2 loot box debacle. When Battlefront 2 launched it did so with an egregious loot box system that meant those who paid money had a gameplay advantage over those who did not. All this in a full price video game.

The backlash was as swift and devastating as the Death Star's destruction of Alderaan. EA was forced to backtrack before Battlefront 2 even launched, first pulling microtransactions from the game entirely and, later, putting them back in the game but making their innards aesthetic only. More recently, EA has proclaimed Battlefield 5 will not have any loot boxes - as if the company is doing god's work.

EA pulled microtransactions from Star Wars Battlefront 2 following a devastating backlash.

And so we come to EA's media briefing and Wilson's declaration that the company's games will not give anyone an unfair advantage. I promise, no pay to win, Wilson is saying here. Sat in the audience, typing away on my Chromebook as we reported on the event, I screwed up my face. "Did he just say that?" I mouthed.

What about FIFA?

No pay-to-win in the games the happy hardcore care about, no loot boxes in the Battlefronts and the Battlefields and the Anthems. Hey, Reddit! Yep, you there, the one with the trigger finger over the post button on /r/StarWarsBattlefront. Stow that outrage, soldier, for we have sinned and we know it. We are sorry and beg forgiveness. Never again!

But what about FIFA?

Not only does FIFA have loot boxes in the form of FIFA Ultimate Team virtual card packs, which, by the way, you can buy with a virtual currency you can pay real world money for, but FIFA is the very definition of pay-to-win. Well, pay for a chance to win. Open a pack and you might get Cristiano Ronaldo, but you probably won't. Open another pack and you might get Lionel Messi, but you probably won't. Open another pack and you might get Tiémoué Bakayoko (you actually do want Bakayoko, believe it or not), but you probably won't.

In FUT, the better the players you have, the better your team is. It's really that simple. Of course, player skill is involved. Tactics come into play. Your knowledge of how FIFA works stands you in good stead. But ultimately, if you have brilliant players, you have an advantage over those who do not.

FIFA Ultimate Team lets you spend real-world money on packs of players.

I've played a lot of FUT during the past year and I've spent a grand total of £15 on packs of cards. I have a decent team, I reckon, but nothing special. I don't have Ronaldo or Messi or Bakayoko. It is quite possible to grind enough FIFA coins through playing matches - if you have loads of time (I do not) - or through playing the market, but there is no escaping the fact that FUT is designed to nudge players to open their wallets. EA is pretty good at this - so good, in fact, that FUT is a billion dollar a year business.

When I play against another player online and I see they have multiple 90+ rated players, I don't know whether they've played their way to getting those players, or whether they spent their way to getting them. That's the problem. We're not talking about loot boxes for aesthetic items only, such as kits, new stadia, footballs, boots or whatever. We're talking about loot boxes for players - what FIFA gameplay revolves around.

So, when I heard Andrew Wilson talk about hoping EA customers feel like they're "treated fairly", or that there's no "unfair advantage or disadvantage" depending on how you choose to play, I couldn't help but shake my head.

FIFA is the great exception to EA's new anti-loot box marketing push, and this fact has largely flown under the radar. Why? FIFA's audience is more mainstream than those of a lot of EA's other games - perhaps all of them. Mainstream gamers tend not to take to Reddit and Twitter and all the rest of it to complain about video games. They tend to accept the way video games work and just get on with it. If something feels icky then, well, they'll probably stop playing and be done with it. No online petition, no #campaignforjustice, no pointless boycott.

But there are those of us who do play FIFA and know it's exploitative, know it could be better, and now know there's one rule for Battlefield and another for the football game we love. Wouldn't it be nice if EA's loot box promise and pay-to-win rejection encompassed FIFA, too? Imagine a world in which FUT's loot boxes contained variations on player looks, rather than the players themselves? So, you've got base Cristiano Ronaldo, how about you pack his Man Utd era skin? I'm not holding my breath. With investors breathing down the necks of the suits who sit atop the EA mountain, it's unlikely the company's prize cash cow will be all of a sudden made more generous for FIFA 19. Not without a Star Wars-style backlash, anyway.

And so, I'm left with Andrew Wilson's media briefing, the hypocrisy of it all and a still-burning question:

What about FIFA?