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Adding FIFA to PS Plus could signal a free-to-play future

OPINION: This week, PlayStation confirmed that PS Plus subscribers will be able to download FIFA 22 in May 2022. 

This is an unprecedented move, with neither PlayStation or Xbox previously offering the latest FIFA entry as part of their subscription service. With the FIFA series typically dominating the yearly game charts, it previously made little sense for EA to allow it to be offered via PS Plus or Xbox Gold, and potentially miss out on a huge number of sales. So what’s changed? 

Forbes reports that EA has claimed it had the strongest FIFA launch ever with the latest instalment, and was supposedly the best-selling game in the West for the 2021 calendar year. With that in mind, EA hardly needs to drive up interest in the series. 

But there are lots of potential reasons why EA has agreed to add FIFA 22 to the PS Plus lineup. Sony could have potentially offered lots of money in order to boost interest in PS Plus ahead of the new tiered system it’s adding to the service in June. 

It’s also worth noting that eFootball (essentially the successor to Pro Evolution Soccer) saw a major update this month, which is basically the full launch. Maybe EA wanted to drive up interest in FIFA 22 to counter the potential rising interest in eFootball. 

eFootball - Sharp Kick
Konami’s eFootball has had an unsuccessful move to the free-to-play system so far

But after donning my tin hat, I reckon EA could have an even more significant reason for allowing FIFA 22 to headline next month’s PS Plus lineup – this may be a trial to see how the FIFA series would perform as a free-to-play game. 

The notion of FIFA adopting the free-to-play model may seem absurd given the incredible sales that the series brings in every year, especially since Konami’s pivot to the format hasn’t proven to be very successful with eFootball so far. 

But the staggering amount of money that Ultimate Team brings in may prove reason enough for EA Sports to take the gamble. Ultimate Team is a live service game that allows players to create their own custom teams by purchasing players through either card packs or the online auction system. These card packs have been accused of functioning like loot boxes, but whatever your opinion of them, there’s no doubt they bring in an extraordinary amount of revenue. 

Back in 2021, EA revealed (via Goal.com) that Ultimate Team – across all of its sports games, including FIFA, Madden, NHL, NBA and UFC – made a whopping $1.62bn for EA in the 2021 financial year, which was 29% of EA’s total income. EA also added that “a substantial portion” of that revenue was derived from FIFA Ultimate Team.

In the same time frame, EA made $1.6 billion from game sales, and that doesn’t just include FIFA but every other single game in that year too including Madden NFL 21 and Star Wars: Squadrons. This puts the resounding success of Ultimate Team in perspective, and why it’s been such a big focus for EA in recent years. 

Ultimate Team has been gaining more and more money every year too, showing that there’s a growing interest in the live service. But how much additional money would Ultimate Team make if it was free to play, rather than being locked behind a paywall? That’s a hard question to answer, and could arguably be a risky move given the fantastic sales that the series currently generates. 

So rather than recklessly diving in head first, it would make a lot of sense for EA to do a trial run. By allowing PlayStation to give the game away via PS Plus, it has allowed EA to retain the high sales from the initial launch, while also determining how much extra income it can make via Ultimate Team by substantially increasing the number of players. This isn’t a long-term solution, but it’s a useful experiment for EA to determine the future of the series. 

Of course, I’m making a lot of assumptions to arrive at this theory, but it’s backed by one solid piece of evidence. When players download FIFA 22 via PS Plus, they’ll also receive a free Ultimate Team pack that includes 11 players rated 82 or above. This is a great incentive to get players to try out Ultimate Team and potentially get hooked on the game mode for future releases. 

It’s also widely known that EA could cut ties with FIFA in 2023, and potentially rename the series “EA Sports Football Club”. This would give EA more flexibility, and potentially be the perfect opportunity for the company to give its football series a major shakeup. 

I’m not sure what the move to a free-to-play format would mean for other FIFA game modes such as Career Mode and VOLTA Football, but there are plenty of options. Such game modes could become free to play too, or separated from Ultimate Team to retain its paywall, a bit like how Halo Infinite’s career requires an upfront fee but the multiplayer mode doesn’t. 

But either way, making Ultimate Team free to play makes a lot of sense, and there’s an increasing amount of evidence to suggest this is the direction EA wants to move in.

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