The secret world of FIFA: Lamborghinis, death threats and revolution

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Football News

Inside Stratford's Westfield City scores of teens stand in line and watch on with vague bemusement as a group of men wander up and down, juggling footballs.

It's midnight on September 25 in 2014 and the doors of GAME are opened. Those who can fit in the store enter and grab a copy of FIFA 15, the latest incarnation in EA Sports' wildly successful football franchise. The store reaches capacity quickly enough, leaving the rest outside to carry on staring at the freestylers.

The game's popularity has grown with each edition since its inception in 1993. From that day in September onwards, 2.6 million copies were sold according to the Entertainment Retailers Association - making it by far the most popular video game in the country.

A year on and UK gamers are preparing for the same ritual. The FIFA 16 demo has been released and mauled over by millions this week. Promises of new innovations and tweaked gameplay will cause sales to soar beyond last year's version.

But the game has become more than just that, a game. It's evolved from an individual experience to a sprawling world of off-shoot industries and by-products. It has its own economy and World Cup winners. Millionaires are made and champions are crowned as the digital world bleeds into real life. And just like any place populated by millions there's crime, shady characters and thuggery. 

Big break

Olajide Olatunji sits slumped in front of a computer in a messy bedroom; it's a scene familiar to most parents across the country. Behind him there's a heap of clothes, weights and a spaghetti junction of wires. Outside, in front of the house, is his Lamborghini Aventador. The numberplate reads "K5Y FLY".

KSI, the 22-year-old's alter ego, is a YouTube sensation. He boasts 10 million subscribers and his videos rack up millions of views every time; as of October 2014 his was the sixth most popular UK YouTube channel, just behind One Direction. He's a multi-millionaire with a luxury three bedroom apartment overlooking Stratford's Olympic Stadium, but lives in a house with a group of fellow YouTubers.

“I would say in a year I spend maybe half of that playing Fifa. I love it that much. I think I must have spent 200 hours on the new game already," he said in an interview with the Telegraph in 2014.  “It’s pretty cool I’m known for Fifa. If you think of KSI, people instantly think ‘ah, that Fifa YouTuber’. I didn’t think I would be up there as the ambassador of Fifa on YouTube, but I’ll take it.”

He leads an Army of YouTubers who upload thousands of videos on a daily basis. A search for 'FIFA pack opening' on YouTube returns more than 530,000 results. They range from the sublime to the ridiculous, from tutorials to trashy via comedy. Either way, they all focus on one thing; FIFA.

Figures are vague but FIFA YouTuber is becoming an increasingly viable and attractive profession, although not one you're likely to see on too many passports. Since 2012, YouTube have utilised a partners program allows content producers to share the ad revenues from their videos; updating an earlier system that the New York Times described as a 'gold rush'.

Now YouTube take around 45% of ad revenue, helping them rake in around $5.6 billion from content uploaded to their platform alone. Aaron, who uploads FIFA videos under the pseudonym TheRealSMA has around 32,000 followers, says even smaller uploaders are making money.

"There is a lot of money involved in doing this. A lot," he told GiveMeSport. "The average YouTuber, who has from a couple hundred thousand to a million [views], can earn from £1,000 up to £100,000 a year". TubeMogul estimated last year that users earn around $7.60 per 1,000 'pre-roll' advert views; the 30-second adverts that play before your content loads, although that figure has likely fallen in 2015 having been higher than $9 in 2012.

If that sounds like an attractive proposition then there's a downside; trolls. Not only do YouTubers have to be their own one-man content creating machine, taking on everything from branding to editing hundreds of videos a month, but they deal with a barrage of criticism ranging from vaguely humorous to deeply disturbing.

"I've had death threats before and racist abuse," says Aaron. "I used to cry over it and it hurt me. I've deactivated my Twitter account so many times, but now I don't care about it. They're just haters."

Rich business

The hype has already reached a crescendo and FIFA 16 doesn't hit the shelves for another 10 days or so. Electronic Arts have mastered the art of anticipation by teasing player ratings before releasing the first playable demo this week. There's no end in sight either; more than 20 years on from the first ever game FIFA and EA Sports have announced an extension to the licencing agreement until 2022.

There's no reason for the good times to stop any time soon either; no matter how many millionaires the game has produced it's making far more for the creators. In the second quarter of 2014, Electronic Arts announced revenues of $1.2 billion thanks in part to the success of the FIFA franchise.

Key to EA Sports' model is FIFA's virtual economy, which allows gamers to purchase in-game items such as players for use in the game's wildly successful Ultimate Team feature. In 2014, five years after its launch, figures showed that over 64% of all FIFA players play Ultimate Team, and more than 21 million gamers have logged on in that time. For FIFA though the most important figure is 1.4 billion. That's how many items, including players, kits and stadiums, were uploaded to game's auction house in 2014 - and every single one of those cards were bought using the in-game currency.

Gamers generate coins through playing but it's a slow process, and the top players like Lionel Messi sell in the auction house for 'millions'. Harry Redknapp types 'flip' big-name players to make more money, to buy more players and sell on. Others accumulate coins through hard graft and hours of gaming. Rather predictably, EA Sports offer a shortcut for anyone willing to pay. 

They offer FIFA Points which can be used to purchase coins for players, and gamers can fork out up to £79.99 for the pleasure - and that's where the beauty of the model lies. They've created a demand and offer a supply, and in fact the video craze of YouTube pack opening has fed into the frenzy as users desperately try to land top players.

"It's that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory moment of getting an amazing players" says Matt Prior, who was part of the group that dreamed up the Ultimate Team concept. The most watched pack opening on YouTube has 17.5 million viewers looking for a vicarious buzz - more than anything ever uploaded by Russell Brand as he tries to spark a revolution.

"I only started to buy coins to buy cards in FIFA 15, and these were rare occurrences when the game had sort of gone stale and stagnant for me. At most this totalled up to around $60 but spread over a couple of months," says FIFA gamer Kaelin Osborn from Newcastle, Australia .

"I bought cards as the game was stale at the time. It takes a lot of time and effort to generate in-game currency (to buy player cards) and for around $10 you can buy more coins and have them in two hours than you could legitimately earn in months. So if you want the best players instantly, buying coins is the only option. Looking back it really wasn't worth it as I still didn't have a 'brilliant' team, just a 'fairly good' one."

FIFA play their cards close to their chest when it comes to how much money they drive from in-game purchases. Website ThinkGaming estimate gaming revenues and put EA Sports' earnings from iPhone gamers in the US at around $8,200-per-day from over 570,000 active daily users. That's small platform in one country, but it gives an idea of the scale FIFA are working with.

Of course it wouldn't be free market neo-liberalism without a popular uprising and FIFA's Arab Spring took place last year when EA Sports announced they would be capping prices for players in the auction house, cutting off the supply for a host of websites selling millions of coins via popular sites such as Ebay.

EA Sports said at the time of the announcement earlier this year the move was to “make high-rated players more attainable for all FUT gamers and ensure a level playing field”. However it also had a knock-on effect; it capped growth for players looking to earn more money by 'player flipping' and essentially forced more people to play more often in order to earn coins. Or, fork over more cash.

Inevitably it gave birth to a hashtag #RIPFUT and threats amongst gamers to quit, although there's no sign of that happening yet. It's ironic then that EA Sports were forced into action in part by the rise of YouTubers who were being paid to promote coin-selling websites who were undercutting the in-game price. 

A new dawn

Another world spawned by this sprawling empire is the FIFA Interactive World Cup. More than two million gamers took part in the search to find the best player in the world last year. The winner takes home $20,000 and a trip to the Ballon d'Or to meet the likes of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, as well as the right to call themselves the FIFA champion.

There's a spin off market with the game's soundtrack, which will be available to purchase, and is now free to listen to via Spotify. That barely touches the surface; there's forums, tutorials and the new FIFA 16 Web App.

The kings of this new world, the high profile gamers, have tapped into the banter generation led by the LadBible; videos are brash and can be very close to the bone but they represent the reality of gamers better than anything else. They're young people in rooms behaving exactly as those watching, it's just that the men on camera are now made of money.

But beneath them in the hierarchy is a sprawling mass of humanity feeding into a vibrant and wide-reaching community that has its own currency and methods of communication. From the outside the impression is of life's outcasts glued to a screen but within there's creativity, branding and a commitment to the lifestyle.

FIFA 16 will launch this month and new life will be breathed into this burgeoning world. While parents sit in front of the television downstairs across the globe, above their heads a whole world continues to evolve and grow.

Would YOU ever spend any money on buying players on FIFA?

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