Future Tense

A New Lawsuit Exemplifies an Existential Debate in Sports Video Games

Is Electronic Arts secretly juicing the difficulty of its games to get players to spend more money?

Gamers sit at rows of computers. A picture of a FIFA player along with the FIFA and EA logos is seen over them.
Fairgoers play FIFA 20 during Milan Games Week on Sep. 27, 2019, in Milan. Emanuele Cremaschi/Getty Images

Three Californians say that the video game publisher Electronic Arts is secretly manipulating them. On Nov. 9, they filed a class-action lawsuit accusing EA of surreptitiously using a patented A.I. technology known as dynamic difficulty adjustment in its FIFA, Madden, and NHL games—three of the biggest sports games on the planet. The lawsuit claims EA is using the technology to unfairly increase the difficulty of multiplayer mode online matches in order to encourage players to spend real-world money to boost their chances of winning. EA has denied ever implementing the technology and has called the lawsuit “baseless.”

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For years, players have been stewing over ideas of fairness and balance in games, feeling taken for granted at best and taken advantage of at worst. The class-action complaint, Zajonc et al. v. Electronic Arts, doesn’t contain any evidence for its claim, but that’s fairly typical for this sort of class-action complaint. Still, for many players, the truth is self-evident. The idea that multiplayer matches in EA’s sports games are being manipulated is widespread online on Reddit, Twitter, and YouTube. A popular video titled “TOP 10 SCRIPTING PROOF! EA 100% EXPOSED! FIFA 19” purports to show 10 different clips demonstrating dynamic difficulty adjustment during gameplay, mostly near-misses, goals that should have gone in but don’t, that sort of thing. It’s a little conspiratorial, but it’s also not totally implausible. According to Tom Brabbs, a FIFA coach who runs the YouTube channel BrabbsyTV: “Having recorded and studied hundreds of my own games along with other people’s, I’ve drawn too many comparisons to just pass this off as merely nonsense. It honestly would not surprise me if this tech is being used.”

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The story of how we got here goes back to at least 2017. That year, the publisher Activision filed a patent for the express purpose of encouraging in-game microtransactions through A.I. technology. This patent inflamed long-stewing gamer anxieties about loot boxes. Loot boxes vary by game, but they are generally a random assortment of in-game items or characters that can be purchased with real money or in game currency. You don’t know exactly what you’re getting until after you’ve paid for it. In EA’s sports games, one form is a player pack, a randomly distributed pack of players of varying quality that can be used in multiplayer matches. Players may purchase dozens of packs at a time in hopes of securing a specific player like soccer superstar Lionel Messi or convicted dog-fighting organizer Michael Vick.

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Player packs and loot boxes are like the ethically dubious digital cousin of a Kinder Egg or LOL Surprise Doll: a dopamine hit that has been correlated to gambling problems in players. Loot boxes are currently under some legal pressure, especially in the EU, and are now outright illegal in Belgium, but they are extremely lucrative. According to its financial reports, EA made $1.49 billion in in the past year just on digital goods within its multiplayer sports game modes.

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EA has been implementing loot box mechanics in multiplayer games since the early 2010s, but it wasn’t until 2017 that the simmering anxiety around loot boxes was turned up to a full boil. In November of that year, EA released Star Wars: Battlefront II and found itself in a genuine PR crisis. The game cost $60 upfront, but if players didn’t spend extra money, it took an absurd amount of time to unlock key characters like Luke Skywalker. EA quickly backtracked by rebalancing the way loot boxes worked before temporarily disabling them altogether, but the damage was done. The Battlefront II incident sank player trust in the company to an all-time low, an impressive feat for one that had already been voted “Worst Company in America” multiple times.

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EA’s dynamic difficulty adjustment patent had been filed back in 2016. But most people hadn’t heard about it until January 2018, when, against the backdrop of the Battlefront II incident, gaming YouTuber YongYea brought it to light. His video about the patent, “EA Wants to Get Rid of Fair Matchmaking to Focus on Player Spending & Engagement,” fed into the still-brewing war over loot boxes and EA, but this time on a new front: sports games. According to Tom Brabbs, before the discovery of the patent, players had made noises to the effect of “the game made me lose,” but the patent turned a vague complaint into a serious, specific accusation: “The discovery of this patent really did fire up the discussion as something more than just coincidence and stoked a legitimate conversation on the matter.”

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The patent is basically an A.I.-driven difficulty slider that intends to adjust the difficulty of a game covertly, in order to boost player engagement. “In some embodiments, the difficulty adjustment is undetectable by a user,” the patent reads. The idea that a game’s difficulty might change based on performance, without acknowledgement, isn’t new or particularly controversial on its own. Many games, including major series like Resident Evil, Crash Bandicoot, Half-Life, and Metal Gear Solid, have used lower-tech forms of dynamic difficulty to some extent. But those are single-player experiences, or “party”-style multiplayer games like Mario Kart, where high-level competitive play isn’t a major focus. For players of EA Sports games, things are different. For one, player rankings are especially important in these games, as they are sold as realistic simulations of real-world sports, and players think the games should reflect the basic fairness of real-world play. There’s also money at stake. For top players, tens of thousands of dollars can be on the line. Top tournament play is done via local connections, but to become an elite player, one needs to play and win competitively in the same online mode that casual players play. This mode, called Ultimate Team, is the one players are afraid is being juiced by dynamic difficulty adjustment. The thinking goes that if their players are made weaker at crucial moments of competitive play, gamers will think their team is worse than it actually is and be driven to purchase EA’s loot boxes for real money.

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According to Brabbs, in order to compete at the highest level in FIFA, competitive players are already paying for a leg up each year the game comes out “by spending $1,000-plus on microtransactions to get the very best items, thus giving themselves a huge competitive advantage regardless of how a game unfolds.” These players know that the odds of securing an extremely rare and powerful player are low, but scrap players can also be converted into in-game currency, which can then be used to purchase specific players from an in-game eBay-like auction house. So, by spending hundreds of dollars, you’re going to get an advantage by any measure. This convoluted (one might say egregious) system is an example of how EA is already using the quirks of competitive human psychology to funnel people toward microtransactions—so it seems natural, maybe inevitable, that it would use artificial intelligence to do the same.

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All of this haranguing is contingent on the most important question of fact: Is EA using this technology to destabilize multiplayer matches to increase loot box engagement or not? And the answer to that question, right now at least, is “who knows?” EA has consistently denied using the patented tech, and lots of companies file patents they never intend to implement. But the company could be using some other technology to achieve a similar effect. There’s also the very plausible scenario that the game is just kind of janky, and all the videos of near-misses that supposedly prove dynamic difficulty adjustment exists in the game are just the result of bad code.

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Whether or not Zajonc et al. v. Electronic Arts moves forward, its existence is a symptom of a much bigger problem for EA. Just by having patented the idea, EA inadvertently created an inescapable epistemic spiral. The patent introduced the idea that EA’s games could be fundamentally unfair, whether or not they are. And if there’s a debate around whether dynamic difficulty adjustment exists, then players can’t agree on the most fundamental questions of gameplay: “What is skill?” “What is difficulty?” “What is fair?”

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One irony here is that these games are already plainly and fundamentally unfair, as they strongly favor players with money to spend. But the patent revealed an even deeper potential inequality: that the entire structure of the game might be sham. EA has lost the ability to control basic assumptions of how its games work, and the most foundational requirement for a multiplayer game—that it’s fundamentally “fair” on a gameplay level—is under threat. Until the unlikely day that EA reveals exactly what’s in its code, both sides of the argument are unfalsifiable, and the dynamic difficulty discussion continues to suck up more air in the community. According to Brabbs: “Meet someone that plays an EA Sports title and it won’t be too long before the discussion turns to how bad the game messes with you.”

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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