This is what Ultimate Team will drive you to: A friend of mine suggested that I call Doritos so I could get an elite left tackle. I just had to tell them that Target had forgotten to put the proper branding on the bags.
"It worked for me," he said. "Or you could actually go out and buy a bag of Doritos."
Such discussions mark my first real foray into the world of Ultimate Team - arguably the single most important mode in sports games today. It's this mode that powers FIFA's outsized earnings, which in turns comprises a large chunk of EA's bottom line. In turn, developers have devoted more and more resources to it. It's no coincidence that Draft Champions, Madden's excellent new mode, ties heavily into Ultimate Team.
At its heart, Ultimate Team is a card collecting game. You start with a team of scrubs, which can be built out by cracking open card packs, visiting the auction house, or completing various challenges. In the end, you can theoretically end up with a team loaded with the best players in the NFL that is quarterbacked by John Elway. It's an enticing goal that has encouraged people to dump thousands of dollars into the mode over the years.
And make no mistake, Ultimate Team is there to make money. When starting out, I was advised to put in between $10 and $20 as a kind of seed fund for packs, which could then be flipped at an inflated rate at the auction house. That's the essence of Ultimate Team - earning a really good card and flipping it for a ludicrous amount of gold. That's how you build up a good team fast. The alternative is grinding through a lot of very boring challenges, or being good enough with your scrubby team to beat the people who are willing to dump into the game. I wound up taking the advice of my friends and investing some early money, but I kind of wish I had waited. Last week, EA put out Legends Packs, which guaranteed an elite level player and possible a legend. Having already spent my money, I held off. Such deals make investing in Pro Packs seem like a really bad idea.
Buyer's remorse aside, though, I'm still playing. Not only that, I think I'm hooked.
Up until this point, I've mostly avoided Ultimate Team, preferring the fantasy of being an NFL GM in Connected Franchise to the artificial thrill of a card game. I liked the feeling of building up a really good team and winning the Super Bowl with it. But beating the CPU has long since stopped being exciting, and even my online league have lost a bit of their edge. Five years of playing the same mode will do that.
I got into Ultimate Team for a change of pace, and because it's hard to ignore its significance. At this point, its pervasive. With Draft Champions there to serve as a foundation - a couple strong runs with earn you a Double Elite Pack and a lot of gold-quality players - I decided to roll up my sleeves and really try to do the mode justice.
Armed with the earnings from the Pro Packs I had purchased as well as my Draft Champions wins, I waded into the auction house and promptly started getting outbid. I was quickly reduced to scrounging through the bargain bin, grabbing up value players who could serve as a foundation while I tried to build up to actual elite contributors. I wound up adding Matt Ryan and Torrey Smith at low prices; and upon the advice of my friend (the same one who recommended calling Doritos), I went and snagged Jerick McKinnon, who might be the best value running back in the game.
It wasn't long before I had a decent team - 80 overall, which isn't amazing, but isn't awful either. Elite cards haven remained out of reach, though. I've managed to amass about 15,000 coins - more than enough for a typical gold player, but not nearly enough for an elite player, who typically sell for between 30,000 and 100,000 coins.
As usual, my friend had some helpful advice. "Try going online at 2am. No one will be bidding. You can get really good cards and flip them for a much higher price."
And that, my friends, is Ultimate Team in a nutshell. Actually playing and winning with your team is almost beside the point. The auction house is where the real action is at, and that's just the way EA (and Sony, and 2K) like it.
Reading what I've written so far, it occurs to me that I haven't cast Ultimate Team in the best light. And to tell you the truth, I have my issues with the mode in general, and MUT in particular. For whatever reason, MUT is the only part of the game that hasn't gotten an interface overhaul, resulting in slow menus and an absurb amount of clicks between pulling a player out of the lineup and dropping them into the auction house. And while Draft Champions is a huge help in getting the players needed to jump start a good deck - as well as a fun way to build a team comprised of legends like John Randle and Randall Cunningham - the pressure to spend real money is enormous.
So why keep playing? To tell you the truth, I'm just looking for something new to do in Madden. I really like this version, warts and all, but I've lately struggled to find a reason to play Madden outside of my online leagues. Without a real sense of a lasting legacy, the solo modes feel almost pointless. Ultimate Team gives me something to work toward.
And all cynicism aside, it can be pretty fun. I've enjoyed taking Vikings United - which is very much my team - online and beating people with much better players than me. I like the Online Seasons mode, in which you try to win enough online games in a "season" to make the playoffs, which brings with it a windfall of coins. And I like the challenge of building a team without spending a lot of money on packs. As I said, there's a certain allure to building a super team and being able to take it online against other players.
The fact of the matter is that Ultimate Team is here to stay. It's become such a powerhouse that it's affected all areas of sports game development, for better (Draft Champions) and for worse (resources being sucked out of CFM and put into Ultimate Team). It is the most popular way to play a sports game online right now, the sort of living mode that keeps people coming back well after the other modes have become stale.
For sports developers trying to keep their games relevant in March, it's a godsend. And And sometimes it's even fun to play.