Not Its Own Video Game, Not A Real Card Collection, Yet More Than BothS

Somewhere out there is a guy who's spent big money on football cards. He can look at them, but can't touch them. He can use the players - all elite - in a $60 video game, but never does.

In fact, there are actually 35 of these big spenders - players who have each paid more than $1,000 in real currency to snap up virtual packs of cards in Madden Ultimate Team, a multiplayer team management mode in its second year EA Sports' NFL series. Only, they never put them into a game. They never play a game. Their game, for all anyone knows, is completing these collections. It may be the only reason they bought Madden NFL 11 in the first place.

"You know, in Vegas, you can tell when somebody's in trouble," jokes Dan Baker, a Madden producer working on Ultimate Team. "I mean, I hope they're staying within their means."

Make no mistake, however folks are playing in Ultimate Team, EA Sports is delighted to have a hit on its hands in three of its best-rated and biggest-selling games - Madden, NHL and FIFA. Introduced in FIFA 09 as a multiplayer mode, Ultimate Team is one of the more intriguing innovations in sports video gaming.

It's not a video game to itself. Nor is it entirely a novelty sideshow. You're driven to collect the best cards; the best cards are what help you win online games, of course. Then again, you can spend hours without playing one, just managing your collection. You can buy newer and better cards with with cold hard cash, but many also do so with the virtual rewards that come from playing games online (you get something, even if you lose) or auctioning off their more valuable cards.

So far, Ultimate Team has resisted nearly every attempt to fix its singular goal.

It's a complicated sales pitch, one plenty of gamers have had to discover for themselves so far. But when they do, many get hooked. There are scads of forum posts out there advising players on how to optimize their card collections, some written in the kind of obsessive language associated with social games on Facebook.

Not Its Own Video Game, Not A Real Card Collection, Yet More Than BothS

"It's a game that is hard to describe in one or two words," says Paul Hossack, the group producer for FIFA Ultimate Team. "It's not just like this, or that, or another thing, yet some of the analogies used to describe it do it a disservice. But saying it's only a trading card game is not the way to describe it,"

No. But money talks. Ultimate Team is largely responsible for the 200 percent boost in online revenue Madden's reaped over last year - a figure reported in August, before Madden NFL 11 released. And whether the currency is real or virtual, a lot of it is changing hands in EA Sports' Ultimate Team games, which is likely why so many view it as a kind of revival of the sports card hobby.

Indeed, when Hossack supplies crazy figures of the game's appeal, many of them are financial. The highest-selling card at auction went for 2.75 million coins ("Pretty sure that was a Ronaldo item," says Hossack); FIFA users have opened, traded, returned or kept more than 500 million cards, lifetime. Its auction market is has transacted some 200 billion virtual coins, total. As a point of reference, 3,000 coins equals about a dollar U.S.

"We often joke about it, ‘Who's running the Reserve?'" Hossack says. "Who's setting the interest rates?"

Such super-user examples that exalt the sports card collection aspect make the multiplayer games seem almost like the stick of gum in the pack, when they're actually a lot more flavorful. Ultimate Team allows a user to take a completely customized squad - not just in roster, but also in uniform and stadium, if they like - into online play, where standard online modes require both players to use fixed venues and the game's most up-to-date team rosters.

So then Ultimate Team's true appeal seems to swing in the opposite direction, from super user to super fan, especially the fan of a team that isn't a strong performer in the current game.

Not Its Own Video Game, Not A Real Card Collection, Yet More Than BothS

"There's a guy who constantly sends me messages on Twitter, he's a big Buffalo Bills fan, goes to every game, and he's heartbroken that they're as bad as they are," says Josh Looman, the Madden Ultimate Team lead designer. "He can't stand most of the real-life players. But in Ultimate Team, with these cards he's acquired, he still plays every single game with all of the Bills uniforms, and he still plays in Ralph Wilson Stadium, because that is where his heart is, as a fan. Only now, he gets the opportunity to put together the team thinks the Bills should be."

Hossack himself reflects this. Though his own roster doesn't literally reflect his favorite English Premier League side, Liverpool, he's committed to acquiring the cards that outfit the team in Liverpool's colors, and allow them to play in its stadium. "I spent a full hour in Ultimate Team, just making sure my club badge was Liverpool, my away kit was Liverpool, my home kit was Liverpool, and my stadium was Anfield," Hossack says.

The difference is, with a currency attached - however virtual - these choices become much more personal in nature. And the right to make them is earned, as opposed to starting over a seasonlong mode with a fantasy draft, or abusing the trade AI to get a specific player you want. Much of how a team comes together in Ultimate Team can be happenstance, especially with multiple cards of the same player.

Hossack recalls beginning his FIFA Ultimate Team this year by opening two free packs of "gold" cards - better rated players - that the game awarded to all returning participants. In the first pack he found a rare special edition of Ángel di María, the left winger for Barcelona, rated at 86 in the game. Not only is that card valuable to playing a video game, it's extremely valuable on the auction market.

Not Its Own Video Game, Not A Real Card Collection, Yet More Than BothS

"I was so happy, but I was almost concerned," Hossack said. "I went around asking the team, can you double check the rarity ratings? Did I just win the lottery, or did you program the account to give me this because I'm a producer?"

Turns out the find was legitimate. "I spent a bit of time working my team around him," Hossack said. "I have a new affinity for him, and he's like a good luck charm for my team."

Ultimate Team's blend of novelty, collection and fantasy sports means we should expect it as a basic game mode in these games for the indefinite future. And though this is only my speculation, Ultimate Team's potential should strongly motivate EA Sports to get back into the baseball market as well. Baseball is the original sports card collectible and the original fantasy sport. I can't believe that baseball nuts wouldn't easily surpass the kinds of outlandish figures seen in FIFA, NHL or Madden. One single Madden Ultimate Team player has managed to open more than 48,000 packs of cards since the game's debut. On FIFA, Hassock says they have a player who's logged more than 5,000 online matches with his team. Baseball fans define an obsession at least that strong.

Near term, Madden's Ultimate team will explore such features as a trading block for card-to-card swaps, as opposed to the present cards-for-coins only structure. "That way folks can work out deals benefical to both sides," Baker said. They're also looking at a visual update for the cards, and the means of playing against a friend's roster, used by the computer, while he's not online. Hossack said FIFA is constantly exploring upgrades and changes, and even said on a high level the design team views Ultimate Team almost as a game unto itself, although right now it would be, even theoretically, a ways away from a standalone product.

But it does provide a unique thrill, and a rush and obsession you simply can't get in standard franchise and player-management modes. Hossack says he knows of a dentist in the U.K. who loves Ultimate Team so much, he checks in on the auction house in between patients to see which players are on the market. Baker, as a producer, has access to nearly everything in Madden Ultimate Team except for the rarest of cards, and still found himself spending two hours buying packs in hopes of digging one out.

"We put out an Elite Patrick Willis card about six weeks ago, on a Friday," Baker says, of the 49ers linebacker. "We can't give ourselves the limited edition cards. I spent two hours the next day trying to get him. My kid, who's 10 years old, kept coming into the living room, like, ‘What are you doing? You're going to buy another pack, aren't you."

Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Saturdays at 2 p.m. U.S. Mountain time.