Just three months ago, Electronic Arts CEO Andrew Wilson called NFTs an important part of “the future of our industry.” Now he’s doing everything he can to downplay their significance. The move by the publisher of FIFA and Madden comes as the NFT backlash hits new heights, including at EA where Kotaku has learned that even some of the company’s own employees have been critical of Wilson’s past positions on the controversial crypto tech.
Asked about NFTs (non-fungible tokens, AKA climate destroying links to JPEGs) during yesterday’s investor call, Wilson gave a long and winding response that ended in a simple answer. “Right now it’s not something we’re driving hard on,” he said, likening it to past venture capital fads around 3D, AR, and VR.
While EA never rushed to embrace NFTs the way competitors like Square Enix and Ubisoft have, the company was quite bullish on them back in November. “Anything that brings more people in and engages those people for more time in a context with the extent that I think it’s a good thing over time,” Wilson said during a second quarter investor call last year. “I think that is the very foundation of our live services. I think the play-to-earn or the NFT conversation is still really, really early. And there’s a lot of conversation and [there’s] a lot of hype about it. I do think it will be an important part about the future of our industry on a go-forward basis.”
These remarks came just a month after The New York Times reported that EA was locked in a messy fight to renew the FIFA license. EA’s future plans for the soccer game apparently included exploring “other ventures within its FIFA video game ecosystem, including highlights of actual games, arena video game tournaments and digital products like NFTs.”
It was the kind of move you might have expected from one of the only companies to defend loot boxes in the face of angry fans, critics, and government inquiries. But NFTs have been a particularly touchy subject not just in the public discourse, but inside game publishers as well.
Last December, Kotaku reported that Ubisoft’s NFT plans faced heated criticism from its own employees. Some developers at EA felt similarly, however, and expressed their skepticism directly when Wilson was asked about the NFTs in a company Slack channel in December, according to copies of the communications viewed by Kotaku.
In a much more nuanced answer than he provided during the previous investor call, Wilson acknowledged environmental concerns and criticized the speculative push currently driving NFTs. At the same time, he reiterated that the company remained very interested in the NFT space. Because the CEO’s comments were shared in a restricted channel, employees were limited to responding with emoji, which resulted in a barrage of thumbs down, stop signs, worried looks, and even some Dr. Evil faces from Austin Powers.
Not everyone reacted so negatively, and at least a few employees even voiced support for Wilson’s answer in a separate channel. It was there that a representative for corporate communications posting under the “EA Insider” account “jokingly” chastised staff for reacting so rudely to the company’s CEO.
“It’s also amazing to me the gall of some folks to thumbs down and put emoji’s like ‘Do better’ in response to the CEO’s comment,” the representative wrote. “Whooo hooo...so for the next round of Squid Games, let’s play will your employee badge give you access or not in 2022 [zanny face emoji].”
Employees took the threat seriously and immediately raised concerns.
“Oh snap... totally forgot that we’re not allowed to joke at all here and that some people will always default to a negative connotation no matter what,” the EA Insider account wrote. “Wil remove the comment and ensure that EA Insider is devoid of any life whatsoever.”
A senior comms person then rushed in to confirm that “an attempt at humor” had “crossed a line,” and to reassure everyone that they would not be fired for disagreeing with Wilson on NFTs.
When asked about the incident and Wilson’s 180 on NFTs, a spokesperson for EA declined to comment. “I don’t condone including company internal dialogue in your story, as it only then goes to erode trust where our employees feel like they can share their perspectives without fear of seeing it published in the media,” they wrote in an email.