Last week EA stated their intention to disable the purchasing of loot boxes in NBA 2K18 for players in The Netherlands, and cancel sales of the in-game currency and trading player cards. Players would instead be able to unlock loot boxes through regular play, although the grind to be awarded these would be substantial. In their press release, EA pleaded for gamers in the region to write to the country’s gaming authority to contest the ruling that loot boxes in video games constituted gambling and violated local laws. The company was preparing to do the same in Belgium, but has now about-turned and announced its intention to take the Belgian government to court.
EA’s decision to turn off the virtual currency and loot box purchases flew in the face of the Belgium gaming commission’s decision and findings. Blizzard and Valve both took different methods to meet the commission’s requests – Blizzard disabled loot boxes entirely and was in the clear because items are not tradeable in Overwatch and Heroes of the Storm, and Valve turned off trading for items obtained from chests from DOTA2 and Counter-Strike: GO in both Belgium and The Netherlands, and also took measures to tell gamers what contents were likely to be in the chest they were about to open with a key, purchased separately.
EA only shut down the purchasing of loot boxes and online currency – it did not disable the ability to trade cards with other players. This decision has proved unpopular with the Belgians because the company is now subject to a criminal investigation by the Brussels public prosecutor’s office, ordered by the Belgium Gaming Commission. In case anyone wonders what’s at stake here, when I asked Kansspelautoriteit what the consequences would be for companies not complying with their findings, they mentioned jail time and up to 10% of the company’s cross annual profit worldwide.
There is irony here in EA deciding to play chicken with the law and risk losing up to half a billion dollars in the process. In the financial year ended in 2018, 67% of the company’s revenue came from microtransactions, and more than half of that is from Ultimate Team cards. FIFA is a money printer for the company, and they’re now gambling with the ability to sell even one loot box in all of Europe. Individually, the recommendations from Kansspelautoriteit or any other gambling body aren’t enough to set a legal precedent, but if EA loses in court and people serve jail time that will put paid to making any additional money from Ultimate Team Cards in the entire region.
The BGC, in an interview with Niewsblad, told the paper that all that remained now was for the prosecutor’s office to finalise their investigation and start legal proceedings.