Last week, the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) announced that it stop a cryptocurrency mining operation that allegedly stole electricity from the grid – and oddly enough, it was filled with thousands of PlayStation 4 consoles, which weren’t designed to mine for crypto. However, a new report suggests the operation was not actually mining cryptocurrency, but rather mining valuable in-game currency in EA Sports’ popular FIFA video game.
Energy theft for profit from crypto mining is not unheard of: after all, Malaysian police have just crushed 1,069 mining platforms seized from minors convicted of theft of electricity. What made the alleged Ukrainian mine so special was that it apparently did not rely on powerful and custom PC mining rigs that could generate the biggest mining profits. Instead, it used some 3,800 PS4 consoles, which have only a fraction of the crypto mining power compared to today’s high-end PC platforms.
In addition to the SBU’s initial post that the PS4s were part of a cryptocurrency mine, a mining expert told Motherboard that the odd choice of hardware might work since the electricity is allegedly free. However, the Ukrainian publication Delo.ua Now reports that anonymous SBU sources have confirmed that operators are not using PlayStation consoles to mine cryptocurrency, but rather to “mine” for items in FIFA 21’s Ultimate Team mode. Essentially, consoles could be changed somehow to allow robots to play the game automatically, thereby generating in-game currency. These digital coins, or the accounts containing them, could then be sold on the black market.
Although SBU sources apparently shared this information with Delo.ua, the SBU and regional electricity supplier JSC Vinnytsiaoblenergo did not officially confirm these details with the publication.
The prospect of using PS4 consoles to farm FIFA Coins in-game may seem even crazier than using them for cryptocurrency, but FIFA’s Ultimate Team Mode is hugely profitable for publisher Electronic Arts. It allows users to create their own fantasy-style lineups using current and former professional soccer players, all while collecting digital trading cards. These cards can be purchased either with coins earned through the game, or by spending real money on random “loot boxes,” which some have likened to the game.
Earlier this year, Electronic Arts announced that Ultimate Team modes in its EA Sports games generated $ 1.6 billion in revenue during fiscal year 2021 which ended in March. That tally also includes similar modes in other EA Sports franchises, including Madden NFL, but EA clarified that “a substantial portion” came from FIFA. EA’s share of Ultimate Team modes has grown dramatically year over year, analyst says Daniel Ahmad.
Considering the money at stake, it’s no surprise that the FIFA Ultimate Team community is plagued by fraud. Many websites offer bundles of cheap Ultimate Team coins and cards, but are makes it a front for phishing scams. Earlier this year, an EA employee was accused of sale of rare Ultimate Team cards for thousands of dollars in a scandal that fans dubbed “EAGate”. And in 2016, a Californian was convicted of wire fraud for defrauding EA for $ 16 million in Ultimate Team Coins through the use of PC software that manipulated the game.
EA itself has faced allegations of questionable tactics around its Ultimate Team mode. Earlier this year, the CBC reported on a leaked internal presentation that suggested EA was pushing players into the money-making Ultimate Team mode. While it’s possible to play Ultimate Team without spending real money, the best and most valuable cards are incredibly hard to come by just by playing the game you’ve already spent over $ 60 to purchase. . That’s why it’s a growing source of money for EA.
The aforementioned loot boxes are a controversial feature of FIFA and many other popular games, and have been prohibited or restricted in some countries. In 2019, EA removed FIFA loot boxes from versions of the game sold in Belgium to comply with a court decision. Most recently, the publisher allowed players from other parts of the world to preview the contents of a loot box before opening it, given continued regulatory pressure.
Loot boxes tease potentially valuable digital items inside, but the slot machine-like look can be addictive and potentially damaging to players. In 2018, Waypoint explored the impact of loot boxes in modern games, and how they are designed to entice players to spend until they hit the jackpot, sometimes with serious financial and emotional consequences.
While it’s ultimately not clear what exactly happened in this Ukrainian warehouse full of buzzing PS4s, the strong possibility that this is a robot farm for a virtual soccer simulator adds yet another layer of intrigue.
Motherboard has reached out to EA Sports for comment on the Delo.ua report and the methods it has to deal with the potential manipulation of gaming accounts, and will update this story if we have any news.