If a ball for every goal scored in FIFA Ultimate Team were placed side by side, the resulting line would circle the planet almost 15 times. That's 2.576 billion goals and counting, and just one of the many staggering facts about EA's behemoth of a mode.
Robert Lewandowski has scored more goals than there are people in Poland, while more people played FUT World Cup than attended all the matches in Brazil. The mode has gone from strength-to-strength since it launched five years ago, with new ideas introduced annually to keep you earning coins, buying credits, and collecting those cards.
The hook of Ultimate Team is simple: build the team of your dreams and take on other players' fantasy squads. It answers the questions kids pose in playgrounds every day: Neymar or Messi? Ronaldo or Bale? Cavani or Falcao?
The trouble with Ultimate Team in the past is that there was only two ways in which you could achieve the goal of creating a top-level dream team: be lucky, or wealthy enough to buy enough packs to make yourself lucky.
With the best players in the world fetching upwards of a million coins on the transfer market, only the few are fortunate enough (or have enough fortunes) to experience them. FIFA 15 is changing that with the introduction of loan signings. From day one, FUT's tutorial gives you a choice of three stars to 'borrow' (at the time of preview, Mario Gotze and Dani Alves were among the selection, with Messi also available as a pre-order incentive). The quality of the player will determine the length of the loan spell. Lionel Messi will only be available for a handful of games, whereas judging by David Luiz's World Cup, you may well be allowed to have him for the next six years.
These loan players are only available from EA, via the the EAS FC Catalogue. FUT producer Marcel Kuhn noted that it's important to establish a solid footing for the feature before considering introducing the idea of player-to-player loans.
Now, more people will get the chance to experience these elite players on the pitch for a few games and see how much they can affect a result. Can Ibrahimovic really win a game on his own, surrounded by mediocrity? FIFA 15's loan system will give players a chance to answer such questions.
This year will also see the return of Legends, on Xbox platforms at least. 15 greats will be joining the roster, including the Premier League's all-time leading goalscorer, Alan Shearer. Legends, like the rest of the Elites, felt like a pipe dream last year and, while a nice introduction, are for the one per cent and rarely seen in the game itself. The Legends from FIFA 14 will make their way across to 15, so yes, Freddie Ljungberg will continue to be uttered in the same breath as Pele.
The final big introduction this year comes in the form of Concept Squads. Instead of taking a gamble on a player in the transfer market without knowing how he will affect the overall quality and chemistry of your squad, you can add the desired player ahead of any potential purchase and see the impact he will have. Once players not in your collection are added to the line-up, the team board will have a chalkboard aesthetic, so you're aware this isn't a usable team. Players can create entire concept squads of their ideal signings, then go out and earn money to buy them. There isn't a way to test out concept squads in offline friendlies, though, which is a shame. If EA could add a testing ground for these squads, in training matches where no coins are earned, it would give a more in-depth look at potential line-ups, and more reason to invest or tweak formations.
All of these changes may sound incremental, but in a mode such as FUT, which has welcomed 20 million users to date, small steps can have a big impact. Marcel also told VideoGamer that there will be tweaks to the Chemistry Styles introduced last year, with greater balancing so players don't go for the same few cards in the market.
EA knows how big Ultimate Team is. For any other sports game to come close to FIFA's success, it'll need to offer something equally compelling, and at the moment that doesn't seem likely. EA's officially licensed trading card spin in FIFA rules the virtual football world and will do for some time to come.