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The goal? Could EA SPORTS move its most valuable game to the cloud without any interruptions

April 16, 2024
Matt A.V. Chaban

Senior Editor, Transform

Dan Rowinski

Senior Writer, Transform

EA SPORTS FC Ultimate Team is one of Electronic Arts' most valuable assets. When migrating to the cloud, the EA team only had one shot to get it right.

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You and your team are lined up for the decisive moment, with everything on the line. You feel the gaze of fans upon you, their hopes and dreams palpable. You were nervous, they were nervous. The pressure was coming from everywhere.

You make your move, reach the goal, hit the perfect shot . . . and the game just keeps going, uninterrupted. You struck the target and almost no one noticed, exactly how you and your team wanted it, how you’d been planning and practicing for months.

While this could have been the scene during an important match of EA SPORTS FC Ultimate Team, the drama was actually playing out inside the game’s carefully engineered IT infrastructure.

When Electronic Arts decided to move the most popular feature of the company’s most important game to the cloud, Electronic Arts senior principal architect Wilson Chan — the captain for this migration — knew the stakes would be high. EA SPORTS FC Ultimate Team lets fans draft virtual soccer players and build teams for online games and tournaments.

Since soccer/football is the world's game, and with EA SPORTS FC Ultimate Team being played around the globe, it has become Electronic Arts’ highest revenue generator, helping to account for annual returns in the billions of U.S. dollars. Company leaders, like fans at a riveting championship match, were constantly checking in on how the migration from on-premises infrastructure to the cloud was going.

Meanwhile, EA SPORTS FC Ultimate Team large, passionate fanbase may have been unaware of the trades going on in the backend of the game, they still would have noticed immediately if and when anything went wrong.

The responsibility became so great, at times it felt like something out of a fantasy story.

“It was definitely like the Eye of Sauron on us’” Chan said, referring to the all-seeing spirit in “The Lord of the Rings.” “We finished the migration, and there was a large contingent of people within the company that had no idea that we did it. There were no problems, no outages, there was nothing. We did it and people were like, ‘What do you mean you did it? We didn't notice anything.’”

“I'm like, yes, that's the point.”

Diehard fans, a do-or-die moment

EA SPORTS FC Ultimate Team has one of the most passionate player bases in all of the video game industry.

With its unique dream team system, the game is a mix of fantasy sports, roleplaying, and live-action sports. Gamers can build up the skills of the players on their team through a wide array of attributes, unlocking new skills and team chemistry along the way. It’s a data intensive enterprise, made all the more complicated as players face off with each other from anywhere in the world, day and night.

That passion for the game, which can be as intense as a nonstop tournament final match, can often manifest itself in significant critiques of the company on social media and forums like Reddit. One slip from the EA team, and people will post about it online faster than one of Mbappe or Messi’s full-field drives. If Chan’s team felt the pressure from their bosses and colleagues, it was nothing compared to the behemoth that is their customer base.


That pressure to perform is being felt across the industry, as games continue to grow in size and value, with many games themselves becoming sports in their own right. The service, and its servers, have to show up flawlessly when it’s game time.

“With live games such as EA SPORTS FC reaching larger audiences than ever before, it’s critical they are built on the most scalable and secure cloud infrastructure possible,” Jack Buser, director for Games at Google Cloud, said. “At Google Cloud, we provide reliable, secure planet-scale infrastructure and technology to top game companies around the world, helping ensure a seamless and stable player experience.”

So, what was the impact on gamers when Electronic Arts moved such an important game to the cloud?

“It was zero,” Chan said. “It was an aspirational goal. There was no one getting dropped. From all accounts, the migration was very good. It was definitely a great achievement for the team.”

Flexibility and automation lead to innovation

What would make Electronics Arts take a leap to the cloud with one of its most valuable assets? Like many video games, EA SPORTS FC Ultimate Team is extremely data intensive, with speed and scale extremely important when millions of people are playing the game concurrently and expect near real-time feedback. Electronic Arts will often need thousands of virtual machines to handle coverage, especially during peak seasons.

There is also the challenge that while EA SPORTS FC 24 is one of the most popular games in the world, it is still competing with thousands of other titles, as well as social media, online videos, email, and myriad other digital distractions. Developers at EA are always innovating, as a result, looking for ways to keep the game fresh and engaging. That, too, requires efficient, scalable computing horsepower.

“We wanted to understand how to get more flexibility,” Chan said. “That's the biggest point for us. To get flexibility in terms of wanting to be able to accelerate how we can expand and contract our infrastructure. It used to take weeks, sometimes months, to commission machines in the traditional sense.”

A video game like EA SPORTS FC Ultimate Team can have extreme requirements when it comes to network infrastructure. A producer of the game might come with a new feature and ask the team for, say, double the compute capacity. Or maybe as much as ten-times capacity. One of these new features might go viral, bringing more traffic to the servers than anticipated, or there’s a flash sale for a popular player that draws extra people to the platform.

When the infrastructure is on-premise where a company leases or owns its own servers, the swing in capacity requirements can make an engineer’s head spin. Chan tells of times when they needed more capacity so desperately, they were tracking the flights of planes to shorten the time for server deliveries.

“Sometimes things were urgent,” he recalled. “There have been many times where we had this late-breaking development and all of a sudden, I need more machines. Then we have this crazy scramble to figure out how to get more into our infrastructure. We’d have people 24/7 trying to figure out how to ship machines from other locations. Like, which plane will land into the airport first, so we can go get those machines faster?”

Especially with the rise of scalable cloud services, it started to feel like playing short-handed. “We wanted to do away with that and have more of an elastic infrastructure,” Chan said.

Scoring with Spanner

In addition to flexibility, the ability to perform automation on its infrastructure was highly important to the EA team.

“Whereas before there was the physical layer involved, so a lot of the automation wasn't possible on-prem,” Chan said. “In the cloud, I can automate a virtual machine. I can automate configuring a VM. In the cloud, I just say I need five VMs of this type with these drives, and therefore I get it.”

After flexibility and automation, Chan said that EA’s real prize for migrating will be access to Google Cloud’s Spanner, a distributed SQL database management and storage service that decouples compute resources from data storage. For a digital company like EA, Spanner offers reliability and scalability that is also more future-proof for the way it allows ongoing access to data with minimal intervention. As the migration winds down, EA will soon turn to work on integrating Spanner into its technical infrastructure.

“We need something like Spanner to give us the type of database capability that we want without us having to manually shuffle around data,” Chan said. “Our hope is that when we get to Spanner, then we would not have to do that anymore.”

A big, complicated game

From outside the gaming industry, executives might look at an entity like EA SPORTS FC Ultimate Team and say, Hey, it’s just a game, compared to my needs, how complicated could it be?

Yet games now rival many top entertainment platforms in terms of revenue and cultural reach. Whether it’s on a phone, a console, a computer, center stage at an esports arena, games are big business and increasing online.

“Today’s live games require unprecedented speed, scale, security and stability to power their online services,” Buser said. “That’s why so many of the biggest games in the world rely on the same Google technology that powers our own massive live services such as YouTube and Search.”

A moment’s lag or a dropped connection could cause players to lose a game, and possibly their all-important ranking.

Before there was the physical layer involved, so a lot of the automation wasn't possible on-prem... In the cloud, I just say I need five VMs of this type with these drives, and I get it.

Wilson Chan,, Senior Principal Architect, EA

And the stakes are just as high for EA itself, considering that EA SPORTS FC 24 accounted for a major part of EA’s $1.3 billion in fourth quarter 2023 revenue from live-service gaming. (“Live service” is the industry term for the segment of mobile and online games that regularly receive updates and new content.)

“It's very difficult for people to understand it because they don't understand how big FC is,” Chan said. “They're all like, ‘It’s just a game, you kick the ball around, what's so difficult about it?’”

To make the difficult seem easy, Electronic Arts is running as many machines as it needs at all times to make sure that EA SPORTS FC Ultimate Team is always ready for its players' demands and requirements.

“It is very complicated, and it has a very large infrastructure,” Chan said. “It has a lot of very difficult requirements to fulfill in terms of performance. It seems like people sometimes think we have a desktop somewhere down below a desk and that's how we run our server versus the truth that we have thousands and thousands of machines that we have running this infrastructure.”

EA SPORTS, FC 24, and ULTIMATE TEAM are trademarks of Electronic Arts Inc. and used with permission. Visit EA.com.

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