AND THE BEST PLAYER IN THE WORLD IS GORILLA?!
Screaming fans, big-money prizes and smelly sweat towels - welcome to the life of a pro FIFA player. With eSports closing the gap on the real deal, FourFourTwo heads to the FIFA Interactive World Cup to witness just how serious video games have got
Radja Nainggolan swarms N’golo Kanté on the edge of the penalty area, before nudging the ball into the feet of Ruud Gullit. With two quick touches, he steps away from Antonio Valencia and then feeds Cristiano Ronaldo. Marcelo, distracted by the threat of Gullit, is now stranded. All that stands between Ronaldo and goal is Thibaut Courtois. The Belgian races off his line like a scalded cat, saving at the feet of the Portuguese star. But the danger is not over just yet, as Nainggolan beats David Luiz to the loose ball and finds Gullit, looping it back towards the box. This time Courtois is not quick enough, and the dreadlocked legend pokes the ball through the shot-stopper’s legs to hand England a two-goal advantage. Cheers ripple up towards Central Hall Westminster’s domed ceiling and FIFA TV’S cameras pan across the audience towards a 54-year-old Gullit, rising to his feet to applaud the goal.
There is no way back for Germany now as England are unrelenting. Neymar adds a third before Rio Ferdinand diverts the ball into his own net to compound Die Mannschaft’s misery. The full-time whistle goes and the Three Lions are world champions. “England are victorious in London,” yelps the excited commentator.
Gullit, now minus his dreadlocks, takes to the stage to present the victor, Gorilla, with his trophy. The 20-year-old from Birmingham lifts it above his head as the confetti rains down on him and his adoring public. Tonight, he will celebrate in style with $200,000 of winnings.
Wait. Hold on a minute. Gullit has come out of retirement to play for England and appears to be in two places at once? Cristiano Ronaldo is a German? What on earth is going on?
Let us explain. Firstly, nobody panic, Fourfourtwo has not gone all Hunter S Thompson and gorged on drink and drugs while watching a game. And, sadly, this isn’t a parallel universe where England have the nerve to overcome Germany in the final of a major tournament.
In reality, this is virtual reality and there’s no ball, no pitch and no real players: just two control pads, two screens and two people who play video games for a living. This is the FIFA Interactive World Cup – and you’d better start taking it seriously.
It all started 13 years ago in Switzerland. Eight gamers qualified from regional tournaments in nine countries to battle it out at FIFA’S Zurich HQ for the first ever Interactive World Cup.
In 2017, the finest 32 gamers from the around the globe – whittled down from more than seven million contestants – travelled to London to contest the latest esports tournament.
Yes that’s right, an official tournament. Playing video games is no longer confined to a spotty teenager’s smelly bedroom – it’s become a competitive cyber sport which generates giant viewing figures and lucrative revenue streams. This year’s entrants battled it out for a prize pot that totalled a staggering $1.3 million.
Instead of pleading with their parents to fork out increasing sums of money on expensive match tickets, the millennial generation are tuning into Youtube and Twitch to see their favourite gamers perform moments of mastery in a digital world. And there’s plenty of room to grow: for comparison, in 2016 more than 43 million people watched the world championships of League of Legends – an action strategy game that has a larger audience than the actual 2016 NBA Finals.
Colossal audiences mean big bucks. Multinational bean-counters Goldman Sachs valued the esports industry at $50m in 2016 and the market is expected to break the $1 billion barrier within a couple of years. And FIFA and EA Sports have undoubtedly got the product – with more than 100 million sales, the franchise has become one of the 15 best-selling video games of all time.
The advent of live streaming and creation of Ultimate Team mode have helped it gain more ground on its competitors. Ultimate Team is a millennial Panini sticker album in which gamers build up fantasy football squads by purchasing randomised ‘packets’ of players online.
This enabled FIFA to open up qualification to their showcase event to anyone with the game. Participants just had to register and climb the monthly leaderboards to secure their place in the tournament.
“According to the Guinness Book of World Records, we’ve got the largest esports competition in the world,” proclaims Jean-francois Pathy, director of marketing services for FIFA. “We’ve got a growing community and in the last three or four years it has really taken off.”
Technology has helped to turbo-boost this progress, says Mickael Le Roscouet, PR manager for the French esports club Team Vitality. “Internet connections were so bad 10 years ago you couldn’t watch a tournament online. As streaming steadily got more professional it became a lot more enjoyable to watch, attracting a much younger audience who also play the game.
“When someone asks you why you’re watching a video game, you can ask them: ‘Why are you watching a sport?’ It’s exactly the same.”
The rise of esports has now got The Greatest League In The World worried, and Premier League executive chairman Richard Scudamore believes that digital gaming and social media are among the biggest threats to the game’s popularity.
“We don’t necessarily see other sports – I think that’s a little narrow, in terms of our competitors,” the 58-year-old explained. “I can see gaming, all sorts of digital gaming, and I see young people spending time on their devices doing all sorts of things to entertain themselves, and with social media generally.
“The interesting thing is whether this game will continue to engage them, and that is why we have to make sure we are doing everything we can to make sure it does.”
Audience figures suggest not. Last year, Sky TV suffered the biggest drop in viewers for live Premier League games since records began in 2010. The Football Supporters (Access) Bill 2016-17 revealed that the average age of adults attending top-flight games is over 40 and less than 10 per cent are under 22.
Priced out of going to watch live matches and many pay-per-view subscriptions, young fans feel disconnected from the game and the superstars they see from behind the tinted windows of their supercars.
FIFA plugs them back into this world, and they don’t feel like they’re getting a substandard product – comprehensive licensing deals have enabled developer EA Sports to replicate every aspect of the game.
That combination of realism and escapism has reeled in millions of players around the globe, from first-timers to future world champions. “I get together with my mates for FIFA tournaments and we all have a laugh,” explains professional gamer Shaun Springette, aka Shellzz. “It allows us to play with the best players in the world and have the likes of Ronaldo in our team, and that makes us feel like we are with them. That’s a good feeling.”
Forging a connection with a digitally scanned CR7 is not the same as meeting your hero in the flesh, no matter how good the HD likeness is. But pro gamers are now crossing that credibility gap by achieving celebrity status, thanks to their efforts controlling the computerised incarnations of real-life stars.
Springette, tipped as a contender for this year’s FIWC title, sampled a taste of this fame in May after coming second in the Ultimate Team Championship in Germany, picking up a cool $80,000 in the process.
“Little kids were asking me for a photo in Berlin and I was thinking: ‘Why do you want a photo with me? I just play FIFA.’ esports is only getting bigger and it’s just like real sports – you’ve got idols that you look up to and want to be like.”
Unfortunately, Springette is not able to replicate his form in Berlin at London’s Central Hall Westminster as the youngster crashes out of the event in the group stages.
LITTLE KIDS WERE ASKING ME FOR A PHOTO AND I THOUGHT: ‘WHY DO YOU WANT ONE WITH ME? ALL I DO IS PLAY FIFA
The 18-year-old is distraught. He sits in the foyer, hood pulled over his face to soak up the tears as friends huddle round, patting his back and offering some support.
“It’s horrible,” he sniffles. “I sacrificed a lot to get here – sometimes not doing any homework or going out with my friends. To qualify for this tournament you had to play 40 matches every weekend, which is around 10 hours of gaming if you’re never taking any breaks from it.”
Being able to watch this drama unfold on social media and interact with their favourite gamers during real-time is hooking audiences in.
“It is an entertainment property now,” explains Youtube star and egamer Spencer Owen. “People are getting emotionally tied to these players, the clubs they represent and the storylines that are coming with rivalries between players.”
Fans are feasting on these narratives and dreaming of writing their own. They know they will never face Cristiano Ronaldo at a real World Cup, but they might join Springette at the next Interactive World Cup – his fairytale is their fantasy.
“There’s no requirement to be a good FIFA player: you don’t have to be fit, you just have to be able to play the game well,” says Springette. “Mohamad Al-bacha was the winner last year. I thought: ‘If he can do it, so can I.’ That motivated me. I thought: ‘I can be a FIFA pro.’”
Just like aspiring footballers trawl through Youtube for clips of their favourite players, aspiring gamers follow the top esports stars hoping to pick up some tips and tricks.
FIFA superfan Daniel Smith is at Central Hall Westminster looking to do exactly that. Just the mere mention of the game brings out a big grin on his unblemished face.
“I love FIFA with a passion,” gushes the 17-year-old, barely able to stand still. “The best pros are all here and I get to meet them, watch some good games of FIFA and hopefully learn a thing or two as well.
“They inspire a lot of the younger generation. You can become big from nothing and broadcast all of your games to millions of people.”
Eyeballs attract income – from sponsors, Youtube ads and, if you’re really good, a pro gamer contract. Brands are now starting to realise that they get more bang for their buck by investing in a social media influencer than advertising with a more traditional media platform.
One player who has achieved these goals is a personal favourite of Smith’s. “I really like how Tass plays,” he beams. “He does not crack under pressure.” Unfortunately, that is not quite the case in London. Tassal Rushan finishes bottom of the Group of Death and makes an early exit from the competition.
After winning the regional championship in Paris earlier in the year, Tass scooped $30,000 and was ranked No.1 in the world. This was his chance to be a hometown hero.
“I try not to let it affect me, but I’m disappointed because I won’t have the opportunity to win in London again,” says the 22-year-old.
This isn’t just a game - this is a high-pressured job and when you’ve sacrificed your entire education for it, you had better make it count.
“Five years ago my parents were saying,‘what are you doing?’ I had finished my A-levels and told them: ‘I’m not going to university – I’m just focusing on FIFA.’ Years went by and they said: ‘If it doesn’t happen soon, you are going to have to do something else.’ But they showed patience and are happy now.”
Despite the setback at Central Hall Westminster, Tass is still one of the best players in the world. His employer is Hashtag United, a real amateur football club set up by Spencer Owen. Broadcasting games on Youtube, they attract upwards of half a million views, pay him a wage and take a cut of his winnings.
Other real clubs are now following suit as they attempt to emulate Hashtag United and reconnect with an alienated young demographic.
Dutch giants Ajax are just one of them. Their representative at this year’s tournament, Dani Hagebeuk, looks every bit the pro footballer: blond hair swept over to one side, blue eyes twinkling and a slender physique draped in the club’s red and white jersey. He certainly looks the part, but does Hagebeuk consider himself part of the Amsterdam club in the same way as last season’s beaten Europa League finalists?
“I’m not a real sportsman,” he says. “But you need to have talent in your hands just like you need talent in your feet to play real football.”
His talent sees him qualify from the Group of Death before bowing out to Basel’s Florian Muller in the last 16. “I’m disappointed but proud of what I’ve done,” Dani says in true footballer diction. “I’ll get over it.”
And he’d better, because Ajax are counting on him. They hope that his feats with a joypad will start to open up an array of opportunities.
“The Netherlands now has 1.5 million FIFA players and we want to connect with them,” explains Bart van Essen from Ajax’s marketing and esports department. “The club set up an esports department to reach that audience. We want younger people to become fans of the club as a whole – the first team, ladies team, academy and esports.
“The response has been good so far. Last season we played egames against Europa League opponents the day before the first team played them. Fans were invited to watch and we streamed the games online, getting 30,000-50,000 viewers.”
FIVE YEARS AGO I SAID TO MY PARENTS ‘I’M NOT GOING TO UNIVERSITY, I'M JUST CONCENTRATING ON FIFA
This holistic approach is welcomed by FIFA – as in world football’s governing body. The Zurich policy-makers want their members to see egaming as an opportunity, not a threat.
“Younger fans are not turning away from mainstream football and FIFA is not a competitor – it has simply become a massive part of the football experience for them,” says Owen, who’s now got 1.9 million subscribers regularly tuning into his Fifa-related videos on Youtube.
“One day we will see these pro gamers switching between clubs on transfer deadline day, with Jim White announcing it in his yellow tie.”
Jean-francois Pathy agrees: “It’s not a conflict of interests, it’s more about spreading the message of football around the world. Gamers know the world of football through the video game – it is also fair to say a lot of them play physical football.”
As FIFA’S director of marketing services, he admits the commercial opportunities are exciting. “Everyone wants to hit the millennials,” he adds. “However, we want to improve the way we deliver these events. This is already much bigger than where we were in the past. This time last year, the first-prize money was $10,000. This year it’s $200,000.
“The way we put on this event is not so different from the way we put on other events – it’s an elite event.”
Which is why FFT finds itself among the cyber athletes, officials and fans at Central Hall Westminster – we want a peek inside this world. Through the doors of the Grade Ii-listed building we find an elegant theatre entrance, with high ceilings and a marble floor which covers a spacious foyer area. We make our way up the Grand Staircase to the Grand Hall to discover a production set more akin to The X-factor.
In the centre of a stage shimmering with bright lights sit the two finalists, Spencer Ealing (aka Gorilla) and Kai Wollin (aka Deto). They’re plugged into a gaming pod, with wraparound headphones to cancel out any distractions. Their concentrated faces flicker with the action unfolding on the screens.
Each player’s station has got a small hand towel, ready to dry their clammy hands as sweat loosens their grip on both the joypad and the game. A referee, draped in an oversized blue uniform, watches the pair closely, itching to penalise either player for any timewasting.
Towering above them in a commentary booth sit two analysts like DJS at an Ibiza superclub. Above their heads hangs a gigantic HDTV monitor for the audience. The lower tier is packed out with VIPS, while a smattering of fans occupy the upper tier. Cameramen from major broadcast partners NBC, Telemundo, Globo, Directv, Fox and Sky each point their lenses at the stage, transporting images to 104 territories. The tournament hashtags take over social media, with #FIWC being used more than 37 million times and #FIWC17 more than 53 million.
After two action-packed encounters, it’s Gorilla who is crowned the FIWC champion with a 7-3 aggregate win. As the final whistle blows he hunches over in disbelief, putting his head in his hands. Dragonn – his coach and FIWC runner-up last year – runs on, arms pumping, his face full of joy. As they hug, he slaps Gorilla’s back and yells: “That’s what I’m talking about!”
Spencer Owen, Sky Sports’ Laura Woods and Gullit greet the winner on stage to congratulate him and gather some post-match reaction.
“Suddenly, I became popular again,” chuckles Gullit after watching his virtual self find the net in a major final he did not actually play in.
The Dutch icon says it in jest, though there’s some truth behind his humour. Young people had never fallen out of love with football – their interest in FIFA is borne out of an enthusiasm for the real-world game. Innovations in technology, coupled with the arrogance and negligence of a hyper-commercialised industry basking in its riches, have altered the way they consume it.
Younger fans wanted something they could experience themselves, rather than peer at through a window. FIFA and its new generation of cyber stars now provide them the opportunity to both watch and play.
So what’s next? Can FIFA tournaments pack out stadiums? Will FIFA join League of Legends as a medal event at the Asian Games in 2022?
Christian Volk, head of digital marketing for FIFA, is in absolutely no doubt, and his words can be taken as either a promise or a threat: “It will grow and it won’t stop.”
Bring your sweat towel...
Top right The prestigious Central Hall Westminster played host to the globe’s leading 32 gamers Above FIWC17 co-host Spencer Owen (middle) is an icon on Youtube thanks to FIFABelow Dani Hagebeuk did Ajax proud getting to the last 16, as the Dutch side attempt to reconnect with the younger demographic
Right ‘Gorilla’ scoops the title and $200,000 cheque after a two-legged victory over ‘Deto’ Left Ruud Gullit was as surprised as us to hear he had scored in the World Cup final for EnglandBelow “Boof! Eat my goal”