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

FourFourTwo - - ZIDANE - Words Ben Welch Pho­tog­ra­phy FIFA IWC

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 FIFA

Be­low 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 Eng­land

Be­low “Boof! Eat my goal”

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