How football fits in Australia’s growing e-sports scene

by Jordan Lim 0

Images: Supplied

Ruud Guillit, Pele, Rio Ferdinand, Cristiano Ronaldo, Luis Suarez, Lionel Messi, N’Golo Kante and Kyle Walker, just to name a few.

On Saturday, Australia hosted some of the world’s best footballers – past and present – but barely anyone in the greater football community batted an eyelid. That’s because for many, the world of e-sports and competitive FIFA carries a large negative stigma that its on-field companion doesn’t.

However, with the newest iteration of football video game franchise FIFA 17, competitive FIFA has finally been delivered a platform to truly shine Down Under and showcase itself as a legitimate sport.

Some of the sport’s elite competitors met this weekend for the first-ever edition of the FIFA 17 Rest of the World (ROTW) Regional Final, hosted in Sydney, with the prize on offer a place in the FIFA Interactive World Cup.

Of the 32 competitors featuring, the majority were Australian with a large contingent of players hailing from Victoria. One of those was former South Melbourne junior Peter Saisanas – also known by his creative PSN alias Saisanas – who had the opportunity to thrust the NPL Victoria onto to the global stage, with his former club sponsoring his campaign.

“I feel privileged,” Saisanas said about the support offered to him by South.

“Growing up it was always my dream to play football for South professionally and represent the club. However after 13 junior years there, I focused more on my schooling and left the game behind.

“Funnily enough, my dream has come true to an extent where I’m representing them through virtual football – which is close enough!”

Although Saisanis didn’t make it past the group stages on this occasion, he does have a history in competitive gaming.

He competed in the 2015 edition of the Fox Fans League, where he got his first opportunity to represent Hellas in official competition. Although he failed to progress past the first round on that day, it gave him a taste of what the sport had to offer.

Professional opportunities were hard to come by for the youngster, who continued to play FIFA for the fun of it, which mainly consisted of online tournaments with no prize pool on offer. This has made the prospects created by FUT Champs all the more rewarding for Saisanis.

“The opportunities are amazing,” he said.

“The FUT Champs competition is a first of its kind for FIFA gamers, offering players the opportunity to obtain sponsors and advertisements to earn money, as well as of course offering up a quite large prize pool.”

FUT Champs is a newly-introduced game mode within FIFA Ultimate Team, where gamers create a dream squad to compete in online matches. Qualification for the Regional Finals consisted of 160 games, spread over four weeks, with the players who achieved the most wins earning passageway into the tournament, with a US $100,000 prize pool on offer.

In the Xbox division, Victorian-based duo – and roommates – John “Johnny Atilla” Orban and Matthew “shabnam” McKinnon both made their professional debuts alongside each other despite placing the self-proclaimed “FIFA amateurs” tag on themselves before the tournament.

The close friends off the park never anticipated on making the cut, but spoke glowingly of the opportunity afforded to them and all the other prospective professional gamers.

“I was excited by the prospect of a competitive game mode, to be able to compare myself to others,” Orban said.

“However it wasn’t until the completion of the first month of FUT Champs, that I realised I may have a chance at qualification for regionals.

“It’s very likely that coming events will have more new competitive professional FIFA players, rather than amateurs.

“Now that the prize money and prestige is there, more and more players will be working hard to succeed.

“Having said that, it was great to experience all of this as a non-professional player, experiencing celebrity status for the first time.”

“It broadens the community of competitive FIFA; which can only help to grow the sport as a whole,” McKinnon added.

“The spectacle of the regional finals also helps to build the EA Sports brand, especially when the event is broadcast internationally on platforms such as Twitch and ESPN.”

Seeded third and eighth respectively after the month long qualification period, Orban was a shock exit after failing to traverse the ‘group of death’, with the 23-year-old outlined as one of the players to watch before the tournament began.

McKinnon on the other hand captured the hearts of many, not just for his surprising performances – he was the only player to exit the group stage with a perfect record before being eliminated in the final six – but also for his real-life rendition of the ‘Akinfenwa’ celebration after scoring a goal. FIFA YouTube celebrity Spencer Owen (SpencerFC) affectionately labelled McKinnon the “People’s Champ” for his showmanship across the weekend, although the 23-year-old admits it was purely the result of him enjoying himself and not taking the game too seriously.

“The title (The People’s Champ) is something I like, it shows that people enjoyed watching my ‘unique style’ as well as me having fun and that’s important to me,” McKinnon said.

“I went out and played the way I wanted to play, taking myself a little less seriously and enjoying the moment.

“Incorporating skills into my game and celebrating goals is something that I’ve always done, even at home, but there was no plan to be a character and no plan to do the dance.”

McKinnon, like Saisanis, was a talented junior footballer in his day, also featuring for South Melbourne as well as Knox City in the now defunct Super League. While the pair’s professional ambitions on the park were never reached, there is a growing number of pro-footballers doing the same thing and moving towards professional e-sports.

Recipient of the 2015 Puskas Award Wendell Lira retired from football at just 27 to focus on a career in professional FIFA, which he says earns him a much more stable income. Irishman David Meyler has also struck a chord with the FIFA community, balancing full-time playing commitments with Hull City in the Premier League with a second job streaming and creating YouTube content on FIFA 17.

Kingston City winger Mouad Zwed is another huge advocate of the professional opportunities offered by EA with FIFA 17, with the talented footballer – both on the pitch and virtually – admitting he would consider a career in e-sports, with one catch.

“You can be both a professional football player and a professional FIFA player at the same time if you manage your time right,” said Zwed, who also pointed to Meyler as the benchmark figure.

“Is it something I would ever consider doing if I was good enough? Of course. I’ve played a lot professional FIFA players before. I’ve beaten some and lost to some and they have always been close games.

“Would I do it if I had to give up playing professional football? Absolutely not.”

With the prospective opportunities for professional gamers in Australia growing by the year, it’s a matter of time before the country begins to recognise e-sports as a true career pathway. Like South Melbourne have done with Saisanis, the next step in Australia should be to establish professional ties for gamers with A-League teams, to represent at tournaments globally going forward; a model adopted by European powerhouses such as Paris Saint Germain and VFL Wolfsburg. As the awareness continues to grow, so to will the standard of Australian e-sports, which has a bright future ahead.