When I was hired to try my hand at sports, a growing industry where video gamers compete for six-figure purses on a professional level, I could practically hear the sound of mockery from you: our readers.
And I don’t blame you Because before spending a month pretending to be an esportsman, I also wondered if an activity that counts dimly lit bedrooms on their battlefields and is dominated by teenagers and Gen Z 20 year olds screaming into headsets did this could for real are referred to as competitive sport. But when you consider that participating in the elite of the sport requires the same physical, mental and physiological determination as any other sport, and when you add that the sport has the competition, accessibility and financial payload that it 1
The question I was trying to answer at the time wasn’t whether the sport deserved its current reputation, but whether I could use my boxing bedroom in Brixton, London, to take advantage of the sport’s ability to keep the upper hand in the FIFA Weekend League . With a controller, a government enforced lockdown, and a month with no plans, I brought FIFA 20 up and found that there is only one way to find out. What follows is my quick introduction to the competitive world of esports.
But before we get to that, let’s start with a crash course. According to the game analysis company Newzoo, the esports industry generated sales of $ 1.1 billion last year, while the FIFA eWorld Cup 2019 paid out $ 500,000 to the 32 best competitors.
In order to earn big money, you not only have to excel technically and mentally, but also physically. Firstbeat, who specializes in measuring performance analysis of elite athletes, estimates that the amount of the stress hormone cortisol produced by a professional esports player that is similar to that of a racing driver, while their heart rate can reach up to 180 bpm, which is the equivalent of a marathon runner.
This is a sport where athletes compete for hours and one slip can mean the difference between winning and losing. Only those who can handle the pressure can reach the top. I wanted to spend the next three weeks seeing if I was one of them.
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The challenge I faced was to win as many games as possible in the FIFA Weekend League, a tournament that takes place in a different game mode of FIFA, Ultimate Team. In Ultimate Team, professionals and amateurs build dream soccer teams and fill them with legendary players from the past and present. These ultimate teams then compete against each other in the 30-game Weekend League, which can be played every weekend between Friday and Monday. If you want to stand out on the scene, coming out of nowhere is the way to go to win the Weekend League.
On the first day of the challenge, I wasn’t ready to compete. I knew that, but I also knew that time was not on my side. Before players can even think about competing in the Weekend League, they must collect 2000 points for beating other players online. I only had three weeks to collect these points. Without professional help, I decided to take over the underdog team and reject FIFA against other players at the start of the game.
I’ve played FIFA over and over since my mom made me buy a copy of FIFA ’99 from our local Virgin Megastore. I kind of knew what the score was. But my experience with the game only gave me a false sense of security. It turned out that the friends I’d played against for years were all rubbish at FIFA, and I was rubbish too.
In those first five games, I would probably have gotten similar results even if I’d dropped my controller and made a sandwich while playing. Targets flew past me like bullets in one John Wick Movie. I actually scored a goal in my third game, but it was only a brief moment of break. Opponents kept beating me. In my fifth and final game, the virtual Michael Owen, who was playing against me in advance, scored two hat-tricks.
I need help. Fast. I sought the expertise of professional FIFA gamer Ryan Pessoa, who was named the World’s Top FIFA Player on Xbox One in 2018 and currently competes for the Manchester City esports team. If anyone could help me, they could. We arranged to meet for three hours.
Our first session focused on defense. I had complained that the players would cut my team too easily. Pessoa gave a simple antidote: I should jockey and try to maintain my form rather than give up my position to eagerly regain the ball. He also explained how some professionals hold the controller so that they can reach each button with minimal effort by adopting a hand position called a “claw”. While jockeying was a good part of my skill, it wasn’t to distort my hand so that it looked like a bird’s claw.
Pessoa also stated that if I wanted to get results like a pro, I had to treat the game like a pro, which he had to learn too. In the past, it wasn’t uncommon for Pessoa to be online when most of us were in bed, but he had succeeded in switching to a more regular sleep pattern – going to bed at 11 p.m. and waking up at 8 a.m.
While I had no problem with sleep, I played the game sporadically: every day but whenever the mood hit me. What I needed was structure. From then on, I played FIFA every weekday between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. I played FIFA every weekend between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. No matter what happened in my life, in the world, or how little I wanted to pick up the controller and play, I was playing.
Run this game
Playing that amount of FIFA posed a new problem that was not technical, but physical. To be a professional FIFA player requires a lot of perseverance and concentration. As Pessoa put it, at a tournament, let your focus sink for a second and “You’re done”. Two or three games in a row was all I could usually do before my level dropped. So I spoke to York-Peter Kloeppel, Mental Performance Manager at the Red Bull Athlete Performance Center, to get some tips on how to get a mental head start.
Kloeppel works to optimize the performance of athletes who compete in everything from ultra running to rugby, as well as esports stars like Pessoa. He explained how professional esports tournaments place a unique burden on athletes. “Even if you’re a marathon runner, two hours are incredibly exhausting, but you don’t have to be mentally focused all the time,” he explains.
In one of his studies at APC, Kloeppel tested the athletes’ reaction times before placing them on a treadmill for 30 minutes and testing again. After the athletes trained, he found that they were more alert and their reaction times had improved. So I started running or doing HIIT workouts before my FIFA meetings. I also used breaks in play – kicks, throw-ins and the minute-long halftime – as an opportunity to close my eyes and rest my thoughts. Those little techniques meant that I kept winning more and more games and on the last day before the Weekend League got the 2000 points I needed to sign up.
In my first Weekend League game, I was three to zero before halftime, handing out the kind of chub I got a few weeks earlier. Unlike me, my opponent didn’t bother trying to make a comeback and the rage stopped soon after the third goal. If the rest of the Weekend League went like this, I’d easily win 30 out of 30 games.
That didn’t quite happen, but in those first ten games I won more than I lost and steadily increased the rankings of the Weekend League. My strategy of training and increasing my heart rate before starting my FIFA sessions seemed to be working. Until it didn’t happen.
I played the games in five-a-side and wanted to play 15 games on Saturday and Sunday, but in my last session on Saturday and my first session on Sunday I couldn’t buy a win.
The training before I started playing had stopped working. During one of our conversations, Pessoa had told me how Kloeppel had instructed him to have positive self-talk when he found himself in difficult moments during pro tournaments. I started yelling at myself during games telling myself I was a better player. with more experience than any of my competitors.
Combined with my other tactics, I took another five wins, giving me a record of 11 wins and 19 losses. Hardly good enough to get your attention on the stage, but enough to automatically qualify for the Weekend League next weekend.
After playing FIFA for three weeks without a break, treating the game like a second job, and constantly thinking about how to compete with the elite, this is an invitation I must respectfully decline.
However, if any of my friends are ready for a game, I’ll be ready when you are.