The future of soccer is online

Giuseppe “xGUASTELLAx” Guastella sits in a plush Sparco gaming chair on a raised square stage, which is 3 feet off the ground. He leans forward intently, his face a foot from a television screen. The 31-year-old — day job: project manager at a flooring company in Southern California — is oblivious to his surroundings. He ignores the bright stage lights, the atmospheric smoke, the couple hundred fans screaming with every shot and the announcers commentating on the match he’s playing, which is displayed on a giant screen above his head.

All that matters to the self-appointed “Godfather of FIFA” are the 11 digital players he manipulates with an Xbox One controller.

Proudly representing the United States in a red, white and blue shirt adorned with the logo of his sponsor, Epsilon eSports, xGUASTELLAx competes in the grand final of the FIFA Ultimate Team (FUT) Champions Americans Regional Final. His fiancee, Vanessa Romo, a social media professional, watches nervously in the crowd.

xGUASTELLAx had already won dollar;20,000 on the day by prevailing in the Xbox division. He was battling recent NYCFC signing Christopher “NYC_Chris” Holly, champion of the PlayStation division, in a two-match final. The pair would play one game on Xbox and one on PlayStation with the winner by aggregate score earning another dollar;10,000.

The match served as the culmination of two intense days of gaming at the Whistler Conference Centre, a picturesque location situated at the base of the Whistler Blackcomb ski resort 75 miles due north of Vancouver. Sixty-four of the best FUT players in the world matched step-over for step-over, long-distance blast with long-distance blast, Messi with Messi, Ronaldo with Ronaldo. The money, the atmosphere, the skill on display and the seriousness of the surroundings gave the tournament a big-time feel, something akin to a real-life soccer game, only one where a single human competitor controlled 11 digital men on the pitch.

Events like this are very much the future of the rapidly growing esports industry, a goal for the players who have purchased more than 100 million units since the game debuted in 16-bit glory on Genesis in 1993.

Facts about FIFA Ultimate Team

— EA has more than 300 million registered players around the world

— FIFA series lifetime sales: over 100 million units

— FUT debuted in FIFA 09 and is the game’s most popular game mode

More than six million have competed in FUT Champions since FIFA 17 launched

dollar;1.3 million combined prize pool across six qualifiers and the championship

A little more than two days earlier, all 63 players gathered in the Rainbow Theater for the draw. (One withdrew late and was not replaced.) FIFA Competitive Gaming commissioner Brent Koning, a man who buzzed with the enthusiasm of someone totally jazzed about his sweet job and who was also never far from a Red Bull, oversaw the proceedings. Before picking the groups, he gave the gamers a pep talk.

“This is television,” Koning said. “We are taking what happens in the studio upstairs and we are broadcasting it to the world. Don’t be shy. Express personality. It’s OK to say, ‘Hell yeah, I won.'”

Then, he offered some advice: “I encourage everyone to take two minutes at some point in the weekend and go look around outside.”

The irony of earning an all-expenses-paid trip to Whistler, only to spend two days inside a convention center, hung for a second, then dissipated as Koning reached his hand into the ball hopper, took out a ball emblazoned with a FUT logo, announced the competitor’s name and threw the ball to him as a keepsake. As the groups took shape, friendly banter ensued. “You have an easy group, man,” one player said to his friend. “You have a bye,” the friend countered. They both jumped on a third player, sitting next to them: “That first group is stacked. You’re so screwed.” Once everyone was in a group for the competition, the players dispersed. Some returned to the area with the snacks, inhaling chicken fingers, sliders and spring rolls while sipping Pepsi and water. Most, however, returned to the Players Lounge to play FUT or went back to their hotel rooms for some final preparation on the consoles they brought.

The action kicked off 36 hours earlier on Friday morning with the Rest of the World tournament. Thirty-two players — 16 in the Xbox division and 16 in the PlayStation division — competed. Skinny jeans, soccer jerseys, sneakers and nervous body language dominated the room. Some were jet-lagged as well. Mosaad “Msdossary7” Aldossary had spent 26 hours in transit from his home in Saudi Arabia, slept for two hours, then arrived to play.

Players qualified for the Regional Final by posting strong showings in 40-game weekend tournaments. Win enough games over the course of a month and EA would send an email inviting the gamer to the final. (Trent “tcd00” Dreyer nearly missed the event, only noticing the invitation when he checked the spam folder of the old email address he used to sign up for his online PlayStation account. His father relayed this information while watching his son play. A few weeks earlier, tcd00’s high school soccer team lost in the playoffs. That was “heartbreaking,” his father said. “But this is harder to watch. He’s just one person. There’s no team.”)

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The two tournaments in Whistler — the Rest of the World on Friday and the Americas region on Saturday — were the fourth and fifth “Majors” of the year, with one more scheduled for Madrid in May. The two winners at the Rest of the World tournament and the top three in the Americas region earned a trip to the FUT Championship Series Live Finals in Berlin on May 19 and 20 where bragging rights — and dollar;400,000 — will be up for grabs.

Friday’s games began at 7:45 a.m. with Australia’s Samer “Samer96_” Elbadar vs. Hong Kong’s Sony “S_O_N_Y_528” Chui playing in the featured match on the official livestream. Samer96_ played the previous Major in Sydney and knew about the stress of competition. “I was really nervous. It showed, and I was knocked out in group stage,” he said. “This time, I am just trying to have fun. Whatever happens, happens. No pressure.”

FUT allows gamers to put any player in their starting lineup, which results in some predictable choices: “There’s a little Messi on Messi action,” commentator Joe Miller said during the Samer_96 v. S_O_N_Y_528 face-off. “There was only always going to be one winner.”

A moment later, Cristiano Ronaldo scored on a long-distance blast, drawing an audible gasp from the dozen parents, friends and translators watching proceedings. “Nice goal from the man who scored so many for Real Madrid during the week,” color man Leigh “DeMan” Smith offered, a knowing nod to the Portuguese star’s real-life exploits.

As Samer_96 and S_O_N_Y_528 battled in what would end as a 2-2 draw, seven other games went on as well. Players were divided into groups of four and played a round robin, with the top two from each group advancing to a double-elimination knockout stage. They were calm when playing, for the most part, leaning toward the screen in front of them, headphones on to block out the surrounding noise. A few took off their shoes, socks glued to the green AstroTurf.

Despite the high stakes, FUT competitors are always supporting one another. Noah Davis

The frenetic on-screen action contrasted with the serenity of the players. Passes were quick and efficient, completion percentages hovering around 90 percent. Paul Pogba, Luis Suarez, David de Gea, N’Golo Kante and Kyle Walker featured in many lineups. (Xbox has a Legends feature, with Patrick Vieira and Ruud Gullit popular picks for their stout defensive ability and pass-disrupting length. Some lineups had Pele, but he was usually marginalized on the wing. The best player ever, ineffective. Only in FUT.)

Special moves like step-overs and drawbacks occurred with greater frequency than in real games. Back-heels, too. Aerial crosses, offside calls and fouls were rare.

The finishing was sublime.

Overall, play was intense and fast-paced, but cautious. To win against the world’s best, the key is to avoid mistakes. In that way, it’s not dissimilar to the actual World Cup, where teams play conservatively because of the stakes.

“People would hate this type of game play online, but in a tournament it’s accepted because I’m playing for money,” said competitor Mike “Hashtag Mike” LaBelle, who wore a purple jersey and sported an angled, sweeping haircut.

“It’s not attractive. When you look at the beautiful game and you’re replicating what you watch, it’s not a bunch of wing play and passes across. In FIFA, people want to see long shots, quick volleys, skill moves. When you’re playing for money or against the best players in the world, a lot of times you tighten up and you get a lot more simple. If you keep it simple, people will be like, ‘OK, at least he gave himself a chance to win the game.’ And then hopefully you do something magical in your moments.

“Real football and FIFA is all about those moments. You’re trying to get something special then. But other than that, good defense and being able to get out of the back will always give you a chance.”

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