When I was commissioned to try my hand(s) at esports, a growing industry in which video gamers compete on a professional level for six-figure prize purses, I could practically hear the snorts of derision from you: our readers.
And I don’t blame you. Because, prior to spending a month impersonating an esports athlete, I too questioned whether an activity that counts dimly-lit bedrooms amongst its battlegrounds and is dominated by teenagers and Gen-Z twenty-somethings screaming into headsets could genuinely be called a competitive sport. But once you consider that being in the elite echelons of esports requires the same physical, mental and physiological resolve as any other sport and add that to the fact that esports has the competition, accessibility and financial payload to match, it is 100% deserving of Men’s Health’s attention.
The question I wanted to answer then wasn’t whether the sport was deserving of its current standing, but whether I, from my box bedroom in Brixton, London, could take advantage of esports’s accessibility to reign supreme in FIFA’s Weekend League? Armed with a controller, a government-enforced lockdown and a month of zero plans, I booted up FIFA 20 and decided that there was only one way to find out. What follows is my fast-track induction to the ultra-competitive world of esports.
But before we get to that, let’s start with a crash course. Last year, the esports industry made $1.1 billion in revenue, according to games analytics company Newzoo, while at the 2019 FIFA eWorld Cup $500,000 was paid out in prize money to the top 32 competitors.
To earn the big bucks, you have to excel not just technically and mentally but physically too. Firstbeat, who specialise in measuring the performance analytics of elite athletes, estimates that the amount of stress hormone cortisol produced by a professional esports player is similar to that of a race car driver, while their heart rates can reach upwards of 180bpm, equivalent to that of a marathon runner. (Continued below)
This is a sport where athletes perform in competitions that last for hours and one slip can mean the difference between winning and losing. Only those who can handle the pressure reach the top. I was about to spend the next three weeks seeing if I was one of them.
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The challenge I had been set was to win as many games as possible in FIFA’s Weekend League, a tournament that exists within another of FIFA’s game modes, Ultimate Team. In Ultimate Team, professionals and amateurs build football dream teams, filling them with iconic players both past and present. These ultimate teams are then pitted against each other in the 30-game Weekend League, playable between Friday and Monday each weekend. If you want to get noticed on the scene, then coming from nowhere to win Weekend League is the way to do it.
On day one of the challenge, I wasn’t ready to compete. I knew this, but I also knew that time wasn’t on my side. Before players can even think about competing in Weekend League, they have to collect 2000 points from beating other players online. I only had three weeks to amass those points, so without any professional help, I decided to take the team of misfits and rejects FIFA gives you at the beginning of the game into battle against other players.
I’d been playing FIFA on and off ever since my Mum took me to buy a copy of FIFA ’99 from our local Virgin Megastore; I knew what the score was, so to speak. But my experience of the game only served to lull me into a false sense of security. As it turns out, the friends I had played against for years were all rubbish at FIFA, and I was rubbish too.
In those first five games, even if I’d dropped my controller and gone off to make a mid-game sandwich, I probably would have achieved similar results. Goals were flying past me like bullets in a John Wick movie. In my third game, I actually scored a goal, but it was just a brief moment of respite; opponents continued to pummel me. In my fifth and final game, the virtual Michael Owen playing upfront against me scored two hat-tricks.
I needed help. Fast. I sought the expertise of professional FIFA player Ryan Pessoa, who in 2018 was ranked as the number one FIFA player in the world on Xbox One and currently competes for Manchester City’s esports team. If anyone could help me, he could. We arranged to have three hour-long sessions.
Our first session focused on defence. I had complained that players were cutting through my team too easily. Pessoa gave a simple antidote: I should be jockeying and trying to hold my shape rather than abandoning my position to try and eagerly win back the ball. He also explained how some professionals hold the controller in such a way that they can reach every button with minimum effort, adopting a hand position called ‘the claw’. While jockeying was well within my ability, contorting my hand to look like a bird’s talon was not.
Pessoa also explained that if I wanted to achieve results like a professional, I had to treat the game as a professional would, which is something he had been forced to learn too. In the past, it wasn’t uncommon for Pessoa to be online when most of us are tucked up in bed, but he had seen success from switching to a more regular sleeping pattern – going to bed at 11pm and waking at 8am.
While I had no problem with sleep, I was playing the game sporadically: every day but whenever the mood struck me. What I needed was structure, so from that point on, every weekday between 5pm and 7pm, I played FIFA. Every weekend between 9am and 3pm, I played FIFA. No matter what was happening in my life, in the world or how little I wanted to pick up the controller and play, I played.
Run This Game
Playing that amount of FIFA threw up a new problem, one that wasn’t technical but physical. Being a professional FIFA player requires large reserves of endurance and concentration. As Pessoa put it, let your concentration levels drop for one second at a tournament and “you’re done”. Two or three games in succession was all I could usually manage before my performance levels dropped, so I spoke to York-Peter Kloeppel, mental performance manager at Red Bull’s Athlete Performance Centre for some tips on gaining a mental edge.
Kloeppel works on optimising 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 pretty unique amount of strain on athletes. “Even if you’re a marathon runner, it’s incredibly demanding physically for two hours, but mentally you don’t have to be completely focused all the time,” he explains.
In one of his studies at the APC, Kloeppel tested athletes’ reaction times before putting them on a treadmill for 30 minutes and testing them again. Once the athletes had exercised, he found that they were more alert, and their reaction times had improved, so I started going for runs or doing HIIT workouts before my FIFA sessions. I also started using breaks in play – goal kicks, throw-ins as well as the minute-long, half-time period – as an opportunity to close my eyes and rest my mind. These little techniques meant that I was winning more and more games, and on the final day before the Weekend League, I got the 2000 points needed to gain entry.
In my first Weekend League game, I was three-nil up before half time, and handing out the kind of pummelling I had been on the receiving end of a few weeks earlier. Unlike me, my opponent didn’t bother attempting a comeback and rage quit soon after the third goal went in. If the rest of the Weekend League went like this, I would easily win 30 games out of 30.
That didn’t quite happen, but in those first ten games I won more than I lost and steadily rose the Weekend League’s rankings. My strategy of working out and elevating my heart rate before I started my FIFA sessions appeared to be working. Until it didn’t.
I was playing the games in batches of five and aimed to play 15 games on both Saturday and Sunday, but in my final session on Saturday and my first session on Sunday, I couldn’t buy a win.
Working out before I started playing had stopped working. During one of our conversations, Pessoa had told me how Kloeppel had instructed him to use positive self-talk when he found himself in difficult moments during pro tournaments, so I started screaming at myself during games, telling myself that I was a better player, with more experience, than all of my competitors.
Combined with my other tactics, I was able to eke out another five victories, which left me with a record of 11 wins and 19 defeats. Hardly good enough to get noticed on the scene, but enough to earn automatic qualification to next weekend’s Weekend League.
Having played FIFA non-stop for three weeks, having treated the game like a second job and having constantly thought about how I can compete with the elite, it’s an invitation I’ll have to respectfully decline.
If any of my friends are up for a game, however, I’m ready when you are.
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