Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 14 November 2019

English Premier League makes pitch for piece of the eSports action

All 20 Premier League clubs hosted four weeks of intense trials, whittling down hundreds of video gamers for a ground-breaking eSports tournament by the world’s biggest domestic football league

In a heated Premier League match, Pierre Emerick Aubameyang scores a last-minute winning goal for Arsenal, and the fans - already on the edge of their seats - rise in chaotic jubilation.

Except on this sunny spring day in March, Emirates Stadium is filled with gaming enthusiasts glued to multiple screens mimicking a call centre, watching professional gamers controlling virtual footballers with rapid fire work on PlayStation and Xbox controllers.

Up and down the UK, video gamers have been bidding to represent England’s top football clubs in the ePremier League tournament, a ground-breaking eSports tournament played on the popular ‘Fifa19’ video game put on by the English Premier League, the world’s biggest domestic football league by income and viewership.

Competitive video game playing, commonly referred to as eSports, can trace its roots back to the 1990s and early 2000s in South Korea and the US, in the days of PC gaming and multiplayer shooter games. Today, the eSports market – often played in front of crowds of thousands in packed arenas and streamed live online to millions of viewers worldwide - is on the verge of becoming the next billion-dollar industry, powered by the fanatical dedication of teenagers and 20-somethings competing and spectating in America, Asia and Europe.

 People watch the action during the 2018 League of Legends World Championship grand final. The eSports market is on the verge of becoming the next billion-dollar industry. EPA
 People watch the action during the 2018 League of Legends World Championship grand final. The eSports market is on the verge of becoming the next billion-dollar industry. EPA

One of the best FIFA video game players in the world says he was “delusional” to enter eSports six years ago, at a time where there weren’t many other players on the scene.

“From a financial point of view, nothing was happening [at the start]. I just wanted to secure my name in the scene and I kept saying [eSports] is going to explode,” former FIFA eWorld Cup champion Tassal ‘Tas’ Rushan told The National.

Mr Rushan was eventually proven right. He’s since garnered almost 400,000 followers across Twitter and YouTube combined, thanks to his EA Sports FIFA vlogs, which comes with lucrative sponsorships. His rise to the top has involved foregoing university, dragging a bewildered father along to eSports tournaments from Dubai to New York, and three years of waiting for a professional career to take off before being “blessed with too perfect timing” thanks to winning EA Sport’s FIFA 2017 tournament.

The 24-year-old Brit, a veteran by eSport standards, is set to represent his beloved Arsenal at the ePremier League tournament in late March.

All 20 Premier League clubs hosted four weeks of intense trials earlier this month, whittling down hundreds of gamers to just 40 UK-based players; 20 representing clubs on Xbox and 20 on PlayStation. Players will battle it out for a trophy and the title of ePremier League champion. The finals of the inaugural competition, on 28 and 29 March, will be broadcast live on Sky Sports in the UK. Unlike many eSports tournaments, there is no cash prize.

It’s a high-stakes, high-pressure industry, and most of the time, the potential payout is huge.

Saudi national Mosaad "Msdossary" Aldossary won $250,000 at the 2018 FIFA eWorld Cup last year at a packed O2 Arena in London last August, while European football’s governing body UEFA will hand out $100,000 to the continent’s top e-Champions League player in May.

Saudi Arabia’s Mosaad "Msdossary" Aldossary holds aloft the 2018 eFIFA World Cup trophy. Credit: James Townley
Saudi Arabia’s Mosaad "Msdossary" Aldossary holds aloft the 2018 eFIFA World Cup trophy. Credit: James Townley

Germany’s Kuro Takhasomi has earned $4.1 million from tournament wins alone, excluding sponsorship deals. Jordanian pro Amer Al-Barkawi has an estimated $3.7m from tournament winnings, while further down the money list, the 100th richest gamer earns around $700,000 from Call of Duty: Infinity Wars tournaments. While individual cash pots are lucrative, the ability for individuals to find secure full-time contracts with eSports teams to make a living is how the majority of gamers turn eSports into a viable career path.

ESports has transformed lives for some competing at the Premier League’s inaugural tournament. Southampton FC’s PlayStation player Owen Venn broke his leg while playing football as a teenager in a crunching slide tackle, but has since overcome adversity to turn his hobby into a trade.

“A week after I broke my leg, I went to a Call of Duty player event on my crutches. That’s where it all started,” Mr Venn told The National.

“Later on, FIFA competitions became prominent with backing from [sports video game company] EA Sports. I thought, this couldn’t be a career, surely?”

ESports has also provided salvation for Tottenham’s e-player Kylem Edwards, a young footballer who turned to eSports after being denied the opportunity to continue professional football by boyhood club Reading.

“When I was at Reading FC, I preferred playing FIFA games,” said the 22-year-old, released at the age of 16 by the Championship club. “Between school, studying for GCSE’s, and balancing that with football training, I was left with no free time.”

He’s now achieving his dream as a fully contracted eSports player on a “good wage that’s better than full-time employment”.

Time, either a wealth or lack of it, can make or break the chances of those climbing the eSports career ladder: time to practice, to learn, to adapt with new releases. Take time off, Arsenal’s superstar player warns, and you could fall behind.

The overall revenue opportunities for businesses in eSports remains unclear. The Premier League’s head of marketing and sales Will Brass says the English Premier League tournament, is “a fan engagement growth opportunity” rather than a profit-making venture at this stage.

Donovan Hunt, commonly known as ‘F2Tekkz’ and considered one of the best eSport players in the world, flew straight to London from Atlanta after winning $50,000 to take part in the Premier League’s search for club players. That, says Mr Brass, is a sign of success.

US oil major Shell engages with the popular multiplayer shooter game League of Legends by giving gamers the chance to activate exclusive outfits for their virtual character by using a Shell branded smartcard. Andy Payne, chairman of British eSports, says this campaign is evidence of the remarkable potential to monetise the industry.

Critics claim eSports isn’t taxing enough to be considered a sport, but tell that to players averaging 10 hours a day to hone their skills. Hours spent in front of a screen and the pressure to bag lucrative cash prizes is a cause for concern for gamers’ mental health, and an issue that’s gaining traction in eSports. One Brighton fan-turned-FIFA player for the club, took up carpentry to help relieve stress.

“The mental strain is immense,” Mr Payne said.

Behind closed doors, the chairman says influencers are talking about coaching, mentoring and counselling. For Arsenal’s Xbox king, it can’t come soon enough.

“If I could delete the stresses of competing, I would,” Mr Rushan said.

Mr Venn, a PlayStation player for Southampton’s football club, says some top eSports teams are already bringing in experts to deal with the strain.

“It’ll be more prominent in the future with people going to the gym. People don’t go outside a lot when they’re professionally gaming.”

One day, a team of dieticians, physios and doctors will be as common for eSports players as they are for their Premier League counterparts. For now, spectators watching the Premier League’s first eSports tournament live on Sky Sports on 28 and 29 March shouldn’t expect any ligament ruptures, or worse, feigning injury.

Updated: March 21, 2019 07:22 PM

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