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FIFA 16 is the gateway drug to esports

The finals of the FIFA Interactive World Cup on Tuesday will go down as one of, if not, the greatest game of FIFA (FIFA 16 in this case) ever played, done so in front of packed audience in the famous Apollo Theatre in New York City.

The two protagonists fought out a 2-2 draw in the first leg, with the advantage of away goals going to Englishman Sean “xLDragon” Allen over his Danish fellow finalist Mohamed “Al-Bacha” Al-Bacha. The match also played out on TV stations around the world, including here in the UK live on Sky Sports 2, one of our premier sports channels.

Pressure was high as the two players cooled off after the first leg. After all, $20,000 was on the line, and — perhaps more importantly — a trip to the FIFA Ballon d’Or, an annual prize-giving ceremony frequented by the likes of Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.

The first half was a tense affair with nerves understandably coming into play, but Al-Bacha led at halftime with a single goal. Allen, the tournament’s highest scorer, had plenty of goals in him yet. Playing as Brazil, he started as he meant to go on with high pressure, pushing in on the shaky defense of the Dane. He got his reward with two quick goals to head the leg and the aggregate score 4-3.

Another goal for Allen seemed to seal the deal, especially as we headed into the 89th minute, but Al-Bacha was having none of it as he rifled in a shot with barely 30 seconds left on the virtual clock to pull the leg back to 3-2. If nerves were showing for Allen, here is where they really showed. Agonizing time slipped by in the tactics screen as Al-Bacha went with a 4-2-4 all-out attack for the final seconds of the game. Yet, for all his experience, Allen, a 2015 semifinalist, made no changes in response, perhaps content to keep hold of the ball in what was now injury time.

At that point, it was all or nothing for Al-Bacha, with his ultra-attacking tactics and a substitution played. They were both now acutely aware that if Al-Bacha scored another goal, he would win the entire thing on the away goals rule, but if Allen could hold on for the last few seconds of real time, he would be champion for the first time.

Huge pressure on both young men and one had to crack. In this instance it was Allen who gave away the ball in midfield and Al-Bacha escaped to slot home an injury time winner to the delight of the close friends at the front of the audience. It was over. Al-Bacha let out a mighty cheer and deservedly so. It was cruel on Allen, who after being knocked out at the semifinal stage last year had done everything right leading into the final leg of this year’s final. But he just couldn’t hold on those last few seconds.

I report this to you in case you missed it because frankly, if you did, it wouldn’t be that surprising. The FIFA series continues to be heavily under-appreciated in the esports world. I’ve commentated on almost every version of the game for the last 11 years at various events from i-series to Gfinity Championships, the FIWC three times and even the $250,000 finals in Vegas of Virgin Gaming. On every occasion, I come away with the same thought: This is brilliant.

With esports casters like Leigh “Deman” Smith and Joe Miller alongside traditional sports casters, the entire thing has an air of authenticity and entertainment. Not just once did I get a tweet back saying how good they were, and that in fact they were the most enjoyable part of the viewing experience.

But that also means perhaps people didn’t understand or see the skill some of these players have. Watch them up close if you get the chance. Some of the things professional FIFA players do is quite ridiculous. Perhaps like real football, if we can kick a ball, we think we’re pretty good, until we visit a professional game in the Premier League and then realize our dreams of making it are rather unrealistic. The same cannot be said in FIFA though because trust me, there are thousands of young kids just around the corner ready to challenge Al-Bacha and Allen when the time comes. It’s a healthy scene with a hot online community playing various different playing setups.

So why does it not get more viewers? Perhaps because of snobbery, or perhaps because it’s seen as “easy” to do. I’m not entirely sure, but despite the excitement it can bring and the high skill of the players, it’s never really managed to attract high viewership. That’s a shame.

There is, however, something the FIFA series does that should not be underestimated, and it might just be even bigger than viewership numbers: It’s highly accessible. To everyone who has ever watched a game of football, that might sound obvious, but in our all too often misunderstand world of esports, that’s actually something that appeals to a lot of people outside our esports bubble. It’s not just sponsors, but TV channels and stations too.

I’ve had, over the last few years many conversations with serious people who know nothing about esports, other than perhaps it gets good viewership numbers. They don’t understand League of Legends, Dota2, Counter Strike or StarCraft. They simply see it as people playing video games they don’t get and some even laugh at the possibility that anyone in their right mind would actually want to watch others play them, let alone pay to do so at large arenas and stadiums. It would be easy to ignore and demonize these people, but to do so also alienates potentially larger audiences and greater investment in esports in a broader sense.

Instead, whenever I’ve been faced with this, I’ve used FIFA as an easy-to-explain game to “break them” into esports competition. Honestly, I think we take for granted just how much we know about esports and how much of it comes naturally to those of us in the scene. But for someone attending or watching their first esports event, they have so much to learn. Never mind understanding the game itself, they have to learn about brackets and rules that don’t have real world comparisons.

Yet we have the FIFA series of games, easy to explain, watch and enjoy. They don’t have to learn new rules or regulations, and they understand the game, even if they still find it unusual that others would want to watch it.

There is a good argument that fighting games offer a similar introduction to esports, and while I wouldn’t disagree in the main, you still don’t always have real world comparisons to fall back on, and it takes a bit of time to “get it”.

Congratulations to Mohamed Al-Bacha, the FIFA Interactive World Champion, and thanks to all of the FIFA scene and players for introducing many more people to our wonderful world. It truly is the gateway drug to esports.


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