In praise of the beautiful e-game

The people’s game: A virtual gaming centre, where play-offs generate much excitement due to the presence of an audience. (rushesports.co.za)

The people’s game: A virtual gaming centre, where play-offs generate much excitement due to the presence of an audience. (rushesports.co.za)

Mohamed Diop has two hours to burn through before his heat, so he accepts my challenge.

It was a frivolous one to issue. There’s not a casual Fifa gamer on the planet who doesn’t think he’s (or she’s) hot shit but the 17-year-old’s T-shirt will quickly deflate anyone else’s chest puffing. His Orlando Pirates e-sports regalia, unveiled beneath his jacket when he enters the play area, tells you there’s no triumph to be had here by opponents, only humiliation and a scoreline more befitting a rugby game.

The ego-killing endeavour stems from the compulsion to answer a simple question: What separates the pros from the rest of us?

There’s a reason football is the people’s game. Its beauty is born from a child’s ability to mould almost any pliable material into a ball and have a kickaround. To designate a dustbin as goalposts and still have a fiercely competitive game. It’s more than an adage; it’s something every fan would wholeheartedly acknowledge.

In the 21st century, the same intrinsic charm has translated into football’s digital iteration: the Fifa e-sports game. Obvious restrictions (such as access to a console) notwithstanding, it is regarded as the people’s video game, one in which any two strangers can come together and quickly share both anguish and laughter.

And so it is with Diop. But the towering Senegalese-born teenager is in Pretoria’s Sun Arena for a far more important reason: the Fifa tournament at the annual Rush e-sports event. It’s on the smaller side of the major events he’ll participate in this year but, like any dedicated player, he wants to win them all — even the friendly challenge issued against him.

He selects Real Madrid, the go-to team for most gamers, largely because of the attributes and pre-eminence of Cristiano Ronaldo. Custom tactics are next on the agenda; he tinkers away at the intensity of the buildup play, the chance creation and the defence. The levels are turned up high: “I like my players to aggressively press,” he says.

Press they do. The difference between amateur and pro isn’t immediately noticeable as passes and tackles are innocuously shared in midfield for a minute in what resembles an in-game warm-up. Then he begins to attack and it couldn’t be clearer. The white haze of Los Blancos surges forward without hesitation or indecision.

Around and in the box, Diop almost always knows the right play to make. When to thread the ball through for a runner or pass it back to retain possession. The right moment to finesse the ball deftly around the keeper or send a piledriver into the bottom corner instead.

Teenage kicks: Mohamed Diop is still at school but can make decent pocket money over weekends by playing e-sports competitively

The Fifa game markets itself as a football simulation and, as is the case with the real thing, ruthlessness is richly rewarded.

“You’re a decent player,” he humbly reassures me as the game ticks to a close and a 4-0 scoreline. Whatever truth there is in that statement, he knows that only players like him, those who have cultivated a merciless instinct, could achieve any success at this level.

Two days later, Diop would find himself in the final, ultimately achieving second place at Rush. The effort bagged him R3 000 and a Huawei Y7 (valued at R3 000). Not bad for a high school pupil who’s only allowed to play on weekends, but smallish when compared with some of the prizes being offered in similar events. In May, for instance, 16-year-old Thabo Moloi won R400 000 after coming first in the VS Gaming Fifa qualifier.

The increasing stakes are vital to the growth of the e-sport, says Wasim Rajah, a professional with an express interest in seeing competitive Fifa gaming thrive in South Africa.

He belongs to Bravado Gaming, a team that participates in the most popular games in the country. Being part of an organisation helps players like Rajah and Diop take part in all the events their schedules allow, thanks to sponsorship and support. Later this month, for instance, Rajah is targeting a trip to Cape Town to attend the Electronics and Gaming Expo and the possibility of a R10 000 prize.

In that event, he’ll likely be using Manchester United — a change from Madrid but not entirely uncommon. Listening to Rajah talk, it’s clear that the thought process behind team selection at this level far exceeds merely backing your favoured real-life team. It’s necessary to dissect the very fabric of the team, understand its strengths and see which of its assets can match your dexterity with the controller.

“In Fifa, you can take your style of play and basically fit it into any team,” he says. “For me, United’s tactics fit the way I play. Often I go defensive and use the counter-attack. United have the type of players to play that way. The midfielders allow you to pass a lot between them and they’ve got quick wingers and attacking mids. So even if you can’t find a pass, their pace allows you to run into gaps.”

Playing against Rajah is a different experience to playing Diop but equally humbling. He might allow you a little more time around the centre circle but any foray into his final third is snuffed out with suffocating efficiency. From there he’ll build methodically, frustrating you with dominant possession while he patiently waits for your defence to be drawn out of position. He admits that it’s a style that sometimes gets him into trouble.

“I’m a build-up type of player,” he continues. “I like to play tiki-taka style. I take things quite slow —build up from the back, pass a lot in the middle.

“Sometimes it works against you because you tend to pass a lot when you should take a shot. You can get counterattacked very quickly.”

The 21-year-old education student wins 1-0, a scoreline that probably would have been inflated had he been closer to full focus. It’s reminiscent of when Barcelona visited South Africa earlier this year; Sundowns were a match on paper but, in action, the ease with which the Spaniards moved the ball around was at a level the locals could only hope to mirror. 

Rajah goes on to the quarterfinals at Rush. “Fifa can be a bit cruel sometimes,” he says of his knockout.

Faced with a rapidly growing competitive scene, both he and Diop have the gaming world literally at their fingertips. Neither, however, is entertaining the idea of becoming full-time pros, no matter the type of money that enters the game.

It’s heartening to see, in a sense: even though Fifa may be the people’s video game, it’s just that — a video game. Still, the passion around it will continue to fascinate and allow those who have bred their talent an outlet to succeed.

After all, South Africans travelled to the Fifa eWorld Cup this year, an achievement their real-world football counterparts could only dream of replicating.

Luke Feltham

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