No ‘I’ in team – but there is an ‘EA’

There are three ways to play Fifa on a console: on your own, controlling a whole team; on your own controlling one player; or with 10 other people, each controlling a player. 

That latter option, Pro Clubs, has been around since EA Sports Fifa 10, released a decade ago. 

Playing this way means you can feel like Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, with a controller at your fingertips, looking to make an incisive pass to your teammate so they can 1-2 it back to you as you run into the space before unleashing the perfect shot. 

For that match you become your favourite player — without having to put in the crazy amount of physical training. 

The South African Pro Clubs League has used the mode to bring a more competitive, fair structure to football gaming in South Africa. 

Mubeen Gafoor, a board member of the league, says: “Most esports is focused on an individual basis. For example, if you are just a decent Fifa player, you can’t compete on the competitive scene. But with pro clubs, if you’re even an average player, you can fit into a team and you can excel within that team.” 

This then means more people can play, more people can be competitive and more people can have fun. 

The local pro clubs league started in March 2018, using the PlayStation 4 as their console of choice. In the first test season they had 10 teams in one division. Now, 11 seasons in, there are 64 teams playing across four divisions.

In the last season, the winners walked away with R3 500 out of a total prize pool of nearly R19 000. This is small money, but globally gaming is competing with Hollywood for star potential, money and influence. 

The 11-player team format also solves a problem with gaming in South Africa — it’s difficult to find servers (because of poor internet) and then to find people to play with. Now people create teams and play with them, with the league seasons guaranteeing games (in much the same way that five-a-side football has exploded with its scheduled games and competitive leagues). 

The type of excitement the league brings when players score 30 metre screamers

Two years in, and with set teams, the league is starting to grow characteristics such as those in professional football (the kind played with a real ball on a grass pitch). With a small prize at stake, teams have created a transfer market and compete with each other to get the best striker, defender or a previously unscouted new talent. For the teams it’s about getting the 11 best players behind their screens. 

Another board member, Rafieck Mohammed, says the league has received a lot of exposure in Africa with teams from Mauritius, Mozambique and Angola. This exposure and the growing size of the league means there is room for more prize money to be given as more sponsors appear on the horizon.

eFootie: In France, 16 pro gamers attend the national efoot selections to decide the best Fifa players who become the French efoot team for a year. (Lucas Barioulet/AFP)

“When it comes to sponsors, like any business, people want to see what type of exposure they will be getting and how far are we reaching out to people. With the league, our exposure is huge around Africa, so a lot of companies have contacted us willing to sponsor the association. We are looking through it and with a sponsorship, we will be able to further our development as an organisation,” Mohammed says. “This will also allow us to increase the prize pool and that will make the league even more competitive,” he adds.

Although the league has enjoyed enormous success since its inception, there are challenges that lie ahead, not least in the form of ever-updating games and new consoles.

Fifa 20 is about to make way for Fifa 21, while the stalwart Playstation 4 is going to be replaced by the Playstation 5 in November. 

Any new game inevitably creates a split. People like what they are used to and each Fifa comes with tweaks to things such as physics, the way the ball moves and how players play their football.

The price of the new Playstation starts at about R10 000, so it remains out of reach for many games. There is also the split between consoles, with people religiously falling behind either the Playstation or Microsoft’s xBox.  

Gafoor says this is a particular problem because EA Sports — the creators of the Fifa franchise — don’t allow people to connect with each other if they use different consoles. 

The most immediate challenge comes with the transition from Fifa 20 to Fifa 21 and also the shift from Playstation 4 to Playstation 5, which hits our shores on 19 November.

If these local problems are solved, Gafoor says the gamers are always looking to compete internationally. With eSports growing everywhere, he says local teams get regular offers to play against international teams. 

But this isn’t necessarily a pleasant experience. 

South Africa’s internet is slow. This means games have lag — where you are always seeing things a fraction after they have already happened. That’s a fatal problem if you’re trying to tackle an opposition striker in the box, or finesse a shot into the goal.  

Gafoor says: “We have the issue with lag that hinders competing on an international level. But we have sent some teams to compete on those fronts, but like I said, due to lag, it’s not going to be the perfect experience.”

Luckily for the league, the intensity of local competition means people want to play Fifa with, and against, each other. Thanks to this, the South African Pro Clubs League is looking to add an extra division come 2021.

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Eyaaz Matwadia
Eyaaz Matwadia
Eyaaz Matwadia is a member of the Mail & Guardian's online team.

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