It was just like a soccer game in Europe. The BBC was there, Sky Sports was there, the French group Media365 was there, too. A deejay from Munich scratched house music out of a turntable as slim women in Adidas track suits guided well-groomed men in blazers and jeans to their seats, where they sipped on champagne and watched the best soccer players from France and Brazil kick and sprint past each other to become the world’s number one team. Well, sort of.
The players were all animations in the soccer video game FIFA 16. The real stars of the show were Mohamed Al-Bacha, of Denmark, and Sean Allen, of England, two young men who looked more like IT specialists than the toast of several major European and American sports networks. Out of 2.3 million competitors, Al-Bacha and Allen were the finalists in the 2016 FIFA Interactive World Cup, the 12th edition of the largest annual video game tournament in the world. Instead of in a Madrid stadium, the venue for this final match was the historic Apollo Theater, in the heart of Harlem. But most of the media presence there was European, and for good reason.
“Soccer is huge in Europe,” said Kay Murray, an English TV journalist who has hosted three prior FIFA Interactive World Cups and who has covered soccer for over a decade. “So many people are attracted to FIFA 16 because of their love of real football.”
Soccer is called the world’s favorite sport, and after months of online qualification seasons, the 32 elite players who emerged from the 2.3 million competitors hailed from countries as widespread as Costa Rica, Saudi Arabia and Burkina Faso. But only four Europeans were left standing after the group stage contests at the downtown Skylark lounge on Monday, which suggests that European players may have some advantage over the rest of the world.
Historically, all but two FIFA Interactive World Cups were won by Europeans, and all but four World Cups were hosted by Europe since the first one in 2004. Gemma Halsey, an Englishwoman who covers video games and e-sports for the French news group Media 365, said that that’s because different countries and regions have different tastes in virtual as well as physical sports.
“Each country seems to have a particular affection for a sport,” she said. “You guys have American Football and love Call of Duty and are really good at it. In England and France we have football and we have FIFA.”
The United States has hosted and won all three world championships in both the military-shooter game Call of Duty and the sci-fi-shooter Halo. But the boundaries of international e-sports are shifting, partly because of growing U.S. interest in soccer. Journalist Murray believed that was why FIFA and Electronic Arts, which has developed all FIFA games since its first release in 1993, made the trip to New York City this year.
“I think EA sports and FIFA have seen the growth of soccer here and know that it’s the perfect market to bring this tournament,” said Murray, as she sat on the stage after hosting the final on Tuesday night. “And they were right to do so, because with the American audience this was the best, most emotional final we’ve had so far.”
And the most nail biting! The two finalists were perfectly matched; Allen was a relentless attacker who had scored far more than anyone else in the group stage. Meanwhile Al-Bacha was a defensive player had only been scored on once in the six games leading up to the final. Perched on white high chairs facing the audience, the finalists’ body postures matched their playing style. Al-Bacha leaned forward with his elbows on his knees, cagey and guarded like a turtle. Allen sat taller in his seat, with his hands on the controller in his lap. But on the giant LCD screen behind him, his face looked set in a permanent, angry scowl.
“It’s an unstoppable force meets an immovable object!” said one of the live commentators. The final was decided by two 10-minute games, the first one on an Xbox One (Allen’s favorite) and the second on a PlayStation 4 (Al-Bacha’s).
After tying the first match “at home” on the PlayStation 4, Al-Bacha was “away” for the second match, playing on an Xbox One. With every move displayed on the big screen hanging over the stage, Al-Bacha scored, then Allen scored once, twice, three times and would have won 3-1 until the final ten seconds of the game. Al-Bacha scored once off a free-kick, then once more in the last second of the game, bringing the score to 3-3, but he won because he scored more goals than Allen while away.
The Apollo Theatre, which has hosted such legendary performers as Michael Jackson, James Brown and Jimi Hendrix, shook with cheers for a 17-year-old Dane whose glasses fell off as other FIFA players embraced him. Shortly afterwards, Al-Bacha received his trophy on stage from David Villa, the Spanish soccer legend and current captain of the New York City Football Club. The spud had become the stud, saluted by studs.
Yet despite all the pomp and champagne from FIFA, Al-Bacha received a prize purse of only $20,000, which is pocket change compared to the $1,000,000 prize for the annual League of Legends World Championship, where $150,000 alone goes to 3rd and 4th place finishers.
Despite the small cash prize and the big name sponsor, Thorsten Zippan, who has covered e-sports since their emergence in the late 1990s, explained that this tournament benefits from having FIFA as its governing sponsor. Even if FIFA ’16 lacks a well-organized fan base, especially in the United States, FIFA has the cultural clout and decades of organizing experience to form large championships at places like the Apollo, and draw a hefty gathering of mainstream press.
“FIFA it’s more like people playing father and son or friends playing together at home,” said Zippan, who is also the managing director of the Hamburg-based eSport Studio. “People just play it casually, so it is not as organized as other e-sport theaters are.”
But there was one drawback in the earlier phase of the tournament, Zippan said: the Skylark, a downtown lounge where the group stages were held, was too cramped. He said he had to be careful not to bump into players and did not find a place to work.
But all the excitement, soccer and champagne seemed to make up for FIFA’s shortcomings.
“The more publicity an event like this gets the higher the standard gets,” said Laura Woods, an English correspondent with more physical sports experience than virtual ones at Sky Sports. “If another video game assignment comes up I want to raise my hand and go!”