Fifa Interactive World Cup pays with betting and US$200,000 for the winner

Englishman Spencer “GORILLA” Ealing beats Kai “DETO” Wollin 7-3 in the two leg final in London after coming out on top of 31 other console competitors

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 August, 2017, 2:07pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 August, 2017, 11:51pm

In the days after Neymar’s world-record transfer, Paris Saint-Germain was wrapping up another ground-breaking signing. One less costly and lacking the Brazilian’s fanfare.

Ahmed Al-Meghessib won’t be lining up alongside Neymar, but the 19-year-old Qatari is no less of a pioneer.

Unlike the other 31 console competitors at the Fifa Interactive World Cup in London this week, Al-Meghessib still pulls on his boots for a top-flight club, in his native Qatar with Al-Duhail.

“I am a real football player,” he says. “It is a great feeling to be a virtual and an actual football player.”

Unfortunately for Al-Meghessib, whose gaming name is “AMEGHESSIB,” he couldn’t transfer his talent for real football into a deep run in the virtual finals. He finished in the middle of his group in the first round and advanced no further.

It was the same fate for the second gamer signed by PSG in their first e-sports squad. And yet, PSG could consider them a relative success.

Professional teams are no longer just focused on winning competitions like the Champions League and Fifa Club World Cup on the field, they want gaming titles to tap into a slice of the growing e-sports market, and bring a new generation of fans into clubs.

Of the 32 men who made the finals in London, 11 were attached to clubs, according to Fifa.

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Those other clubs included Ajax, Roma, Wolfsburg, and Basel. They take any reflected glory at the Interactive World Cup from their players, whom they really sign for other tournaments, where they can field their club colours.

Al-Meghessib was told off for setting up his team as PSG after his opening match in a choking, sweaty room surrounded by seven other head-to-heads and loud commentary. His team had to wear a neutral kit instead in future games.

Al-Meghessib was a success even before his opening match in London.

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Competition to reach the finals is getting harder each year. Two million players entered the 2016 edition. Qualifying for the 13th tournament attracted seven million competitors, according to Fifa, and the finals were broadcast globally online and on television.

Just like the men’s World Cup 51 years ago at Wembley Stadium in London, Fifa’s virtual tournament culminated in an England against Germany final in front of an audience at Central Hall Westminster.

Just like in 1966, an Englishman collected the trophy and with it US$200,000 for Spencer “GORILLA” Ealing , who beat Kai “DETO” Wollin.

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“It’s life-changing money at stake now,” says the 28-year-old Wollin, who still took home US$40,000 despite losing 7-3 in the two leg final, one on his preferred PlayStation and the other on Ealing’s favoured Xbox.

Fifa has increased the jackpot for their gaming champion since last year’s US$20,000 prize in New York, an investment reflecting the growing importance of e-sports even to the world’s most popular traditional sport.

“We’re not in it for the money,” says Jean-Francois Pathy, director of marketing services at Fifa. “The priority of this event is to engage with the younger community. It’s just another way of consuming football.”

The Interactive World Cup produces the unusual sight of stars like Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Neymar wearing the jerseys of other countries.

There are also long-retired players also available for selection like Ruud Gullit, who scored for Ealing’s winning England team.

“Thanks to this game the youngsters know me because I’m in the legends game,” says Gullit, a title winner with AC Milan, Feyenoord, PSV Eindhoven and the Netherlands. “Not being raised on e-games, it’s new for us ... we have to deal with it.”

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The Fifa game already seems to be the preferred recreational activity for players worldwide, whether to fill the tedium after training or while lounging around hotels on team trips.

“Every year when the game comes out, the first thing I do is check my stats,” Chelsea defender Cesar Azpilicueta says after handing out the jerseys for the Fifa gamers in London.

Bookmakers are getting into the virtual game, too, with in-play betting available.

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“It’s crazy when you can see [people] spending money on me winning,” Wollin says.

More than 30 bookmakers are being fed information by Bulgaria-based UltraPlay. Just like in the regular game there is scouting, with experts logging old games and practice matches online to assess odds.

“We are literally following every single player whether they are playing at home or streaming,” Peter Ivanov, UltraPlay head of the e-sports trading, says.

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“It works in the same way as any other football game, making sure each game is fair to the public so it is OK to take bets on it,” says Ivanov.

But as the financial stakes rise for players, so do the temptations: match-fixing, cheating, corruption. Ian Smith, integrity commissioner at the e-sports integrity coalition, thinks it is “foolish” to be offering extensive betting on virtual games due to the lack of data available to provide reliable markets.

“The risk is sitting all with the operators on this,” said Smith, who has been in talks about introducing integrity programmes and education for players.

But, he adds, football games represent only around three per cent of the e-sports market.

“There’s less incentive to fix a match because the match is small,” Smith says. “If Fifa takes off as an e-sport then of course integrity is going to become an issue.”

Performance-enhancing substances could also become an issue, with players not tested.

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“I know that in other e-sports people take some drugs to boost their concentration,” Al-Meghessib’s Brazilian teammate, Rafael Fortes, says.

Preserving the integrity of the virtual game is particularly important for the governing body since the game is the one part of the Fifa brand yet to be infected by corruption scandals.

Fifa is cautious but not immediately troubled by the prospect of video gamers trying to cheat like real footballers.

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“We are keeping an eye on it,” Pathy says. “It could come with challenges in the future. But we feel by being close to our players, their agents and the clubs we are minimising this risk.”

Those players are helping to dispel a stereotype, articulated by Gullit, that gaming is about “geeks at home.”

For youngsters, the professional gamers who master strategy, formations and tactics on consoles are becoming heroes like professionals on the pitch as they grow social media followings.

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“Take my son as an example,” Pathy says. “He knows more about football through playing the Fifa game than actually watching on TV.”

Al-Meghessib is hoping to feature in the game one day as a Qatari national team player, by competing at Fifa’s real World Cup in his homeland rather than just in the digital version.

From London, after pocketing US$1,000 for his group stage exit, Al-Meghessib was flying to Slovenia for a training camp to resume his playing career for real on grass.

“My goal now is to be in the squad in 2022,” he says.