LONDON: Just weeks after France celebrated their World Cup victory in Russia, “Gorilla”, “Crafty” and “Honey Badger” are competing for the right to call themselves FIFA 18 world champion.
A total of 32 players — 16 PlayStation and 16 Xbox stars – are competing at the 2018 FIFA eWorld Cup Grand Final at London’s O2 Arena for a top prize of $250,000.
More than 20 million players entered the competition dreaming of glory– with 128 players making it through to the Global Series Playoffs in Amsterdam at the end of May and the beginning of June.
The fresh-faced finalists in London, with their eye on World Cup glory on Saturday, come from as far afield as Argentina, New Zealand and Malta.
English-born Harry “Honey Badger” Blackmore, who moved to New Zealand with his parents six years ago, relishes the chance to play in the O2.
“I watched many boxing fights here and backstage there are posters of those who appeared here like Anthony Joshua and rapper Jay-Z,” the 23-year-old told AFP.
“Maybe one day they will say Robbie Williams and Harry Blackmore performed at the O2 and my mum will be very proud,” he added, laughing.
The engaging Blackmore, who stands out with his shock of red hair and jokes he is “getting old”, says he keeps fit by playing semi-professional football but also looks after himself because he is aware he is potentially appearing in front of millions of viewers.
He has already seen his profile soar ahead of the tournament — appearing on the national morning news in New Zealand — in a sign of the increasing profile of eSports.
“It is going to get bigger and bigger,” said Blackmore, who started playing the game aged six. “The prize pots are going up and it is becoming a more viable career where you can make not just a living but a very comfortable living.
“I am very privileged to be in this position.”
For football’s world governing body FIFA, the move to London’s O2 this year underlines the growing profile of the game.
“The 02 is a bit of a statement,” said Jean-Francois Pathy, FIFA’s director of marketing services.
“It is a growing tournament, the biggest tournament using the FIFA franchise and we want the 02 or the equivalent in future years to be a sell-out.”
‘Ronaldo work ethic’
Stars such as Blackmore will help to sell tickets but Pathy says in order for the game to grow, the players have to sell themselves and become stars in their own right.
“The profile of players has to develop and get them to become more recognisable,” he said. “They have to have a clearer profile and personalities. That is part of developing the game and the franchise.”
The road to becoming a part of the sports family — “the normalisation and professionalisation” stage as Pathy puts it — also includes drug testing and monitoring of betting patterns, while the players are increasingly taking on coaches.
Blackmore has no problem with the introduction of dope-testing — there was a draw on stage after the first round of matches to select who would be tested.
“Principally it is to look for drugs that slow down your heart like beta blockers,” said Blackmore.
“It is a good measure as everyone should be on a level playing field.”
Those performing at the O2 do not just treat the stars in their teams as tools for winning but adopt them as role models.
“Cristiano Ronaldo, his work ethic is insane, definitely someone you want to look up to,” 19-year-old American Alexander “Alekzandur” Garcia Betancourt said.
Betancourt, who got into the game through his father and is attached to MLS franchise Sporting Kansas City, says it is an honour to be the sole American competing in London.
“It would be awesome being 19 and winning $250,000 but I don’t want my head going into the clouds,” he said. —AFP