With betting and $200K for winner, virtual World Cup pays
By ROB HARRIS
LONDON (AP) 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 a soccer 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 its first esports 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 esports market, and bring a new generation of fans into clubs. Of the 32 men who made the finals in London - no women qualified - 11 were attached to clubs, according to FIFA.
Those other clubs included Ajax, Roma, Wolfsburg, and FC 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 colors.
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. Virtual players have to use neutral kits.
He was a success even before his opening match in London.
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-Germany final in front of an audience at Central Hall Westminster on Friday.
Just like in 1966 an Englishman collected the trophy - and with it $200,000 for Spencer "GORILLA" Ealing, who beat Kai "DETO" Wollin.
"It's life-changing money at stake now," says the 28-year-old Wollin, who still took home $40,000 despite losing 7-3 in the two-leg final, one on his preferred PlayStation and the other on Ealing's favored Xbox.
FIFA has increased the jackpot for its gaming champion ten-fold since last year's $20,000 prize in New York, an investment reflecting the growing importance of esports 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 (Portugal), Lionel Messi (Argentina) and Neymar (Brazil) 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 egames, it's new for us ... we have to deal with it."
The EA Sports-produced 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 virtual soccer, too, with in-play betting available.
"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 regular soccer 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 eSports trading, says by telephone. "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."
But as the financial stakes rise for players, so do the temptations: Match-fixing, cheating, corruption. Ian Smith, integrity commissioner at the Esports Integrity Coalition, thinks it is "foolish" to be offering extensive betting on virtual soccer 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 with EA about introducing integrity programs and education for players.
But, he adds, soccer games represent only around three percent of the esports market.
"There's less incentive to fix a match because the match is small," Smith says. "If FIFA takes off as an esport then of course integrity is going to become an issue."
Performance-enhancing substances could also become an issue, with players not currently tested.
"I know that in other esports people take some drugs to boost their concentration," Al-Meghessib's Brazilian teammate, Rafael Fortes, says.
Preserving the integrity of virtual soccer 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.
"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 minimizing 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.
"Take my son as an example," Pathy says. "He knows more about football through playing the EA 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 $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.
Fortes will have to settle with making esports pay.
"I didn't have the talent to be a regular pitch player," the 22-year-old Fortes says. "Your family don't expect if you play video games in your room and you get good that you can make money out of it."
Rob Harris is at www.twitter.com/RobHarris and www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports
Updated August 18, 2017