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“It’s super important” – FIFA’s Director of eFootball on their esports ambitions

After Bayern Munich’s 1-0 victory over Tigres in the FIFA Club World Cup, the esports edition of the tournament will begin on February 24.

Played on EA Sports’ FIFA 21 gaming title, the FIFA eClub World Cup is the virtual edition of the FIFA Club World Cup, where 42 of the world’s best FIFA esports teams will compete remotely for a share of the $245,000 prize pool on offer, in addition to the $105,000 in prize money that has already distributed after the online qualification phase.

Over 480 esports teams attempted to qualify for the 2021 FIFA eClub World Cup, a 150% increase year-on-year, with just 42 teams making it through to the finals from six dedicated global zones.

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But although the majority of the teams competing are conventional esports organisations such as Complexity Gaming, GBX Esports Team, Astralis and Goliath Gaming, there are a number of traditional football clubs with dedicated esports teams who have qualified for the tournament, including Manchester City, RB Leipzig, Inter, Genoa, FC Schalke 04, Kashima Antlers, Al-Nassr FC, Melbourne City, New York City, Chivas, FC Basel and more.

According to Esports Charts, last year’s 2020 FIFA eClub World Cup esports tournament had a total watch time of 834,742 hours across three days of action across Facebook, Twitch and YouTube. To put that figure into context, that’s the equivalent of 9,274 full football matches, and it’s extremely likely that this year’s competition will be even more popular.

The final, between Ellevens and CompLexity, was the peak in terms of viewership with 66,182 people tuning in, which is enough to fill Tottenham Hotspur Stadium and have over 4,000 people left over.

Max Emilov Popov and Joksan Redona Tello of Complexity Gaming team celebrate with Spencer Owen and Julia Hardy after winning the final match during Finals day of the FIFA eClub World Cup 2020 – Day 3 on February 09, 2020 in Milan, Italy.

The 2021 FIFA eClub World Cup is the first of several FIFAe tournaments this year, as FIFA continues to invest in growing a new, dedicated esports vertical for future generations.

Ahead of this year’s tournament, Mirror Sport spoke to Christian Volk, Director of eFootball & Gaming at FIFA. He told us why esports is important for FIFA, discussed the convergence of sports and esports and what this means for FIFA, and looked ahead to the 2021 FIFA eClub World Cup.

So, just how important is esports to FIFA?

“It’s super important,” said Volk.

“Because in our aspiration to make football truly global, obviously, eFootball plays an important role.

“It’s helping us to reach new audiences, it’s very easy to access, to democratise or further democratise football, this platform is of massive importance.

“We are continuing our our journey to build a professional, entertaining and sustainable ecosystem.

“Because only if you have a strong base, strong fundamentals you can you know build high.

Christian Volk, Director of eFootball & Gaming at FIFA (Photo by Ben Hoskins – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

“We want to create the best experience for individual players on the road to the FIFA eWorld Cup. We want to create the best experience for teams in the FIFA eClub World Cup.

“And we want to create an onboard a competition for members associations. So the eNational teams have the stage as well.

“So working in parallel on those three narratives, because we believe that they are very, very important and paramount to really solidify the foundation of our entire ecosystem.

Christian also gave us his thoughts about esports based on traditional sports like FIFA esports, or eFootball as FIFA call it, and if they are competing with their real-life counterparts, or if it’s a positive thing that helps their growth.

“I think in this equation, one plus one is more than two. I’m convinced of that.

“Because both ecosystems, if you think of them as separate, which they’re not, because ultimately for the younger generation, they don’t separate between football and eFootball, for them it’s just a football experience, right?

“So it’s rather symbiotic relationship between the two. The further one grows, the better it does for the other.

“You could almost think, football gives credibility to eFootball, and to FIFA esports what we’re doing and we give relevance back to football.

We also discussed whether FIFA classes esports as a sport, or more along the lines of entertainment.

“I would actually refer you to experts in that field from sport universities such as Professor Ingo Froböse from German Sports University in Cologne.

“They did studies around…what it takes to perform at a high level and compare it with other sports.

“And they found, for example, that in the mental load and the reactivity and all the different attributes and skills you need, are, in some instances, even more required, or even more important than in some sports.

Ethan James Higgins and Pedro Henrique of Ellevens team celebrate in the final match during Finals day of the FIFA eClub World Cup 2020 (Photo by Tullio Puglia – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

“So whether in the end, we’re talking about a real sport, the debate is ongoing.

“There are many reasons to speak for it. And there are some arguments that might go against it. But fundamentally, time will tell where this will end.

“For us, we treat it as if it would be another sporting discipline.

“If you look at the faces of the players and you speak with them after the competition, they’re drained.

“This is super, super, challenging.

“And the situation itself, I think is, it’s a paradox because people who are watching or viewing, they’re not necessarily seeing what they put into the game, right?

“Because finally they see the virtual or the simulation game being carried out, but they don’t see what the actual athlete, the player is putting into the game.

“So to really elevate that performance, and to tell the stories of the individual and the teams, is something that we are focusing on.

“To really make sure that people understand how much it takes, how much it really takes to play the highest level.

With the whole world in the midst of a global pandemic, many people around the world are spending more time indoors, which is leading to a huge surge in the popularity of gaming and esports.

According to a report from Newzoo, the European esports audience grew to 92 million in 2020, up 7.4% from 2019. And in terms of global revenue, esports is continuing up its trajectory of explosive growth, generating $973.9 million by the end of 2020, a number that will skyrocket to $1.6 billion by 2023, with European esports revenues are on a similar growth trajectory.

We asked Christian if the global pandemic had accelerated the growth of esports, an industry that was showing growth even before the pandemic.

“I think you pick the right word, acceleration is what are we seeing as well.

“It’s basically a movement that was already in full swing. Now it’s accelerated, so to say.

“Certainly both ecosystems that benefit from each other, where the convergence will end or how far we’ll go, we don’t know yet.

“Because obviously, that is very dependent on how technology evolves, or how people’s behaviours are changing, but it’s certainly an exciting future ahead of us

“Both worlds so to say, are coming very close and nurturing each other. And that applies for, I can see a lot of sports, what is happening moving forward.

“We see Manchester City for example, participating, I think it’s a fourth time already now in a row, and other big teams have joined.

Shaun Anfernee Springette and Ryan Antony Pessoa of Manchester City eSports team compete during the FIFA eClub World Cup 2020(Photo by Tullio Puglia – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

“I think it’s testimony to the growing importance of this sector of this ecosystem.

“If you look at it from a fan engagement perspective, you’re ideally placed at a very sweet spot to reach new audiences, for example, it helps you to build your brand as well.

“It might, maybe in the future become actually a revenue generator, who knows, depending on how the entire ecosystem evolves.

“There is an element of football development to it, because everybody was playing the game, they have a better understanding of what’s happening on the pitch in terms of tactics.

“So the many different reasons why you would join this ecosystem. And a lot of clubs have realised that and that is the reason why, why they’re doubling down on FIFA esports now.

Finally, we discussed the upcoming 2021 FIFA eClub World Cup tournament and why FIFA are so excited about the competition.

“The FIFA eClub World Cup has been growing over years now.

Spencer Owens and Julia Hardy speak on stage during the FIFA eClub World Cup 2020 (Photo by Tullio Puglia – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

“We have 150% more teams as compared to last year. So speaking of 480 teams, that in the beginning, signed up for the journey to become the zone winners, we played over several weeks in the different zones and identified the best 42 teams in the world.

“It’s a really tough competition, because you cannot really afford to lose one game, otherwise, he might risk actually not qualifying. So it’s really, really, really tough, to make it to the final stage.

“We have separated into six zones to really make sure that we keep the players safe. It’s our utmost importance and responsibility, obviously at this time.

“So we will see six winners, one per zone.

“The interesting part for me is, it’s where the endemic world meets the non-endemic world.

“We have one third of traditional football clubs, and two third of endemic (esports) clubs participating, and that’s where they clash. It’s a pretty unique format in itself.

“And then you have the team aspect on top, where you play with a teammate. Currently one versus one, in the future two versus two like it was before.

“They are elements, all the ingredients that make it worthwhile and really exciting.

“So, again, we’re just in the beginning. This is the start of a journey, but we’re super excited about this competition.”

For the first time ever, fans will be able to follow each individual match on FIFA.gg. The five days of the event will be broadcast on various channels, with all live streams aggregated on the FIFAe content and tournament hub, FIFA.gg.

On February 24 at 14.30 GMT (15.30 CET), play will begin with the group phase in Zone 4. All group phase matches from 24 to 26 February will be broadcast by club and zone commentators and shown on FIFA.gg.

Comprehensive studio reporting with all the stories from the participating zones will start with the knock-out phase on February 26 at 15.30 GMT (16.30 CET). Layla-Anna Lee and Spencer Owen will be bringing you the action from the knock-out phase and through to the finals, in conjunction with the commentators and zone reporters from all the various regions.

The live stream will be available on Twitch, Facebook and YouTube amongst other channels. During the finals weekend on 27 and 28 February, three zonal winners will be crowned every day.

FIFA’s new tagline for 2021, #FameYourGame has been created in an effort to recognise the talent and skill exhibited by each of the competing players and aligns with FIFA’s ambition to work alongside gamers, clubs and member associations.

FIFA 21 is out now on Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC.

The next generation version of FIFA 21 is set to be released on Xbox Series X, Xbox Series S and PlayStation 5 on December 4, 2020.

Additionally, fans who jump into FIFA 21 can also benefit from Dual Entitlement, enabling them to upgrade their copy of the game from PlayStation 4 to PlayStation 5, or Xbox One to Xbox Series X/S at no extra cost.

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