The climax of the PES League World Finals is set as the Champions League anthem blares around Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium. Guifera, the bespectacled babyfaced 17-year-old from Brazil living out every teenager’s dream – playing video games for money – is going head-to-head with Ettorito97, the Italian who, with his Elvis quiff and thousand-yard stare would look equally at home on the catwalk as the virtual turf of the Konami Stadium. $200,000 is at stake; thumbs are twitching in anticipation as a history-making eSports journey to the find the world’s best PES 2017 player comes to a barnstorming end.
But let’s rewind slightly, to the moment the 16 best PES players made their way into the Emirates Stadium. Nervous anticipation is the order of the day, as the eight Europeans, four South Americans and two Asian players are joined by a representative from the ‘Rest of the World’ (in this case, Serbia) and a wildcard entrant from France. Group stages are drawn, and a Champions League-style group stands between the players and a chance at dipping into the $350k prize pot available to players who reach the semi-finals. To date, this is the single most expensive football eSports event on the planet, as football’s virtual representation finally steps into the competitive limelight.
Unlike the rock stars of Counter-Strike and League of Legends, though, it is clear that the players are more like surgeons: intricate, focused, but with an incessant muted intensity. They aren’t too far removed from you and your mates – gritted teeth and all - playing PES on a Friday night, but there’s one key difference: they’re very, very good at what they do. The quiet intimacy, then, of the Emirates Stadium is the perfect venue for these guys to show what they’re capable of (and the best place to witness a Barca thrashing or two).
Konami, though, is always looking for ways to grow. The event is livestreamed (complete with swanky studio) on Twitch, and European PES League Digital Manager Lennart Bobzien is enthusiastic about the event’s future. “Our plans are to expand year-on-year," he says, "and it’s definitely our plan to reach out to broadcasters.” As for next year? Attempting to take on the pros will be easier than ever with an integrated eSports mode built in to PES 2018.
It’s fair to say you might want to hold your horses on your dreams of eSports domination, lest you break a few controllers – and, trust me, you’re in danger of that. I get the pleasure of taking on Eldridge ‘Oneill’ O’Niel at a quick PES game. Barcelona vs. Barcelona (everyone plays as Barca on the day – the allure of Messi is too great to turn down it seems). What could have been the worst five minutes of my life turns into a breezy chat.
The road to Cardiff: how England got nul points in the PES World Finals (opens in new tab)
It’s no surprise that Oneill is being courted by the likes of Barcelona to be their official eSports player. He’s welcoming, charismatic and has an incredible football brain. Football runs in his family – his brothers are currently in the Ajax Academy – but it is his thumbs that do the talking one-on-one. I’m no slouch myself, having cut my teeth on PES 2, but he slices me open again and again – yet the ball just won't go in. Make no mistake, he's focused on his next game and enthusiastically talking up the new 4-3-3 style he has started playing with. At least that’s the excuse he gives when the game finishes 1-1. If this writing gig doesn’t work out, there’s always the PES League for me…
Enemies on the pitch, pals off it
The games – on the main stage – come and go with lightning ferocity. The entire day is a blur of crazy celebrations (Oneill himself engaged in a full lap of the staging area after an Aguero-esque 95th minute winner in a quarter-final) with friends and family warmly cheering on their loved ones. One constant remains, though: these guys are genuine buddies. Wins and losses are but a by-product of the PES brotherhood formed, with UK player Dex, sadly knocked out at Anfield, being mentioned in passing on more than one occasion. These are guys enjoying what they do; they regularly keep in touch on WhatsApp, and are more than willing to go along for the crazy ride that ranged from Barcelona, to Anfield, and ended in an all-expenses paid trip to the Champions League final in Cardiff.
However, it’s not all top-of-the-table fare. Bobzien insists that the event is “Definitely the biggest set-up we’ve had for PES League” but it still lacks the large-scale that makes arenas fill up to watch Starcraft, Street Fighter, and Counter-Strike. Truth be told, real football is just that bit more exciting than its virtual counterpart (yes, even if you’re a Crystal Palace fan), and big-name personalities for Konami to hitch their wagon to are in short supply. Thankfully, two of them, finalist Ettorito and semi-finalist Oneill (I totally drew with the 4th best PES player in the world) are proof that PES League can have a bright future.
Ettorito, the goal-scoring powerhouse who blew everybody away at the Anfield qualifiers, is as close to a poster-boy as the PES League gets, with his Elvis-esque quiff and silent swagger. Even a shock 1-0 loss in the tourney’s opening game can't stop the man from Italy getting to the final, with a demolition job of Oneill in the semis ensuring a guaranteed $100k. Both men will surely be mainstays on the eSports circuit for years to come, but it's Ettorito’s opponent in the final, the 17-year-old GuiFera from Brazil, who steals the show.
But, where were we? Ah yes, the final. Having bulldozed all comers, Ettorito and GuiFera (who had scored 20 goals between them alone in the semi-finals) give as good as they get in a thrilling endgame. It’s about as perfect an advertisement for virtual football as you can get: Ettorito taking the lead in the 5th minute with an Iniesta half-volley; GuiFera responding with a Messi strike and, so, then, to extra-time.
First rule of football: Brazil always win
I didn’t think it would be possible to be nervous watching two other people play a game (outside of the Saw franchise, anyway) but here we are. A chess-like affair gives way to mistake after mistake before GuiFera lashes home with Messi (who else) in the 117th minute. Tears and a triumphant knee-slide follow. Try telling him this is just a game (…of a game).
The Brazilian is still overcome by emotion after the final, saying “I’m very happy but it hasn’t dawned on me that I’m PES champion”. Be that as it may, the kid from Brazil has his sights firmly set on a career on eSports… and practicing PES. “[I am] very confident [about defending the title]," he tells me. "I’m going to start practicing straight away as it’s now my full-time job.”
What about the sweet, sweet cash money that GuiFera is taking back to Brazil? Thankfully, he’s got a wise head on his shoulders, saying he’ll invest the money in his education and studying at university. Though he may have given a different answer without his parents in earshot.
The PES eSports movement, despite early doubts and still a few lingering issues, is most definitely on the rise. Expect more exposure next year and, most importantly, a sequel to the story of a boy done good: GuiFera leaves London $200k richer. What were you doing at 17 years old?
Already looking towards next season? Then read about how PES 2018 is planning another monster year (opens in new tab), with Master League improvements and the addition of 3-vs-3 co-op.