FIFA esports has been on a massive rise in recent years, with 2020 perhaps being its most remarkable year to date.
With more of us at home than ever before, the esports scene has taken centre stage, with FIFA keen to capitalise on the successes of the likes of the ePremier League last year.
The FIFAe Club World Cup is a fantastic opportunity to do exactly that, with the unique competition the only place you can see two-on-two competitive FIFA 21 action.
"To see the dynamic between two players and see how they act as a team is pretty close to how they act on a football team," says FIFA Director of eFootball & Gaming, Christian Volk.
Double the numbers, double the drama
"It’s not very forgiving - if you make a mistake, you’re out."
The FIFA eClub World sees more teams than ever before, 480, competing in a Davis Cup-style format to become the best FIFA 21 team on the planet.
The total prize pool has increased to $350,000, up from $100,000 last year.
Volk says: "With roughly 4,500 games played, it meant all the teams couldn’t afford to have a weak day and had to consistently perform."
Despite the increase in numbers, FIFA had to shake things up this year due to the pandemic.
To ensure the players are safe the competition was broken up into six zones with six zonal winners this year, instead of having one over-arching champion.
"The pandemic and its consequences were tough - full stop.
"We in the FIFA esports department have had the benefit that we could pivot quickly from our offline events to online events.
"We are taking risks every day to innovate, to test, trying new formats - a crossover between offline and online - ensuring we find the right balance between agility and stability."
It's been steady growth for FIFA since they first ventured into esports 16 years ago.
"The main reason why FIFA and other stakeholders are getting involved is because FIFA esports can be the number 1 driver for building brand equity, for fan engagement, for innovation, a driver for football development and to make football truly global so we need to make sure everyone can participate."
Of course, the growth in recent years has been helped by real-life footballers getting involved.
Volk says: "We’ve seen legends of the game like Ruud Gullit have his own team formed having them compete in the final stage of this competition as well.
"We’ve seen Gareth Bale with Ellevens Esports - so it’s happening, and Ozil has a team - what I’m saying is “it’s just the start” this will continue to happen - whether we want it or not!
On that note, the lines between traditional sports and gaming are often blurred.
Two instalments of the ePL Invitational saw the likes of Trent Alexander-Arnold, Diogo Jota and James Maddison competing to be named the Premier League's best FIFA player.
"The beauty of this current acceleration is that 1+1 is not 2 - it’s more.
"The traditional side of football gives credibility to FIFA esports and FIFA esports gives back relevance to football - it’s a symbiotic relationship where the entire football ecosystem is growing.
"It's having an impact, the younger generation doesn’t make any distinction between “this is virtual, and what I call haptic" - because both are real”.
"Currently, more and more stakeholders are joining at all levels," says Volk.
"More players want to become champions around the FIFAe World Cup itself, more teams - endemic and non-endemic - are joining too."
It doesn't stop there, with the emergence of more national teams a really exciting prospect for FIFA.
"More national teams are joining the journey, so think where this might go if all of FIFA’s member associations have an eNational team, if you gave thousands of teams participation and millions of players continue to participate - we can build lighthouses on our solid foundation."
The possibility of a tournament, closer to the real-life World Cup, where you have a representative from each nation, is growing - with last year's cancelled FIFA eNations Cups set to have 20 nations take part.
Of course, 2020 also saw the arrival of Next Gen consoles, something that FIFA only sees as benefiting the esports space.
"The evolution of tech is one major driver," says Volk.
"Certainly what comes with it is the further conversation with the media - the barrier is lowering, you have easier access to participate, and the easier it is for players to contribute and engage.
"If you combine this with the changing of social norms and behaviour, you can only imagine where this is going. It’s accelerating."
Tune in to the FIFAe Club World Cup
The FIFAe Club World Cup runs from Wednesday 24 to Sunday 28 February.
42 teams (down from 480 in qualifying) remain in the competition, with the top two from each of the six zones progressing to the finals weekend, for their chance to be named FIFAe Club World Cup 2021 zone winners.
You will see the likes of Team Gullit, RB Leipzig Gaming, Manchester City Esports, Schalke and FUTWIZ battle it out across the various zones, seeing traditional football clubs meet esports organisations on the biggest stage.
Follow the action on FIFA.gg, with the main feed will start at 10:30am RT / 3.30pm GMT on Friday, 26 February - and broadcast live across FIFA's social channels.
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