FIFA 18 is a global phenomenon. The EA Sports title is the biggest sports video game on the planet, and it’s the closest thing many get to gracing the Premier League.
The growth of esports has made such dreams more realistic; 10 of the best gaming franchises currently compete in the Gfinity Elite Series in London, with FIFA 18 added to the competition for season three.
Playing games professionally is one thing, but just as there are commentators in professional football, it is also seen in FIFA 18.
Just ask commentary pairing Brandon Smith and Richard Buckley. A decade ago they were in their living rooms, losing over and over again to their older brothers.
Richard says: "My brother is eight years older than me, and I could never beat him. As I got older, I got better at the game and there was a phase where if I really put in the time, maybe I could do something professionally… but it slowly went downhill.
"I constantly carried on playing and in FIFA 14 I racked up over 1000 hours in the game,"
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It’s a similar tale for Brandon: “FIFA for me, it’s always been the number one game. You’ve always got to buy it, and as the years went by my brother was trying to turn off the console when I’d turned him over. It’s just one of those things really, FIFA and football go hand in hand.”
Overseeing the Elite
Brandon, 21 and Richard, 20 have the honour of commentating on the Gfinity Elite Series, with FIFA 18 joining Rocket League and Street Fighter this season.
Brandon says: "The Elite Series is massive, it’s what FIFA needs. I came to Gfinity two or three years ago when it was just starting out, and now they have an incredible arena for people to come and watch."
Richard adds: "People were crying out for weekly, competitive FIFA. With the Elite Series taking place in such a good venue, you can really see the story in the event. 10 big gaming organisations are taking part, Hashtag United is one of the biggest names in esports at the minute, and Envy are former Call of Duty world champions."
Grabbing an opportunity
Brandon and Richard met on their sports journalism university course at UFCB (University College of Football Business) in Manchester, and the double act was born.
Brandon, always keen to go down the broadcasting route, was given the opportunity to commentate on a FIFA pro league via Twitch TV.
"I was desperate for a co-host," says Brandon. "I couldn’t find someone who would be there every week and I could work well with. I knew Richard was on my course, was a big FIFA fan and had worked in radio before. I gave him a go, and it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made."
Richard, from a radio background, has played the FIFA titles since he was nine years’ old. “When Brandon asked me, we had only spoken a couple of times. We gave [commentating together] a go and after the first few weeks it just clicked.”
RealSport chatted with Brandon and Richard at the Gfinity Arena in London, the home of the Elite Series.
Brandon and Richard built their skills up from working on the pro league, but everything changed when they heard about The Pitch Commentator Cup.
EA Sports were looking for the next two FIFA commentators and the pair thought they had to go for it.
Richard says: "There was a 90 second clip sent from EA from the eWorld Cup final, Hashtag Tass against Schalke’s Cihan. We had to give our interpretation of the opening goal and put our spin on it. We made it to the last four in London, and to be there was a pleasure.
"After winning the competition, we went to Berlin for the FIFA 17 Ultimate Team Championship Series final. I still thought it was a one off, but a day later I was back in Barnsley, eating my tea with my mum and dad. The phone rang, and it was Brandon saying we had the opportunity to go to Amsterdam at the weekend with Ajax."
Ajax, the best football club in esports according to Brandon, now work with the commentary pair in a 10-week esports program. Brandon and Richard commentate on their games and use the opportunity to raise the profile of the Ajax FIFA players on their own YouTube channel.
Brandon says: “To get that Ajax gig, and then somehow work with the FIFA Interactive World Cup (now eWorld Cup) and travel round to Qatar and Los Angeles. I’d never been to America before in my life and to get there via FIFA, I’m very lucky.”
“Qatar was quite surreal,” says Richard. The hotel we were staying in was ridiculous and the views were incredible. Knowing you there because of FIFA, it’s just crazy.”
“Last December, we had a 34-hour stay in San Francisco. We flew out the Friday afternoon, landed Saturday, commentated on the Sunday and flew home Monday.”
Looking ahead, Brandon and Richard are following the FIFA eWorld Cup. Their aim this year to grow their profile as a duo, having gone to the FUT Champions Cup in Barcelona in January and set to be in their university home of Manchester for the next round in April.
Stars on show
Brandon says: "Obviously, we are still in the early stages of the Elite Series and we are looking forward to the playoffs and finals at the end of next month.
“With Gfinity being a British esports organisation, it is absolute massive for us. Other events only take place every few months, so it’s great for FIFA have a completion running weekly.”
As for the standard in the Elite Series, the commentators have been impressed but believe it is still too early to pick a potential winner.
Hashtag Ryan stood out for Brandon and Richard in week one, and Shellzz from Unilad has picked up back-to-back wins, defeating former world champion Mohamed Al Bacha 5-2 last week.
Brandon wants to see a surprise at the Gfinity Arena: "Hashtag United or Unilad are the favourites just looking at the strength of their rosters. I want to see up an upset though, like DhTekKz (a 16-year-old from Exeter) who came out of nowhere to win in Barcelona."
Rannerz from Fnatic shone for Richard last week, defeating Epsilon’s Fully 3-0 on debut and we can expect him to be back in action this weekend.
FIFA in the future
To steal Richard’s phrase, esports and FIFA are only going in one direction - up.
Brandon says: “Now EA Sports are fully behind it as the developer and really pushing esports, I think we are going to see more things like the Elite Series appear. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Premier League getting involved; having real life fixtures mirrored in the game on a Premier League show.”
If that were to occur, the gap between the virtual reality would become smaller and smaller. Brandon and Richard went and commentated on a game of FIFA at the Carabao Cup final, with Manchester City and Arsenal doing battle in the virtual world as well as on the turf at Wembley.
You can see the enormous potential of the game in the esports industry.
“They think it’s all over…” this just isn’t the case for FIFA 18.
You can watch FIFA 18 at the Gfinity Elite Series live on Facebook every Friday at 6pm GMT. The competition runs until April 27.