You might think you're decent at FIFA. Excellent, even, what with your ability to pull off a few technical moves and an unbeaten track record among you and your friends. But I regret to inform you that you are not, in fact, any good at FIFA. At least, that is, in comparison to Donovan "F2Tekkz" Hunt.
Tekkz, as he is widely known, is the best FIFA player in the world. Since emerging onto the competitive scene last January, when he claimed the $22,000 first prize at the FUT Champions Cup in Barcelona, he has amassed more than double the prize money and tournament points of any other player during the FIFA '19 season.
His fans, who number more than half a million on social media, talk about his abilities in the same way Spurs fans talk about Harry Kane. According to esportsearnings.com, the 17-year-old is the UK's fourth most successful esports player based on career earnings – despite his career having started just over 12 months ago.
It is a Friday evening in west London and I've taken my seat at the Gfinity esports arena for the closing stages of the inaugural ePremier League finals. Over the last two days, 40 players representing the 20 Premiership clubs on either the Xbox One or PS4 have played 190 games of FIFA Ultimate Team. Now, Tekkz is fighting for the Xbox title on behalf of his beloved Liverpool, against Diogo "SCP Diogo" Mendes, representing Fulham, in a two-leg match that was widely considered to be something of a formality. Nevertheless, there is now an intense atmosphere in the arena, because Tekkz – with five minutes left on the clock at the end of the first leg – is down 2-0. In the words of the commentator, he's "on the back foot here!"
That scoreline is a shock, for sure, but also not entirely surprising. Many top flight FIFA competitors play safe, maintaining possession at all costs, avoiding any gambles. By contrast, Tekkz's style is high-stakes, littered with skill moves and long shots on goal that, if attempted by a lesser player, would invite total demolition. He plays FIFA like Ronnie O'Sullivan plays snooker, with cockiness and flair – and just the right amount of inconsistency to keep things interesting.
It's this kind of play that led Tekkz to lose a match in the tournament group stages, before regaining his form and making it to the final. It's also why I find myself involuntarily wincing as a virtual shot on goal sails past a virtual post and goes out for a virtual corner, denying Tekkz an opportunity to close the gap. And why, even though I've never watched competitive FIFA before, I realise I actually care who wins this match – but perhaps not quite as much as the woman sitting in front of me with her hands clasped tightly to her face in a state of obvious distress.
The woman, it turns out, is Tekkz's mum. She has the right to be nervous: she's the reason her son's look of intense concentration is being broadcast live across the nation on Sky Sports, in a match that he now looks very much in danger of losing. Her name is Dawn, and she encouraged Tekkz to enter his first FIFA tournament after she realised he was good – better than good – and researched esports online. So there's a lot at stake here for Dawn. We both stare intently at the screen suspended above us as the final minutes of this first leg tick away.
A goal kick from Diogo sees Tekkz's keeper come way out of his area to regain possession and head the ball back down the pitch. A series of passes in the opposition half, and Tekkz is fending off Diogo's defence with a series of swift drag-backs on the edge of the penalty box. Just as the clock ticks past 90 minutes, Tekkz pivots 180 degrees and buries the ball firmly in the top-right corner of the net. Diogo grimaces and grasps his neck as if in physical pain, but before he can even reckon with having thrown away his clean sheet, Tekkz is on the attack again, finding his target in the 93rd minute. He's on his feet screaming, headset thrown to the desk in front of him, while Diogo laughs knowingly, because the power balance in this match has truly shifted now. The commentator is screaming, "You just cannot stop Tekkz!" and Tekkz's mother is shaking her head as if that was really far too close, and the tension is far from over because there's still another leg to go.
"I know he can bring it back, but it's still really stressful," says Dawn as the two players take a moment to compose themselves before the action begins again. That's partly because she knows how much it means for her son to win, but also because of the part she has played in getting him here today. She sold the family home to pursue a faster internet connection, then gave up her job at a finance firm so she could take him to FIFA tournaments.
These decisions were a gamble, because although esports is now big business, competitive FIFA is still growing, yet to take its place among the most popular titles, such as Counter Strike, Dota 2 and League of Legends. But it could soon be going that way. EA, the company behind FIFA, has described growth of the competitive game as "both exponential and undeniable" and has its sights firmly set on establishing the franchise as a top-tier esport.
Before the final began, I spoke to Will Brass, head of sales and marketing at the Premier League, for whom this tournament marks a first venture into the esports world. He told me about a journey that had taken almost two years, during which all 20 Premiership clubs had signed on for the ride, holding play-offs to find representatives for both Playstation and Xbox. He described how FIFA has an edge on other esports in that any football fan can immediately understand the video game. "It's much harder to do that, it seems to me, with some of the other esports formats," he said. "It's very promising for EA, and maybe, in time, promising for us as well."
When I spoke to Tekkz before the tournament started, he'd shared similar hopes. "Esports has massive potential, but FIFA is not there yet, so I'm hoping ePremier League can really push it to be as big as it can be," he said. "Hopefully it's just the start."
Whatever happens, Tekkz has already come a long way since his dad suggested he might want to get a job in the corner shop down the road – a suggestion that was followed by an apology after the first tournament win. There is, slightly controversially, no prize money on offer at the ePremier League, but there certainly is elsewhere – and each tournament marks another step on the road towards the 2019 FIFA eWorld Cup, where players will compete for a $250,000 first prize.
But before that there's the matter of the second leg of this ePremier League final.
The first half is evenly matched, with little drama, but with close to 15 minutes gone in the second half the score is suddenly 3-2 to Tekkz after a tackle on the halfway line is followed by a series of rapid passes and a shot from the right-hand side of the penalty box that hits its mark. A spectator in the next seat along is filming the event for YouTube and whispers into the mic in awe: "This is just unbelievable!"
Everyone in the arena finally relaxes in the comfort of a narrative in which Diogo bravely took the fight to Tekkz in the first leg, before eventually capitulating to inevitable defeat. Except, that is, for Diogo, who with ten minutes left looks towards the heavens and briefly closes his eyes before mouthing to himself, "Come on," then mounting an attack which levels the score at 3-3. Relief passes across his face as he realises he has granted himself the luxury of extra time, the opportunity to derail that inevitable narrative and to take the title on behalf of Fulham.
But despite his performance so far, that's still a lot to ask of Diogo, a player who trails several thousand points behind his opponent in the Global Series rankings. Tekkz takes shot after shot on goal as extra time ticks away. Diogo fends off these attacks and make his own forays into opposition territory as the commentator shouts, "Diogo is throwing everything forward! He wants to win this!"
The prospect of a penalty shoot-out is looming as Tekkz takes a corner with one minute to go before added time. He takes the ball all the way back to his keeper, threads two passes down the left wing, then launches a cross into the centre of the box, where it connects with a header that sends the ball screaming decisively into the net in the 122nd minute, taking the score to 4-3. Tekkz leaps out of his seat and Diogo turns to the camera and nods, because he knows it's over. Sure enough, seconds later, the whistle blows and Tekkz rises to shake his opponent's hand, before sinking to the floor.
Still to come tonight is the cross-console final, in which Xbox champion Tekkz will take on the PS4 winner Kyle Leese, representing Manchester United, and will easily secure a 6-2 win after dominating on both consoles, before finally lifting the ePremier League trophy and declaring to the TV cameras that he has paved the way for Liverpool to win the Premiership title.
But before all that, Tekkz stands and looks out into the audience, where he catches his mum's eye. As she looks on proudly, he grins back at her and shakes his fist in a gesture of victory.