Can the FIFA Interactive World Cup fan experience compare to a live game?

The final of the FIFA Interactive World Cup was played in New York last month at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. The historic venue, with its balconies and neo-Classical decor, hosted the live, televised broadcast which saw four finalists battle for the ultimate prize: a nice cup, glory, bragging rights and, oh, 20,000 dollars and a trip to next year’s Ballon d’Or ceremony.

Would this be anything like an actual World Cup? Could the Interactive World Cup match the excitement of the world’s best teams battling for global supremacy on an actual soccer field? Could the best virtual FIFA players in the world bring a crowd to its feet, while remaining seated, battling it out on a giant screen?

Maybe not, but I wanted to know what this Interactive World Cup was all about, so I made my to the Apollo to see for myself.

The crowd filled almost every seat in the theatre. The contestants were also there, all 32 of them, from all over the world—all of them guys and, I believe, all of them in their teens, though none of those things were requirements to participate. However, to be there, most of them did have to go through a round of qualifying.

Online tournaments were held for three months for each of the two supported consoles. Now, I don’t want to contribute to any marketing department by mentioning product names since the event was essentially a massive advertising festival, so let’s just say that 15 kids qualified playing on the “Console-Where-You-Could-Control-That-Fox-Or-Possum-Or-Something-Character-With-Mental-Issues,” and the other 15 kids qualified playing on the “Console-Where-Your-Friends-Shoot-You-With-Characters-In-Spacesuits.”

The defending champion, a Saudi kid named Abdulaziz Alshehri, got an automatic berth. Another automatic berth went to the winner of the U.S. tournament.

Those of us in the audience learned, via video montage, that the 32 contestants had travelled to New York three days before. They met Frank Lampard, who said some unintelligible things and took pictures with them during the Interactive World Cup draw. Then, somewhere in Brooklyn, they played a not-quite-complete World Cup, streamed live, with full group stages and two knockout rounds.

FIFA kids

Even though all 32 contestants were present, only the four who qualified for the semifinals would be playing before the capacity crowd, but not before we were treated to a brief stand-up show by a comedian whose real job was to pump the crowd up and tell us not to take videos. His only memorable joke was the one where he said he was not Chris Daughtry (still not convinced). Then, it was time for the big show.

YouTuber Spencer FC and former U.S. international Alexi Lalas presented the live TV broadcast from the Apollo, providing the vital public service of dissecting the semi-finalists’ styles of play, like who had a strong, virtual defensive game, and who did the best job rotating virtual teams to use in these virtual games. It was virtual punditry at its best.

The first semifinal was also the final of the Possum-console bracket. Mohamad Al-Bacha, from Denmark, ranked second in the tournament, faced Ivan Lapanje, the third-ranked contestant from Sweden. Not-Chris Daughtry had encouraged us before to pick a side based on any criteria we saw fit. He also pronounced Al-Bacha’s last name a bit like “albahaca,” which is Spanish for “basil,” so I decided to run with that.

Lalas also picked Al-Bacha as his favorite because “he understands that defense wins championships,” adding that the Dane had yet to concede a goal in the World Cup finals.

It seemed I was now in the very unfamiliar position of rooting for the favorite.

The stage was set, then. A crowded Apollo Theater, two kids sitting on the main stage, controllers in hands, 90 virtual minutes (ten actual minutes) away from the final. A big screen behind them showed the game they were playing, while smaller screens behind each of them showed close ups of their faces and their reactions to the game.

Adjacent to the players, John Strong and Leigh Smith provided live commentary of the game. A lesser competitor might have been frustrated by the pair dissecting tactics live, play-by-play, within earshot, but these players were truly pros and didn’t even blink.

Lapanje chose to play with Brazil, and Al-Bacha with France.

The game began and France, or maybe Al-Bacha—the difference was not all too clear in the commentary—had the first big chance. He hit the post and the crowd came alive. “Ole!” and “N-Y-C!” chants bounced off the theater walls, projected from the lungs of a not insignificant number of fans affiliated with NYCFC supporter groups. But the competitors kept their cool; Lapanje more than Al-Bacha, who you could see suffering or enjoying every play on the close-up screen.

But Al-Bacha scored first, a rather nice goal after a through-ball assist. The Dane jumped out of his seat and almost tripped while attempting to celebrate. But he quickly fixed his glasses and went back to the competition, because that’s what professionals do.

At some point there was a halftime, although that just meant hitting the “accept” button and letting the console change sides for the teams. Al-Bacha then extended his lead via a penalty. He celebrated again, but this time with better balance.

Both guys were crowd-pleasers, handling their right joysticks masterfully, which made their virtual players—even Thiago Silva—dribble like they were peak Ronaldinho. Oohs and aahs emanated from the crowd. At some point, a Brazilian player went down, but no foul was given, causing the crowd to boo loudly and appeal to an invisible, non-sentient algorithm that awards these decisions—an endeavor as useful and satisfying as yelling at a referee’s decision on your TV screen.

Lapanje eventually got a goal back, ending Al-Bacha’s tournament-long clean sheet. But it was too late; the Dane moved on to the final.

In an interview, Al-Bacha said he chose the French team because “they are more well-rounded,” adding, “Brazil only has two players which can change the game.” His observations generated an avalanche of reactions from the crowd, many of whom seemingly had strong feelings about this issue.

With one finalist qualified, it was time to sort out the Spacesuit-console bracket. On one side, Frenchman Dylan Bance, who was only ranked seventh and had already caused upsets twice in the knockout rounds. His opponent: top-ranked Sean Allen from England, the crowd’s favorite, even though one week ago he had no idea he’d be here.

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Allen had just gone through his fifth year of unsuccessful qualifiers. He ended up in New York only because other players could not make it to the competition. Realizing that this could be a “Denmark in the 1992 Euros” type of story, I immediately jumped on his bandwagon.

He chose to play with Brazil while Bance selected Germany. Strong and Smith reminded us that Allen had beaten Bance 4-0 in the group stage, but also that Germany had beaten Brazil 7-1 in that 2014 non-interactive World Cup match that you might remember. So who could say for certain what would happen? Everything was up for grabs.

Allen, with the crowd squarely behind him, scored first. The crowd started chanting his name.

Maybe this was one of those star-in-the-making situations. What a dream—to go from playing in your bedroom to playing in a World Cup final in less than a week. But first he had to win, of course, which he promptly did with a hat-trick from virtual Neymar, who the commentators described as a “great, useful player.”

In his post-match interview, Allen said that he regularly uses Brazil because “it’s all attack, especially Neymar,” so now we truly had a narrative match-up for the final: Al-Bacha, with the best defense in the tournament, advocating for balanced teams, and Allen, the finalist with one of the most prolific attacks, a follower of the philosophy that if you get scored on, you simply go out and outscore your opposition. This is the stuff that Barack Obama takes the time to discuss in press briefings.

Now, bear with me. Up until now, each finalist had qualified and had been playing on a different console. So what would be the fairest way to play the final? I don’t know, but here’s how the doctrine of fairness was laid out by the tournament overlords: two games would be played, one on each console. The highest-ranked player got to choose which console went first. The player with the best aggregate score after the two games would be crowned champion. But if there was a tie in the aggregate score, then “away” goals would count, literally, double (worst use of the away goals rule ever since extra time rules in the Champions League).

Now—stay with me—each player would be “home” when playing on the console they qualified with, and “away” on the other. If there was still a tie after all that, another game would be played on the console that was chosen first.

So here’s where it gets interesting.

Both Allen and Al-Bacha had accumulated 18 points throughout the tournament, but Allen got to choose the order of the consoles because of goal difference. Let me remind you, Allen won the Spacesuit-console bracket, yet he chose to begin play on the Possum-console, bewildering audience and commentators as he was risking playing a tie-breaker on his “away” console.

That might seem like a small change, just a few button differences, but then it got crazy. Allen confessed that he had never handled a Possum-console controller, causing a wave of confusion in the theater. Maybe he just wanted to get that console out of the way first; maybe he wanted the advantage of having the return leg at “home.” However you square it, it was a bold move.

The last thing, per Not-Chris Daughtry’s earlier advice, was to decide who to support. Before the first final game, a graph showed that Allen was by far the favorite on Twitter, which of course made me root for Al-Bacha. I soon realized I was in the minority as regular shouts of “Let’s go, Sean!” erupted around me. The crowd still loved Allen.

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The crowd support seemed to lift the Englishman, as Allen started by dominating his “away” leg, putting pressure on Al-Bacha who looked in his close-up screen like he was going to crumble. Still, the Dane managed to open the scoring. Soon afterwards, Allen tied it with a Neymar screamer that prompted more claps and cheers than usual. By the end of the first leg, it was 2-2, a positive result for Allen who now led the final on away goals.

Before changing consoles, Lalas and Spencer FC brought David Villa, who has been learning English since he moved to NYCFC last year, to their set and asked him to describe the finalists’ play. “Both players are really good, and it’s amazing,” he said in English, but with that Asturian accent of his.

Sadly, his wisdom was drowned in the “Villa, Villa, maravilla” chants coming from the NYCFC supporters in the stands.

Dave Villa

And so, on to the return leg. Al-Bacha scored first and blew a kiss to the sky, confident that he might have this in the bag. But during the second half, Allen staged a comeback, making the crowd, once again, go wild, while trying to maintain a veneer of calm. That only lasted until an amazing, cheeky goal to tie the game. No longer able to control himself, Allen stood up to celebrate, but immediately told himself to calm down with a hand gesture.

At 82:29 on the virtual clock, Allen, the unexpected participant, was 3-1 up (5-3 on aggregate).

Al-Bacha’s only chance was to score two unlikely goals. The first major chance came in the form of an 89th-minute free kick. In FIFA, scoring one of those is as much of an art as in real life. And there we were, in front of the best in their craft. The crowd went silent in expectation. But then the surprise: Al-Bacha didn’t go for a shot; he went for a set play! Antoine Griezmann ran over the ball into the box, then received a pass right at Brazil’s penalty spot. The Brazilian defenders failed to react. Seconds later the ball was in the back of the net.

Al-Bacha only had seconds now to score another one. So he paused the game–which here, unlike when your older sibling does it just to piss you off, was a legitimate practice–and changed the settings of his team, creating a 4-2-4 all-attacking formation.

The game restarted. As the live commentators were explaining how Allen simply needed to keep possession of the ball, he made a bad pass in attack, which was all Al-Bacha needed to launch a counter-attack.

He was going through midfielders, then bypassing defenders, until Griezmann made a run into the box, begging for the ball, it seemed. Hearts were racing in the theater, soda bottles were being clinched tightly, people stood in anticipation, and… there it was! Griezmann’s first touch was clinical, smashing his shot passed the helpless Brazilian keeper. Griezmann—or maybe Al-Bacha—did it! He scored!

Al-Bacha went back to his settings and changed his tactics back to defense. But it didn’t matter. Five seconds after play restarted, it was all over. Al-Bacha, the 17-year-old kid from Denmark, was the FIFA world champion. He dove from the stage, right into the arms of his friends, losing his glasses in the process. Then he went back and received a cup from David Villa.

It didn’t matter if you were in the crowd supporting Allen, we had just witnessed something amazing, like being at the Etihad Stadium when Agüero scored that goal against QPR, the kind of finish that makes you flick your controller at your friend, but in a World Cup final, and with 20,000 dollars at stake.

Sure, there wasn’t going to be a parade through the streets of any city, but we all went home knowing that there is at least a set of parents in the world who can’t tell their kid he’s wasting his life by playing video games.

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