Editorial – On April 5, 2018, the eMLS Cup will begin at PAX East in Boston, MA. The gaming convention will host 19 MLS eSports representatives. Flicking the sticks for the LA Galaxy is Giuseppe Guastella, a homegrown player from San Pedro, CA. The 32-year-old, aptly named “The Godfather” for generally being one of the “oldest” players to play EA Sports FIFA series competitively, will look to bring home the inaugural title of eMLS Cup Champion.
The LA Galaxy look to add a Sixth Star to the Crest as Major League Soccer Launches its Inaugural eMLS Cup.
Video games have come a long way since the Atari-2600. While video games were once used to be a recreational tool to pass time indoors on a rainy day, they have blossomed into a time-consuming, multi-billion dollar industry.
The new kid on the video game block is eSports. In 2018, it is estimated that esports will create over $700 million in revenue with that figure to more than double by 2020.
With the world trending towards isolationism with an ever-growing agoraphobia towards the outside world, it appears the technology intended to bring the world closer together only furthers the gap between actual human connection. With participation in youth sports declining, it appears companies like EA Sports have wiggled their way into the market for building the dreams of future professional athletes.
The children who once dreamed of hitting a home run in Game 7 of the World Series or taking the final penalty kick in the World Cup now live vicariously through their digital avatars. Children are now able to immerse themselves in those experiences with little imagination. Furthermore, parents can ensure their child’s safety by connecting the virtual chain between their children and the television, thus protecting the child from injury or the sadness that comes with the realization that their child isn’t athletically destined for the Hall of Fame.
Truly, children once idolized Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Pele, and Landon Donovan. Now, they idolize a new breed of athlete: competitive gamers.
The New Heroes
If you saw Giuseppe Guastella walking down the street, you wouldn’t give him a second look. He is a sharply dressed family man who, along with his wife, is expecting his first child in August. Guastella works a full-time job in sales, and like any other LA Galaxy fan, he would love to have Zlatan Ibrahimovic play a role in his future child’s gender reveal party. He jokingly mentions he wouldn’t mind naming the child Zlatan; although, he isn’t quite sure how his wife would feel about that.
What separates Giuseppe Guastella from ordinary men is his slick fingers and their joy-stick, button pressing skills. Guastella, who was born and raised in nearby San Pedro, is the official eSports representative for the LA Galaxy.
Giuseppe Guastella is just one of 19 players who has been officially signed by an MLS franchise. Joining him is one of the gaming world’s most recognizable faces: Mike LaBelle.
LaBelle, who is currently signed as the eMLS player for the New York Red Bulls, played Division II soccer at McMurray University in Texas. He is now a professional gamer who also creates digital content based on EA Sports’ FIFA series. With nearly 300,000 youtube subscribers, LaBelle isn’t just a flash in the pan. LaBelle has been on the professional scene for over a decade after winning the 2007 FIFA Interactive World Cup North American Qualifier. He followed that up by competing in consecutive FIWC Grand Finals.
Unlike traditional professional sports, competitive gaming doesn’t take extraordinary speed or physical strength. However, do not take the work these players do lightly. LaBelle acknowledges that bias is hard to overcome.
“My parents doubted the validity of what I was doing. Here I was trying to convince them that I was actually going to a video game tournament. They definitely didn’t take me seriously at first.”
That sentiment is common among non-gamers. It is hard to fathom that something can be considered a “professional sport” when the competitors are sitting on a chair for a total game time of roughly 15 minutes. Yet, this is the allure of competitive gaming. A professional soccer match lasts 90-minutes excluding stoppage time. Including half-time, a fan watching from home should block out a two-hour window to watch their favorite team. In that same two-hour window, eMLS Cup will be able to squeeze in close to eight games.
In a world where the hustle and bustle of everyday life are often overwhelming, being able to jump in and play two or three quick matches in 45-minutes is more appealing than going out and training for two hours with a club team.
The Fans Love it Too
“Honestly, I’m grateful for them. So many content creators have come and gone, but the fans support me and keep me going.”
Like LaBelle, Guastella says he would love to get into content creation someday. Content creation on platforms such as YouTube provide the creators with revenue based on advertising on their channel. It is a great way for players to make money through the video game medium. It also allows players to connect with their fans by providing tutorials, gameplay demonstrations, and critiques. But, LaBelle says success isn’t a given, and he is grateful for the success he has earned.
“It’s really all about the fans. This wasn’t going to just be some hobby. I wanted to connect with the fans. I wanted to provide them with meaningful information and I didn’t want it to be boring. Honestly, I’m grateful for them… So many content creators have come and gone, but my fans support me and keep me going.”
The viewership continues beyond just skill-move tutorials and defensive techniques. The 2017 FIWC averaged nearly 20,000 viewers throughout the tournament. This figure is over double what the LA Galaxy averaged when their games were broadcasted on Spectrum Sportsnet during the 2017 season.
Wait, but Why?
We are in a time where humans are constantly pushing the limits of peak performance. So why are video games becoming so popular?
Much of that answer is tied into the question. Whereas many professional athletes are doing things that seem impossible, video games allow the less-physically talented version of humanity to live out their own athletic spectacles. Dribbling through defenders with Messi’s footwork. Running past the last defender with Ronaldo’s pace. Curling a shot from the corner of the box with Pele. Average people are able to achieve these almost mystical feats that were previously unattainable due to our non-superhuman limitations.
Guastella acknowledges that if it weren’t for competitive gaming, he wouldn’t play any soccer.
“If I had time, I’d practice and play 8 hours per day. I just don’t have time for that. I have a job. With my work, my wife, and a baby on the way, it is nice to have something competitive that doesn’t take up so much time.”
And, although professional gaming isn’t new to him, he is amazed at just how far he’s come. The moment caught up to him as he waited in line to return home after a friendly against the NYCFC eMLS player, Chris Holly. While walking through the exclusive security line alongside the LA Galaxy first team after their 2-1 loss to NYCFC, right-back Emrah Klementa asked Guastella if he had won his friendly.
“I’m like ‘wow!’ This Galaxy player had a big-time game today, and he’s asking me if I won my FIFA Friendly.”
The eMLS Cup
The eMLS Cup will run from April 5-8 at the PAX East gaming convention in Boston, Mass. The contest will consist players representing 19 MLS clubs with spots in the major international tournaments up for grabs.
“I’m representing the best team in MLS history. I’m always keeping that with me.”
There will be two conferences: 10 players from Eastern Conference teams and 9 from Western Conference teams. Each team will be able to select a 23-man roster for the tournament. However, because it is an MLS sanctioned tournament, each team must have three MLS players on the field at all times, including two players from the club that they represent.
For Guastella, the choices are easier than most. With a talented Galaxy roster at his disposal, he has a distinct advantage. Guastella plans on using Romain Alessandrini on the wing with Jonathan dos Santos as part of his midfield diamond. Guastella lit up when thinking about his bench option.
“I can see Zlatan coming off the bench as my super sub. His attributes are all amazing; he just lacks pace. I will start off with Suarez as my main striker, but having Zlatan as a Galaxy player is amazing.”
The two finalists of the eMLS Cup will win berths to EA SPORTS FIFA 18 Global Series Playoff. There they will compete for an opportunity to advance to the FIFA eWorld Cup in August. For Guastella, the opportunity to win a championship for the LA Galaxy is what drives him to be his best.
“The most important thing is representing myself and the team professionally. I’m representing the best team in MLS history. I’m always keeping that with me.”
The Quest for the Galaxy’s Sixth Star
Like Guastella, Mike LaBelle has been around for what seems like an eternity in the gaming world. They have both seen players come and go while they continue riding the path of success.
While LaBelle may join the Godfather as the elder statesmen of EA’s FIFA community, the two have completely different styles on the sticks. Typically using a 4-3-3, LaBelle is a skillful flicker of sticks who is known for his ability to dribble in tight spaces and beat players with skill-moves.
On the other hand, Guastella prefers to play the Pep Guardiola-esque tiki-taka style with quick passing and high pressure. To achieve this, Guastella uses a 4-1-2-1-2 which can leave him exposed at the back, so he doesn’t tend to push his fullbacks as high up the field.
While LaBelle describes Guastella’s style as “simple”, what will benefit the LA Galaxy’s Giuseppe Guastella most is his clutch trait. LaBelle marveled at how successfully Guastella plays in those moments when most players would soil their trousers.
“What makes Giuseppe so successful is that clutch trait. He has a lot of wins or comebacks in the 90th minute. It is crazy.”
That Winning Feeling
For Giuseppe Guastella, there is nothing but winning on his mind. While winners’ purses have increased from $20,000 to $200,000 since he started playing competitively, it will always come down to the adrenaline of competition.
“It is all about the competition. I thrive on competition. Just knowing I am competing against the best players in the world gets me going because I have a passion for competition.”
And, while he admits the field is tough, and every matchup will be close, he expects to win the Galaxy’s first eMLS trophy.
“Every player there will be talented, but if I don’t win the title I will be extremely disappointed.”
What’s Next for eMLS?
Both LaBelle and Guastella admit there need to be changes made in order to take EA Sports’ FIFA Series to the next level in order to join some of the elite esports communities such as League of Legends or Counter-Strike.
LaBelle’s biggest criticism is the lack of oversight.
“Right now, if you were to ask me, I couldn’t tell you who the best player in the world is. There is no ranking system in place.”
Guastella echoes that sentiment. When discussing the EA Sports FIFA weekend leagues, Guastella pointed out some major flaws in the system.
“There are too many things that players can take advantage of. Things like no-loss glitches or backing out if you connect with someone you know. There are discord chats where people will talk and it allows them to pick and choose their opponents. It is cheating and EA needs to change the system so the best players play the best players.”
Both competitors would like to see something put in place to create an even playing field. With sponsorships and thousands of dollars on the line, it is only understandable that LaBelle and Guastella are extremely passionate about their esports endeavors. But Mike LaBelle doesn’t want fans to get the wrong impression. It isn’t all about the money.
“I want to be a part of this. This is fun. Ultimately, like sports, esports is a game. It should be fun and enjoyable, and when I talk about the flaws in the game, I do it because I want the game to grow.”
How Big Will it Grow?
Nobody knows. Currently, eMLS Cup will take place and there will be a 2018 champion crowned. The plan is to create an eMLS League for 2019 where all teams are represented and compete in digital home and away fixtures.
As for Giuseppe Guastella, he plans to work alongside Chris Thomas, LA Galaxy’s Director of Digital Media and Marketing, to share his passion with the fans in Los Angeles. The two plan to set up a booth at the stadium where fans can challenge Guastella. Guastella even mentions playing LA Galaxy captain, Ashley Cole.
“I know Ashley Cole is a big-time gamer and FIFA player, so I’m waiting for him to challenge me. I want to show him who’s boss.”
The Last Word
No matter what happens, the genesis of esports in MLS will take place in Boston tomorrow. Where it goes from there is anyone’s best guess. With the growing number of digital athletes multiplying each year, it wouldn’t be surprising for leagues to sprout up across the world. Perhaps there will be a tiered system and American soccer fans can finally get the promotion/relegation system they have always wanted.
One thing is for sure: Giuseppe Guastella will be involved in the future of esports. Nobody has been able to retire the Godfather yet. And with his competitive desire to be the best, it doesn’t appear that he is looking to leave anytime soon.Yet, despite his success as one of the greatest FIFA players ever, Guastella is still just a humble man from San Pedro who wants Zlatan to help announce his child’s gender.