Pitch black, early morning – so early it’s more night than day. 23-year-old Firdaus Shairi pulls on an All Blacks top.
He sits down in front of his screen, the light flickering across his face, and steps out onto a digital football pitch for New Zealand.
Earlier in July, the Malaysian-born university student earned the right to represent New Zealand in a global esports tournament centred around the football video game, FIFA 20, where competitors play each other by each taking control of a virtual team.
“It felt awesome and amazing at the same time. I never thought that I would represent New Zealand in esports,” Shairi said.
A lot of training lead up to this moment for the University of Canterbury student: Over lockdown, he’d taken part in an esports tournament run by the university and did so well, he was encouraged to give the FISU Oceania FIFA qualifying tournament a go.
He won his group games and finished fifth, the highest spot earned by a New Zealand player. That meant he qualified for the global tournament: the inaugural FISU eSports Challenge Football.
When it came to the tournament, Shairi found himself juggling time zones to be able to compete – one match against a student from Hungary meant he played at 6pm – 8am for his opponent. The time zone conundrum also saw him play one match at 3am.
Shairi didn’t get as far as he hoped in the global tournament and was knocked out early in the pool stage. But he’s still walking away with an extra dose of experience.
“The tournament was filled with amazing players - for example there's one guy I played with, a professional player that won the Elite FIFA tournament from Australia, named Dillon Gomes.”
“It really is a huge competition for a small player like me to cover it for the first time. It's kinda overwhelming.”
Shairi hopes he can continue with esports in the future, saying people can make a huge career for themselves in the industry right now.
“You can stream, you can play big tournaments with big prizes. You can do coaching for gaming. If I get a chance, if I'm really, really lucky, I hope to go all the way, but I think I've still got a long way to go.”
A football player in both the digital and physical world, Shairi can see the parallels between the two forms of the game.
“[eSports] feels like a real sport and the fans are just amazing. They really cheer for their teams.
“When I'm playing and my friends cheer and support me at the back, it feels like just like I'm a rugby player on the field.”
Just like a rugby player, Shairi also has to make sure his mental game is on form too – especially when he’s playing in the digital world.
He said he was quite an “emotional player” at times, especially when he was losing, so he had to learn how to “arrange his thinking” and channel his energy into the game, rather than growing more frustrated.
FISU, an international university sports organisation, generally sticks to more traditional sports competitions, but with COVID causing havoc in the sports world, the organisation set up an esports competition instead.
In FISU’s 70-year history, a football-based esports competition is a first for the organisation, one that reflects interest from students, especially in the age of COVID. The tournament aimed to “keep a sense of competition and sport alive, despite the lockdowns”.
Players for the tournament came from more than 30 universities across five different continents.
Images for this article supplied by @harizaqil1, @fathir and @arfa
- Asia Media Centre