The record figures for the FIFA Interactive World Cup 2016 and the massive public interest in this March's Grand Final in New York showed once again that the virtual game can excite millions of people and mobilise them to follow the exploits of its greatest players.
"It's starting to take on crazy proportions," says Bruce Grannec, who ought to know better than most. Nicknamed 'The Machine', he won the 2009 and 2013 editions of the Interactive World Cup thanks to his legendary composure, and he explained to FIFA.com that the competition is only set to grow. "I didn't necessarily expect that when I first got involved, but after immersing myself in it, I realised that eSports have a great future. I think we're still only at the start and in five or six years it will become incredible. There are countries where it fills venues and the audiences are huge.
"I don't think it will become bigger than football one day, but it's going to get crazier and crazier," he adds. "We've already seen some players start to earn lots of money because sponsors are getting involved." Exciting times clearly seem to lie ahead, but Grannec will be observing them from a distance after announcing his retirement a year ago. The Frenchman nonetheless remains heavily involved in the game as a commentator, sharing his take on French television, his own YouTube channel and social media.
Retiring at the top
"I played competitively for ten years," he says, having stepped down as the greatest champion in the discipline's short history – with two runners-up spots to go with his pair of world titles. "When I started, I was among the youngest players, and at the end, I was one of the oldest. I told myself it was time to move on to something else. I was a little less motivated and given the young players who were just starting out, I felt that there wasn't much point if I wasn't at the very top."
While the ravages of time are cruel to any athlete, they seem to be particularly brutal in the world of eSports, even if Grannec was able to defy the laws of nature. "There are some games where players retire at 23 because they no longer have quick enough reflexes. I was lucky enough to maintain a good level until 28 or 29. I was able to stick around, but I did lose my reflexes a little, even if I was able to compensate by using my experience against young players."
Those new players arriving on the scene are getting better every year – and there are increasingly more of them. "The competition is getting fiercer and fiercer," adds the veteran, also dubbed 'Spank'. "There are more and more players and lots of them are starting out very young. When I started, you could barely play online. It was completely new. Today that's just standard and the game is played in every country."
Sport and studies
The result of all that growth is an enthralling spectacle, and Grannec was on hand at this year's spectacular final, which had the crowd at the Apollo Theater in raptures. "I was more used to taking part as a player, but I really enjoyed commentating on it and seeing how the other players got on as a spectator. The final was incredible, with Sean Allen leading by two goals with just minutes to go and [Mohammad] Al-Bacha turning things around. There was suspense, big twists … all the things people love about football."
The similarities between the two disciplines are certainly close at times. Just witness Grannec's choice of career since retiring, a route pursued by many professional footballers after hanging up their boots. And his advice to young players hoping to follow in his footsteps could almost come straight from the mouth of a grizzled pro. "You have to be careful what you do. For example, playing didn't stop me from continuing with my studies. I did both without any problems. At the time, my parents saw that it wasn't holding me back from everything else, so they were quick to support me. But it's true that if you're 17 and fairly good at FIFA, you can't tell yourself you're going to give everything up, stop studying and become the best player in the world. It's complicated. There are lots of very good players and having a good level isn't enough by itself. You need to be mentally tough in tournaments."