Playing video games for a job. For many, that’s the dream.
So how do you make that happen? You could do worse than following tips from professional FIFA player and 2021 ePremier League champion Shellzz, who told Squawka: “My number one piece of advice [for aspiring professional gamers] is to focus on the mental side of the game.
“I think a lot of people don’t realise how hard FIFA is mentally. Anyone can master the mechanics of the game, learn how to do a bridge, learn how to time their shots and stuff.
“But the mental side is the next level where the best players really do shine. Guys like Tekkz, their mental game is so strong and allows them to perform at their best a lot more times compared to others.
“If you can be confident in yourself, be calm when playing, I’m sure you’ll go far.”
Shellz competes on PS4 for Manchester City’s esports team, ranked 16th in the world and the top side owned by an English club. His teammate Ryan Pessoa, who represents the Xbox arm, adds: “Especially in Weekend League, you might play a game where something’s gone against you. For a lot of people, their head would drop. They might go one or two goals down, or they might give up a three-goal lead, for example, and crumble after that.
“But the key is just to keep going, back yourself, there’s a reason why you’re in that position anyway doing well and you just have to back yourself to get out of it.”
The importance of psychology in esports is one reason pro-gamers have coaches, something that may surprise those less familiar with the industry. Even some of those pro-gamers were sceptical, at first.
“I used to wonder what is there that somebody could coach me if I’m at the event and they’re not, in the least cocky way possible,” says Ryan.
“But there are things people can notice that you don’t notice when playing. It’s another set of eyes and especially the mental side of coaching is extremely important.
“I can’t remember the last time I lost a friendly match. It’s been a little while. On a tournament day, though, sometimes you stress out and you overthink it a little bit and you might get burnt out, and that’s the key with competing. I know that in FIFA 19, I played a lot and I burned myself out. You get tired. Making sure you’re not mentally fatigued is very, very important.”
On the benefits of coaches in esports, Shellzz added: “Sometimes it’s nice to have that second opinion because you might be overthinking.
“There are a lot of games where I’ll be like ‘I’m struggling to create, I’m struggling to create, I can’t defend’ and then [my coach] will tell me, ‘Nah you’re defending fine, you’re creating fine, keep on going at it’. So it kind of gives you that reassurance. Sometimes you don’t even need them to tell you ‘change to that formation.’ Sometimes just having that support with you can help you a lot.”
‘I hated 4-4-2, but it’s the best formation to master right now’
There’s a technical side to professional gaming, too, of course. You need a go-to formation that suits you and your players best on Ultimate Team, for one thing, and on FIFA 21 there are 30 different options from which to choose, including five variants of the 4-3-3 and two 4-2-3-1s.
Usually each year on Ultimate Team there’s a standout formation in widespread use and considered the ‘meta’ that year. So which should an aspiring pro-gamer master first?
“This year, I wouldn’t say there’s any go-to formation,” Ryan says. “But I’d probably say 4-4-2 is the most common alongside 4-3-1-2. I think 4-4-2 is a bit harder to play defensively, just because you have to make sure you don’t commit your players out of position.
“Because the moment you take one of your centre mids out of position, you’re literally left open and they can just skip through, they square them with your centre-backs and it becomes like a 50-50.”
“Every year the game changes so formations kind of change as well,” adds Shellzz.
“I like a back-five defensively but going forward it’s a lot harder. I think if you can master 4-4-2, that’s definitely the best thing because it can give you a lot more options.
“I used to hate it, and I thought ‘how do I use it like these guys?’ when I watched other people play with it. It’s one of those things you just have to try to learn and once you hit that moment of ‘I know what to do, I know how to play it’, it kind of breaks that mental barrier.
“I have three gameplans going into a game: my standard 4-4-2, which I start off every game in, I’ve got a ‘Five-back’ if I feel like [the opponent] is looking quite dangerous going forward and I’ve got a narrow if I’ve got to be aggressive going forward.”
‘The statue is already built – that guy is a hero!’
So you’ve nailed the 4-4-2 and you’re browsing the transfer market to fill out your squad. But what should you be looking out for when picking your targets, both in terms of what you need and who you should be avoiding?
It’s easy to get swept away by high ratings, especially when a FIFA instalment is fresh. In September/October, that 89-rated Harry Kane and the 88-rated Toni Kroos look great, but you actually may want to steer clear of them (for reasons explained here) and to be among the best, you’ll also need to look deeper than the attributes. ‘Traits’, for example, are especially important for certain players.
Ryan says: “Something I value, talking about goalkeepers, is traits. For example, you could have a goalkeeper with the exact same stats as [Edwin] van der Sar, same stature as him. But they won’t be as good, just because Van der Sar has ‘Come for Crosses’ as a trait.
“I think [Nick] Pope has ‘Saves with Feet’. Now, it’s not as important this year as it has been. In FIFA 18 that’s why [David] de Gea was the best because he had the ‘saves with feet’ trait. I just value goalkeepers, their traits are very, very important.
“People like [Peter] Schmeichel in goal for example but I don’t like him just because he doesn’t have any traits and Petr Cech for me is such a good shot-stopper. However, he has ‘Cautious with Crosses’. Crossing’s not that important this year but, when someone targets a cross to the back post, if your ‘keeper just stands there and CR7’s waiting, it’s pretty much a guaranteed goal.”
Shellzz is someone who can appreciate the importance of traits in a goalkeeper. Nick Pope was instrumental in his ePremier League title win. So much so, he promised to build a statue of him outside his house in a snap interview at the event.
“The statue is already built. That guy is a hero!”
“The worst thing is, I remember going into tournaments like ‘I don’t know if I want Pope’ and I end up using him because I don’t have enough coins.
“And ePrem, they released a Joe Hart but he has a trait – I think it’s ‘Cautious with Crosses’ – so I was scared of that. Obviously Ederson’s really good but his height was a problem for me and height is a big thing in FIFA.
“But Pope will forever have a statue outside by house, and I thank him every day.”
“He does things no other player can do”
And signing off, we asked who the most fun player to control on FIFA 21 was. The verdict was unanimous.
“I’ve only used 97 R9 [Ronaldo Nazario] once,” said Shellz, ” but when I had him on the edge of the box, I felt like I had superpowers. I felt like I could do anything. So, he’s probably the most fun I’ve had with a player this year.”
Ryan adds: “For me there’s only one player, and while a lot of people wouldn’t have used him because only the elite few can get a hold of him. I can’t explain how good Prime Moments 97 R9 is. It doesn’t make sense. He does things no other player can do.
“With five star weak foot, five star skills, he has everything; the strength, the pace, the shooting, the dribbling. He can pass decently as well, so definitely him.”