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Unknown, unsigned and unpopular, 16-year-old Thabo “Yvng Savage” Moloi showed up to the Montecasino Piazza in Johannesburg with a look of astonishment on his face. He was there to compete in his first FIFA event, so seeing a crowd of more than 1,000 people, with some of the country’s most popular celebrities and footballers in attendance, left him awestruck.

“There was so much going on in the venue,” Yvng Savage said of the environment at the 2018 VS Gaming FIFA Festival, which included arcade machines, rock climbing walls, an indoor football court and a stage surrounded with huge lights. “I was blown away that this whole thing had been set up for a gaming event.”

While the event made an impression on Yvng Savage, he was actually the one who everyone was talking about once it ended.

By the 27th minute of the final match of the PS4 tournament, the scene on the pitch looked one sided. Zuhair “zaZe” Ebraim, champion of the previous VS Gaming Festival, couldn’t keep up with Yvng Savage’s quick passes. Yvng Savage even capped off his powerful performance with some showboating — using Cristiano Ronaldo no less — to celebrate a two goal lead. Yvng Savage won his first tournament that day, but it was only the beginning o his climb to prominence.

In the years since then, Yvng Savage went from an unknown entity to Red Bull’s first ever African esports athlete. After that, Thabo and his teammate, Julio “BeastBianchi ” Bianchi, became the first African esports athletes to make the Forbes Africa 30 under 30 list.

“My journey has definitely been a rollercoaster,” he said. “Winning that first FIFA tournament was honestly a life changing moment for me.”

No greener pitches than South Africa

Side events at the VS Gaming Festival, a FIFA event in South Africa
The side events at the VS Gaming Festival were extensive. | Provided by Evan Saunders

Yvng Savage plays for Goliath Gaming while living in South Africa. His nation is home to some of the most dedicated professional FIFA players in the world. It is the only Sub-Saharan African country verified for the FIFA Global Series.

“The FIFA players here are just a great representation for the nation,” said FIFA commentator Sam “Tech Girl” Wright.

South Africa has a massive football culture. Many kids grew up on the pitch, but when they couldn’t pursue their dreams of playing with the likes of Orlando Pirates, Mamelodi Sundowns and Kaizer Chiefs, they picked up controllers to follow a similar path. For both BeastBianchi and his manager, Michele Brondani, their early attempts at footballing careers drew them to the FIFA community.

“Football is special here,” BeastBianchi said. “The progression from the real-life pitch to the virtual pitch was seamless. Competitive FIFA has presented opportunities and friendships.”

This helped FIFA blossom into a culture of its own in South Africa. What started as a smaller scene has spread through word of mouth and social media, growing into something much bigger due to the first VS Gaming FIFA Festival in 2017.

The VS Gaming FIFA Festival effect

From its inception, the VS Gaming Festival offered many in South Africa an event unlike any they had ever seen before. | Provided by Evan Saunders

Wassim “Wass” Rajah, Bravado Gaming’s FIFA manager, was among the 1,024 players who witnessed the event’s first edition. Wassim said he felt energized while walking through the Gallagher Convention Centre in Johannesburg — not just because he was getting ready to compete in the biggest FIFA tournament ever held in South Africa, but because he simply had never seen anything like it.

“I was too nervous for my matches to try out any of the arcade games or any side attractions,” Wassim said.

The VS Gaming Festival featured a 1.5 million Rand prize pool (about $100,000 USD), which put South Africa on the map in terms of FIFA esports because it showed the organizers had what it took to host events of that scale. Aside from the crowd of more than 1,500 trooping in and out of the Gallagher Convention centre, Supershot, Africa’s biggest sports coverage provider, broadcasted all of the games through GINX’s esports channel.

The success of the 2017 edition led to a deal between VS Gaming and EA Sports, allowing the local gaming company to host a qualifier for the following year’s FIFAe World Cup. South Africa was set to hold its first official Global Series qualifier where the winners of the event would represent the country at the FIFA Global Series Playoffs in Amsterdam. It offered a path for South African FIFA players to qualify for the most important tournament in FIFA esports.

The momentum picked up as the VS Gaming Festival headed into its second year. The indoor football court — complete with tiny goal posts, lights and projectors that players competed under — drew in more than  10,000 viewers. It was the best LAN FIFA player Kaylan “Kaylan” Moodley said he had ever been to.

“The energy was just wild,” he said. “I got to see Shekinah perform, and for me, I was just amazed. Whenever players from Bravado and Goliath Gaming faced each other, the atmosphere would just go crazy because it was like a local rivalry between those two.”

Since the VS Gaming FIFA festival, there have been several other events, including the Sandton Gamers City Expo and Rush Esports tournament. While the pandemic has put a temporary pause on events, FIFA continues to grow in the country through leagues and regular FIFA Global series qualifiers.

The hunt for international glory

Despite the growing community at home, when compared to other nations, South Africa has seen less success in FIFA esports on the international stage. Although some players have attended several editions of the Electronic Sports World Cup and FUT Champions Cup, they didn’t get too far.

The pandemic dimmed those international hopes further, even if only for a short time. Brondani and company were supposed to travel to Dubai for bootcamp and participation in qualifiers, but EA cancelled the event and all future ones the night before they were supposed to fly out.

“They were bringing the heat and were on fire during practice sessions,” Brondani said. “I have no doubt that if the qualifiers went ahead, we would have seen a few South African players on the global stage.”

Despite the struggles faced, the country is beginning to see more players represent them on the international stage. Even though BeastBianchi’s failed to qualify for the eNations Cup, they ended the season with a history defining moment in FIFA esports. Their qualification for the FIFA eWorld Cup in London this year was the first time ever that an African player will be competing in the Cup. Unfortunately, the event’s cancellation leaves South Africa still in search of international glory.

Not always about the competition

Masoom (left) and his teammate on Bravado Gaming. | Provided by Bravado Gaming

Masoom “Masoom” Fakie thought of himself as the guy with poor internet, who had to fly 789 miles in order to compete. He was boarding a plane to Johannesburg when that perception changed.

“Aren’t you that guy?” a flight attendant asked.

Masoom said he had no idea what they were talking about, as he was focused on getting to the eLaLiga Santander Fan Cup.

“You know, the guy who won the Sandton tournament,” the attendant added.

Masoom said he was shocked because he had no idea that a South African FIFA LAN tournament he won two years ago would earn him such recognition.

Masoom added that it was a great moment for seeing people recognized Sandton not only as Africa’s iconic shopping centre, but a place where competitive FIFA occurred.

Players like Masoom haven’t been able to find as much success as they would have liked outside the Rainbow Nation, but they’ve seen more than enough growth at home. It’s only a matter of time before that transcends borders to the rest of the world.