NEW YORK – Giuseppe Guastella barely moved. He looked up towards the ceiling as he let up a second goal to Mohamad Al-Bacha of Denmark with just minutes remaining in the round of 16 at the 2016 FIFA Interactive World Cup on Monday afternoon.
The next day, Al-Bacha went on to hoist a trophy presented to him by New York City FC star and David Villa at the Apollo Theatre. In addition to the celebration fit for the winner of the actual World Cup, Al-Bacha nets $20,000 will attend the 2016 Ballon d’Or ceremony in Zurich, where is likely to be among the likes of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Guastella, 30, enjoyed the rest of his time in New York and heads to Chicago for one last excursion with this girlfriend before returning to his job as a project manager for a flooring company. A celebration in New York would have been outrageous. The oldest competitor of the FIWC planned to spend the prize money much differently than Al-Bacha had he managed to win.
“Strippers,” Guastella says without hesitation, before cracking a smile.
His girlfriend of three years, Vanessa Romo, says she would have joined in on the strip club trip.
“I tell him all the time that we should go,” Romo says. “I’m not the typical girlfriend that says ‘No we can’t go.’ I’ve always wanted to go out of curiosity. It’s on my bucket list.”
Alas, it wasn't meant to be.
This year marked Guastella’s fifth try at the tournament. With his early exit, the American’s best finish remains a semifinals appearance in 2012. The evolving world of eSports has taken him to Barcelona, Dubai, Munich, Vancouver and several other places around the globe. While he entered the week saying this would be his final tournament, his girlfriend remained hopeful that he would continue to play, which for her means free vacations around the world.
After his loss, Guastella changed his mind and said that he can see himself playing until he’s 80, which would put the game at FIFA 76.
“My whole journey started right here in New York,” Guastella says. “I found out about the tournament and there was a live qualifier so I entered and I became the North American champion in 2009. I’ve always wanted to be No. 1 in the world and I still haven’t accomplished that just yet.”
Before Romo attended her first tournament with Guastella, she had the same expectations that most people would have about eSports.
“I thought it was going to be the lamest thing ever,” Romo said. “We’re going to get nerds and super young kids. I thought we’d be so out of place. They told us to expect media and I thought it would just be someone with a camcorder. Once we got there, I saw everything that went to it and thought it was really cool.”
The nerdy elements remain. Several competitors from Europe brought their own coaches to stand behind them and whisper advice. International media followed certain players for post-game interviews that would be streamed to fans across the internet. A Danish competitor had an entourage branded with Coca-Cola sponsored jackets. One German player was sponsored by a professional soccer team. When he wasn’t at a console, Guastella joked around with his girlfriend.
“This is just a hobby to me,” Guastella says. “I just like to compete. I like to be humble about stuff but all my friends know what I do. Like everyone they just laugh and can’t believe an event like this is happening.”
His best friend, Jared Nizich, flew in from Los Angeles for moral support. Just a year ago, he was on the other end of a call from Guastella after a loss in Munich and now he wanted to see the event for himself.
Clad in a U.S. men’s national team jersey and scarf, Nizich tried to take a photo of Guastella on his phone but his hands were shaking too much to get any shot worthy of an Instagram post.
“You have to train and dedicate time to this,” Nizich says. “If these guys aren’t athletes, anyone would be able to do it on the world stage. Just like soccer, you have to put work into it.”
Guastella knows that he is terrible at soccer. His Italian roots and love for Juventus have provided his knowledge of tactics and formations over the years but it never translated onto the pitch. Behind a controller, he can work magic but would not consider himself an “athlete” for it.
“I don’t consider eSports competitors as athletes. They’re the same thing as a professional chess player,” Guastella says. “We’re playing a game that requires a lot of mental skills.”
Romo put Guastella in an odd chasm between the two labels.
“I do know it takes some skill level to compete at the elite level,” Romo says. “Then again, you have to be in physically good shape to be an athlete and perform. He’s in between because he can think like an athlete.”
Competitors in the realm of League of Legends and other popular eSports sometimes find themselves dedicating 20 hours or more of their day to sitting behind a screen and playing. Adderall and other drugs have raised controversy yet millions of dollars continue to flow into the growing trend with soccer stadiums being sold out. The FIFA video game requires less of an intense dedication to being good. Some competitors will play just over 40 hours a week, while some like Guastella keep it to 10 hours or less, because, frankly, he needs to pay the bills with his full-time job.
“This tournament won’t be big here in the United States until real soccer is big in America,” Guastella says. “Compare FIFA between here and Europe and it’s a totally different scene. It’s hard to make this a career unless you’re in the League of Legends scene. That’s where FIFA hasn’t stepped up in making their stars big. I do it to compete and I want to be the best in this FIFA game. I still laugh about it all.”