Manchester City became the first-ever team to win both the Premier League and FIFA Esports ePremier League title during the 2020-21 season. In fact, they won a ‘hat-trick’ of Premier League titles on the pitch, also securing the PL2 and U18s league. The scary thing is, they’re only getting started.
One thing you could never accuse Manchester City of is complacency. Since Sheikh Mansour took over majority ownership of the football club in 2008, a transformation has taken place on the pitch and even in the local area of East Manchester. Just look at the Etihad Stadium or Etihad Campus. They both represent the best-in-class sports facilities – an absolute dream for a young player looking to come and develop.
From Roberto Mancini to Pep Guardiola, there’s been a constant improvement in standards. The scarf-wearing former manager brought in a lot of talented players from other countries, with Carlos Tevez, Yaya Toure, Sergio Aguero, David Silva, just to name a few.
The style of football changed in correspondence with a hike in expectations, and that started with the club’s leadership. The team running the business side of Manchester City is determined to raise the bar, compete, and as we’ve seen since Guardiola arrived in the English top-flight, they are determined to align their ambitions to grow Man City as a brand with the routine success of lifting silverware. Even with a global health crisis and congested schedule, they were crowned Premier League champions on May 11 – their third title victory in four years and 10th trophy since their Spanish manager took charge.
Many supporters up and down the country argue that their football teams do not take the smaller competitions seriously, but that is not how this trophy-winning machine operates.
One thing that has been held against all of the big signings and title wins, though, was their inability to use the new youth training facilities to create a home-grown star. Fast-forward five years of Pep at the helm, and everybody is talking about a very talented boy in their team. The ‘Stockport Iniesta’, Phil Foden.
Man City on “long-term” ambitions in esports
Now, in 2021, they are surely a few pieces of the puzzle away from claiming a European Cup, and those ambitions are very much translating in esports. There’s a strong commitment to improving players. A hunger to regularly pick up trophies as a measuring stick for their success. And, as Man City Group Media Director, Gavin Johnson, told us in an exclusive interview – the club is not innovating for innovating’s sake. There is a long-term plan being worked towards.
He said: “In everything we do, we want to win, and obviously with it being an esports environment we’ve got the chance to win.
“We also know that we’re going to have losses. You go back to the mentality of the club, when you hear Pep talk [after the Champions League loss], he will be surrounded by support, help, and advice from right across the organization and it’s exactly the same in esports. We’re not going to win every time. Shellzz won the ePremier League but it’s been an up and down journey to get there. Will he win next year, who knows?
“It’s about having a long-term strategy of investing, learning as we go as well, not being afraid to stop doing certain things and start doing others. But having a long-term focus on showing up authentically and credibly in the esports space. Along the way, making sure we have a structure in place to help the likes of Ryan [Pessoa] and Shellzz. If we win, brilliant. If we don’t, we will learn and go again.”
As a Liverpool fan, it’s been difficult to watch such a big rival become stronger and stronger each season. But, let’s be frank, the fact that it took Jurgen Klopp’s men two full years of exceptional football, possibly like nothing we’ve ever seen in front of the KOP, just to take one domestic title away from them in this last four years is frightening. The levels of excellence that run through this club, in recruitment, training, style of play, management of their talents, and innovation are second to none.
Many football operations around the world have had monumental amounts of money thrown at them in grand projects – think of Malaga, Arsenal, AC Milan, Tottenham to name a few in recent years – but not all of them have led to sustained onfield success. Manchester City, meanwhile, has become a standard-bearer.
A winning structure
Their approach to esports is quite collaborative. They are part of a wider group under the City Football Group umbrella, which incorporates the teams of New York City FC and Melbourne City. The players work in tandem, improving each other’s game, and the support from their clubs is really starting to bear fruit.
In March earlier this year, Didychrislito completed an eMLS grand slam victory after winning eMLS Series One, eMLS Series Two, and rounding it off with an eMLS Cup victory over defending champ – and rival – New York Red Bulls player George Adamou.
Three trophies from one region represent the sort of domination Manchester City have enjoyed on the pitch, and this season in the ePremier League, their player Shaun ‘Shellzz’ Springette finally got over the line by winning the title in March. After two grueling 4-2 legs in the final, he faced off against Leeds United’s Olle ‘Ollelito’ Arbin in a penalty shootout and kept his cool to deliver Man City’s first-ever major trophy in esports.
Speaking to Dexerto, Shellzz said: “I first got into FIFA esports in FIFA 17. I was in my second year of sixth form at the time, so I had to sacrifice my education for it because it was something I wanted to do. So to finally be able to call myself a champion is something we all aim for as FIFA pros.
“I’ve been working for it for a lot of years and to finally get it, it was dramatic! You know, the ins and outs of my career are like a movie – you lose, you’re down – but it was a cinderella ending.”
While there has been a long-term stigma around mental health and mental conditioning in sports for some time, Shellzz and his teammate Ryan Pessoa have lauded the support network offered by their club. In 2020, City’s German midfielder Ilkay Gundogan opened up about the challenges of working remotely, and mental fatigue suffered.
Pursuit of success can be tiring, particularly given the global health crisis of the last 18 months, and the integration of a mental coach to support the esports team has been massively beneficial. Esports athletes and gamers in general also have a stigma around them in relation to sleeping patterns, their health, and routine. However, with a successful training schedule and support from a mental coach, Man City have instilled a winning mentality in their team that aligns exactly with the football team’s core principles.
Shellzz told us: “People from my previous team, they used to say ‘Shellzz is so good, I don’t know what it is, but sometimes he shows up, and sometimes he doesn’t. I’ve always had that in my head, where I’ve got the ability but it’s trying to find a way to break through mentally.”
The pro admitted he used to go into tournaments doubting himself against other top stars, but he’s since found a way to get over the line. Mental coaching has played a big part in that success, showing similarities between the club’s support on the football pitch and the virtual field.
He added: “When I heard about City getting a mental coach I knew this is something that could help me a lot. I was eager to get started. We’ve been working on it for two years now and it’s kind of nice to see it working, and paying off. It’s one of those things you don’t realize is affecting you.”
Fellow Man City pro player, Ryan Pessoa, didn’t manage to pick up a trophy this season. However, he too has felt the benefit of having a mental coach work on his game.
He told us: “I used to struggle against players that I personally found them to be worse than me, not in a disrespectful way. But players where I think I’m better than them in the game, and the players that perform better than me I tend to play better against them. It’s trying to find that balance – boost my morale, confidence, concentration, consistency.
“Those types of things are keys to success because I always say 50% is the ability and 50% is the mental side. You could be a great player and fall short numerous times, or be like some players where they are not the best player gameplay-wise, but their mentality sets them above others that are struggling.”
Most ePremier League teams now have access to a mental coach and the success of it draws easy parallels with even the stars on the Man City team. There is another strategic feature of the club’s operations, though, that sets them apart – collaborations.
Man City x FaZe Clan
For die-heard esports fans, goals, victories, and big performances in-game will be the most important thing to watch out for. However, growing the audience of FIFA esports competitions is much harder in comparison to Call of Duty League, CS:GO Majors, or League of Legends’ Championships.
Taking on a domestic and international competition format that replicates the real sport means it is unoriginal to a degree, and then there’s a huge responsibility for the clubs to promote what’s essentially a spinoff sub-team of their organizations. For many, this is not the priority, but Manchester City has carved out a sensational success story that’s very much audience-driven.
Their partnership with FaZe Clan and its content creators, for example, has allowed the club to blur the lines between football and gaming in a way no other Premier League club has before – with a strong focus on collaborations.
Speaking about how that partnership works both ways, Gavin Johnson told us: “What you’ll see is that a lot of our players love collaborating with them [FaZe Clan members] as well. Like Kevin De Bruyne – huge gamer – Sergio Aguero – leaving us now, but huge gamer – Aymeric Laporte, Kyle Walker. They love that they’re playing with what they see as absolute superstars in the FaZe lineup and the FaZe guys obviously buzz off the fact that they’re playing Fortnite with Kevin De Bruyne.
“It’s just authenticity. They have shown in the space that they are an incredible, phenomenal organization at FaZe, and we’re very lucky to be working with them but hopefully, we bring something to the table with our success on the pitch.
“Authenticity is a big reason as to why that partnership works with FaZe, and we’ve had some big successes over the last 18 months since the partnership, but we’ve got some really cool stuff coming up as well which we’ll be able to tell you about in due course.”
That laser focus they have placed on not just building up their esports stars, but creating esports content with massive collaborations, shows they have the right people in the right places. Having their own exclusive skins in the Fortnite FaZe City Cup this January was just the start, and so too was Shellzz’s ePremier League triumph.
In 2021, the blue moon is rising for Man City in esports. By fusing together the ambition to have success on the virtual pitch and the goal to establish themselves as a credible content creator partner, the Manchester club are looking much longer-term than just winning trophies – because the structure they’re putting in place almost guarantees that.