When it launched last September EA SPORTS FIFA 12 shifted more than 3.7 million units in its first week. This game is played by a lot of people, but who is the best in the world? Last month 24 of the best players on the planet convened in Dubai to let their hands rather than their feet do the talking in a bid to become the ultimate FIFA Champion.
A staggering 1.3 million online players registered for the chance to win this years FIFA Interactive World Cup, a prize that came with a cheque for $20,000 USD and a ticket to next years Ballon d'Or Gala where they will milk the applause of Rooney, Messi et al – players who's pixelated incarnations helped earn the interactive champion their right to be in attendance at the European footballer of the Year Award. Qualifying for the finals began in earnest on December 1st 2011 with 12 of the 24 finalists booking their plane tickets to Dubai via special online FIFA 12 season's of 25 days each. Eleven earned their spots through a series of live territorial qualification tournaments with the final chair reserved for last years champion, 17 year-old Francisco Cruz from Portugal.
The first ever FIWC took place in 2004 but the annual competition really took off in 2009 thanks to the online gaming platform that Sony's PlayStation 3 and Microsoft's XBox 360 brought to the table. This years tournament took place on PlayStation format with the number of entrants comfortably surpassed the one million mark, blowing last years record-breaking 870,000 entrants out of the water and underlining the FIWC's place in the Guinness World Record books.
With the game continually nudging the boundaries of reality, General Manager of Football at EA Sports, Matt Bilbey, recently admitted, "We joke we could probably supply Alex Ferguson a report every Friday to say that, of the 500 million games of Man United Vs Chelsea that were played this week online, the most successful line up against Chelsea was this."
This years tournament took place on PlayStation format with the number of entrants comfortably surpassed the one million mark, blowing last years record-breaking 870,000 entrants out of the water and underlining the FIWC's place in the Guinness World Record books.
Interestingly FIFA have been collating data on their interactive players which reveals that the game is not simply childs play. The average age of players is 26 and they are predominately live in major European countries as well as North and South America. Dispelling the couch potato stereotype, 81% actively play the real game regularly with friends while 51% claim they have an active interest in taking the care to have a healthy diet.
After qualifying the 24 finalists were flown to Dubai for an all-expenses three day competition last month. Once they had been transferred to their luxury hotel and showered with free Adidas gear, a draw was made to establish four groups of six. A round robin format involving ten minute long games separated the elite wheat from the world-class chaff, with some of the early action streamed live online. After an intense afternoon of action the players were whisked off to a local water park to cool off before relaxing with a beach BBQ that evening.
A mark of how serious FIFA treat the tournament was the presence of former World Cup winners Luca Toni and Christian Karembeu who were "on hand to offer the grand finalists advice on how to deal with pressure and coping with opponents when it matters." Arsene Wenger was the official coach for the FIWC and, despite not being able to attend the finals in person, presented video tutorials for players throughout the tournament and answered questions on tactics. A touch of glamour was supplied by Sky Sports News siren, Charlotte Jackson who hosted the event.
Day two began with sailing and helicopter rides around Dubai harbour before the PlayStations were fired up at the Burj al Arab and the serious business of the knockout stage began. By the afternoon 12 had become 8 and gamepads were downed for the day, the players, who by now must have felt like Willy Wonka golden ticket winners, were off for some more sightseeing at the Burj Khalifa – the worlds tallest building. There they were treated to dinner overlooking the Dubai fountains where the water is rhythmically timed to the sound of music with jets of water shot 235 feet into the air.
Day three involved an actual kickabout with Toni and Karembeu in a state-of-the-art, air conditioned Football Centre in Mena before the virtual business of establishing who would become the 2012 FIFA Interactive World Cup Champion. England's interest in the competition ended in typical style when 19 year-old Villa fan, Ty Walton, bravely crashed out in the semi finals which set up a Spain-France final between Alfonso Ramos and and Frenchman Bruce Grannec. Both were playing to make history and pick up the accolade of being the first person to be crowned a two-time FIWC winner, Ramos picked up the title in 2008 and Grannec triumphed at the 2009 tournament.
Like many of the finalists both preferred to play as Real Madrid and with $20,000 USD on the line it was no surprise that the final wasn't the jaw-dropping spectacle of clinical finishing, inch perfect passing and showboating that had been on display earlier in the competition, but that didn't stop people from around the world logging on to watch the live stream showcasing the two best FIFA12 players in the world.
Ninety minutes and extra-time couldn't separate the world class gamers so the Interactive World Cup final came down to penalty kicks. With both players concealing their controllers it was Spain's Ramos who held his nerve to win 7-6 and become the best (virtual) player in the world.
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