For South African eSports gamer Njabulo Witness Mahlangu, playing football virtually requires the same amount of skill and concentration needed to excel in any other sporting code, and he feels eSports competitors should be given more respect for their chosen sport.
Competitors from countries across all five FISU Continental University Sports Federations took part, representing both their universities and countries on the global stage as they fought for FIFA honours online, in the safety and security of their homes amid the global Coronavirus pandemic.
With participation from each National University Sport Federation limited, some countries held regional qualifiers to ensure their best student-gamers were present in the tournament.
Mahlangu with teammate SondayMahlangu was one of 32 male competitors who joined 12 female gamers in a pioneering project; the inaugural 2020 FISU eSports Challenge which took place across the first two weeks of July.
“A University Sports South Africa (USSA) 2v2 FIFA tournament was hosted nationally in South Africa in September 2019, where 11 universities in the country took part,” Mahlangu tells FISU.
“My partner Mohammed Abbas Sonday and I were part of the 8-man team to represent Stellenbosch University where he and I ended up winning the whole event, taking first place for our university. We were then invited to take part in the FISU Challenge, being the only two South African males in the competition, representing our country.”
An avid gamer since the age of six, Mahlangu – a big football fan himself – started off playing FIFA 2006, progressing with each annual update and continually improving his game, to a point where his friends no longer wish to face off against him.
“I started to dominate my friends to a point that they didn’t want to play against me anymore and requested that we start playing another game,” he laughs. “It was my friends who encouraged me to start playing FIFA competitively, so that’s how it started.”
Despite his relative success in various local tournaments at school level, where he was even able to win a bit of pocket money for his “own personal leisure”, Mahlangu – who hails from a small town called Bronkhorstspruit near South Africa’s capital, Pretoria – eased off the console upon enrolling into the University of Stellenbosch, opting not to take his PlayStation with him to university to allow him to focus on his studies.
The second-year Accounting student however still thrived, participating in numerous FIFA tournaments which saw him ranked in the top two in his university which resulted in his FISU eSports Challenge participation – his first major event.
“This was the first time representing my country on the international stage, and it was a huge honour and proud experience,” he says. “I was very nervous, but I enjoyed it as well. The quality of the players in the tournament was of a high level – there was a number of great players as well as pro players like Dillon Henrique-Gomes, who was in my partner’s group.”
Mahlangu recorded two losses and a draw – one of only three ties across the entire action-packed tournament – in his group as he failed to progress to the knockout stages, yet despite his performance and a few technical issues, says he was able to take a lot away from the Challenge.
“The only downside about the tournament was that it was online and that the connection servers weren’t that great as we were playing opponents from across the world, so the connection was inconsistent, giving us delays and limiting our capabilities to play our best FIFA,” he explains.
“I wasn’t happy with my overall performance as I felt I could have done a bit better, even with all the factors. Not to use these as excuses as it affected us all, and not only certain players; it was about who adapted best to it and I felt I didn’t adapt quickly enough to the circumstances. Nevertheless I also believe your skill level determines who adapts quicker – the better players adapted quicker, so I believe the best player won the tournament. You win some, you lose some and when you lose, you learn at the same time, and I did learn a lot from this tournament’s experience.”
The 20-year-old, who also previously competed in tennis, rugby, chess and cross country, while still playing football on a social level, feels that eSports are undermined and its skill levels are often misunderstood by the vast majority, who he encourages to learn more about the sport in order to give it the respect it deserves.
“It takes a huge amount of hard work and dedication to get to a point where you get paid to play any type of sport in the world, and that’s what most people don’t seem to understand,” he says. “People seem to look down on certain sports and don’t even label them as sports, like eSports. They don’t know what it takes to get to a certain level. To most people, eSports is just seen as a leisure activity that spoiled or lazy people do. I highly encourage people to respect any sport, even if they are not into it or don’t know anything about it.”
Mahlangu admits he does get a bit jealous of professional eSports players, but acknowledges he does not have the time to reach that level with his demanding academic schedule. During his vacations, however, he watches many professional players on YouTube while taking on better players online in order to improve.
“The best way to learn is from players who are better than you,” he says. “There’s is a saying that goes ‘practice makes perfect’, but I would say, ‘practice makes progress’ because I don’t believe in perfect, for there is always room for improvement.”
(All images provided by Njabulo Witness Mahlangu)