While millions of people dream of representing their country in football, Tom Leese has managed to make that a reality through FIFA.
Leese began playing FIFA with his older brother when he was just five years old and later discovered that he was a lot better than your average player.
Having destroyed his friends on a regular basis, he was eventually banned by them for being too good at the game.
“We used to just run a few tournaments whenever we’d go round to each other’s houses,” Leese says ahead of the upcoming ‘eLions: The Eliminator’ tournament, the winner of which will represent England at the 2021 FIFAe Nations Cup.
“We’d give each other a bit of banter about putting some money in for a tournament, but when I kept winning them it got to a point where I wasn’t allowed to play anywhere and I’d have to just watch the tournaments instead.”
After a friend later introduced him to the pro scene, Leese started to do some research and soon realised that it could be a realistic career path for him.
Despite getting good A-level grades and watching his peers go off to university, he took the plunge and started playing FIFA full time.
“I wanted to do something different and I thought if it doesn’t work out then I’ll always get a second chance at either going to University or trying to find the typical or ‘normal’ job,” he says.
“I get a thrill out of taking risks at times, I enjoy doing something different and this was just the perfect opportunity for me. I think also in the back of my head I knew that if I was this talented at something then I have to give it a try, I’d never live it down if I didn’t.”
While a lot of teenagers dream about getting paid to play FIFA, most parents believe that video games are an unnecessary distraction from your studies.
Fortunately for Leese, his mum and dad didn’t force him to go to university and instead allowed him to follow his FIFA dream.
“One thing I always say about my parents is they were very supportive, they struggled to understand at the start but I think even I struggled to understand it all at first,” Leese says.
“They said, ‘We’re always going to back you as long as you are looking after yourself. As long as you’re confident that it can work we’re happy for you to give it a try and see where it goes.’ And luckily as soon as I gave it a try it worked out pretty well for me.”
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A lot of the general public may argue that messing around and playing FIFA all day doesn’t count as a job, but there’s definitely a lot more to it.
In order to become one of the best FIFA players in the world, competitors have to show incredible commitment and dedication to their craft.
“It’s a lot of hard work behind the scene,” Leese says. “I probably spend three to five hours a day practising and then other times doing mental stuff, making sure that when the tournaments come around I’m fully in the zone.
“I like to watch other pros just to see if they do something that I don’t, they might have a new skill move, a new way of defending or a different formation that I’ve never come across before.
“I also watch my own gameplay back because you make a lot of mistakes that in the moment you don’t really notice, but when you watch it back you realise that if you stop doing that you’d be more successful.”
The 22-year-old got his big break in 2019 when England took their first steps into the world of eSports by hosting a competition in search of the country’s first ever eLions.
He caused a few upsets and overcame some brilliant opponents before saving a decisive penalty in the final to secure his eLion status.
Emotional scenes! 😌
— England (@England) March 14, 2019
Leese went on to represent England at the inaugural FIFAe Nations Cup, where he and Donovan ‘Tekkz’ Hunt made it to the quarter-finals.
“The eLions was a surreal experience because at the time I was actually out of form. I didn’t go into the tournament with much confidence and suddenly I had a big opportunity on my plate to become the first ever player to play for England as an esports player.
“I won the final on penalties in a very tight game and it’s just a massive release of emotion really. Representing your country in anything is crazy, let alone to do it in something that I love doing like being a FIFA player.
“It’s one moment that I always think back on and think, ‘Yeah that was a life-changing moment.’ I’ve had so many crazy experiences with England.
“I’ve managed to go to St George’s Park, been filming with a load of the players, met a lot of the team and had a load of times where I can go to Wembley and things like that, just being part of England.”
After impressing as an eLion, he has continued to enhance his reputation and was signed by Hashtag United’s eSports team in September 2019.
Leese was then chosen to represent Watford during the Premier League’s official esports competition in 2020 and ended up winning the tournament.
“It was more of a relief when I won the ePremier league, you can probably see in the celebrations, that outpour of emotion because when you keep coming so close you do start doubting yourself a little bit, have you got it in you to get over the line and win a final.
“It’s something that you can’t really put into words. To be able to say that I’m 22 and I’ve played for England and for a Premier League club in FIFA, it doesn’t actually sink in with me when I think about it properly, it’s absolutely mindblowing.”
This is what it means to be #ePL champion!
Congratulations, @HashtagTom_ 👊 pic.twitter.com/q8mnC2fpAS
— Premier League (@premierleague) August 28, 2020
Leese received £20,000 for winning the ePremier League, taking his total prize money from playing FIFA to over £50,000.
With so much money on the line, a lot of players would crack under the pressure.
“There is always nerves before every tournament because you can’t run away from the fact that you are playing for money, you can try and not think about it but you know it’s there,” he says.
“You’ve got to try and turn them into good nerves and not let the pressure get to you, try and keep that composed state of mind because if you feel pressure and start getting angry or upset during a game then you’ve already lost.”
Having first become a professional FIFA player in 2017, Leese has noticed a huge growth in eSports over the last four years, especially during these difficult times.
“I’ve seen a lot of change since I first came in. The amount of paid professional players from when I first came into the scene compared to now – I’d imagine there’s around 10 times the amount, there’s so many players and so much talent all over the world.
“I just see it continuously growing really, more and more people are getting involved in it. During lockdown it’s been a great alternative because it’s hard for everyone at the minute and I think gaming can be a way out, getting away from the real world for a bit and having a bit of fun.”
Looking forward, Leese is now set to take part in the eLions Eliminator tournament for the chance to represent England again at the 2021 FIFAe Nations Cup.
After winning the ePremier League last year, he’s now craving more trophies and won’t be hanging up the controller any time soon.
“I just want to win every tournament I play in, I think there’s no point prioritising tournaments, thinking I’d love to win a World Cup or I’d love to win the eNations cup with England,” he says.
“I think for me to be truly happy in my career it would be knowing that I’ve won everything I possibly could so I don’t think I want to slow down anytime soon.
“It’s a really fun job, there are so many nice perks to it that I just want to keep enjoying myself.”
The eLions Eliminator tournament kicks off on Thursday at 13:45. You can follow all the action at Twitch.tv/England.