Head ducked, his face almost completely hidden by his flat-peak cap, the 16-year-old cut a timid shape in a far-from-roomy hotel elevator as we descended for breakfast.
It was January in Barcelona. The hotel was swarming, playing host to more than 100 FIFA players who had flown in for a tournament. "Are you a FIFA player?" he squeaked at me. "No. Are you?" He didn't carry himself the way the other professional gamers do—imbued with confidence, at times accompanied by entourages, patrolling around in expensive trainers—and he looked so young he could have been mistaken for 12 or 13.
His name? Donovan Hunt. Or "DhTekkz." This was his first-ever major tournament, first-ever LAN event on FIFA, a relative stranger to the scene. Within days, he would be known to everyone in the esports community.
Hunt went on to wipe the floor with almost every opponent at the tournament, including Nicolas99fc—regarded by several pros as the world's best FIFA player—by six goals in the final. He did so thanks in part to a trick now known as the "driven drop-goal kick," where the goalkeeper backs toward his own goal line, ball in hands, then sprints to the edge of the box and lets loose, the ball taking a trajectory that delivers it to a winger in acres of space.
"It was literally something no one had ever seen before," says Colin Johnson, the manager of AS Roma's FIFA team. "He scored about 10 or 12 goals with it throughout the event. He was scoring against the best [in the world].
"I don't think I remember seeing someone come to an event and introduce something that changes the meta of a tournament in the way that his driven goal kick did."
It changed Hunt's life, too. He earned $22,000 for the tournament, promising his mother they'd use it for the holiday they'd long been wishing for. His Twitter following exploded from 300 to more than 40,000, and he indulged the media for hours and stopped for selfies with all comers.
Within a month, he found himself at the center of a bidding war between major gaming organizations and top-tier professional football clubs, all vying to sign him as their official FIFA player. The likes of Ajax, UNILAD and Roma were in the running. F2Freestylers won out. The money on offer was serious. Team management sources in the industry confirm Hunt accepted an annual salary that would put him among the top five earners in the esport—the most high-profile of whom pull in six figures.
And he's only one of the several who have jumped on this money train.
While Hunt's $22,000 January prize pot may seem gaudy, it pales in comparison to the sort of money (and perks) others have already pulled in. Hunt is a shooting star, but he's shooting toward guys who have already won gargantuan amounts in one sitting.
In May 2017, Paris Saint-Germain's Rocky scooped up $160,000 for winning a tournament in Berlin. The runner-up, UNILAD Shellzz, pocketed $80,000—a nice consolation prize considering he lost the final due to an agonising 89th-minute goal that could quite easily have been avoided.
Four months later, FaZe Gorilla pulled in $200,000 for winning the eWorld Cup final in London. He did it in front of a two-storey crowd, a watching cast of footballers including Alvaro Morata, and was handed tickets to The Best FIFA Football Awards. There, he met Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Neymar, Dani Alves and more.
Those are the big ones, but there are events most weekends players can travel to. Scandinavia offers a plethora of tournaments to play in, as does central Europe and the United Kingdom. Examples include the Gfinity Elite Series, which gave teams a weekly battle ground to fight on and a chance to win close to $35,000; V4 Festival, which offered a prize pool of more than $115,000; and the GSA Cup, worth nearly $100,000 to the winner.
If you're an incredible FIFA player, the chance to win thousands arises almost every week—and it can land you some serious silverware too. FUTWIZ Dubzje triumphed at ESWC in Paris in March and was handed a trophy so big, he had to count it as his hand luggage and check his bag.
And tournaments aren't the only way people are making money playing FIFA. There are around 50 full-time professional players in the world—a number that grows with every passing month—and they earn a standard living wage at least.
"In France, Germany, the UK, you wouldn't be surprised to see a player make what a teacher makes. A livable wage," Johnson says. "They don't have to rely on prize pools. And they can subsidize their income."
The options to subsidize are fairly broad. Most players create content on YouTube or stream on Twitch, monetizing their free time in the process. Some are becoming extremely popular figureheads—a fact evidenced not only by their social media followings, but also by their channel donations and subscriber numbers.
Reigning world champion FaZe Gorilla has more than 500,000 YouTube subscribers, Hashtag Harry around 370,000, FaZe Tass almost 250,000. German players Expert Mo_Aubameyang and Fokus Stylo are Twitch stream masters, at times holding between 4,000 to 5,000 concurrent viewers on their games at once, many of whom are donating cash in real time. For reference, most FIFA pros hold a few hundred at a time.
For many, watching personalities on Twitch or YouTube has essentially replaced television—and they compensate directly to their heroes. What these views and subscriptions amount to differs in every case.
FUTWIZ Zelonius offers paid coaching sessions that are streamed on Twitch. He charges members of the public £20 per hour or three games for £50, speaks to them on the phone throughout and then wraps up with a to-do list to improve their skills. It's two birds with one stone; he generally batters them, enhancing his reputation and building a followership, and then collects money via two avenues in the process.
Personal endorsement and branding deals are becoming more common, too. Red Bull is one of several major companies to enter the scene and handpick players to represent it at tournaments, with more than 10 players donning their colors, badge or merchandise.
August Rosenmeier (Hashtag Agge) was signed first back in November 2015, and teammate Ryan Pessoa (Hashtag Ryan) followed suit this February, having engaged in close to three months of talks to make it happen. Pessoa is a professional gamer, a Hashtag representative and a Red Bull athlete, and he juggles all of this while studying for a degree at the University of Surrey.
"It's very difficult trying to balance everything," Pessoa says. "Generally, I tend to prioritize FIFA during qualification months or when there are events; however, if there are exams for me to sit, I prioritize studying for those. If FIFA and exams clash, I have to ask the university if I can sit them at a later date."
He takes branding seriously, showing up to lunch with B/R with his Red Bull cap on. His responsibilities include repping such merchandise, being the face of major events...and drinking Red Bull. "I do that anyway," he assures.
It's on a far smaller scale, but Pessoa's affiliation with Red Bull is directly comparable with Lionel Messi's Adidas sponsorship or Cristiano Ronaldo's Nike deal. They all represent a brand, wear their merchandise and represent the practical "face" of the company—and they all get paid to do it.
Things don't always align for Pessoa, though. In the last week of May, the biggest FIFA tournament of the season so far rolled around—everything he's been working toward since September—and it clashed with his end-of-second-year exams. He was told he could not delay them, that he'd have to choose.
He chose the play-offs.
It's a surely a dilemma few—if any—other students face. Correspondingly, few—if any—other students are making as much money as Pessoa is. It won't surprise you to learn his chosen degree is business management.
It might only be a matter of years before FIFA players start earning at the rate that, say, poker players do—i.e. millions per year. Prize pools for the game still lag far behind those in other esports—esport management sources confirmed there are Danish Counter-Strike players who pull in more than $20,000 per month—but it's progressing fast, and this is a game sponsors will fall over themselves to be associated with, given its close affiliation to the world's most popular sport.
"There's going to be a wage explosion," one manager in charge of a club's esports team tells B/R. "It's scary, really. It's bonkers. We already have ridiculous numbers thrown at us in negotiations."
Negotiations for players are already becoming difficult. Not only do individual affiliations such as those with Red Bull actually disrupt or scupper deals between players and clubs, but agents and middle men cloud things too, offering out professional players' services for ludicrous amounts.
The same source says: "There's one guy, he offered me two players last summer. One for €12,000 ($14,000) per month, one for €100,000 a year ($120,000). I said, 'You're crazy, mate.'"
He might be spurning these offers, but others aren't. Kids are hitting the jackpot, earning tonnes to represent football clubs or gaming organisations.
As the players' personalities, reputations and social channels grow, so will their bank balances. A number will earn more money than they'll know what to do with; a select few already have.
I saw Hunt again in April, this time in Manchester for another tournament, another $22,000 on the line. There was no mistaking him this time. Clad in a custom gray tracksuit emblazoned with "F2 Tekkz," flanked by two freestylers who together have clocked up 7.5 million YouTube subscribers thanks to their penchant for flicks, tricks and skills, he strode more confidently, no longer hiding beneath his cap.
In a matter of three months, he'd gone from an everyday school kid to a superstar, posing for photos with people he'd never met and rubbing shoulders with professional footballers. It wasn't the stride of arrogance—more the stride of a kid whose life had been transformed for the better.
He was the player everyone was watching in Manchester—the name fans looked out for, the point of intrigue hooking many into competitive FIFA. One player who drew Hunt in the group stage reacted by saying, "Tekkz? Oh s--t! That's the one game I didn't want!" He lost heavily.
"His rise has been very, very fast," Johnson says. "He was a fairly reserved guy. He, like a lot of kids, was quite shy, didn't want to speak that much. But the second they're feeling comfortable, they come out of their shell. I think you've seen him come out of his shell a lot more since stepping onto the world stage."
"There's clearly something about him. A buzz. An aura," another team manager says.
It will only grow from here.
Picture of Hashtag Ryan courtesy of esportsranks.com