Since the rise in COVID-19 infections and the interruption of sports competitions in Romania, as well as around the globe, focus has shifted toward the phenomenon of virtual football, labelled eSports, and FIFA Pro Clubs in particular. Our club is represented by two teams, one on PlayStation 4, managed by Cristian Gheorghiu, and one on Xbox, managed by Cătălin Pricop.
We sat down with Cristi last week (virtually), after our team exited the Supercupa #jucămdeacasă, where we reached the quarterfinals and lost against the to-be champions, Universitatea Craiova. Aged 20, Cristi is not just a football fan, he’s also a big fan of Poli. He plays real life football in the Romanian 5th league and wanted to try out for our club in the summer, but the coaching staff was focused at the time on managing players who were already under contract with the club. The current health crisis caught him while on vacation in Italy, the country where he finished his high-school studies, and he’s been living in Verona, adhering to national isolation restrictions.
Our team was one of the highglights of the national supercup and attracted attention by having an international squad, playing alongside a core group of Romanian gamers. If you want to get to know them, while also finding out more about FIFA eSports, how the championship structure works and how professional the training sessions are, read on!
For how long have you been playing FIFA?
I’ve played FIFA since I was very young, the first edition I ever tried being FIFA 2003, on a PlayStation 2. I went on to buy Pro Evolution Soccer as well and for many years, I played the newest edition for both games, until finally focusing on FIFA.
Many people don’t know what eSports is and why it’s relevant. Can you explain some of the reasons?
To me, it’s just a fascinanting game mode. You can create your own player in FIFA Pro Clubs and play against real people, 11 versus 11. The more you play, the better your player becomes. It’s close to the real experience, especially as far as team work and finding the right mindest are concerned. There are a lot of communities out there – Virtual Pro Gaming (VPG) is the largest, but you’ve also got a very good one in Virtual Pro League (VPL), and I’ve played in a few others, like Football League Champions or eSports eleven. Right now I am working on organizing a Romanian league on the Esports Football Association (EFA) community. All of them have been on the rise recently, particularly seeing how people have had more time on their hands now to play the game. Yearly sales are at about 50 million units, from EA Sports.
When did you found the team and what’s its history?
I started playing VPG in 2018, in the Scottish league – meaning I created my player and signed up there, in the second league. The team was dead last and those running it wanted to withdraw, so I offered to run it and managed to consolidate what we had. Then I created my own team, CFR Timişoara, initially in the same league and after a seasons we moved to a Romanian league. This was at the beginning of 2019, so we went on to play several seasons as CFR in various competitions – VPG Scottland, VPG Romania, VPL Romania, VPG Europe, VPG Holland. That’s how we came to be such an international team, with players from all over the world.
As Poli Timişoara, we’ve played in VPG Europe and VPL Romania, and will be playing in the EFA as well. We have quite the work load – three matches a week in VPG Europe, Monday, Tuesday and Thursday at 22.45, and another four matches in VPL Romania, Tuesday and Wednesday, two a piece at 21.30 and 22.00.
Having some real life experience as a footballer, how does it compare to eSports?
What we do requires discipline and passion, like in real life. We usually get together at around 21.00 for training, Monday through Thursday, and play training matches – either against random opponents, in Cup competitions or against the AI. We also contact other teams to organize friendlies, it’s all pretty serious. Add to that tactical training sessions and the occasional Sunday meeting to discuss strategy for the upcoming week. We have 15/16 players in the first team and we also had an Academy, with just as many players, but our focus now is on the first team, because I was running out of time to handle everything. Any player that we bring in needs to be transferred, they require an account on the league’s website and we can then send them a virtual offer which they have to accept in order to play for us – or any other team.
Why did you choose to represent Poli?
It’s my favourite team, I’ve supported the club since I was very young. Since the re-founding in 2012, I’ve been up to date with everything, seeing my first match in 2013, when we beat rivals Dinamo 2-0. I also recall a fantastic victory against CFR Cluj in 2017, there were a lot of great moments. Even if the situation is a difficult one now, I don’t plan on leaving Poli, I wouldn’t be a real supporter if I did that.
Do you have a favourite player from recent years?
I think we had some exciting players here. I enjoyed Croitoru, Pedro Henrique, Cânu, Straton – that extraordinary team we had during the 2016-2017 season. Too bad things went south aftewards, but it’s really tough when you don’t have financial backing, that’s the truth.
How satisfied are you by the performance in the #jucamdeacasa Supercup?
Honeslty, I didn’t expect us to play that well. Several of our players were new to the team, we started well, remained undefeated in the group stage. Then there was a glitch in the match against SR Brasov, when we conceded the second goal. Unfortunately, we made some unforced errors in the quarterfinals and lost against to-be champions Universitatea Craiova. But on the whole I am happy with how the guys performed, we impressed and won a difficult group, beating Farul Constanta, who were among the favourites.
Did playing live on TV affect you?
We definitely felt it during the first match, missed some clear cut chances, the pressure was there and we were all a bit nervous. But we got used to it and it was an awesome experience.
What’s the situation like in the league, what are your objectives?
In VPG Eurpe, the second division, we have two games left to play. We’re sixth, but I’m not sure we’ll keep playing here, because the other competitions are requiring a lot of our attention and energy. In VPL Romania, we’ve played 22 rounds, there’s still a lot to play, because it’s a 24 team league. We’re third there and the first four teams qualify for the Champions League. So our main objective is European qualification in VPL Romania. We lost a few players recently, so it’s going to be tough, but we’ll do our best.
Are there prizes in these competitions?
There are some prizes, yes. We won a small sum last year, winning the league in VPG Holland as CFR, which we spent on signing up in another league. VPL Romania offers some good rewards for the top five teams as well.
What does the future hold?
We’re hoping to keep playing well and grow as a team. It’s been a tough few months, with a lot of matches, so there’s some mental fatigue. What motivates us a lot is playing under a big name brand like Poli and bringing our own contribution to it.
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