by Ryan Bailey

The Coronavirus pandemic has seen a surge in video game use and FIFA 20 tournaments—and fans in the Queen City are scratching their soccer itch via their consoles.

CHARLOTTE—After more than two months, live soccer has started to return to TV screens, as Germany’s Bundesliga and South Korea’s K League have resumed league play.

The gradual return of the beautiful game is most welcome. But in its prolonged absence, a digital alternative has filled the void: competitive FIFA 20 leagues and tournaments.

Competitive video gaming might seem like the last vestige of the sport-starved fan, but in reality, the Coronavirus pandemic has merely highlighted the growing popularity of esports.

In March, La Liga’s charity FIFA 20 Challenge, featuring actual players from Spain’s top flight, drew over a million viewers on digital platforms. It raised over €140,000 ($153,000), with Real Madrid’s Marco Asensio claiming the glory.

In May, the ePremier League Invitational Tournament was won by Leicester’s James Maddison. It was broadcast by the BBC and domestic Premier League rights holders Sky Sports, occupying primetime slots in the schedule that were previously reserved for non-digital sporting activity.

And on Sunday evenings through April and May, Fox broadcast the five-week eMLS Tournament Special, featuring league stars such as Javier Hernandez. (A team from Georgia was declared champions.)

Understandably, global stay-at-home orders have coincided with an upturn in video game usage. Online platform Steam saw a 22 percent increase in people playing their top 20 games in March. The popular soccer management game Football Manager, meanwhile, had its usage go up 43 percent in the same month, according to The Athletic.

As FIFA 20 tournaments make their way onto major TV networks, competitive gaming has also risen to prominence on a more local level.

Mint City Collective, the preeminent Charlotte MLS supporters group, has kept its members engaged during this fallow period with its own tournament: the Mint City Premier League.

“We had a long list of community-building events arranged for the Collective in 2020, and suddenly Coronavirus brought us lockdowns and knocked all of those out,” says Mint City Premier League Commissioner Johnny Wakefield. “We needed something to do together, so an online FIFA league seemed like a great alternative.”

After gauging interest in the concept through the MCC Slack group—the primary method of communication for the supporters—an online FIFA competition, that had been informally organized between Charlotte fans since 2018, was reinvigorated. The new league was formed with two conferences: one for PS4 users, and another for those with an Xbox.

“It gives us a reason to get to know each other as best as we can right now,” says Wakefield. “Even those of us who aren’t FIFA legends at least have started to build some new relationships through this, and that’s great. In fact, it’s the whole point.”

At the tournament’s inception in May, each participating player selected an MLS team during an online draft. Participants are given a week to complete each respective match-up, after finding a mutually agreeable time to play. The playoffs start in June, with a winner being declared a few weeks later.

“The Mint City PL was something to do during lockdown, and a chance to connect with the other MCC guys while there were no physical events,” says MCC member Matt Chantry, whose Toronto FC side sits atop the Xbox Conference. “There’s been a lot of good natured banter between us all and some friendly competition. And, of course, words were had with the guy who finally picked Atlanta in the draft.”

Such is the popularity of the tournament, that a knockout cup competition has been created to run alongside the league. The inaugural David Tepper M.C. Open Cup—named in honor of the man who brought MLS to the city—allows entries from any team on the FIFA 20 game. So, the likes of Liverpool and Paris Saint-Germain are representing MCC members on the digital stage.

Plans for a second Mint City PL season are already afoot, with a view to holding an in-person tournament at Charlotte’s de facto soccer pub, Hooligans.

“There’s been a lot of interest, and we certainly have plans to expand the tournament,” says Wakefield.

“I think we tapped into something we can easily do from home, and staying home more than we used to might be a trend for the time being.”