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Pro gamer hopes to add to Toronto FC trophy case with esports glory

Toronto FC is hoping Phil Balke can follow in the championship footsteps of Michael Bradley, Sebastian Giovinco and Jose Altidore.

But Balke works his soccer magic with a gaming controller.

Maple Leafs Sports & Entertainment has hired the 23-year-old from Toronto as its first pro gamer, hoping he can win the virtual edition of the MLS Cup in April. The inaugural eMLS Cup champion will represent the North American soccer league in the EA Sports FIFA 18 Global Series Playoffs, leading up to the FIFA eWorld Cup 2018 in August.

Nineteen MLS clubs, including the Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps FC, have committed to taking part in eMLS, to be contested April 5-8 in Boston at the PAX East gaming festival.

In March, the Raptors and 16 other NBA clubs will each draft six gamers for the debut season of the NBA 2K League. The NHL is expected to soon follow suit and announce its own virtual league.

MLSE chief commercial officer David Hopkinson calls the NBA 2K League a "safe and an intelligent investment."

"Because we're in there with 16 of our other NBA franchises, we're supported by the league," he said. "So this one is an absolute no-brainer for us. I thought it would be very successful and while we haven't begun play yet, everything we've seen so far indicates it's going to be a very big success. 

"I'll tell you the curiosity among our sponsors is unreal," he added. "So we know right out of the gate this will be a sponsorship success ... They see this as a great way to get themselves into that space in an experimental way."

"League of Legends," "Dota 2," "Counter-Strike" and "Overwatch" are the current esports heavyweights titles with some sports owners already in the field. New England's Robert Kraft and New York Mets COO Jeff Wilpon, for example, own franchises in the Overwatch league.

For the moment, MLSE is following the esports vision of its leagues. But it is keeping a close eye on the gaming landscape and is serious about the venture.

The MLSE's project mantra is win, grow, make money.

"This is competitive professional sports. It's eat or be eaten," said Sumit Arora, MLSE's senior director of strategy.

Balke, whose gamertag is PhilB94, only got into competitive gaming last year but wasted little time showing his credentials. He finished in the top five in North America to qualify for his first live event, a FIFA Ultimate Team Championship Series regional final in Miami.

The York University student then made it to another regional final in Vancouver, having to sweet-talk a TA to reschedule a mid-term so he could go.

After another successful event in Los Angeles, he found himself in London as one of the 32 finalists at the FIFA Interactive World Cup —  a tournament that drew more than seven million qualifiers.

"I surprised everyone, came top four in the world," he said proudly. "Nobody knew who I was."

Balke lost 4-3 to Germany's Florian (CodyDerFinisher) Muller on a golden goal.

"It was a crazy scene," Balke said. "I missed a breakaway, he goes back at the other end and scores. I was just sitting there like 'What just happened?'" 

MLSE had taken notice of his success prior to his tournament run in London. So did Red Bull, which recently signed him to an endorsement deal to become one of their esports athletes.

"I can't believe it. If you had told me last year that I'd be in this situation, I would never have believed you," Balke said.

He comes from an Xbox background but now plays Playstation as well, practising four to five hours a day against top players including gamers from rival MLS teams.

Balke, who was nine when he came to Canada with his family from Iraq, fell in live with the FIFA video game.

"I'm just really in love with the passion of soccer," he said.

A soccer player himself, Balke was a central midfielder for the semi-pro Woodbridge Strikers of League 1 Ontario. A broken leg slowed his on-field progress but he still plays recreationally.

He says his "soccer sense" gives him an edge gaming.

"I know when to play a through-pass, when to cross the ball, when to shoot, stuff like that. I know we're talking about a video game but at the end of the day you have to have some IQ within the sport. That gives me a big advantage."

So do hours of practice, with Balke balancing his part-time studies at York with gaming.

In FIFA Ultimate Team, you play with a dream FIFA squad. Balke's go-to player is Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo. 

Balke will report to Shane Talbot, MLSE's esports manager. Talbot got into the "Counter-Strike" game at 11, which got him into building computers and designing game maps.

After getting his undergraduate degree in planetary science, a former computer client offered him a job selling software at his new company. That led him into the tech world before he landed at a Seattle sport gambling startup Unikrn (pronounced “Unicorn”) backed by Mark Cuban. Then Luminosity Gaming, a pro esports team, lured him away as COO.

Now the 30-year-old is MLSE's point man, melding pro sports and esports.

"We're taking some of the best of traditional sports and bringing it into esports, like team localization," said Talbot.

Arora points to how today's athletes use social media to connect directly with their fans.

"What's amazing is esports was doing that for a long time. And that's how you have this huge community because it was 'tear down the wall, watch me while I play, watch me while I talk about how I play, let me tell you some tips and tricks so that you can get better.'

"And it just became this — you're part of that culture, you're part of their world as deeply and immersed as you could possibly be. So we're actually seeing professional sports gravitating to fan engagement esports-style while esports is sort of gravitating and evolving to professional sports from a competitive and business style."


Follow @NeilMDavidson on Twitter

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press

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