He is one of Malta’s most successful international competitors, has followers around the world, and has just won $20,000 at his game’s world championships in London, but you’ve probably never heard of him.
Kurt Fenech – or kurt0411 as he is known online – is part of the rapidly growing world of competitive video gaming, or eSports, and makes a full-time living playing EA Sports’ popular football game FIFA.
He has recently returned from the FIFA eWorld Cup in London, which brought together the best players from around the world, and which he entered as one of the favourites. Mr Fenech reached the semi-finals, losing to the eventual winner and missing out on the top prize of $250,000.
“I have a lot of mixed emotions: part of me is still angry that I couldn’t go that one step further, but at the same time I’m proud of what I achieved,” he said.
“This year was just setting a benchmark. I feel more comfortable now, playing at more events. Next year, I can definitely make that final step.”
Like many of his age, Mr Fenech, 23, started playing FIFA as a child against friends and others online.
At 15 he was already aware he could compete at the top level, and when EA Sports began pushing heavily into the eSports world two years ago, he realised he could turn the hobby into a career. Now, he does just that, spending his days training online against other professionals and top players, honing his skills for the big tournaments and the big payoffs.
“At first, my parents found it very difficult to buy into it, but when you start bringing in the money it becomes easier,” he said.
“For the older generation, it’s hard to understand, but the younger ones are even more into it than I am. Video games have become their life. I’m not saying they shouldn’t be playing real football, because they should, but there’s a balance.
“People now really enjoy watching other people play games. There are sites like Twitch dedicated to just that, and they’re massive.”
Mr Fenech had played several major tournaments before the World Cup earlier this month, but playing on the biggest stage, at a tournament broadcast live on YouTube and on TV in more than 100 countries worldwide, was still a massive occasion.
“I wasn’t nervous, but you realise straightaway where you are,” he said.
“We were playing at the O2 Arena, which has hosted concerts and other big events. There’s a big feel to it – it was crazy.”
To some, the hype around eSports might be hard to grasp, but anyone snubbing it risks being left behind: the industry is projected to be worth more than €1.3 billion globally by 2020, and top football clubs like Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester City and Roma have all recently opened eSports divisions, signing up players like Mr Fenech to represent them.
Malta’s best player is keen to enhance his own career – he said he would consider signing to a major team “if the right offer came along” – and to establish himself as the best in the world, which, he claims contentiously, he already is.
But Mr Fenech also hopes his success can help showcase eSports and the value for Malta in investing in its local development.
“I firmly believe I’m Malta’s best chance at winning something special. I’m not competing against the smaller countries we’re accustomed to competing against – I’m up against the best of England, Germany or France,” he said.
“Hopefully this will get more attention [on eSports], because if I do manage to bring that trophy home, it would be something special. Usually we’re not able to compete with these big countries, but it’s different with eSports.
“Typically people say we don’t have the resources or the facilities but with eSports anyone can do it.
“We’re all on the same playing field. I see no reason why Malta can’t focus on it, give it more attention, and see where it leads.”
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