St. Louis City SC Is Betting Its First Star Player Can Destroy You In FIFA — And Make You A Fan
The first player to wear St. Louis City SC’s jersey will be a professional gamer.
St. Louis’ Major League Soccer team won’t hit the pitch until 2023, but the franchise will begin competing in the virtual arena in January. The team signed St. Louis esports player Hasib Zulfic last month.
Zulfic, 20, will compete on behalf of the team in online FIFA tournaments. Zulfic's signing is part of a strategy by St. Louis City SC to attract more fans to the budding soccer team by leveraging one of the most popular sports video game series in the world.
“It's an absolute honor, especially being the club's first official player signing, before we even have a team,” Zulfic said. “It's crazy. It's going to go down in the history books.”
Zulfic isn’t new to esports. The St. Louisan, known by his gamer name “hasib_7” has been playing FIFA games for more than a decade. And he’s good. He currently ranks among the top 50 FIFA players in North America.
Zulfic and his family immigrated to the U.S. from Bosnia when he was a year old and moved to St. Louis from Seattle when he was 5. He calls St. Louis his hometown. Developing a love for soccer — or futbol, as he calls it — was just part of growing up in a Bosnian family, he said. He recalls watching matches with his father and being excited to wear the jerseys of Europe’s star players.
As a teen, Zulfic realized he was better at finessing video game controls than soccer balls and began landing spots in FIFA tournaments. In 2018, when he was still in high school, the Columbus Crew of the MLS signed him to represent the team in esports tournaments for a year. That experience exposed him to other top players and helped him hone the skills needed to compete at a pro level.
The MLS launched an esports FIFA league in 2018 called eMLS. By 2020, the eMLS Cup finals drew 2.6 million viewers on the streaming platform Twitch. Nearly all of the 30 MLS teams compete in the esports league, which aims to convert gamers into fans.
St. Louis City SC hosted a tournament in November for area FIFA players to compete to represent the team. Zulfic won.
The esports league is an opportunity to build the team’s brand and fan base with both young and international audiences, said Matt Sebek, St. Louis City SC’s chief experience officer.
“We can start those rivalries in a digital setting now, before our real matches begin in ‘23,” Sebek said.
And to have a local such as Zulfic representing the team is like “lightning in a bottle,” Sebek said.
“Hasib is a player that does a lot of skill and trick moves in the game,” he said. “He comes with a little bit of flair and swagger that we like.”
Esports is a $25 billion industry, estimates Seth Jenny, a professor at Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania. Other projections predict professional competitive gaming will generate over $1 billion in 2020.
“Esports is not a niche. It's not a fad. It's not something that's going away anytime soon,” Jenny said. “When you look at all of the participation and viewership figures, everything is still trending in the upwards direction.”
Three-fourths of American households have at least one video game player, Jenny said. While North America is one of the leaders in creating esports leagues, Jenny said FIFA does better internationally than in the U.S.
As a brand ambassador for St. Louis City SC, Zulfic will “become a known face and personality of the club,” Sebek said.
Zulfic said he’s excited for the new role.
“It's really important for me and the club to kind of connect both fan bases and continue to build upon it and hopefully see the club grow and see the city grow,” he said.
His contract with the team earns him a monthly stipend, but the team declined to disclose the amount. This year, Zulfic estimated he’s spent around $2,000 of his own money on in-game purchases to upgrade individual players on his roster.
For now, Zulfic is preparing for the 2021 eMLS season, which will kick off Jan. 5. He stands to take home a $70,000 prize if he wins the eMLS Cup.
“I'm feeling pretty confident,” Zulfic said, referring to 2021 as his rookie season. “I'm not nervous, which is good, but you never know until it's game day if you're nervous or not.”
Fans can watch Zulfic representing St. Louis CITY SC on the MLS’s Twitch channel.
For the 2021 eMLS schedule, click here.
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