Regina FIFA esports competitor warms up for $50K international tournament by crushing CBC reporter
Alex Gonzalez-Aldana, a 17-year-old from Regina, competing for $50K in Atlanta
Every year tens of millions of people play FIFA, the world's biggest soccer video game.
A 17-year-old from Regina is one of the very best.
Alex Gonzalez-Aldana, who goes by the in-game handle ExraaCA, is in Atlanta this weekend to compete in a 64-person tournament with a $50,000 top prize. A win, or even an impressive performance, could catapult him into a career in esports as a professional FIFA player.
When I heard about Gonzalez-Aldana qualifying for the tournament it sparked a lot of questions.
It also lit a fire under whatever part of my brain contains hubris. I wondered how well I would fare in a game of FIFA against him. I'm a casual player, but I've been playing on and off since before Gonzalez-Aldana was born. I also love to compete at anything.
I had to challenge him.
Spoiler alert: It went about as well (or poorly) as you'd expect.
'You have to embrace it'
Gonzalez-Aldana's first memories of FIFA are from Mexico, where he lived until his family moved to Canada in 2012. As a six-year-old, he would watch his cousins play on an old Xbox.
He inherited his love of soccer from his family.
"We are a family of soccer players and soccer fans," Alma Aldana Pinto, his mother, said.
Gonzalez-Aldana played "real" soccer from a young age, but once the family moved to Canada he found himself with a lot more inside time due to the weather. He got his own console at age 10.
"As soon as I got it I started just playing and playing and just developed my love," he said.
Things started getting serious two years ago, according to his mother. Gonzalez-Aldana qualified for a major tournament but was booted for being under the minimum age of 16.
"That was very heartbreaking for him," his mother said.
She said it was then he started dedicating himself to qualifying again once he was 16. There were times she worried about how much time he was spending gaming.
"At first I was not OK with that. I was just like, 'Video gaming: no. Your brain is going to explode,'" Aldana Pinto said.
She made sure he maintained a balance between gaming and everything else.
"It's like any other thing: you have to kind of organize your time and manage your time. You have your school, you have your chores, and then you only have two hours for gaming," she said.
As he started succeeding and showed he was serious, she allowed him a bit more game time.
He has won money in a few smaller tournaments, like one where he got US$1,000.
Now, two years after that initial heartbreak, he is once again qualified for a major tournament.
"I'm so proud of him," his mother said. "I feel like moms should be proud of their kids regardless of what they do. He was determined to be good at one thing, and the one thing he chose was video gaming. Well, you know, I guess you have to embrace it."
I met with Gonzalez-Aldana a few days before his trip to Atlanta.
I asked him how bad he thought he would beat me. He was tactful, but spoke with a confidence that let me know what I was in for.
"I just woke up, so maybe only by a few [goals]."
I did not go into this challenge completely unequipped.
The first FIFA game I remember owning was Road to the World Cup 98 for the Nintendo 64. In the two decades since I've owned FIFA games every three years or so.
I was even paid to play FIFA for a short time. Prior to becoming a journalist I was a video game tester. I worked for Electronic Arts, the company that makes FIFA, and one of the titles I tested for a month or so was EURO 2008, a FIFA title.
With all of that said, on this day I was completely out of my league.
To use a sports analogy, this challenge was the equivalent of a decent basketball player who might stand out during a pickup game at the YMCA taking on someone who is in the NBA.
Gonzalez-Aldana scored on me before any of my players touched the ball. Tendrils of despair started to poke at the edge of my psyche.
Just as I started to think maybe I could make it respectable he scored again.
I asked him questions as we played. This was mostly because I am a journalist and I was there to do a story, but a small part of me hoped it might distract him a bit. It did not. He was polite, but maintained his icy concentration.
He scored again. Things were getting out of hand.
Sometime during the first half I got off a decent shot that sailed just wide of the net. My heart leapt. Gonzalez-Aldana seemed unimpressed.
We went to halftime at 3-0. As he made substitutes I sat like a death row inmate waiting for the jailer to come escort me to my final destination.
Then, in the second half, it happened. I was awarded a free kick near midfield and launched it in toward my players. One of them fired it into the top corner. I had scored.
In hindsight, I feel a little silly about how excited I was. It was like a mosquito getting a good bite in before being swatted aside. But, man, it felt sweet.
The rest of the game was much like what had come before. Gonzalez-Aldana shredded my defence and made good on almost all of his chances. His mother and brothers cheered in the background as my defeat got more and more emphatic.
The final score was 7-1.
Gonzalez-Aldana was gracious in his victory. He said I had been better than he expected.
I've never felt so good about doing so bad at something.
'It's another thing to play professionally'
Gonzalez-Aldana said he's excited for the tournament in Atlanta but doesn't know exactly what to expect.
His goal is to make it out of the first round, or Group Stage. Whatever happens, he's already also qualified for another one in London next month.
The money at stake may not even be the most important factor in his goal for an esports career. For anyone looking to truly survive off just gaming, it's crucial to get a contract with one of the many esports teams popping up around the world. According to Gonzalez-Aldana, there's only one path to that: "performing well at these tournaments."
His end goal is a pro career, but he knows it's far from a sure thing.
"If I can, I would like to, because it's so much fun. But it's another thing to play professionally," he said.
For now, his mother is content to let him chase his goal of esports stardom, provided he doesn't put all his eggs in one basket (or balls in one net, as it were).
"I was brought up in a family of school and I think school is important. The deal we made is, 'OK, you do that as long as you want, but I want you to go to school and pursue whatever you want so whenever this doesn't work, then you have a Plan B,'" she said.