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Exclusive: Adebayo Akinfenwa – Wycombe Wanderers, growth of eSports and League One future

Adebayo Akinfenwa
Photo: Getty Images

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Exclusive: Adebayo Akinfenwa – Wycombe Wanderers, growth of eSports and League One future

Few players outside of the Premier League command the type of attention and admiration as ‘The Beast’.

Adebayo Akinfenwa’s reputation has surged during recent years thanks to the FIFA video game series. He has been ranked as one of the strongest players in the game and earned the nickname ‘The Beast’ as a result of that.

Throughout his career, he has been successful in the lower leagues and this season saw the striker win another promotion, this time with Wycombe Wanderers.

However, it is gaming that has taken him global. In an exclusive interview with The Boot Room, the 36-year-old was keen to make that point when asked about FIFA’s impact:

“Massive, massive, massive, I’d be lying if I said that I could, sat here, say 5-6 years ago saying how my life could’ve gone. The FIFA series, the game community is a world within the world we live in, it’s a community.

It has taken me internationally without even going to these places, of course moments happen, playing Liverpool on tv and I scored and it’s a domino effect. But with how big FIFA is globally there are places I’m known that I’ve never set foot in.

It’s been mindboggling, it’s humbling the way FIFA in itself has changed my world.”

It speaks volumes about the outreach of the gaming community that it has had such a huge impact on Akinfenwa’s career. There are some overlaps between the gaming and football community, but it is the former that has increased the striker’s profile.

A number of prominent YouTubers brought attention to his in-game character and how effective he could be, despite being a lower league footballer.

It is interesting that he notes the domino effect that it has had on the pitch, as opposition teams will be more aware of him and it is likely that clubs have signed him due to his reputation. However, it is his off-the-field activities that have increased due to EA’s popular gaming franchise.

“I mean I interviewed The Rock 4 weeks ago, it’s opened up so many doors. For me I’d say that to get involved with it, at first, you’re going along with it then you realize the doors opening up and the realms it’s taking my life to. It’s mindboggling, it’s opened up so many doors.”

Akinfenwa has been humbled by the way he has been taken in by the gaming community and he has been keen to give something back. Professional gaming is on the way up as an industry and eSports are starting to evolve across the board.

There are no limits to how far it can grow and the influence of people like the 36-year-old can be huge in aiding that. When asked about eSports, the Wycombe striker spoke positively about the industry:

“I think it will be the future, I think that you take gaming which has been around forever, and you take a competitive element and you fuse them together, it can only get bigger and you see it.

“It’s funny because when I was younger my parents were like “get off the computer and get outside” and now parents are like “get on the computer”. It’s the way society is moving and fusing two loves, a competitive edge and gaming. It can only get bigger.”

There will be many within football that fear eSports as genuine competition to the sport. Children may choose to follow in the footsteps of their favourite YouTubers and professional gamers, rather than looking as football as a career path.

The fact that the FIFA eClub World Cup was shown on Sky Sports underlines how gaming has moved into mainstream channels. Meanwhile, Hashtag United has tried to combine football with gaming and are moving into non-league competition in the 2018/19 campaigning.

Football as an industry will see the rise of eSports as a threat, but they should take Akinfenwa’s stance and embrace it. He sees many parallels between the two industries and they should be able to co-exist and thrive.

“I think there’s a comparison to anything professional really or with the desire you want to put in, even if you’re not professional but say you want to get bigger and you’re going to the gym every day, you need the dedication and to put the hard work into it.

“Just because they put the word professional in it – the difference between a professional and an amateur is that the professional didn’t quit and that’s the only difference.

“With the whole Gfinty Elite series, I’m talking to these gamers, and they prepare like I prepare for a game. They’re not half-stepping and just waking up and switching on the computer, playing and hoping, no, they’re honing their skills and training every day, they’ve got their formation that they tweak and change every day, it’s a direct comparison.

“If you want to be the best you can be you’ve got to put in the time nobody can wake up and be the best and that’s the same with these players in these competitive leagues they put in the work. That’s what I’ve noticed the most, their determination and work ethic, it’s the same as a professional footballer.”

The mentality of football and eSports are very similar. Akinfenwa has clearly taken that away from his time spent being involved in both. Those that compete at FIFA professionally have to put the time in and work hard, just like footballers going to training every day. Above, the Wycombe striker refers to the Gfinity eSports Elite Series, which he is directly involved in.

When asked about the competition, Akinfenwa spoke about the quality and how he managed to become a part of it.

 

“The elite series is the best of the best, they’re not half stepping. The players have managers and with FIFA anyway it’s literally like a last man standing, a team of four, PS4 and Xbox, you pick your best players and you go through a tournament process to the final and the winner is the winner.

“The good thing is you find out about the different players like Gorilla, the best in the world, and there are different teams and players trying to navigate through the series and win in the end.

“Initially, I got approached and knew one of the production managers from my time at EA and he said “well, look we want to do this and think you’ll be a great fit”. I’ve enjoyed it and I’m looking forward to doing more next season.

“I’ve teamed up with Lauren and I felt the chemistry was there, the good thing about it is that I didn’t know much about Gfinity or eSports, I mean I knew, but not much about it.

“It’s let me dive into their world, see how seriously you need to take it and have dedication. I went along this year as a novice and now I know much more and I’m looking forward to next season.”

Despite being 36, Akinfenwa isn’t looking to end his playing career anytime soon. That said, he will have one eye on what he can do once he does hang up his boots. If eSports continues to grow, there is no reason why he can’t become more involved and become an ambassador for many more projects like this one.

Wycombe are the focus of his attention for now after he was rewarded for his form with a new contract earlier this season. He will remain at Adams Park for the 2018/19 campaign, which will see him given another chance to make an impact in League One. The powerful striker believes that the Choirboys are ready to push on at a higher level.

“Yeah, outside the Wycombe team, the fans, the board, we weren’t favourites to go up but in-house we aspired to that and wanted to achieve and it’s the same.

“When you get promoted, consolidating and staying up is the key. I think most managers and players will say that first and foremost is hitting the benchmark that you’re not going to get relegated. As soon as you can hit that benchmark you can kick on. We’ll try and hit our goals as early as possible and kick on from there.”

Akinfenwa hasn’t played in the third tier since the 2013/14 season, in which he played 34 times for Gillingham. It was a solid if unspectacular season as he contributed ten goals and five assists. A similar return would go a long way to seeing Wycombe establish themselves in League One.

Over the course of the last year, it can be argued that Akinfenwa has matured and found a consistency that has been absent previously. During the promotion-winning season, the striker contributed 17 goals and 14 assists, which is a remarkable impact.

“I rate it up there as one of my best seasons, I believe that I needed the players around me to help me get my numbers. As long as I enjoy the game and I feel fit I’ll go out there and I know what I can do and what I’m good at and what I’m not so good at and I stay away from that.

“This season, as a club and a team we concentrated on what I was good at and therefore got the numbers both for goals this season and minutes played.

“It’s always nice to get acknowledged for the work you’re putting in but for me I’m glad we got promoted. Individual accolades are good, and I won’t knock that.

“When you retire you can look back on it, but collective accolades mean ten times more so for what I was nominated for and being in the team of the year; if we didn’t get promoted, personally it would’ve counted for nothing. It was nice for it all to culminate into a promotion and then get the accolades.

(Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)

“For me, people would argue it should be my best season to date in my football career – It’s hard to argue because my stats say that. For me I’m enjoying it, numbers and stats take care of themselves. As long as I’m enjoying it I’ll keep doing what I’m doing.

It is refreshing to hear Akinfenwa talk about the importance of team achievements over individual awards. Through the exposure supplied by the FIFA series, the attacker has got a lot of recognition as an individual, but he hasn’t let that affect his on-pitch performances.

He remains an excellent lower league striker and that is why he is rarely without a club for long. Last season, Wycombe benefitted from his goals, but it was his unselfish hold-up play that made him indispensable to the team, as underlined by his assist tally.

The 36-year-old will know that it will be tough to replicate those figures in League One, but if he can continue to deliver consistent performances, he will continue to offer something to the team. The growth of eSports is certainly proving to be exciting off the pitch, but Akinfenwa doesn’t plan to stop playing in the immediate future.

“Mentally I’m as good as I’ve ever been, and I feel fit I’m playing more minutes than I’ve ever played especially over these two seasons. But I think growth plays a massive part in the experience, I know what I’m good at and when you’re younger you’re trying to find what you’re good at.

“I’ll always say as soon as you can find out what you’re about, the better you will be – that’s what, especially in the last three years, I’ve found out what I’m good at.

“I’m not trying to do step overs and beat 4 players and I’m okay with the player I am. Some people will be for me and some will be against me but ultimately, I’m comfortable with who I am and what I’m about. As long as I stay fit and as long as I’m enjoying it, putting my body through this, I’ll keep playing football.”

League One defenders will be worried to hear that. Despite getting towards the end of his career, Akinfenwa remains as dangerous as he ever has been thanks to his power and physical frame.

He has the ability to dominate any defender in that division and, over the last couple of seasons, he has added intelligence to his game. The striker knows his own limitations and that has helped him get the best out of his ability.

It will be interesting to see how he and Gillingham fare next season. They have a bright, young coach in Gareth Ainsworth and they have a team that appears to enjoy playing together. Akinfenwa has played a huge role in that and few would back against him making an impact again during the 2018/19 season.

Jake is a journalist based in the South East. He is a Newcastle United fan and has a keen interest in Dutch football. Jake can be found on Twitter here - @jakejackmann.

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