Growing up an Eastern European descendant in Australia, there are a few things that you learn to be very important, very quickly. Typically, these things are headlined by family, food and, of course, football. Put them together and you’ve got some of the closest communities in the world.
Naturally, all communities need a meeting place. It could be the local park, it could be your cousin’s grandmother’s house. More often than not for Australian-European’s, it’s a football club.
Croatian’s look to the Melbourne Knights, Turkish Australian’s have Hume City and South Melbourne is famously Greek. Come matchday and families come together to eat, drink and watch high-quality competition. Suddenly a complete stranger turns out to be a cousin you never knew about, three beers in and they’re your new best friend. There’s Balkan music on in the background, dads are screaming abuse at the referee and mums are telling anyone who’ll listen that their son will be the next Luka Modric or Kostas Manolas.
These communities breed icons and legends that inspire for generations to come. Ange Postecoglu claimed that the South Melbourne Hellas, “shaped [him] as a person and [that it was] was instrumental in shaping [his] career as both a player and coach.”
Today, South Melbourne and the Greek community continue to shape the careers of young footballers hoping to become the 53rd South Melbourne alumni to play for the Socceroos. Today, it shapes the career of Peter Saisanas, professional FIFA player.
Saisanas represents Melbourne City and competes in the E-League, Australia’s top-flight FIFA competition. Having finished third with teammate Marcus Gomes, Saisanas now looks to the finals where he hopes to emerge victorious.
There was a stage though, in 2015, when Saisanas wouldn’t dare consider professional FIFA as a career path.
“I always knew I was good, I would always beat my friends … but you know I was in second year Uni, competing in FIFA just seemed a bit cringe.”
It’s an understandable position to take for a man who grew up watching and playing real football. Saisanas played for South Melbourne until under 16’s, and currently works as an assistant coach for the Sandringham Soccer Club in State League 4.
Perhaps he felt that FIFA wasn’t real sport. For whatever reason, Saisanas, like so many others, wasn’t ready to embrace the rising tide of eSports and pro gaming. It was his boyhood club that helped him quell those fears.
There was a competition held in April 2015, the Fox Fans League, a brand-new initiative designed to find the best FIFA player in Australia and thrust eSports into the mainstream.
A part of this competition was a qualifying phase that included NPL clubs, South Melbourne had a spot.
“A few days before the competition they got in touch with me and asked if I wanted to play. I wasn’t really sure but eventually I said why not.”
Saisanas would go on to win that qualifying tournament and earn the ‘easiest five grand’ of his life.
The experience changed Saisanas and his dedication to gaming, forever.
“The way they treated me … like a first-team player, like a professional, it made me feel really good about playing FIFA.”
Saisanas would go on to represent South Melbourne at international tournaments, eventually signing for Perth Glory for the inaugural season of the E-League in 2018, this year switching to Melbourne City.
His path has been far from simple. While growing, FIFA still isn’t one of the top eSports financially. For players relying on prize money as their main source of income, funds are severely lacking.
Currently, it’s extremely difficult to sustain a living through FIFA alone. Saisanas proudly works as a UI designer. On any given day he could get off work at around four in the afternoon, only to buckle down and play FIFA for six hours, honing his skills.
To build up fan engagement, gamers stream on twitch, targeting mostly younger demographics. Unfortunately, not all fans are interested in positive engagement.
Saisanas claims he has received a lot of abuse from older fans watching the E-League who believe gaming shouldn’t be associated with traditional sports. Saisanas recognises that initially, it was a real challenge to ignore the criticism, but now focuses more on the true fans instead of the haters.
“I remember once, when I was coaching, one of the parents, maybe in his mid-40’s like 45, came up to me and said, ‘I saw you on the E-League. I’ve watched every one of your games since then!’ I’ve always remembered that day.”
Saisanas now embraces his role as a figurehead of Australian eSports, especially taking pride in showing kids that it’s cool, not cringe, to become a pro gamer.
“I went to this promotion at Goshes Paddock, a bunch of skill games for the kids … the biggest line-up was to play me in a game of FIFA.”
Work like this helps to push eSports into the mainstream and supports a struggling A-league by reaching out to younger fans.
All of this positive work may not have been possible without the support of the Greek community. Ange Postecoglu once said that, “In the Greek community there were two places of worship. Church on Sunday morning and Middle Park watching South Melbourne Hellas on Sunday afternoon.”
Perhaps one day, on the couch watching the FIFA will be another place of worship.
IG – jashanbv