Esports Notebook: New TFC signing took different path to soccer dream

Toronto FC GM Tim Bezbatchenko with new esports athlete Philip Balke. (MLSE)

Just a little over two months ago, Philip Balke was at BMO Field, watching Toronto FC cap off its historic 2017 season with an MLS Cup victory over the Seattle Sounders.

Now he’s suiting up for his hometown team as the club’s first-ever esports athlete.

“There’s no other feeling like representing your city,” Balke told Sportsnet over the phone.

A 23-year-old currently attending York University, Balke’s story is not unlike many Canadian athlete’s. He grew up in Iraq but immigrated to Canada and the Toronto area in the early 2000s when he was 10. Soccer was always a big part of Balke’s life, always playing it one way or the other as he grew up.

Balke was a skilled footballer on the path to reaching the professional level. He played in League 1 Ontario, a semi-pro league that would rank just behind the United Soccer League, in which Toronto FC II plays, in terms of competition level. However, Balke broke his ankle playing a couple years ago and was forced to re-evaluate his future career goals.

Luckily, he always did have a pretty good backup plan.

“I played in League 1 Ontario two years ago before breaking my ankle so that kind of set me back,” Balke said. “So after that I really picked up a huge hobby for [EA Sports FIFA] and I really got into it. All of my friends were saying, ‘Hey man, you should start playing competitive FIFA.’ So I said, ‘OK,’ and last year was really my breakout year.”

Breakout year is putting it lightly.

“Phil sort of put Canada on the map in terms of FIFA last year,” MLSE Esports manager Shane Talbot said. “He came from obscurity into the limelight by [drawing] a tournament favourite at the FIFA Interactive World Cup, a guy named ‘Tass.’ It was unexpected and he ended up going on to finish in the top four in that event.

“He really only came into the competitive FIFA scene last year.”

Balke came into the 2017 FIFA Interactive World Cup (FIWC) as almost a complete unknown, but walked away as one of the talks of the tournament as a player without any professional backing beating sponsored and club-backed guys with ease. That showing earned him a sponsorship with Red Bull and eventually landed him on one of his favourite soccer teams on the planet.

“Red Bull has signed [Balke] as one of their esports athletes so it made a ton of sense for us to partner with Red Bull and to grab what we thought was the most talented player out of the Toronto market to represent us,” Talbot said of TFC’s recruitment of Balke.

Growing up with sports as a big influence on your life, many kids dream of playing professionally for their favourite team, but most don’t get the chance. As Balke’s story illustrates, there is more than just one path towards that pro sports dream.

Some news and notes around esports heading into the weekend:

U of T competing for an American national collegiate championship

Have you ever thought to yourself while watching big-time American college basketball or football what it would be like if Canadian schools participated as well?

Though not at the level of popularity of the NCAA, Tespa is a collegiate esports organization that partnered with Blizzard Entertainment to bring Blizzard esports to college campuses across North America – including Canada.

Case in point: The University of Toronto’s Overwatch team Lowlives will be competing in the Overwatch Fiesta Bowl College Championship finals this weekend on the Arizona State Campus (hence the Fiesta Bowl sponsorship), organized by Tespa.

U of T will be facing off against the University of California, Berkeley Saturday in the semifinal for a chance to compete in the grand finals. Nicknamed the “Kings of the North,” Lowlives have been a dominant force throughout the tournament. They enter having dropped just one map all tournament long and their semifinal against Berkeley is actually something of a grudge match from last year’s Tespa Collegiate Series National Championship grand final.

Lowlives ended up losing that match to Berkeley, getting swept 3-0, but seem quite confident heading into Saturday.

“I think we can beat Berkeley,” said Lowlives team manager Luke Matthews. “I know they had some player swaps compared to last year. One of their star DPS players is now playing tank, so hopefully he’s not as good as he was when he was playing DPS. I think, in our practices, we’re in a good spot.”

You can watch the Overwatch College Championship on the official Overwatch Twitch channel Saturday at 5:00 p.m. ET. U of T will play its semifinal match at approximately 6:30 ET.

Geguri becomes first female player signed to Overwatch League

With the London Spitfire’s Stage 1 championship, the Overwatch League took a break this week – at least as far as actual league play goes.

The league’s free agency period opened on Jan. 22, while the transfer window opened on Feb. 11 and will last until April 3. Dot Esports has a full listing of the moves so far, but the big news during this small lull in the season was the fact the Shanghai Dragons signed Kim “Geguri” Se-Yoon, making her the Overwatch League’s first-ever female player.

Se-Yoon joins a Dragons team that struggled mightily in the first stage. Shanghai went a winless 0-10 in Stage 1 and will be hoping Se-Yoon’s strong tank play is able to set up the space required for successful play.

Best known for her remarkable play on the hero Zarya, Se-Yoon was actually accused of cheating because she’s so proficient with the character. Her godlike Zarya combined with her solid Roadhog and D.Va should allow Shanghai to at least win one game in Stage 2.

New Super Mario Bros. speedrun world record set

Speedrunning has been a big part of competitive video gaming almost since the very first games. And although it isn’t exactly recognized as an esport, it still requires almost the same skills: Top-level knowledge of game systems, reactions, execution and hours of practice.

So when the world record gets broken in a game as famous as the original Super Marios Bros., we’re going to take notice.

Speedrunner “Kosmic” set a new world record in Super Mario Bros. Friday, beating the game in the “any%” category in a time of 4:56.462. Check out the world record run below:

If you’re confused by that category definition, speedrunning consists of many different categories across different games. In this case, “any%” means the runner has no alternative requirements he must meet such as playing every single level in the game. He just has to beat it as fast as possible, utilizing any number of warps or glitches at his disposal.

Kosmic’s time comes in four frames faster than the previous world record. Keep in mind, the game runs at 60 frames per second, meaning this is a record that’s literally determined by the hundredths of a second.

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