Video gamers battle it out for Dh1 million in Abu Dhabi

More than 50,000 gamers are competing in Abu Dhabi for the chance to win a Dh1 million cash prize this Ramadan.

Left, Hamdan Alali, 11, and Omar Al Ali, also 11, tackle the Million Player football contest at Al Jazeera Sports Club in Abu Dhabi on Thursday. Fans follow their favourites via  monitors linked to the video games. Delores Johnson / The National
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ABU DHABI // Tarek El Awji and Mounir Habib watch on from the stands, shouting advice and clenching fists at missed chances.

“He always gets cocky when he scores, then he makes mistakes. We always tell him not to be stupid,” said Tarek, 31, from Lebanon, one half of the self-proclaimed coaching staff. Ramy, his 20-year-old brother, was losing 3-2 on aggregate and his chance of winning Dh1 million in the Million Player competition was slipping away.

As the virtual referee whistled for full time, the two armchair athletes ended their battle and put down their PlayStation 4 controllers to shake hands.

“I got nervous. I’m pretty sure I could have won but he capitalised on his chances,” said Ramy, a student at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada, who laughed before adding, “isn’t that the most typical thing to say after losing a match.”

The team regrouped outside, reflected on missed chances and game tactics, then made the journey back to Dubai.

Tarek, a Dubai Customs officer, and Mr Habib, a 31-year-old Palestinian, had signed up for the Dh700 special registration fee, which granted them 14 chances to win the largest cash prize in the world for playing a Fifa 2014 football competition.

One chance involves a player challenging three others in a two-match competition. Those who triumph against all the opponents make it to the finals, and those who lose either go home or try again.

“This is basically our Ramadan routine. Both Ramy and I are involved in the competition, so we drive from Dubai, try to qualify and drive back,” said Mr Habib.

Now in its second year, the Million Player competition started during the first week of Ramadan with an expected overall turnout of 50,000 competitors from around the world.

“It’s the perfect time, no? With the World Cup and Ramadan, it really sets up the perfect environment for our competition,” said Khalid Al Shamsi, one of the main organisers.

According to Mr Al Shamsi, a photographer at the UAE Wrestling, Judo and Kick Boxing Federation, last year’s event attracted 21,000 players from all around the world.

“Korea, Iran, the UK, Japan – you name it. People take this seriously because it’s not exactly a small amount for a cash prize,” said Mr Al Shamsi. “The six-man team from Iran had a full-on professional coach.”

Last year, Iranian Moeen Amozadeh won the Dh1m, clinching an 8-6 win over Abdullah Mubarak in extra time.

Even players who fail to win the top prize can do well, with the runner-up getting a car and cash and the person in third winning a car.

The shift from the Pro-Evolution Soccer series, by Konami, to Electronic Art’s Fifa franchise is one of the organisers’ major changes for this year.

Organisers set up 60 television screens and PlayStation 4s in the Al Jazira Club basketball court to accommodate the huge influx of players this year.

The finals, however, which take place on July 27, will feature an arena set-up and players will compete in matches on a giant cinema projector, broadcast live by Dubai Sports. Qualifying matches will take place each day between now and then.

Khadem Al Qubaisi, managing director of International Petroleum Investment Company, the tournament’s sponsor, said: “The tournament is an opportunity for the UAE’s youth to show off their skills in a competitive environment, meet like-minded people and be part of the wider community of gaming and football enthusiasts.”