LONDON (Reuters) - Ruud Gullit won soccer league titles in Italy and the Netherlands and his flowing dreadlocks, together with Marco van Basten’s wondergoal, were the abiding memories of the Dutch side that won the 1988 European Championship.
He also won the Ballon d’Or in 1989 and is regarded as one of the best midfielders of his generation, but these days most teenagers associate him first and foremost with EA Sports’ video game FIFA.
Gullit, 55, is listed as an ‘icon’ alongside Brazil great Pele and Argentina’s Diego Maradona in the latest version of the soccer simulator, FIFA 18, which has already sold 10 million copies worldwide.
In last year’s FIFA Interactive World Cup staged in London he was thrilled to see both finalists fielded computer-generated Gullits in their teams.
Witnessing that event opened his eyes to the sheer size of esports and is why Team Gullit — an Academy offering coaching and analysis for aspiring professional gamers — was launched in January.
“I actually played against myself because I was picked for both teams, it was fantastic. It’s funny to see yourself and recognize a goal celebration,” Amsterdam-born Gullit told Reuters at the ESports Insider Super Forum this week.
“When I meet kids these days they know me from Playstation, not from football. They say, ‘I want you but you cost a lot of money, how do I get you?’ I say, ‘You’ll have to ask my girlfriend’.
“It’s good that your legend continues.”
Like most people born pre-1970, Gullit has taken a while to get his head around the idea of professional esports players.
But having watched Britain’s Spencer ‘Gorilla’ Ealing beat Germany’s Kai Wollin and walk away with a $200,000 cheque last August, Gullit realized esports had evolved from “geeky” kids fiddling with their controllers in “stinky” bedrooms.
“I realized how serious it was,” he said. “The players had a manager, a coach, they have everything. The amount of time they put in is unbelievable. And there were seven million players involved before that final. It’s huge.
“In Holland all the Eredivisie teams have an esports player, there is a competition and it is watched by more people on TV than the Dutch second division. The exposure is unbelievable.
“It’s going to get bigger and bigger.”
Gullit got involved through friend Schalk Stalman, CEO of Dutch digital media company Triple. So far three players have been signed full-time.
“When we announced Team Gullit we had 3,200 players want to join us,” he said. “We have cut that down to 30 and they will play games against each other to find maybe two to join the three that are already in the team.
“We will give them a platform to become better. Before, they were just in their rooms and there was nowhere to go with it. Now they can do something with it and travel to events.”
Gullit says his own FIFA skills lag behind his teenaged son’s but recognizes what makes a top player.
“Most important thing is that you are quick. The skills are something you can’t see,” he said. “I had no clue what they were doing. They are experts. But it also involves tactics and strategy. You are your own coach and manager,” he said.
“And it’s not all about play, play, play,” Gullit stresses. “You can’t be all the time playing FIFA. You have to study. We sit with parents and talk about schedules because they can play 60 games each weekend. We are very keen they study well.”
Team Gullit co-founder Corne Dubelaar says the aim of the team is to provide a professional approach to gaming.
“They have a trainer who records games and analyses their play,” he said. “We are trying to create stars and the great thing with having Ruud as an ambassador is that he knows what it took to become world class. It’s not just talent.”
Gullit acknowledges that many regard esports with suspicion.
“People can’t really see it,” he said. “We think about sports as something physical, using your body. So people think that esports is not part of sport. But is snooker a sport? Or darts? I don’t know. It’s definitely a skill.”
One thing is clear though, esports is here to stay.
Next month the NBA will become the first American professional sports organization to launch an esports league.
Many soccer clubs, including Manchester City, Paris St Germain, Roma and Schalke already have esports teams and in the Netherlands interest is surging.
“We noticed that many Eredivisie clubs are entering esports because they see that average attendance in stadiums is getting older and older, like 48,” Dubelaar said.
“If they don’t do anything about it the stadiums will be empty. Esports can be a tool in attracting a younger public.”
Editing by Peter Rutherford