Being responsible for one FIFA player can be taxing on its own. Whether you’re a coach, a manager, or a team owner, you’ve got to keep them motivated despite the hurdles esports can throw at you. That means making sure they’re hungry enough to win trophies and even making sure their FIFA Point balance is topped up enough so they can build the strongest in-game teams possible.
It sounds exhausting, right? Now try managing six players, spread across three separate teams based in three different continents, all while trying to bring success to one of the most powerful entities in sport. Well, that’s exactly what Saul Ashon has been doing as the esports executive for City Football Group – the holding company that owns ten football clubs around the world, most notably Manchester City in the Premier League.
Not so long ago, the now 18-year-old was heading straight from an eight-hour flight from a FUT Champions Cup in Atlanta to his local college, trying to juggle FIFA coaching and his studies. Now, he’s guided all three of his City Football Group teams to their respective regional finals of the FIFA eClub World Cup – a gruelling tournament that this year had over 450 teams enter.
The Loadout got the chance to learn more about Ashon’s backstory, and what it’s like managing players across time zones, all while juggling the board’s expectations.
The Loadout: Tell us how you got your first big break in FIFA esports.
Saul Ashon: Now I know this sounds pretty cringe, but I’ll tell you about the day that changed my life. I remember to this day, I was lying in bed just watching Netflix, and I see I’ve got a Twitter DM in my requests. I’m thinking ‘what bot or a scam is this?’ I’ve got 40 followers on Twitter at the time, and no profile picture. And then I see it’s Ryan Pessoa, who was then at Hashtag United but is now with me here at Man City.
He dropped in to say another player I had coached before had recommended me, and asked how I’d feel about coaching him and preparing him for the playoffs in Hamburg the following month. That moment I’ll never forget. Then around a week before Hamburg I asked if he’d want me to coach him at the actual event, and Ryan said ‘yeah, I think it’s the right call. I’m gonna fly you over.”
We did well – we got out of the group stage, but he was round away from qualifying for that year’s FIFA eWorld Cup. The top 16 qualified and we finished 17th. It will be forever a thorn in my side until Ryan and myself make it to the World Cup together. But yeah, that’s where it all began.
Then I ended up working with pros like Ivan ‘DrNightWatch’ Churov and Max ‘MaXe vip’ Popov, which resulted in another two really cool trips to Atlanta and Paris while I was still in sixth form.
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I remember Atlanta specifically: I arrived at college on Tuesday morning straight from the airport. I hadn’t slept for 30 hours or something. On the flight home Damian ‘Damie’ Augustyniak and Donovan ‘Tekkz’ Hunt were talking about simply going home to have a nap and play some FIFA. And I was on my way to college. I wasn’t particularly sad or jealous – it was more a moment of ‘Yes, this is what I want to do.’ I’m going to pour everything into FIFA esports for the next however long and make sure I make this a reality. I did, and now I’m here at City Group.
So now you’re at City Group, you’re looking after three separate teams across three continents. Tell us a bit about them, and what it’s like trying to manage all of your players.
Well, not a whole lot of sleep, that’s what it’s like!
We’ve got Man City with Ryan and Shaun ‘Shellzz’ Springette, two OGs of the scene that’ve been around since FIFA 17. They’re experienced, hard workers, and talented. They’ve got a great dynamic, great chemistry.
Incredibly proud to announce that I’ve joined City Football Group as Esports Executive!
— Saul Ashon (@SaulAshon) August 3, 2020
Over in New York City, we’ve got a bit more of an interesting dynamic. We’ve got another similarly experienced player in Christopher ‘Chris’ Holly, who’s an old head that has won the eChampions League, eMLS, and qualified for an eWorld Cup. Alongside him we’ve got Josh ‘Squirrel’ Banh. At 19 he’s a bit younger, a bit less experienced, but the hope there is that Josh maintains that youthful hunger and passion, while Chris can be a mentor.
We want winners and players that we know can be the best in each region
At Melbourne City, it’s a very similar dynamic. We’ve got Marcus Gomes – he’s 23, has qualified for an eWorld Cup and has been at the highest level – and Mike ‘MikeJ’ Jameson, who’s just 19 and is still growing in the scene.
We’re always interested in the hottest new talent, but with the current structure of the Global Series, we’re not currently looking to hire someone who might make it next year. We want winners and people that we know can be the best in each region, and I can say that for all of our players.
So you managed to take all three of these teams through to their respective regional finals for this year’s eClub World Cup, which is an impressive achievement. What have you made of this year’s tournament so far, as there’ve been plenty of people unhappy with it, especially in EU where Man City are playing?
I always say that the eClub World Cup is both the best and worst tournament of the year. So for one thing, 2v2 and working as a team, there’s nothing like it for me. I absolutely love team sports and have done my whole life. So to have that team experience after spending so many hours in 1v1 competitions, it’s great. There’s many issues, but I don’t care. For me, it’s always the best and most enjoyable event of the year – whether a player would say the same I don’t know, maybe it’s a bit more stressful!
However, obviously, it is an isolated event, and we only have it once a year. So it’s very hard to adapt each time. For example, you’ve got six FUT Champions Cups in a normal year. By the next year, that FUT Champions Cup format is going to be perfect, because you’ve had so much feedback and chances for things to go wrong. Whereas in this eClub World Cup format, there’s only one a year, so there’s less opportunity to refine it. When things go wrong, you have to wait until next year to fix them.
To support three teams in different corners of the world, City Group clearly seems enthusiastic about esports. What does it see in esports and why is it so keen to have a large presence when a lot of football clubs are yet to make a proper splash?
I think it’s because we’re always thinking: ‘What’s next?’ ‘What is on the way up and what’s growing?’ I think that’s shown in our esports strategy. We’re maybe not the most developed team in FIFA esports, but I’d certainly say we’re the biggest football club in the scene right now, and we want that to be across all esports someday. But that’s still a good few years away.
So looking to expand outwards from just FIFA then?
We’re always looking out for the right opportunity. There’s no concrete plan for anything yet but there are certain games to consider that we find interesting, and we would like to make a move in at some point. We don’t want to just throw a load of money at a team in a certain esport because we can – we want to do this right. We want to be strategic, and we want to make the right moves.
What do you hope to achieve with your players for the rest of FIFA 21?
Well my first goal was to have all my teams in the eClub World Cup finals, which luckily we managed to get done. I’m really happy about that.
Then, I’d definitely like several of my players to be at the eWorld Cup at the end of the season. And I believe they have the ability to do that. And generally, I want to win some trophies. In four years of FIFA esports Man City has won one trophy prior to this season. I want to triple or quadruple that. We’ve started off well with Chris winning the eMLS Series 1, and the only way is up for him.