Phil Balke is sitting at home on his console putting in hours on end to help Toronto FC be the best eMLS team. He’s had a hold of FIFA 21 since early October and in a matter of three weeks he’s played approximately 300 matches. The likes of current superstar Cristiano Ronaldo and Dutch legend Johan Cryuff are working in unison for TFC, a dream that can only be realized online.

Known better as ‘PhilB94’ when he’s competing, Balke is one of Canada’s best FIFA players, a Red Bull athlete, and TFC’s first eSports pro. He’s living a life that wasn’t even remotely a dream as a child.

Growing up in Iraq, consoles came at an inflated price and so his uncle did the best he could by renting out a PlayStation for Balke to play on weekends. School was the priority during the week, so it was five days of waiting before Balke could find new ways to destroy his cousins at FIFA.

Whoever played himand this was at seven, eight years oldwould wonder how Balke was miles ahead of them when he was clearly playing just as often as they were. He’d try and teach them to help them get better but none could hit the right sequence of buttons or make decisions as quickly as Balke did. From a very early age, Balke just had a knack for video games and especially FIFA.

In 2005, Balke moved to Canada with his family and life was largely “normal.” School, family, friends, chores. It wasn’t until his first year attending York University for psychology that his life took a turn. The concept of eSports was still in its infancy, and Balke was just playing it as a past time he was really good at. When FIFA 17 introduced regional tournaments, he managed to qualify for one in Miami but found it hard to believe.

“Ended up getting an email saying, ‘Congratulations, you’ve qualified for the Champions’ Regionals in Miami,’” Balke said. “It said to send a picture of your passport and I’m thinking, ‘Hell, I’m not gonna send this picture to a random email.’ I didn’t know if it was spamit was in my spam folder, it wasn’t in my actual inbox so I was tripping out.”

Balke reached out to the friends he made online while competing and learned that they, too, had received the email and that it was all legitimate. Before he could process it all, he got an all-expenses-paid trip to Miami for a couple days and convinced his aunt to let him go try and win $40,000. Balke didn’t fair well at all in the tournament, getting eliminated in the group stagesunderstandable given it was his first appearancebut met plenty of professionals who gave him the confidence to keep improving.

The next step was to drop out of school and see what he could make happen. It took another serious conversation with his aunt, with the promise that he’d go back if he didn’t find success in a year’s time.

Safe to say the decision paid off. He has been a FIFA Interactive World Cup finalist and is leading the charge in helping take Canadian eSports as a whole to the top.

For those looking to get anywhere near his level, Balke has plenty of advice. According to him, the game’s pace is much faster than the previous edition, and the keys lie in defending for cutting out passing lanes and creating interceptions instead of pressuring the ball along with perfecting skill moves when attacking.

Just as playing online was the key to his success, Balke can’t stress enough the importance of playing others online, preferably on Ultimate Teams rather than the online seasons, as that’s where qualifying for the biggest online tournaments is made possible. That’s a level of fun that takes a serious level of commitment, but whether it’s for some quippy banter with friends or levelling up against the best of the online world, Balke has laid out the map.

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