2018 – When football went virtual

Photo: StadionTurista (CC BY 2.0)

IT ALL started in Hungary, a country with a long history of invention. The Rubik Cube, the Biro, electronic scoreboards at football matches, they all began life there. The country was once, for a few years, the centre of world football, giving birth to one of the most outstanding teams of all time. But it all went wrong and in the post-Glasnost years and early 21st century, Hungarian football declined to such an extent that barely 3,000 people watched the top games of the country’s once proud sport.

Hungarian football became a sideshow as football fans tuned-in to watch English Premier, Bundesliga and La Liga games. Finally, in 2018, the Hungarian football authorities had seen enough. They decided to close down football as we know it. The money, public interest and talent just wasn’t there anymore. Crowds had dropped to such a low level that club officials would hijack buses and trams of people and force them to watch games. Armed police were hired to keep crowds in the stadiums. Fighting broke out and the Hungarian public barricaded football grounds to make them inaccessible.

Then a young student, Istvan Orban, came up with an idea that would change the face of European football. A football fan himself, Orban, who would later win the Nobel Prize, devised a computer programme that would take gaming to an extraordinary level. He used the basic technology of a computer game to make Hungarian football a virtual experience.

Launching it at the old Nep Stadium, or the Ferenc Puskas Stadium as it became, Orban proposed to the Hungarian people that their football would be a glorified computer game, but with a difference. The teams would be virtual CGI-designed players with skills and techniques and values. The games would be played via computer, with the real stars being the gamers who would be assigned to the clubs. The gamers would play the fixtures, managing their squad of CGI-players. Clubs would have a staff of just a few people, most of whom would be computer geniuses who could get the best out of their players. The Hungarian media was outraged and FIFA immediately announced that Hungary would be forced to leave the organisation if they adopted the concept.

But the computer-mad young people of Budapest bought it and within weeks, the Hungarian Virtual Soccer League was formed. The leading technology firms around the world flew to Hungary to try and secure a franchise. Suddenly, after years of penury, Hungarian football was awash with money. The top developers, designers and manufacturers left silicon valleys in various corners of the world to get a slice of the action.

Gabor Nagy, a Hungarian entrepreneur whose father had been involved in Hungarian football during the golden age of the 1950s, seized the moment. Nagy poured money into Honved Pixel, the newly adapted name for the old masters of the Hungarian game. A dozen developers and programmers managed to create a set of players that compared to the Mighty Magyars of the 1950s. It didn’t stop there – Ferencvaros brought Florian Albert back to life with their virtual star Floriano.

When the first games were played, in August 2019, nobody knew quite what to expect. Honved Pixel and Ferencvaros played the first game at the old Nep and 60,000 people turned up to watch the large screens where the 90-minute game would be played out. Honved Pixel had hired two 17 year-old computer geeks from California to lead their team. Ferencvaros had a Chinese computer programmer and a 14 year-old Hungarian running their team. The crowd was astounded by the quality of the game – nobody had seen such superb football in Hungary for decades. It ended in a 6-4 win for Honved, with Laszlo Puskas scoring all six for Honved.

All over Hungary, people were flocking to watch these computer games. Things started to evolve, however, and before too long, virtual players were being developed by the clubs and sold in a new virtual transfer market. The players started to acquire followings – in 2020, Ujpest GigaByte star, Hidegkuti Hussar, was named “Hungarian of the Year” by the newspaper, Magyar Nezmet.

Hungary’s brave move was soon copied across European countries where football had lost much of its audience and prestige. Romania and Bulgaria followed, creating Virtual leagues that attracted much larger audiences. FIFA lost 25% of its membership in Europe within two years. By 2025, the only “real” football leagues in Europe were in England, Spain, Italy, Germany and France.

What co-existed was a two-tier sport – real and virtual. Even in the countries where real football still existed, virtual leagues sprung up, but the real loser was FIFA. The World Cup had shrunk so much that they were running out of venues to host their flagship competition. In desperation, they decided to award the 2030 edition to Qatar.

Meanwhile, in Hungary, in 2024, they celebrated victory in the first virtual World Cup, 70 years after West Germany deprived them of the title. “We are back,” screamed the headlines. Well, virtually…

Categories: Now!, Politics of Football

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