When John Oliveira broke his ankle in 2012 playing soccer for Martha’s Vineyard United, he thought his dream of playing professionally was over. With all his newfound free time, and being forced to stay off his feet during rehabilitation, Oliveira found a fix for his competitive nature and love of the game: FIFA. And he was good at it. So good that just last month, New England’s Major League Soccer (MLS) team, the Revolution, signed him to be their first official eMLS player.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with video games, or soccer for that matter, FIFA, named after the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, is an EA Sports professional soccer simulation game, featuring real teams and players. “I play FIFA because I love soccer,” Oliveira wrote to The Times. “I don’t think I could spend as much time on the game as I do if I did not completely love the sport.”
His love for the game stemmed partly from his roots in Brazil, where he and his family lived until he was 7. “At the time, a lot of people from my town in Brazil were coming [to the Island] to make money, so that’s where we went,” Oliveira said. He shone on the soccer team for Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, where he graduated in 2013, and also played for MV United while in school.
Although Oliveira defied his doctor’s orders and returned to the soccer field for a vital game on the team’s way to the state tournament, he spent most of the season cheering on his teammates from the bench. So instead of playing on the real soccer field, he played virtually, and honed his skills until he became the best of the best.
Having a fundamental, real-world understanding of the sport helped Oliveira’s virtual game. “Playing real-life soccer gives me an edge that other players might not have ever experienced without getting on the field,” he said. “It’s more of a feeling than any physical reaction.”
The more Oliveira played against friends, the more he realized that he was rarely on the losing end. Oliveira, who is known as JKO1707 in the gaming world, said, “That gave me hope of one day competing at live events.”
Oliveira eventually recovered from his ankle injury, and went to Bunker Hill Community College in Boston, where he played Division III soccer. Despite the team being good and making it to a national final, Oliveira’s personal experience was not the best, and so his childhood dream of being a professional soccer player again started fading away. But his FIFA skills continued to grow.
In August 2016, EA Sports announced that for the new 2017 edition of FIFA, they would add a feature that would allow players from across the world to compete for a chance to play in real-life tournaments, to win prizes from a prize pool worth $1.5 million. Naturally, Oliveira, who had been practicing for four years easily beating all his friends, gave it a shot.
By October of that year, he placed in the top 12 of the America region, which includes North, South, and Central America, and from there, he qualified for the Miami Regional Tournament, which would be his first real-life tournament. He finished in the top six.
Oliveira went on to beat out millions of FIFA players worldwide, and competed in the FIFA Interactive World Cup Regional Qualifier in Los Angeles, one stop before the finals held in London. He was one win away from advancing.
The Revolution approached Oliveira after he competed and won an open tournament hosted by the MLS team. On March 28, the Revolution officially signed him to be the club’s first eMLS player, and represent them at East Pax, a four-day gaming convention in Boston.
“I grew up watching and loving the Revs,” Oliveira said. “It was surreal.”
He said that playing for the Revs, even virtually, was the first time he was a part of something bigger than himself. “It’s crazy that it’s for a video game instead of actual soccer, which was my dream, but it’s still really cool,” Oliveira said.
“I performed really bad,” Oliveira told The Times. Oliveira was knocked out of the tournament before the playoffs, but said that competing at that high level was great. “I’m really upset with myself. As a hometown guy, I really wish I had done better.”
Oliveira is currently enrolled at UMass Boston, getting a bachelor’s degree in communications. He still plays FIFA regularly to stay in competitive shape, and is competing for a chance to qualify for the FIFA eClub World Cup in June. “I’m looking forward to seeing how Major League Soccer will continue to invest in eMLS, and am excited to be a part of the whole process. [European] countries like France and Germany already have their own national FIFA league that mirrors the real-life soccer leagues, and if MLS can get something like that going, it would be amazing, and I would feel blessed to be a part of it.”