Cesar Azpilicueta's team calls him the "boss." He speaks to them every day via email or text message, monitors their performance, offers advice and expects success. He tells them to uphold the team's values at all time and wear the shirt with pride.
But this is a life away from his day job of being Chelsea captain, and these aren't Azpilicueta's first steps into a coaching career. Instead, this is Azpilicueta's business venture as part-owner of his own FIFA 20 esports team: the Falcons.
"We wanted a name with energy, and a name that could create content as well, that people could identify with," Azpilicueta told ESPN. "We were all happy with the Falcons; it is an animal that flies, is very energetic, that can go fast. Everything works."
While footballers spending time and money on businesses away from their on-field endeavours is nothing new -- Chelsea's Willian owns restaurants in London with David Luiz, Mesut Ozil runs coffee shops, Lukas Podolski owns a successful kebab shop in Germany -- others are turning their off-field hobby of playing video games into a potential post-football career opportunity.
Ozil has M10 eSports, which has teams for FIFA 20 and Fortnite, while Gareth Bale co-owns Ellevens Esports. Javier Mascherano has partnered with eSports Planet, Ronaldinho has his R10 esports organisation, Ruud Gullit runs Team Gullit, Nuri Sahin invested in Futbolist, Antoine Griezmann founded Grizi Esport with his brother, Theo, Christian Fuchs started up NoFuchsGiven and Alessio Romagnoli is in charge of the predictably titled Team Romagnoli.
The FIFA eseries is a convoluted system and is currently on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic, but the format sees successful FIFA players aim every year to be in the mix for the FIFA eWorld Cup, a title they compete for individually, but often under a team's banner.
Throughout the year, FIFA hopefuls start by qualifying for lucrative tournaments by winning a certain number of games on FUT Champions (a weekend league where they play 30 matches against other players in the world). They then start to accrue global series points in tournaments held both online from home and in person at venues throughout the world. These range from national tournaments to esports leagues where they are signed by football teams to represent their esports equivalents in tournaments such as eLa Liga. There are more global series points and prize money on offer in the six majors, which consist of individual and team matches (Azpilicueta's Falcons will aim to make a dent here).
All this is steered toward the Global Series playoffs. There, the 128 highest-ranked FIFA players are whittled down to a final 32 for the eWorld Cup, where 16 PlayStation 4 entrants and 16 Xbox One hopefuls go head-to-head to be crowned the best FIFA player in the world. This marquee event finishes off the season where the winner takes home $250,000. Last year, Germany's PS4-playing Mohammed "MoAuba" Harkous won the top prize at London's O2 Arena.
Azpilicueta's FIFA interest started with him enjoying the game and then getting to know others who earned a living from producing online content.
"It ticks so many boxes for me," he said. And while there are contemporaries of Azpilicueta who have already plunged into the esports business, he did not consult them. "I didn't want to make this something with footballers, because in the end the esports industry has other big teams not related to football." He wanted localised esports expertise, so he turned to two successful YouTubers he met in Spain at an Adidas shoot.
Bruno Guimaraes chips Joao Felix in FIFA 20 Stay and Play victory
Lyon's Bruno Guimaraes came from behind to beat Atletico Madrid's Joao Felix 6-2.
The Falcons are a joint venture among Azpilcueta, Cacho01 and Delantero09. Cacho01 (Jose Antonio Cacho) is regarded as one of the top FIFA players in Spain and well-known for his YouTube content (1.59 million subscribers). Delantero09 (Jesus Rincon) makes his living from online challenges with well-known football players and has 2.96 million YouTube subscribers. They oversee the Falcons' content and three-player team who compete under the team's banner in the global series.
"There is nothing guaranteed when you make investments," Azpilicueta said. "This is an adventure and there is risk with everything. It is more about the project and we got the people we wanted, which was very important."
The Falcons' first signing was six-time Spain champion Javier "JRA" Romero, and they went on to recruit David "Maximo" Cuevas and Sandra "SaNkHs" Martinez after that.
"He is one of the top players in Spain -- it was an opportunity we couldn't turn down," Azpilicueta said of JRA, while adding of his second and third signings: "They were both very successful in the last few months and performing well. We always wanted it to be a team, not only a one-player team.
"They work well together and there are also the competitions where they must play in teams. We are very happy to have all three of them."
Central to Azpilicueta's Falcons are the team's values. This permeates everything they do, including how they recruit their players. "You have people that do deals in esports," he said. "We have seen players sign deals when they do not know what they have signed -- but it is their passion and they want to be earning money from it. We care for our guys.
"We have a great structure where there are people working behind the scenes on everything, so that our players feel like they have people working for them, too. There is a manager, people working on social media, on Twitch, on content. It is far more than just having a player sitting behind a TV trying to win a game."
Azpilicueta wants to see his team go on the attack if they take a 1-0 lead, rather than just passing it around the defence trying to kill time. He also wants his team to live the values he feels are essential to both professional and personal growth.
"They are very important: the humility, the ambition and respect, even in tough times," Azpilicueta said. "When a game is not going your way, that is when you see the real people. It is non-negotiable. You need to be very disciplined, not in like a military way, but I want people that are going to improve and will work hard."
While he communicates with the team daily over email and text messages, he lets his two business partners run the day-to-day operations. He still has his day job to focus on, after all; Azpilicueta has been heavily involved in the COVID-19 pay discussions and has been Chelsea's spokesperson for the team when it comes to talking over the logistics of if and when the Premier League will return. That's still his first love, and while his competitive nature does slip in while playing FIFA, he said he will always pick watching a real-life match over an esports game.
As for the future of his esports business, getting a foothold in Fortnite is an option, but Azpilicueta does not want to expand too soon. He wants to continue developing the players he has recruited and to establish the Falcons as a global force.
"For me it is very important the team has the aim to keep getting the club higher and higher [in the rankings], and to keep improving," Azpilicueta said. "Now it's up to them to perform."