Professional EA FC 24 player Tom Leese on making transfer history, beating Diogo Jota and being banned from tournaments with mates
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In 1979, Trevor Francis was the first £1 million footballer when he moved from Birmingham City to Nottingham Forest.
But just over a month on and there was a first of its kind transfer in Esports as professional EA FC player Tom Leese moved for a six-figure fee.
“When the transfer first happened, I was just in a state of shock,” he reflected to SPORTbible.
“First thing I did was ring my brother, because I knew he was working from home and I said, ‘Put Sky Sports News on I've got a feeling I'm going to be on in 20 minutes’.
“Someone had told me from the club, they were like, ‘Oh, like it's gone out to Sky. And I think they had already put a tweet out about it.
“And then I got told that they were going to do it actually on the show. And then obviously, they're doing their transfer rumours about football. And then they added on the Esports one at the end for me. Just to listen to that, I was I was bit shell shocked at the time and it's something that I'm still proud of."
Transfers are incredibly complex deals that require so much more work than in Football Manager and EA FC Career Mode and in Esports, the process is largely the same.
“Teams had enquired to hashtag asking, ‘Is Tom free? What's going on there?’ - Spencer [Owen] - I wasn't here for these conversations but I can imagine he said something like, ‘Yeah, but you're gonna have to have it pay a fee for him, he's not leaving on a free’ kind of thing.
“I wasn't really allowed to speak to teams until an offer had been accepted. And then I got told one day, the offer has been accepted and feel free to speak to them and discuss my own personal terms. I'd imagine similar to how football transfer works.
“There's no medical or anything like that with an Esports transfer! There's just the fee, and then just working out stuff on my end for my own personal contract. It happened all over the space about a month, a month and a half over the summer.”
EXCEL already had professional Fortnite player Jaden "Wolfiez" Ashman, the youngest gamer to earn $1 million in esports, on their books and had now signed the 2019/20 ePremier League champion.
Leese was and remains one of the very best in the business, having represented England, Spurs, Watford, FutWiz, Hashtag and Fnatic prior to his switch.
In a two-year spell, he finished second in the 2022/23 ePremier League and was top eight in the world for the two versus two format.
And while he has some regrets for not quite producing the best results and performances, he remains proud of the history he made.
“I think the transfer didn't work out exactly the way I wanted it to. I think I didn't perform exactly how I wanted to over the two years that I had to excel. But I think I'm still proud of it, to have a big moment in in eSports and EA FC, it will always hold something for me for the rest of my career.
“It goes to show how much can happen in the space. I came into the space about six, seven years ago and was just a newbie who didn't really know anything worked.
"And to be in that position where someone felt like it was valuable and worth paying a transfer fee for my services even to this day I'm still smiling when I say it. I still can't quite believe it happened.
“I probably put way too much pressure on myself to perform a certain way, act a certain way and just be a person that wasn't quite me. Being the first person that has been part of a transfer, I feel like I definitely added some pressure on myself. "Maybe it was all in my brain. It's all part of that part of the process, part of my journey of being a pro player.”
By his own admission, there became a point where Leese wasn’t one hundred per cent happy at EXCEL.
And just a few months back, he announced on YouTube that he and EXCEL had parted company.
There was no animosity on either side, but it was decided that a a change was needed.
Tom has returned to Hashtag as part of ‘Hashtag House’ in a unique role where he uploads EA FC content on a group channel alongside Harry Hesketh and Alex ‘Shawry’ Shaw’.
The new venture sees them almost combining the roles of content creators and pro players.
“It felt like the right time for it to happen, to give me a fresh start, which obviously I've done now by moving here.
“I don't think there's any animosity on either side. We've just kind of agreed that it hasn't worked out how we wanted, Excel were kind of changing their direction a little bit as well. It just felt like the right time to leave.”
“Our aim isn't just to be a pro player. But I think it's part of the content move and pro at the same time. And I think the main reason we brought it back was because of how well we did when we were back in FIFA 20 and FIFA 21 and we were together.
“I think we affect our pro performance quite a lot when there's three of you in the house that are all trying to achieve the best thing and try and be the best pro you can be.
"I think after what happened with EXCEL, I wanted to be in the right environment and wanted to be around the right people that can help me every day.”
The money in Esports is astronomical, and according to Esports earnings, the highest earner, Johan Sundstein, has made $7 million.
Typically, in Tom’s world, a pro deal would be for at least a year and a salary, which can vary, will be involved.
Then there’s the addition of sponsors and brands too. Tom’s biggest pot of prize money was £20,000 when he won the ePremier League for Watford in 2020.
Pressing a few buttons on a controller has allowed him to take care of his family in an unimaginable way.
“Anything I do and anything I get like that the priority is definitely my family.
“They’ve been so supportive since I was a kid that whenever I can, I always try and look after them.
“They could have been a lot harsher on me when I did make the decision a few years back. Going to your parents saying, ‘I'm going to play video games for a living’ - that conversation doesn't always turn out well.
“Whenever I'm streaming, you'll see my sister in there, or my mum in there or my brother will be watching from a distance. Any success I have, the first idea is: how can I help my family?
“I’m more of a saver, investor kind of person. I'd say a lot of my investment goes back into my content and pro stuff.
“Some of it (money) went on big family holidays, I made sure I took my mum away as soon as I could. I'm not someone that can spend big on clothes and stuff like that. It must have been the way I've been brought up, but it's not really my thing.”
Leese has competed in all the major tournaments in his career but there is one that he is banned from playing in.
His mates do not allow him to participate in tournaments at home and so he has to spectate in said.
“Last year, where I used to live, I had like a summer house. So we'd have the TV on and we'd have the football on and then at half-time it would go into games. And one of them said, ‘Let's have a game’ and within half the game, it was no more.
“I'm a spectator when it comes to mates' tournaments. Maybe one day, if I ever retire and I start to lose my ability, that'd be the first thing I do. I'll get a mates’ tournament set up again. But for now, I'm not allowed to play.”
In the same year as Leese’s career highlight tournament win, there was another big triumph as Diogo Jota won the ePremier League invitational.
He was a Wolves player at the time and beat future Liverpool teammate Trent Alexander-Arnold in the final on FIFA 20, with the England international absolutely furious.
Jota, who has his own Esports team, was the No.1 player in the world on PlayStation at one point in February 2021 and wasted no time in bashing EA Sports FC 24 when it was released.
The Portugal international regularly ventures into the professional game and Leese genuinely believes he is good at EA FC as he is at putting the ball in the back of the net because of the “high level” he plays at.
He has faced off against him before but is desperate for a second meeting.
“I played him in ‘Division Rivals’ already and beat him. Then he came into my Twitch chat and he asked to play to two versus two, but we couldn't do it on that day. We need to set it up. But he's always playing.
“My teammate, Gorilla actually matched him in a tournament and that is a whole different kind of pressure. Because in the community, you're expected to walk all over him because he's a footballer.
“When you play him you realise he is a pro player as much as he is a footballer. I'd say I put him in the top 200. As a pro you have that expectation you should beat him, but he is a very good player. He knows how to play the game really well.
“And I definitely want to cross over and either play with him or against him. He's playing at a really high level, and I know he's always watching as well. He's always keeping an eye on us, he’s probably coming in for tips and ways to beat us when we have a tournament!”
Tom Leese was speaking ahead of the launch of the 2023 ePremier League.
The ePremier League offers fans the chance to compete for the coveted ePremier League title representing their favourite club. This season's tournament takes place on the newly released EA SPORTS FC 24, featuring a substantial £100,000 prize pool and exclusive seats for the winning club in both the UEFA eChampions League and the FC Pro World Championships. You can register for the ePremier League here: