“It’s crazy, isn’t it?” laughs Liam O’Brien. “The Americans probably think I’m a guy who’s been playing the game all his life. Imagine knowing they were beaten by a skinny Brighton cricketer who only recently learned the rules. ‘
While surreal tales of lockdown go, the 22-year-old’s recent rise to the online sports community – he’s the UK’s number one at Madden NFL football game – may be somewhat disappointing.
A spirited all-rounder on the England physical disability team, O’Brien set himself the challenge of creating one of the oldest franchises in the video game market (1988).
He had some TV exposure to the real thing during a season of club cricket in Australia during the pre-pandemic winter, but phrases like ‘Hail’, ‘Clipping’, ‘Pick 6’ and ‘1st and 10s’ remained largely a mystery .
“To be honest, I hated American football,” he says. “But due to the time difference, the NFL games were going on during the day, so I thought I might as well learn about it.”
That was then. About 14 months later, O’Brien’s efforts during those endless hours of lockdown and now have propelled him to the top of the British boom – and the world’s top 100 players.
“I would finish work at 5:30 and spend maybe five or six hours a night on it,” he recalls.
“Then I started watching professional tournaments online, and thought, ‘I think I could do that – I’ve already beat some of these guys’.
“I competed in the Madden Classic – a big tournament where more than 1,500-1,600 people sign up. I got through the qualifying rounds and was just a few games away from winning some pretty decent prize money. Hundreds of thousands of people watch it.”
O’Brien sounds genuinely surprised at how something that started out as a stress buster has turned into a “great afterthought.” His successes have funded the purchase of his own car – although he pays his mother back in installments. Online life has also occasionally wreaked havoc with its biological clock.
“There’s a guy I play in the United States at Western time who is nine hours behind – I sometimes play him around 5 in the morning,” he says.
Then early last year there was the time when he tried to juggle a job he left while later preparing for an opponent online.
“I was doing my laptop on leaving – they said ‘Liam, what are you doing? I said,’ I need to practice! ” ‘
It can be easy, especially for those who didn’t grow up with consoles as household staples, to get rid of the smartness and speed of thinking it takes to excel in this virtual sports universe.
To a degree, O’Brien – who overcame bilateral talipes (club feet) to bowl at 120 mph and wield a bat with a Ben Stokes-esque ferocity – can see that point of view.
“I’m normally a realistic person, which is why this is so weird,” he says. “I was always in the park with my brothers who played cricket, football and rugby. We came back to play some computer games, but we were always the first outside.”
In Madden, O’Brien found a game with a mix of excitement and tactical skill that meets the ultra-competitive itch lockout without scratches.
“I wasn’t in the community and didn’t have any friends who played it, I literally only learned by watching YouTube videos myself,” he adds.
Part of his success, he believes, comes from a clean slate and an open mind.
“I tend to do things that some people think you wouldn’t do, or don’t do them exactly like you normally would American football,” he says. “Oddly, my brother had said he thought Madden might be the game for me – if you can beat people a few times, you win a win, while a match like Fifa goes back and forth for 20 minutes.
“Once I took the time to understand the rules, I outsmarted people who had almost turned professional in the sport.”
So, what is his advice for those craving a crack on the market?
“Try to be as open as possible to learn different ways of playing – some people only play one game in one way. Research, try to adapt and develop as quickly as possible and see how the best guys fare,” said he.
“If I’m trying to improve my batting, I will always look at the top men – Virat Kohli or Joe Root. With the NFL, I would look at the top men and try to learn from them – adjust it, but keep your own style.”
O’Brien now has his own burgeoning YouTube channel, but isn’t about to quit his job selling golf vacations just yet (he plays with a 13 handicap). “I just can’t wait to get back to cricket, to be honest,” he says.
As a farewell, he hands out a game challenge to England’s senior cricketers.
“I don’t know if any of them play Madden, but I know there are a few going to the NFL games here, and they play Call of Duty. I can always play them at Fifa – although this year’s version is the first time. is that I play them, never bought it because I was too busy ”, he laughs.
From lockdown to touchdown …
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