Raise a Toast to Newcastle United's FIFA Ultimate Quaran-Team star
Written by Dan King
It's been a good week for Andy Carroll and Newcastle United, with the big striker scoring four times as the Magpies have picked up two wins over the last few days.
Unfortunately, it isn't quite real life - the coronavirus outbreak means football all over the world, including the Premier League, EFL and FA Cup, has been suspended - but the void has been filled to some extent by the FIFA Ultimate Quaran-Team - the brainchild of Leyton Orient's media team, which has seen 128 clubs compete online on FIFA 20, and led to match-ups like Fortuna Sittard v Newport County, Mansfield Town v Ajax, MK Dons v Heralces Almelo and Sydney FC v Barnsley.
The initiative, borne out of the desire to bring clubs together during a time of unprecedented measures surrounding the epidemic, has also seen more than £50,000 donated to EFL clubs, the charity MIND, and the World Health Organisation's Covid-19 Solidarity Response Fundraiser. Some clubs have been represented by first team players - former Newcastle ace Andros Townsend is playing for Crystal Palace - while others have let supporters or social media admins assume control of their teams.
Newcastle's representative is PlanetToast - ranked 24th in the UK on FIFA 19 - and he has masterminded victories over Gillingham and, on Wednesday night, an FC Nantes side controlled by three-time world FIFA champion Bruce 'The Machine' Grannec to reach the third round. PlanetToast - Jake Simpson to give him his real name - won the right to represent the Magpies in the first ever ePremier League in London last year, and while he was knocked out in the group stages there against tough opposition, he impressed sufficiently to be enlisted by the Magpies to lead the team into the Ultimate Quaran-Team competition.
PlanetToast - "I wish I had a great back story to this but it's literally just an Xbox generated name, I just stuck with it," he explained - is a lifelong Newcastle supporter and told nufc.co.uk: "The first game I went to was the third round of the League Cup in 2003 against West Brom. I remember being behind the goal when (Papiss) Cissé scored a 90th-minute header against Anzhi in the Europa League to send us through.
"Growing up I used to love (Alan) Shearer, obviously, Nobby Solano, Shay Given and Shola Ameobi. More recently I was a big fan of (Hatem) Ben Arfa, Ayoze (Pérez) and Mikel Merino. And in the current squad I genuinely like every single one of them; I think Jonjo (Shelvey) and (Isaac) Hayden are criminally underrated by Gareth Southgate, especially when centre midfield is a position England are struggling with."
The 21-year-old, who lives in Consett, has been playing FIFA games for nearly ten years. "Before that, I played PES (Pro Evolution Soccer) on the PS2 so I've always played football games and been obsessed with football non-stop.
"I only started taking it seriously at the back end of 2018, when Aston Villa ran an open tournament, and I finished in the semi-finals, losing to the eventual winner. Going into FIFA 19, I wanted to have a good go and see if I could compete. I managed to finish just outside the top 100 in the world and won the first ever ePremier League Newcastle qualifier to represent the club in London on Sky Sports in the grand final.
"That was a huge honour, especially being the first person to do so. I just wish I could've gone further in London. I got drawn in a group with the #1 ranked player in the world and even though I gave everyone a good game I think I was unlucky not to pick up more points and potentially go further in the competition. But the whole thing was obviously a great experience and fuelled a huge drive to keep competing."
PlanetToast had lost out to I JG Golazooo I in this year's club qualifiers, which were held in February, but the ePL finals - due to take place in the capital in March - were postponed due to the current global crisis. "I was gutted for him when it was postponed," said PlanetToast. "Hopefully it gets rescheduled so he can have a good go and hopefully go further than I did." The UltimateQuaran-Team, however, has given PlanetToast the chance to represent the Magpies once more, and he has done so with distinction so far.
"This tournament is a great opportunity to try and go on a run in a high profile cup with big media coverage," he explained. "The fact that I get the chance to do this with Newcastle is a huge honour and I'll never take an opportunity like this for granted.
"In every interview I've given in the last 12 months, I've always said how much it means to me to represent Newcastle. I'll never take that for granted and I enjoy every second of it. Now that the fans are getting behind me now too, it feels amazing. Hopefully this tournament can bring a lot of new eyes to esports and everyone still shows this much support even after the regular football season resumes."
He has streamed both of his matches on his Twitch account and has been delighted with the support he's received from Newcastle fans across the globe. The first round, played on Sunday evening, saw Newcastle drawn against Gillingham, who were represented by Chicago-based Gills fan Ben Wainwright, and the virtual Magpies ran out 3-0 winners in what PlanetToast describes as a "solid performance."
FIFA ULTIMATE QUARAN-TEAM RULES
* '85 mode'
* Six minutes per half
* Each player will play as their own team
* Head to head friendlies - not Ultimate Team
He added: "I started the stream expecting no more than 20 to 30 viewers. I loaded up the game and went to get a drink; by the time I came back to the screen I had 400 viewers! It took me by surprise but I had to keep focused and thankfully I was able to get the result with an Andy Carroll hat trick.
"The viewer number kept creeping up in the corner of the screen, though, and when I saw it go over the 1,000 mark I knew I couldn't afford any slip ups and I think it helped me keep concentration."
That win earned United a tie against Nantes, represented by "all time FIFA great" Grannec. "I knew I had nothing to lose going into the game and if I was going to get anything out of it I had to keep full concentration throughout," said PlanetToast. "I knew he was a possession player so I was happy to absorb the pressure early on.
"I saw people in the chat when I watched it back who were frustrated - but I knew what I had to do to win. Once I absorbed the pressure I started to grow into the game and forced a replay. In the second game I felt like I deserved the win and was able to see the game out with a 1-0 win."
Carroll was again the goalscorer and, as if beating one of the most successful FIFA players of all time wasn't impressive enough, the achievement was all the more remarkable as PlanetToast usually plays on the Xbox console, whereas the UltimateQuaran-Team matches take place on the PlayStation format.
"It's something people don't really look into and realise, but I am an Xbox player, and this competition is on PS4," he said. "It might not be a big difference for a casual player but when I've played on Xbox for nearly ten years it's really difficult to pick up a different controller and be expected to compete at such a high level straight away.
"I personally feel like I'm currently playing nowhere near as good as I know I can with an Xbox controller, but I'm getting the results so far so hopefully I can build on that and keep moving forward."
Now, having beaten Grannec, expectations have risen and bookmakers' odds have dropped - yes, you really can bet on the UltimateQuaran-Team and the club's principal partners, FUN88, have odds here (18+) - and PlanetToast suddenly finds himself among the tournament favourites.
"I think at the start I was 25/1 but before a ball was kicked it got slashed to 12/1, and I can only assume that was because all of the Newcastle fans invested early," he said. "There's still so many quality opponents left in the cup, and I know my route to the final is ridiculously hard, but as long as I take it one game at a time who knows what can happen.
"With 2,000 watching the games live, the support has been mental. I'll obviously do my best to go as far as possible but it'll be really tough."
"I've always said how much it means to me to represent Newcastle. I'll never take that for granted and I enjoy every second of it. Now that the fans are getting behind me now too, it feels amazing."