MaXe VIP: FIFA Phenom

He goes by Max Popov in person, MaXe VIP online. This isn't a case of a double identity. It's a look into the world of one of the e-sports world's youngest up-and-comers—and he just so happens to hail from Palo Alto.

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Tyler Stoen, Liam Nagesh, and Griffin Kemp

Max Popov, a 17-year-old senior from crosstown Gunn High School, stares intently at the monitor, chewing forcefully on a piece of gum. Sweat trickles down his forehead as he leans forward in his plush gaming chair, but the sweat isn’t from physical exertion. 

Competing in the 2020 FIFA eClub World Cup championship in Milan, Popov and his partner Joksan Redona both representing Complexity Gaming face Resende of Ellevens in a shootout, following a second overtime, with a $40,000 cash prize on the line. No emotion seeps through his mask of focus as he successfully blocks the opponent’s first attempt, then scores himself, while Redona nervously clutches onto his chair with white knuckles, whispering advice to his teammate. 

MaXe VIP, Popov’s gamer tag and what he is known by in the e-sports world, is in his first ever international FIFA tournament, a console-based soccer video game developed by Electronic Arts, or EA. Up two goals to one, MaXe needs just one more save until the cup is his, defeating the veteran Brazilian Pedro “Resende” Henrique Soares. Resende lines up his shot, and MaXe moves his goalie to the left, baiting Resende, who shoots for the open bottom right corner. Just in the nick of time, MaXe dives with his goalie, blocking the ball and blocking Resende’s hopes for the eClub World Cup win.

Popov’s emotionless mask slips for the slightest of seconds as he releases a gasp – perhaps shocked by his victory, perhaps simply from subconsciously holding his breath throughout the match– before standing up and gesturing to his arm, indicating with the popular “ice in my veins” celebration that he remains cool when the game is on the line. But this self-indulgent celebration ends quickly as he goes to hug Redona and his coach, seemingly in disbelief that he had actually just won the 2020 FIFA eClub World Cup.

Popov’s meteoric rise to the top had humble origins. A middle-school-aged Popov gained experience simply by playing video games such as Madden and NBA 2K for fun after school. Specifically, his interest in FIFA stemmed from his time playing on a travel soccer team, something that naturally translated to a deep knowledge of the game and made him an excellent FIFA player. But when he was playing back then, it wasn’t about the glory and grind of winning. 

“I first started playing FIFA around 2013,” Popov said. “I played with my friends online, just casually.”

Max’s strong connection to soccer, which led him to play FIFA all throughout middle school, evolved from just playing with his friends to becoming a well known player in the community. As he began participating in high-stakes matches, fun was no longer the primary objective: winning was. 

Many people do not find their passion or expertise until they have become adults, but Popov saw potential in himself from a very young age.

“I started playing ‘competitively’ around 2015,” Popov said. “I was 12 years old but was placing pretty highly in the online rankings. It was clear to me that I had a talent for the game, but never really knew I could go an extra step, earn serious money and travel all over the world.”

As Popov continued to compete against elite competition online, his progression through the ranks of the online FIFA community was significant. However, Popov was not old enough to compete professionally until 2018 due to FIFA competitive rules. 

“You have to be 16 and over to compete so I had to wait a few years, but I ended up finishing third in North America and 40th globally [at the end of the season],” he said.

Once he turned 16, Popov became eligible to compete, and began to be in the conversation with some of the world’s best FIFA players. His fame led him to a contract with an eSports Organization, or “Orgs” as they are called in the gaming community. eSports organizations are gaming clubs that sign and sponsor high-caliber gamers, sending them to tournaments around the world to compete against other clubs for large cash prizes and other incentives. Popov caught the eye of Complexity Gaming, an eSports Club owned by Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, that touts a top-notch team of gamers from popular games such as Fortnite and Madden.  

“Complexity signed me [a few months ago] right after my first competitive season which was FIFA 19 with a $5,000 signing bonus,” Popov said. “They wanted to sign a prospect [for FIFA], and I was pretty much the best available option.” 

After his first taste of victory on the biggest of stages, Popov has eyes on the future. After graduating at the end of this school year, Popov has decided to prioritize his unconventional career going forward.

“I think that as long as I can maintain the level that I’m at right now, and have an organization backing me financially, there is no reason why I would want to stop that anytime soon,” Popov said. “I will make an effort to attend at the very minimum a community college, because dropping my studies for something that only rewards the very best of the best is risky, and you need to have a plan B.”

As the year progresses, Popov and his partner Joksan Redona look to prepare for their appearance in the  FIFA eNations Cup in May in Copenhagen, a tournament that boasts a prize pool of over $100,000. While high stakes in such a setting approaching may give most people anxiety, Popov said he is just here for the ride.

“As of now I’m happy with what I’m accomplishing,” Popov said. “I’m hoping I can take this to the World Cup this summer where the top 16 compete for glory and a very large cash prize.”

In order to take his game to the level necessary to go to Copenhagen, Popov has had to make many sacrifices. From taking online classes so he can devote more time to the craft, to playing less with his friends so he can practice against a challenge, Popov has altered his life’s trajectory from that of the normal teen to pursue his passion.

When asked about how other up-and-coming gamers can break into the professional scene, there was no need for an in-depth explanation of the convoluted mechanisms involved in gaming.

“You just gotta grind,” Popov said.