“It’s bonkers, isn’t it?” laughs Liam O’Brien. “The Americans probably think I’m some bloke who’s played the game all his life. Imagine if they knew they were getting beaten by a skinny cricketer from Brighton who only recently learned the rules.”
As surreal stories of lockdown go, the 22-year-old’s recent rise to prominence in the online sports community – he’s the UK’s number one at American football game Madden NFL – takes some beating.
Bidding to beat the blues after post-Christmas gym closures put the brakes on pre-season training, O’Brien, a feisty all-rounder in England’s physical disability team, set himself the challenge of mastering one of the video game market’s most famous franchises.
He had some televised exposure to the real thing during a season of club cricket in Australia during the pre-pandemic winter, but phrases like ‘Hail Mary’, ‘Clipping’, ‘Pick 6’ and ‘1st and 10s’ remained largely a mystery.
“To be honest, I hated American football,” he says. “But the time difference down under meant NFL games were on during the day, so I thought I might as well learn a bit about it.”
That was then. About 14 months later, O’Brien’s efforts during those endless hours of lockdown ennui have propelled him to the top of the UK tree – and the top 100 players on the planet.
“I’d finish work at 5.30 and then spend maybe five or six hours a night on it,” he recalls.
“Then I started seeing professional tournaments online, and thought, ‘I reckon I could do that – I’ve beaten some of these guys already’.
“I entered the Madden Classic – a big tournament where more than 1,500 people apply. I got through the qualifying rounds and was only a couple of games off winning some pretty decent prize money. Hundreds of thousands of people watch it.”
O’Brien sounds genuinely surprised at how something that started as a stress buster has turned into a “great side hustle”. His successes have financed the purchase of his own car – although he’s paying his mum back in instalments. The online life has also occasionally played havoc with his body clock.
“There’s a guy I play in the States on Western time, which is nine hours behind – I’d sometimes be playing him at about 5am,” he says.
Then there was the time last early last year when he was trying to juggle a works leaving do while preparing for an opponent later online.
“I was at the leaving do with my laptop – they said ‘Liam, what are you doing? I said: ‘I’ve got to practise!'”
It can be easy, particularly for those that didn’t grow up with consoles as household staples, to dismiss the smarts and speed of thought required to excel in this virtual sporting universe.
To an extent, O’Brien – who overcame bilateral talipes, also known as clubfeet, to bowl at speeds of 75mph and wield a bat with a Ben Stokes-esque ferocity – can see that point of view.
“I’m normally a real-life person, which is why this so weird,” he says. “I was always down the park with my brothers playing cricket, football and rugby. We’d come back and play a bit of computer games afterwards, but we’d always be the first ones outside.”
In Madden, O’Brien found a game offering a blend of excitement and tactical skill that satisfy the ultra-competitive itch lockdown left unscratched.
“I wasn’t in the community, and had no friends that played it, I literally just learned on my own watching YouTube videos,” he adds.
His success in part comes, he feels, from having a blank slate and an open mind.
“I tend to do things that some people don’t think you’d do, or not do them exactly how you would normally do American football,” he says. “Oddly, my brother had said he’d thought Madden might be the game for me – if you can out-think people a couple of times you get a win, whereas a game like Fifa is all back and forward for 20 minutes.
“Once I took the time to understand the rules, I was outsmarting people that had pretty much nearly gone professional at the sport.”
So, what’s his advice to those who fancy a crack at the market?
“Try and be as open as possible to learning different ways to play – some people just play one game one way. Research, try and adapt and develop as quickly as you can and watch the best guys do it,” he said.
“If I’m trying to improve my batting, I’ll always watch the top guys – Virat Kohli or Joe Root. With the NFL I’d watch the top guys and try and learn from them – adapt it but keep your own style.”
O’Brien now has his own burgeoning YouTube channel, but is not about to give up the day job selling golf holidays just yet. “I just can’t wait to play cricket again, to be honest,” he says.
As a parting shot, he issues a gaming challenge to England’s senior cricketers.
“I don’t know if any of them play Madden, but I know a few go to the NFL games here, and they play Call of Duty. I can always play them at Fifa – though this year’s version is the first time I’ve never bought it because I’ve been too busy,” he laughs.
From lockdown to touchdown…