Barcelona star Lionel Messi is widely known as a serious and driven introvert – a man who reached the highest levels of world soccer as a solitary player who takes the ball and dribbles it seamlessly to the goal.
But recently, something has changed in the way Messi plays. More than ever, he’s seen laughing with fellow footballers on the pitch, passing to his teammates, and generally coming out of his shell. And it’s paying off – with 54 goals this season alone and 23 assists (compared to 17 assists by Luis Suárez and only six for Neymar). To put it in perspective, last season at this same time Messi only had 14 assists.
Some speculate his social butterfly metamorphosis comes from the life-changing event of becoming a father. He and his wife – model Antonella Roccuzzo – had their son Thiago in 2012, and in the latest issue of FC Barcelona’s official magazine, Messi spoke about how how the experience has changed him. “It changed everything, above all how I think. First, I think of him and then I think about everyone else. It also changed the way I see the game,” he said. “Being a father has helped me grow and think that there is more to life than just football.”
But there may be another clue as to why Messi seems less anti-social and more prone to helping out the rest of the club: his retreat from video games. Messi talks a lot about playing video games, mostly FIFA. While it might seem odd for a professional soccer player to relax by playing digital soccer, Messi winds down by playing against his 3D avatar. “I play FIFA on the Playstation against my Barcelona or Argentina teammates and it’s always a lot of fun,” Messi said in a FIFA article about players and video games. “Mind you, I’m not going to say I’m the king, as some of them are really very good.”
And indeed, some of Messi’s feats are so incredible that it seems more like virtual reality than real life. Supernatural dribbling powers, shooting in small spaces, and above all thinking at warp speed at just the right moment.
In the first leg of the semifinals in the Champions League against Bayern Munich, “La Pulga” escaped the Bayern Munich defender Jerome Boateng – one of the best defenders in the world – dribbling the ball straight to the goalkeeper and chipping the ball in for a 2-0 score that Neymar later turned to 3-0.
After the game, reporters asked Messi how he did it. He said it was all in a split second. The moment presented itself and it just happened.
“Messi does things you only see in video games,” former teammate Zlatan Ibrahimovic told FIFA. But Barça’s current coach Luis Enrique believes Messi’s abilities actually surpass those of any digital player: “I see him every day in training and he can do things that you won’t see […] on a Playstation,” Enrique said.
It could be that all those hours plugged into a console actually helped Messi hone his skills.
In 2013, British researchers at Queen Mary University of London and University College London tested 72 volunteers playing 40 hours of complex video games for six to eight weeks. They found that training in action games can actually increase the speed of “perceptual processing,” or being able to organize sensory input into meaningful patterns.
So Messi may be getting something out of his time plugged in. But when he was frustrated, he also used the games as a way to isolate himself from the outside world.
“Before, if I lost or did something wrong, I wouldn’t talk to anyone for three or four days until the madness passed,” he told FC Barcelona magazine. “Now if I lose a game, I get home and see my son and it all passes me by.”
He is spending less time with video games and more time with his family and because of that he’s become less self-absorbed.
Whatever benefits he might have gotten out of spending hours playing against his virtual self have been fully incorporated into his playing style.
Now he can unplug, look around him, pass the ball and have a good time.