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Can VR soccer make you a professional futsal player?

Rezzil’s offices are downstairs in a tiny little part of Manchester city centre, where you’ll see footballers dining regularly after a game. I’m there on a rainy, less glamorous Wednesday morning to meet with the company’s founder and sporting director Andy Ishes, to find out how VR soccer could be the future of soccer coaching.

Rezzil is a suite of virtual workouts designed to analyze, educate, and improve professional athletes. Eshes started Rezzil in 2017 after working in soccer for over a decade, largely on the data, analysis and performance side of the game. He helped win the league with Manchester City in 2014, and has spent time as an advisor to teams within the Premier League and Premier League.

Rezzil has grown rapidly since Etches founded it, along with friends Adam Dickinson and Gareth Thatcher. It is now used by academies and World Cup winners. It is well supported, with Arsenal legends Thierry Henry, Gary Neville and Cesc Fàbregas named as investors. There are international superstars who use it to up their game, but Etches can’t name specifics (or at least, they can’t be printed). “Maybe it’s Haaland or Saka,” I guess, which isn’t silly given his use in Manchester City and Arsenal training sessions.

Rezzil models

I am not interested in silver or gold shoes or representing my country on the world stage. I’m in the Rezzil studio for what is arguably more important and noble. Can VR soccer help me become a better futsal player?

5-a-side is a beast of its own, a version of drop football played on recreation center fields in the freezing cold. It’s frantic and unnecessarily competitive, a game in which local legends are made and middle-aged outsiders might break your leg for a misplaced tackle.

I’m the type of quint who’s more attracted to being fun than being, rather than being what someone might describe as “good.” Can Rezzil help me change that? Aches thought so. Admittedly, using a professional training program for what is essentially a kick-off might seem like overkill. But what Rezzil promises are real improvements on the field, so why not use Astroturf?

First, he explains to me how it all works. His office is decorated with football shirts from some of the top-flight teams Rezzil works with. There is the Brazilian club Flamengo logo and a signed jersey from Mexico City’s Club América. At the fore is the Manchester United jersey, which is the Aches team and also the first team to use the Rezzil platform professionally.

Standing on a mini soccer field, Ichise explains how the team can practically use Rezzil. Essentially, Rezzil identifies players’ issues and works to improve them, but it’s much more than that. It shows that a scout will not only be looking for passing accuracy or speed. They will look at how the player reads the game. Can a player spot his teammate while running? Or do they shrink under the pressure of pressure on opponents? Passing may miss its target, but is it a one-time mistake or one that needs improvement? These are the main features that are difficult to spot from the sidelines. But this data can be collected through Rezzil.

The Rezzil technology also aims to reduce conflict on and off the field, Etches says, by giving managers a fresh perspective. A manager might see a bad pass and wonder why his player made that decision, for example. But by being able to see what the player saw at that moment, the manager can better understand his thinking.

Soon, I grab two controllers, my feet strapped to sensors, pull the VR goggles over my eyes and I’m connected to the Rezzil system for 20 minutes.

There are exercises that assess my first touch and others that track how well I spot my teammates running into space. Instinctively, I go to put my foot on the ball only to realize it’s not really there. There are tests that track the bias of my feet (largely correct) and how assertive I am under pressure (relatively good).

In one exercise known as the rondo sweep he surrounded a semicircle of small nets. I am tasked with receiving a ball from a random direction and placing it at a different target in quick succession. It was designed to test my scanning, passing, and receiving abilities, and I felt relatively confident that I had done so. But I quickly become humbled as I take off the headset and check my stats. The data tells me I’ve been looking all along. In a real game, I would have been happily unaware of what was going on around me.

There was clearly a lot to improve, but I’m left knowing the areas I need to work on. Mostly, this was my spatial and situational awareness. But Romário wasn’t built in a day, so I took my Meta Oculus 2 with me, left the Rezzil offices, and took my training home.

Back in my living room, I boosted my home Rezzil software, Rezzil Player. It’s a smaller version of what you’ve used before. At £15, when compared to the pro version it will be £400 to £600 per month. No foot sensors are used for passing, just a headset and two handheld controllers. Soccer games are mostly based on vertical drills that monitor strength, accuracy, spatial awareness, and reaction times. Other games can help your game of basketball or American football. One test, designed to improve a boxer’s reaction time, is the exercise itself.

These tests are relatively simple in practice, with training categories broken down into controlling, shooting, scanning, and passing. Some have you aiming balls at floating hoops or at your virtual teammates for a well-timed pass. Clearing has one main goal, to direct the ball with high and high power. Shooting is all about accuracy or the sneaky accidental aim. You can also recreate famous targets from history. When I play, it’s David Weatherall’s 12th-minute header for Bradford City against Liverpool in 2000. Sadly, after many attempts, I fail to echo the glory of Weatherall.

The data fed into the player is impressive. “Control” drills break down your score into average head speed, accuracy, and the number of times you hit the “perfect spot.” The tiered leveling system keeps leveling up as your skills improve, which are then analyzed over time – there are real moments of exhilaration when you see yourself improve. It will also rank your efforts to other players around the world (in one practice I stand at 5074 on the leaderboard, about 1,750,000 points off first place). The Pro version takes this analysis even further, and allows coaches, scouts, and managers to see a wealth of player data in real time, from range of vision to heart rate variance (HRV).

Rezzil stats

At first, VR soccer is easy to “play” just like a video game. You soon realize, however, that it’s meant to be treated like a real soccer game, albeit in your own home. That means keeping your toes on your toes, winning heads in the air and scanning the field for opponents, all while navigating coffee tables and petting pets. The fear of accidentally piercing a mirror is real, but over time finding your shape becomes second nature.

All that training, sweat and perseverance, however, was worth nothing unless we could recreate it on the pitch. In my case, this is the sacred herb of Halifax College, West Yorkshire.

To my surprise, using what I learned on Rezzil in real life felt surprisingly natural. Admittedly, this may be due in part to the advice given to me by Ichise, someone who literally helped guide a team to the Premier League title. But I became more aware of my surroundings. As I pass by, I think of the faceless mannequins closing in on me and keeping my composure (sometimes, at least). My figure has improved, but whether that will last is an entirely different matter. My left foot still needs work and I didn’t score any headers either, but I’m confident that one day my David Weatherall moment will come. But we won 9-6. It’s usually insane, and five points to the point.

So has Rezzil upped my game? I think so, at least during that hour in a brightly lit stadium. With time, I am confident that VR football will prove to be a good companion for further improvement. Will it replace the more typical basic training? Of course not, but that is not his intention. It’s supposed to give the best teams in the world an extra edge. For me, I just want to put together a local legend.