Sebastien Ibeagha still wakes up at 8 a.m and fixes himself breakfast. He gets a workout in, unless it’s a day off. Then he turns to one of life’s last pleasures unaffected by social distancing to fill his empty schedule: He flicks on his Xbox.
In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and the suspension of sports that followed thereafter, the New York City FC defender is one of many pro athletes now faced with a massive surplus of free time. He and several teammates are turning to “Call of Duty” to fill that void.
For some on the team, the game (they play the “Modern Warfare” title specifically) has been a very rough substitute for the intensity of pro sports. The club played Mexican giant Tigres on March 11 in the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals, falling 1-0 in a tense affair and one of the club’s biggest matches ever. Now, some NYCFC players are maintaining that stimulation by yelling at their TVs instead.
“I think it makes me angry enough to where it kind of simulates stuff that happens on the field,” Ibeagha told The Post by phone.
Ibeagha and his most frequent gaming partner on the team — backup goalkeeper Brad Stuver — play “Call of Duty” for hours on end, now spending their days bemoaning “campers” (players who hide within the game) instead of missed calls on the field.
“Being a pro athlete, we don’t get to play the game we love [right now], but our entire life is about that competitive feeling. … And when we don’t get to go into training every day and have that, sometimes guys have a hard time filling that gap,” Stuver said.
Other NYCFC players are maintaining their sanity through different avenues.
After sleeping in, 17-year-old Joe Scally prefers to play “FIFA” with his brother or teammate (and fellow teenager) James Sands.
Veteran defender Anton Tinnerholm shrugs off gaming entirely.
“I’m too old to play ‘FIFA,’ ” the 29-year-old said on a recent conference call.
Not everyone is built to be a gamer — or even the same type of gamer.
Though Ibeagha and Stuver are heavily focused on the results of their “Call of Duty” exploits, their teammate Keaton Parks has a more lax approach to the game when he joins in.
“I’m there to hang out, you know,” the midfielder said to his teammates’ chagrin in a Google Hangouts video chat. “I’m not there to get dubs.”
“See, that’s the problem right there,” Ibeagha shot back.
Parks, who admits he’s the worst of the three at the game, plays it for just an hour or two at a time and largely uses it as a vehicle to interact with friends. His approach may be ridiculed by his uber-competitive teammates, but actually illustrates the game’s connective abilities amid MLS’s suspension of play.
NYCFC have done their part in keeping team members in touch. There’s an active WhatsApp group for players, coaches and support staff, and the team has organized several fitness classes over Zoom. But still, the stay-at-home guidelines have robbed athletes of almost all in-person interaction, so the makeshift locker room within “Call of Duty” has taken on a sense of heightened importance for Ibeagha, Stuver and Parks.
The banter the game enables hasn’t changed, but every “turn off your console” or genuine conversation through their headsets has now temporarily become the backbone of the trio’s real-life friendship.
“It allows us to vent in that type of way, to guys you usually see everyday,” Ibeagha said.
NYCFC’s gamers will still step away from their screens and occupy their time with other things, in addition to working out. Stuver reads and prepares meals, and Scally will occasionally be dragged outside by his dad to play basketball.
Still, it’s easy to see why gaming — with its social byproduct and rigor — can be uniquely addictive for athletes.
“Even if it’s not the same,” Stuver said, “it’s something.”