|Venue: Race course stadium Date: Saturday May 28th Kicking off: 12:30 CET|
|Cover: Live on BBC Radio Wales FM and digital radio in North Wales, BBC Radio Humberside, BBC Sport online and BBC Radio Cymru. Match report on the BBC Sport website and app.|
With red carpet owners, social media sponsorships and a growing celebrity following, Wrexham’s recent history is feeling a little like virtual reality right now.
As a non-league side with growing global fame, it came as no surprise that the club was quickly catapulted into the latest installment of soccer’s biggest video game franchise.
When Fifa 22 launched last year, Wrexham – to paraphrase the start-up slogan of the makers of EA Sports – was in the game.
What is surprising, however, is to learn that a former Wrexham player is one of the creative minds behind the game itself.
“Specifically, I’m on the gameplay team, which I think makes the game feel fun for people and makes it realistic,” explains Shaun Pejic, now 39 and a Vancouver resident, of his basis for his role as Live Gameplay Producer at Electronic Arts.
All very distant from his previous life before trading boots for bytes.
A child of Wrexham’s youth system and son of former player-turned-physician Mel Pejic, he played over 200 games for the North Wales side.
Along the way there have been six Wales Under-21 caps, teamwork with the likes of Robert Earnshaw and James Collins, a Football League Trophy win at Principality Stadium and one promotion and two relegations – including being relegated to the non-League 14 years ago .
A commendable resume, but not one that really explains the move to career mode.
“Moving from gaming to office work was hard work”
“It’s strange,” Pejic accepts, speaking ahead of the high-profile announcement that EA will stop producing Fifa-branded titles after next year and instead focus on their own games under the EA Sports FC banner.
“Like most professional soccer players, I played video games growing up, played soccer on consoles, and even as a younger kid I was a bit of a nerd and also played a few board games.
“But getting into (game production) wasn’t an ambition or anything.”
Instead, a move to Vancouver Whitecaps a year after Wrexham’s departure from the Football League provided an example of what happens when opportunity and intrigue collide.
Pejic started dating his now-wife, who was working on another title for EA, and began chatting and socializing with the tech industries so prominent in the Canadian city.
“I ended up sitting in a room with some of the crew who worked on the Fifa title,” he says. “They knew I was a player, knew my experience as a professional and I had some ideas.
“For the first year or two it was a bit of a stretch, going out of the football world to train once or twice a day and then sitting on your butt in an office all day learning how a game is made, but it was the best decision I’ve ever made.”
Pejic doesn’t code or program, nor is he involved in the art behind the animation, but says he helps form part of the vision of what EA hopes to build.
“It creates some of the issues that aren’t authentic to the real game,” he says. “It can be something as simple as when that’s not the right way to kick the ball but then actually put it in play…
“There’s a huge team of very smart people, the smartest I’ve ever known, rocket scientist level – and I’m from Wrexham, not the smartest football brain but I’m trying to teach smart people how football is played, which is obvious will not be their area of expertise.
“I think it fits well.”
Much as he describes his active days not as the pinnacle of his working life, but as the foundation of where he is now and the fulfillment he derives from his work.
In fact, Pefic says he’s past the point where he’s tempted to go into the studio to record his data on the game, as the latest version now uses fully formed matches rather than one or two players in a studio to capture the movement of the game.
“It’s a new technology that we used this year called the Xsens suit,” says Pejic. All the cameras are around the field and we saw a couple of teams in Spain playing a professional game and we collected all the information and data from that.
“We’re using that in game now, which is really cool, whereas before we were limited to the studio, so you lose some of that authentic movement, like naturally colliding with players at full speed.”
That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement as Pejic is currently committed to working on the live title’s feedback and “trying to figure out how to make it better for everyone”.
But he adds, “It’s a fine line to make it realistic and then on the other hand make sure you feel the fun of making things like it super responsive.
“You always pull to make it look really good, but also to make sure you can play and enjoy it. That’s the biggest challenge, but the gameplay team is huge and has a lot of experience – and whatever we’ve done so far is working.”
Pejic considers whether in the future there will be greater blurring between live games on television and the video game played next to them: “If it looks identical, you can’t tell the difference, that would be the end goal, we would have made it then”.
And news of EA’s fork from the Fifa franchise following his speech also has fans intrigued about what’s next, just as Pejic is intrigued about what’s next for Wrexham after admitting that he ” dejected” when his club lost their league status.
He laughs but affirms “no” when asked if he was tempted to include a boost for players selecting Wrexham in the Rest of World option in the current version, but adds, “It’s so cool for me with my story to be able to play with them to see the badge and gear.”
He’s also proud of the new profile his old club has had since taking over in Hollywood and is hoping to meet Vancouver native Ryan Reynolds to buy him a drink.
He could toast success should the Red Dragons make their way through the National League play-offs in the coming weeks as Wrexham aim to reach the next level.