She’s a pro soccer player and a pro esports athlete: Meet RB Leipzig’s Lena Güldenpfennig

There is a young German forward, playing in the Bundesliga, who scores hundreds of goals every week.

Before Bayern Munich begins preparing the paperwork for a bid, there is a small disclaimer — many of these goals are scored in the virtual arena of EA Sports’ FIFA video game series.

But such a caveat doesn’t make the daily balancing act of 20-year-old Lena Güldenpfennig, a striker for RB Leipzig by day and professional player for the club’s esports team RBLZ Gaming by night, any less impressive.

It’s a multitasking marvel made all the more remarkable by the fact that Güldenpfennig spends the first six hours of the day in school as part of her training to become a kindergarten teacher.

“This is just my daily routine,” Güldenpfennig explains.

“I have it every day and I enjoy it very much. I like doing all of this, which is why it works. If it’s fun, then you enjoy doing it, without stress.”

Having joined RB Leipzig’s footballing academy as a youngster, Güldenpfennig’s excellence on the virtual pitch was cultivated during her years at boarding school.

As is the case for many, her passion for gaming was forged by the desire to beat her friends — perhaps it was inevitable that, given her other life as a pro footballer, she was destined to take her competitiveness to the highest level.

When European football came to a standstill early last year due to the coronavirus pandemic, many footballers put up their feet and picked up their controllers to scratch their competitive itch, but Güldenpfennig had loftier aims.

Having had “a little” more time to spend with the game — last year’s edition of FIFA 21 — she entered a German Football Association (DFB) online tournament.

She ended up winning and her performance did not go unnoticed. The following day, she was contacted by RBLZ Gaming, who offered her a chance to join their team.

Pioneer
One year on and she is already a history maker. In March, she became the first ever woman to play in the Virtual Bundesliga (VBL) — a league contested by esports sides representing 26 real life clubs across Germany’s top two divisions.

Playing two doubles matches in the South-East division of the club championship against TSG Hoffenheim and FC Nürnberg, Güldenpfenning fired home the first two goals of her VBL career, including a sweetly struck volley.

The goal itself was as impressive as it was poignant — a goal scored by a woman in professional FIFA esports remains a collectors item in a male-dominated landscape.

A look at the VBL’s current squad rosters paints a pretty bleak picture as regards gender diversity. Of the 107 listed players across all 26 squads, just two women feature — Lena and Anna Klink of Bayer Leverkusen.

At the last FIFA eWorld Cup in 2019 — held at the O2 Arena in London with a $500,000 prize pot — all 32 finalists were male. Not that Güldenpfennig is deterred.

“I want to encourage women that more women have the courage to simply show, ‘Here, I can do this too,'” Güldenpfennig said.

“I would just advise them they shouldn’t hide and definitely don’t be afraid of the boys and men.

“I want to continue to show here, I have been the first woman — you can do this too.”

Alongside a lack of representation, sexist abuse, be it via game chat or social media, has often made online gaming a toxic environment for women.

“There is the occasional message, which appears in my Instagram inbox,” Güldenpfennig admitted.

“But I didn’t take these to heart and no woman in esports should take these to heart either”.

‘FIFA is more stressful’
With her real-life football season underway and FIFA’s latest edition in the series — FIFA 22 — released last month, Güldenpfennig is firing on all cylinders. She has just under a month to get accustomed to the new game before the 2021-22 VBL season gets underway on November 10.

Though while many footballers turn to the virtual replica of their sport to wind down, Güldenpfennig actually finds the video game version more mentally taxing than the real thing.

“In fact, FIFA is more stressful,” Güldenpfennig said, a revelation that will strike a chord with those who annually sacrifice broken controllers to the notorious frustrations of competitive video games.

“You don’t think of it, but you have to be really present each second. If you switch off once, then this can lead to serious mistakes.

“What always annoys me is losing or conceding goals. There, I still switch off a little. Another annoying thing is goal cheering or time wasting — you shouldn’t do that, you don’t have to do that.”

Fortunately, Güldenpfennig’s unique advantage — being able to call upon a lifetime of professional football insight — puts her in the best possible position to dribble around such frustrations.

“There’s a lot you can transfer into real-life football,” Güldenpfennig said.

“In terms of tactics, in terms of pressing situations — you can transfer the overview from FIFA into real-life football and the other way around too, so both are reflected in each other a little bit.”

It’s in the game
FIFA’s flagship mode — Ultimate Team — sees players work to build and compete with their own dream team of footballers past and present. Colloquially referred to as ‘cards’ — as per their trading card style design — in-game footballers can be bought and sold on an open market.

It’s no secret that pro footballers pay close attention to their in-game avatars. A nine-year-old tweet from Roma striker Tammy Abraham that recently resurfaced — “while your [sic] at home playing [FIFA] 12 I’m working hard to be featuring in FIFA 16” — wonderfully encapsulated this connection.

Güldenpfennig is no different, though given that only a limited number of real-life women’s players from a select set of national teams are in FIFA 22, she awaits the chance to truly bring her double life full-circle.

“It would be cool if I had my own card,” she laughs, “I think that’s a little dream that each FIFA player has. I don’t know if others would play me then!”

Based on Güldenpfennig’s answer to the question of her own statistics, her self-depreciation would likely be misplaced.

Pace has long reigned supreme in FIFA — Kylian Mbappé, the fastest player in this year’s edition, is currently the most expensive player on Ultimate Team — and Güldenpfennig’s description of her potential avatar puts her in a similar bracket.

“I would give myself the highest [score] in shooting and in the techniques — so in dribbling and passing,” she said.

“Defending is not really my thing — I shoot the goals and prepare them. So the worst would really be physical and defending. But the rest — pace and shooting — would be okay.”

But whether its on the pitch or on the screen, it’s safe to say Güldenpfennig will still be excelling.