Rezzil’s ground floor offices are tucked away in a slightly candlelit part of central Manchester City, where you’ll regularly see footballers dine after the game. I’m there on a decidedly less glamorous rainy Wednesday morning to meet company founder and sporting director Andy Etches, to find out how VR football could be the future of football coaching.
Rezzil is a collection of virtual exercises designed to analyze, educate and improve professional athletes. Etches started Rezzil in 2017 after working in football for over a decade, primarily in the area of game data, analytics and performance. He helped win the league with Manchester City in 2014 and then spent time as a consultant for EFL and Premier League teams.
Rezzil has grown rapidly since its inception by Etches, along with friends Adam Dickinson and Gareth Thatcher. It is now used in academies and by World Cup winners. It has the backing of big names, with Arsenal legend Thierry Henry, Gary Neville and Cesc Fabregas all named as investors. There are world stars who use it to improve their game, but Etches can’t mention specific names (or, at least, they can’t be printed). “Maybe it’s Haaland or Saka,” I think to myself, which isn’t so ridiculous considering he’s used in Manchester City and Arsenal training sessions.
However, I am not interested in silverware, golden boots, or representing my country on the world stage. I’m in the Rezzil studio for what is arguably a more important and noble pursuit. Can virtual reality football help me become a better 5-a-side player?
5-a-side football is a special beast in itself, a restless version of football played on the courts of leisure centers in freezing cold. It’s frantic and unnecessarily competitive, a game where local legends are created and middle-aged strangers just might break your leg with a misplaced tackle.
I’m the kind of 5 player who’s much more into having fun, than being what someone might call ‘good’. Can Rezzil help me change this? Etches thinks so. Admittedly, using professional training software for what is essentially a kickabout might seem like overkill. But what Rezzil promises are real improvements on the pitch, so why not astroturf?
First, he explains to me how it all works. His desk is adorned with football shirts from some of the top teams Rezzil works with. There is the crest of the Brazilian club Flamengo and a signed jersey of Club América de Mexico. A Manchester United jersey takes pride of place, which is Etches’ team and also the first team to use the Rezzil platform professionally.
Standing on a tiny football pitch, Etches explains how Rezzil can be used practically by a team. Basically, Rezzil identifies player issues and improves them, but it’s much more than that. A scout, he explains, will not just be looking for passing accuracy or speed. They will watch how a player reads the game. Can a player spot their teammate running? Or do they yield under the pressure of pressing adversaries? A pass can miss its target, but is it a one-off error or a defect to be corrected? These are key attributes that are difficult to quantify from the sidelines. But this data can be collected through Rezzil.
Rezzil’s technology also aims to reduce conflict on and off the pitch, Etches continues, by giving managers a new perspective. A manager may see a bad pass and wonder why his player made that decision, for example. But, by being able to see what a player saw at the time, a manager can better understand his thinking.
Soon I’m holding two controllers, my feet are strapped with sensors, I put a VR headset over my eyes, and I’m hooked up to the Rezzil system for a 20-minute session.
There are drills that assess my first touch and others that track how well I spot my teammates doing a space run. Instinctively going to put my foot on the ball to realize it’s not really there. There are tests that track my foot bias (extremely correct) and my composition under pressure (relatively OK).
In an exercise known as a rondo scan, I am surrounded by a semi-circle of small nets. I’m tasked with receiving a ball from a random direction and placing it into a different objective in quick succession. Designed to test my sweeping, passing and receiving abilities, I felt relatively confident that I had succeeded. However, I am quickly humbled when I take off the helmet and check my stats. The data tells me that I was looking forward to it the whole time. In a real game, I would have been blissfully unaware of what was going on around me.
Obviously there was a lot to improve, but I came away knowing what areas I needed to work on. It was mostly my spatial and situational awareness. But Romário wasn’t built in a day, so taking a Meta Oculus 2 with me, I left Rezzil’s offices and took my training home.
Back in my living room, I boosted Rezzil’s in-house software, the Rezzil Player. It’s a much smaller version than the one I was using before. At £15 it will be compared to the pro version of £400-600 per month. It doesn’t use foot sensors to pass, just a headset and two handheld controllers. Football matches are primarily based on heading drills that monitor power, accuracy, spatial awareness, and reaction times. Other games can help you improve your basketball or American football game. A test, designed to improve a boxer’s reaction time, is a workout in itself.
These tests are relatively simple in practice, with training categories broken down into Control, Shooting, Clearance and Passing. Some have you directing balls into floating hoops or towards virtual teammates for a well-timed pass. Netting has one main purpose, to direct the ball high and strong. Shooting is all about precision or occasional random targets. You can also recreate famous goals from history. When I play it’s David Wetherall’s 12th minute header for Bradford City against Liverpool in 2000. Sadly after many attempts I failed to match Wetherall’s glory.
The data it feeds the player is impressive. “Control” drills break down your score into average head speed, accuracy, and how often you hit the “sweet spot.” A tiered leveling system continues to raise the stakes as your skills improve, which are then analyzed over time – there are some real fun times when you see yourself progressing. It will also rank your efforts against other players around the world (on one exercise, I’m at 5074 on the leaderboard, about 1,750,000 points from first place). The pro version takes this analysis further and allows coaches, scouts and managers to view a plethora of player data in real time, from range of vision to heart rate variation (HRV).
At first, it’s easy to “play” VR football just like a video game. You quickly realize, however, that it’s meant to be treated like a real football game, even though it’s being played at your home. That means staying on your toes, earning headers in the air, and scanning the field for opponents, all while navigating low tables and roaming pets. The fear of accidentally hitting your head against a mirror is real, but over time finding your shape becomes second nature.
However, all that training, sweat and perseverance was worth nothing if we couldn’t recreate it on the pitch. In my case, it is the hallowed ground of Halifax College in West Yorkshire.
To my surprise, using what I learned about Rezzil in real life came surprisingly naturally. Admittedly, part of that may be due to advice given to me by Etches, someone who literally helped guide a team to the Premier League title. But I became more aware of my surroundings. When I pass, I think back to the faceless mannequins that shut me down and kept my cool (sometimes, at least). My form has improved, but whether it lasts is another matter altogether. My left foot still needs work and I haven’t scored a header either, but I’m confident my David Wetherall moment will come one day. We still won 9-6. A typically crazy score, basically at 5.
Did Rezzil improve my game, then? I believe so, at least for that hour on a lighted artificial turf court. Over time, I am convinced that VR football will prove to be a good companion to improve further. Will it replace more typical and fundamental training? Of course not, but that’s not his intention. It is intended to give the best teams in the world that extra edge. For me, I just want local legend status.
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