Competitive Farming Simulator is like an agriculture Grand Prix

Farming Simulator tractor
(Image credit: Giants Software)

Throw a spoiler and a sick flame decal on the leisurely pastoral work of most farm sims and you get Farming Simulator League, an esport where rural machinery roars to life and torpedoes across barnyards to deliver bales of hay while a timer trickles to its final seconds. These hulking, heavy-duty vehicles aren't quite the slick hunks of steel you see in racing games, but they're still capable of barrelling across tight bridges, performing tightly calibrated powerslides, and executing elegant slam dunks of said hay bales right into the top floor of their sheds.

The latest season of Farming Simulator League has seen teams harvesting swathes of golden crops while steering their chonky vehicles with the sort of finesse you'd expect to see in a Grand Prix. The agricultural esport has also seen major brands like Trelleborg, Corteva, and Bednar sponsor events and enter teams of their own, such as two-time defending champs Team Trelleborg. The league has taken off in Europe (opens in new tab), with live tournaments taking place around the continent, and this season’s World Championship just concluding over the weekend from November 19 to 20. And after a nail-biting five-match showdown with French team New Holland (formerly known as The Fermiers Flamboyants), a team that threatened their dominance in the series of six online tournaments leading up to the World Championship, Team Trelleborg eventually emerged as the season's champion, walking away with €20,000 in prize money.

All this hubbub may come as a surprise even to those who are familiar with Farming Simulator, a game that's known for the realistic, but perhaps mundane, pastoral work of cultivating crops, rearing livestock and harvesting trees. But in Farming Simulator League, athletes compete in groups of threes to harvest wheat, press bales, and deliver as many as possible in a tight 15 minutes. Aside from the mechanical challenge of manuveuring these heavy machines around—just driving a harvester straight (opens in new tab) has a bit of a learning curve—keen strategizing is also necessary.

Like any esport worth its hay, Farming Simulator League has a "pick and ban" phase. Team captains can choose which vehicles can be used during the match, tossing a spanner in the works for those heavily reliant on their preferred combine harvesters and balers. Trelleborg, for instance, has to use an unwieldy JCB Fastrac 4220 in their showdown against New Holland due to the French team banning the more efficient frontloader tractors such as the Massey Ferguson 7726. 

There are also perks to be chosen before a match, and others strewn around the map that can turn the tide of the competition. You can, for instance, pick up a perk that will let you run faster than other players. Or you can switch your score multiplier with the other team's, which turned the tide for New Holland in one of the tournaments this season, allowing the team to score more points per bale delivered.

These wild cards make the Farming Simulator League exhilarating, especially when both teams are equally matched in skill. "I would say that the games that are decided in the last second—those are the good games," says Hanno "Beatmaster" Meier, one-fifth of the Swedish Team Trelleborg. Watching Trelleborg and New Holland deliver bale after bale in their last tournament was akin to seeing a pirouette perfectly executed; their machines would skid up gusts of tire smoke as they swerved towards the shed, tossing a bale at precisely the right moment before making a seamless exit back to the field.

In the first round of this season's sixth online tournament, both teams employed similar tactics: slowing each other down by raising the bridges that offer a direct route to their respective barns. With the scores differing by merely a few points up until the round's last few seconds, the usually unflappable Team Trelleborg made several mistakes—at one point, one player accidentally drove his harvester into a canal—which probably cost the team their win. Yet Trelleborg quickly recovered from the loss to secure two subsequent victories.

Describing the action doesn't quite do the affair justice; you can watch the thrilling match between the two teams for yourself.  

The athletes of Team Trelleborg have been looking forward to playing on a physical stage in front of an audience eventually—the quintessential esports experience having taken a back seat since the start of the pandemic. The past weekend marks the second time the current lineup of Team Trelleborg has competed at the World Championship (players of the previous line-up have joined other teams, such as Corteva Agriscience (opens in new tab) and John Deere (opens in new tab)). 

We play our game and no matter what the opponent does, we are faster.

Jendrik "JayKay" Kluge, Team Trelleborg

Farming Simulator League hasn't garnered the popularity of other esports like Dota, League of Legends, and Street Fighter, but its fans are incredibly devoted. In the League's earliest days back in 2017, the esports competition began as a simple bale-stacking competition. "Initially the organizers of the Agritechnica, which is the biggest agricultural trade show in the world, they approached us and asked if we could do a booth where we could provide something for the younger audience there," says Martin Rabl, head of marketing at Farming Simulator developer Giants Software. 

As the contest grew more popular, Giants Software decided to tweak the competition to become a more team-based event. "It was super niche [at first] because you could only play at Agritechnica at that point. That's when we got a lot of other players saying, 'Hey, we also want to play a competition-style game,'" Rabl says.

Highlights from FSL Season 3 last year.

While Farming Simulator sought to replicate the actual labor and elbow grease of farm work as closely as possible, it's clear that the spectacle in Farming Simulator League is about as representative of real-life farming as caber tossing (opens in new tab) is of being a lumberjack. 

Real crops tend not to rapidly materialize after you've harvested the field; you'd need to sow them again and wait for a year or so in order to harvest them once more. But the machines used in the competition are true to their real-life counterparts, with some teams leaning to one or the other according to their strategies. "For the combine harvesters for example, there are differences, like in what kind of capacity they have," Rabl says. "There's a baler that is quite popular because it can have more bales in it than the others, so you can collect more of them at the same time. There's some strategy involved in picking them, sometimes they also come with a drawback. It could be that the capacity is higher, but they're slow. But at least you need to unload less often. Your strategy needs to evolve around that."

Team Trelleborg often works on speed first. "At least for tournaments, we are always watching the live feed so we know what our opponents are doing [at] that moment. We are preparing for what they're doing... but sometimes in this season, it's [about being] fast," says Team Trelleborg's Jendrik "JayKay" Kluge. "We play our game and no matter what the opponent does, we are faster."

Rather than favoring a particular tactic ("We have a lot of strategies," says Meier), they prefer to tweak their playstyle based on what the other team does. This was how Trelleborg defeated its fiercest competition this season. New Holland's tactic was to raise their score multiplier as much as possible, which is affected by the amount of grain that has to first be harvested from the fields, then delivered at the silo. New Holland would then deliver its bales to the shed right when this multiplier was at its peak. While this helped them win their first match against Trelleborg during the World Championship, it was a strategy that Trelleborg used against them in subsequent rounds, allowing the defending champion to secure a resounding victory once again.

(Image credit: Giants Software)

If you're keen to become a competitive farmer yourself, all you need to do is to download the free Farming Simulator League Arena DLC—provided that you have a copy of Farming Simulator 19—and gain access to a dedicated server that runs the DLC for a small fee (opens in new tab). If you need teammates, you can probably find them via the Farming Simulator League Discord (opens in new tab). Practice sessions, called scrims, let you build experience competing against beginners and experienced players alike. According to Rabl, this accessibility sets the league apart from other esports competitions.

Well, that and the tractors.

"When I watch the FSL games, I just know I couldn't do that," Rabl says. "It looks easy, but it's like Formula One driving."

Given the team's track record, it's no surprise that Trelleborg has emerged victorious this season. Yet, the unexpected arrival of underdogs New Holland has ensured that upcoming seasons of the league will be immensely exciting to spectate—especially as in-person esport events gradually make a return. While the World Championship this season has ended, and the next season of Farming Simulator League takes place months later, it's still not too late to catch up with the Farming Simulator League frenzy. You can watch all the madcap action of the Farming Simulator League season 4 over at Twitch (opens in new tab), or simply skip to the season highlights at the Farming Simulator League's Youtube channel (opens in new tab)