Why are football clubs signing eSports players?

Words: Tom East
Photo: Courtesy of VFL Wolfsburg

Bundesliga outfit VFL Wolfsburg were the first European side to have their own eSports players. Here, the club explain why they’re taking pro gaming seriously.

Ever dreamed of playing for a professional football club, but not been good enough? Well, you might still be able to play for one… but only if you’re amazing at computer games.

A spate of top clubs across Europe have been getting involved in eSports, buying up teams and players to wear their kit and represent them in gaming tournaments.

Bundesliga outfit VFL Wolfsburg are leading the charge. In 2015, they signed top German FIFA player Benedikt Salzer and, earlier this year, they added FIFA Interactive World Cup 2014 runner-up Dave Bytheway to their roster.

Here, we ask Wolfsburg’s Managing Director Thomas Röttgermann why the club are getting so heavily involved. We also talk to Bytheway about what it’s like to be a FIFA Pro for a top European side.

Football teams involved in eSports

Manchester City’s recent signing: Kieran ‘Kez’ Brown

© Manchester City

“Our claim is ‘football is more’ – not just 90 minutes on the pitch,” says Wolfsburg Managing Director Thomas Röttgermann. “For us, eSports was a win-win situation – we could be a first mover and create new and innovative content for our young fans at Wolfsburg, and also get more fans into eSports. We want to show we take eSports seriously.”

Röttgermann and his team do this by treating their FIFA players as if they are pro footballers. This means that as well as representing Wolfsburg at tournaments, playing in pre-match FIFA competitions at the Volkswagen Arena and streaming their matches on Hitbox, Salzer and Bytheway have been to signing sessions alongside real footballers like Julian Draxler and Max Arnold – they’ve even joined in with the pre-season training camp.

Röttgermann also has plans to stream the two professional gamers  taking on Wolfsburg’s squad at FIFA. They’ll have to be on their mettle, though – some of the club’s footballers aren’t bad.

Dave Bytheway lost to Denmark’s August Rosenmeier in the final of the 2014 FIFA Interactive World Cup.

© YouTube // talkSPORT

“I want a virtual Champions League”
Dave Bytheway, VFL Wolfsburg FIFA Pro

“We have some players who are really very good at FIFA,” laughs Röttgermann. “Robin Knoche, one of our central defenders, is really good and so are Julian Draxler and Andre Schurrle.”

Dave Bytheway in the new VFL Wolfsburg kit.

© VFL Wolfsburg

With the likes of Man City and West Ham signing FIFA players, the dream is for Wolfsburg and other football clubs to take part in an official tournament. Röttgermann is already in talks with West Ham about streaming a match between their players, but Dave Bytheway (who is from Birmingham) wants to take it further than that.

“I want a virtual Champions League,” he says. “Not only would it be good for the players on a personal level, and the clubs, but it would be good for eSports as it could bring a massive, massive audience of football fans – people who don’t know about eSports.”

Not that young Wolfsburg fans will need converting. While Röttgermann admits that some older fans would probably rather they signed, say, a new midfielder, Bytheway has been welcomed by the fans.

“They’ve all been great – very friendly and very supportive. A lot of people are touchy over things like this happening. You’ll see with West Ham’s FIFA pro Sean Allen, a lot of fans are saying ‘why have we done this?,’ but in Wolfsburg it’s been completely different.

“I did a signing in a museum with Schurrle and Max Arnold and I thought that everyone was just going to get the signatures of the players and walk off, but that wasn’t the case. Quite a lot of people wanted to get my autograph as well, which was a surprise.”

It looks like this is something football fans are going to have to get used to. Wolfsburg were the first professional football club to sign FIFA players, and, according to reports, many more teams are looking to get involved. If FIFA is to take off as an eSport, not only will it need this backing of the clubs, there also needs to be a regular calendar of events.

“A lot of people wanted to get my autograph”
Dave Bytheway

“That’s an issue,” admits Bytheway. “We only have one regular tournament year-in, year-out – the FIFA Interactive World Cup. Now that football teams are getting involved, I’d like to think that it’s going to make other sponsors take notice and recognise the potential. Call of DutyCS:GO and League of Legends tournaments have big backers – because they know they’re going to get the viewers – but the thing is with FIFA is that you’re competing with actual football for viewers.”

That could change, though – EA is looking to invest in eSports, and if there’s one game that can bring eSports to a wider audience, surely it is FIFA. Millions of fans watch their clubs play football, and millions more watch YouTubers like Miniminter, Spencer FC and Wroetoshaw play FIFA. These fans might not be convinced to learn League of Legends’ lore or study the rules of Dota 2, but if their club picks up a FIFA player, they might just cheer him on in a tournament.

You can watch Dave Bytheway and Benedikt Salazar stream FIFA action on Hitbox at 6pm every Thursday.

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07 2016 The Red Bulletin 

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