It is safe to say that David Bytheway earns just a fraction of Wayne Rooney’s £15m-plus annual Manchester United salary. But while Britain’s latest footballing export plies his trade with his thumbs rather than his feet, the future might just belong to him.
“I’m definitely on a very comfortable wage at the moment. And while it doesn’t come close to a footballer’s wage, maybe it’s something that will change,” says Bytheway, 22, from Wolverhampton, who has signed a deal with the German Bundesliga club Wolfsburg to be one of its two official gamers.
As one of the world’s best Fifa players, the swoop for Bytheway by the club known as the Wolves represents what may be a key moment in the evolution of gaming and its interaction with the “real” sports world – not to mention a development that might make parents think twice before ordering their offspring to put away the Xbox towards bedtime.
“Gaming is absolutely massive and it’s just growing each year,” he says, predicting that it will only be a matter of time before clubs in the Premier League follow in the footsteps of Wolfsburg, one of the few European clubs employing professional gamers to don its green and white colours and represent it at tournaments.
For enthusiasts like Bytheway, who has been playing the football game at a professional level since the age of 17, a potential fortune lies ahead.
“Clubs give out contracts to players based on how they value them, so if esports continues to be be a major market and has a lot of value in it for clubs then obviously wages will go up for players as well,” he says.
It is a market that is indeed booming. Electronic Arts (EA), the makers of Fifa, recently announced that more than 23bn minutes of its latest incarnation were played globally, while one recent “conservative scenario” from experts predicted the industry will be valued at 5m (£320m) within two years.
In terms of the number of enthusiasts worldwide, the popularity of sports gaming is on par with sports including swimming and ice hockey. By 2017, the number of fans is expected to come close to that of American football.
It is a trend that Premier League clubs – eager to cultivate their brands to growing audiences in Asia and the Americas – are well aware of, even if they have yet to follow the example of Wolfsburg, a smaller club lacking the resources of larger rivals and which prides itself on innovation and creativity when it comes to fostering new links with fans.
“Our goal is it to create a binding connection between real football and the digital version,” says Klaus Allofs, Wolfsburg’s sporting director. “Fifa is becoming more and more realistic from year to year and it enjoys great resonance among the professional players and fans alike.”
A longstanding partner of the Premier League, EA is a presence in English football on a number of fronts, with an agreement that now incorporates sponsorship of the league’s goal decision system. Other links include the EA player performance index – a statistics system measuring players’ all-round contributions – and the Fantasy Premier League game.
In other ways too, the lines between football and its computer equivalent have been blurring. Data provided to the Premier League on who was playing Fifa online and at what times showed, for example, spikes at half-time during major fixtures such as the Manchester derby. Rather than just putting the kettle on, it seems many fans want to get a virtual piece of the action.
At grassroots level, too, gaming’s impact on the behaviour of young players has not gone unnoticed by coaches, who have seen charges begin to import tricks and skills.
“If a young person is playing Fifa, then it does sometimes happen that they are encouraged to translate tricks and skills over to the playground and ultimately on match day,” said Nick Levett, the FA’s talent identification manager, speaking in a personal capacity.
“We’re seeing a generation now who are familiar with different styles from all over the world, whether it’s tiki-taka or something else, and they can play it on games consoles as opposed to 20 years ago when it might just be match day on television once a week.”
“In some ways, the big bit which I think has been missed is how we can use gamification to set up sessions for kids,” says Levett, who suggests that youngsters can respond even more positively when exercises and drills are presented in gaming language, such as “going from one level to another”.
Back in Wolverhampton, meanwhile, Bytheway is packing his bags as he prepares to head to Wolfsburg. The training regime continues, albeit with one eye on guarding precious knowledge.
“I play about four to six games a day with two practice partners, one in
Malta and one in Canada,” he says. “You can’t really play against too many people though, because then you give your game away.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010