From Bedroom to the Bundesliga: Meeting Professional FIFA Player David Bytheway
"DaveBtw" made headlines when Vfl Wolfsburg signed him to represent them in FIFA tournaments. We catch up to discuss the crossover potential of football proper and its virtual counterpart.
The January 2016 transfer window for English football saw plenty of players trade one club for another, for money that'd maybe make a Kardashian blush. Ramires departed Chelsea for Chinese Super League team Jiangsu Suning for an eye-watering £25 million. Andros Townsend left title-chasers Tottenham Hotspur for relegation-destined Newcastle for a hefty £12 million. And Dorset minnows Bournemouth smashed their record transfer fee by slapping ten million quid down on the Molineux pitch before promptly making off with Wolverhampton Wanderers' star striker Benik Afobe.
But this sort of thing happens every transfer window. It's not dramatic anymore. Ten million pounds used to be a lot; now, it can't even buy you a whole Jonjo Shelvey. It falls short of securing you half an Adam Lallana. It's boring. For the most unique story during the latest instalment of our twice-yearly merry-go-round of men with boots kicking a sphere into a massive sack for money moving from place A to place B, you had to step back from real football, and look to FIFA. Not that FIFA. This FIFA. The one you play with your fingers and thumbs, not a bunch of other millionaires that you hate. The video game series. The biggest-selling sports video game series in the world.
"It was amazing," David "DaveBtw" Bytheway tells me, recalling how it felt to be signed by Bundesliga club Vfl Wolfsburg in January 2016, to play FIFA. The 22 year old is an established FIFA pro, having played the game to an exceedingly high level for five years and more and regularly facing off against top opposition; but when he became the second FIFA player to join Wolfsburg, to wear their colours in eSports competitions across the world (and sometimes play as them, too), and the first Englishman to sign such a deal, sections of the British media that'd never previously batted an eyelid at competitive video gaming got their microphones warmed and their lines of enquiry practised.
"The move attracted a bit of attention on Twitter, and it was Squawka who were the first to get in contact for an interview. A couple of weeks later, the BBC got in touch, 5 Live it was, asking to do a radio interview. I went to Birmingham and did the interview, and from there it was just covered everywhere. It got mentioned on Match of the Day, and Newsbeat, and then it exploded."
A few months into his contract with the German club – which guarantees him a "very comfortable wage", albeit someway shy of what a star player on the pitch proper for the club will take home – and Bytheway is settling in nicely. He still spends a lot of his time at home in Wolverhampton, but he makes the journey to the 30,000-capacity Volkswagen Arena on a very regular basis.
"At every home league match the club runs a competition where one of the fans can either play me or its other FIFA player, Benedict ("Salz0r" Salzer, on the books since May 2015). So I'm over there every other home game. So far I've not had any problems with anyone I've come up against."
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That might sound like so much arrogance, attitude ripe to be ripped apart by an underdog in waiting. But Bytheway's earned his place at FIFA's top table, and the right to exude such confidence, through years of dedication (although he started as a Pro Evolution Soccer player, and still uses that game's controller layout), and by very nearly reaching the absolute pinnacle of his chosen profession. Back in 2014, he reached the final of the annual FIFA International World Cup. He came into the tournament seeded sixth, an outside bet for a grand final berth. But, using Germany, he fought through to a closely contested climax, which he ultimately lost 3-1 to Danish player August Rosenmeier's Brazil after taking an early lead. Why Germany, though?
"It's strange for the FIWC, because in the qualifiers they level all the teams out, but in the final tournament they don't. I chose Germany in 2014, at a time when Brazil were the better team, because I tried to think tactically about it. I knew I wasn't going to have the highest seed, but by choosing Germany, who were a great team nonetheless, I'd have a good chance of being able to use them throughout the tournament, because everyone has to pick two teams.
"The rules are that you have 32 people, seeded one to 32, and you all pick two teams. Let's say everyone picks Brazil first – only the top-seeded player gets to use their first-choice team all the time; the lower-seeded player has to use their second-choice team. Obviously, seed number one will then use team number one through the whole tournament, but seed number 32, he'll always be using his second choice team. So, depending on where you are in the seedings, you can make a tactical decision."
A brief recap of the 2014 FIWC finals
Bytheway's second-place finish in 2014 earned him five grand and a neat little trophy to pop on a shelf at home. Inarguably, though, it's his move to Wolfsburg that has been the most important moment in his career so far – and it's a move that he predicted other FIFA players and professional football clubs will engineer for themselves, sooner rather than later. In February, when interviewed for the Guardian, he said that where Wolfsburg led, others would follow, and in early May 2016, English Premier League club West Ham United did just that, signing FIWC 2016 finalist Sean "Dragonn" Allen.
"To be honest, I don't think it was a difficult prediction to make," Bytheway says. "We'll see this domino effect – once one club is 'knocked down', the rest will follow. I don't think it'll be too long before we see multiple clubs doing this. It's going to happen in a flood. In terms of the timeframe, I think it'll be a case of months, not years. By the end of 2016, or even the start of next season, I think we'll see double figures in terms of teams having FIFA professionals.
"However, I don't think it's necessarily an easy move for teams to make – it's still a bit of a risk. These are such professional companies, that they might see the potential but they won't go for it unless they see a way that it can succeed. Anyone can enter any market, but you don't want to do that just to be there – you want to enter the market to succeed in it. And clubs need to be aware of how to do that."
One way to guarantee that it's your shirt and your badge that the top-ranking FIFA pros are wearing is to, basically, sign up the top-ranking FIFA pros. Seems simple enough. But eSports is still finding its feet as a widely accepted side to both the gaming industry and "traditional" competition, "conventional" sport. "The old-school people, the older fans, they still can't see it as a sport," Bytheway acknowledges. "And I think this is what will cause some clubs to hesitate in signing up FIFA players. But when it's clear that this is a serious thing, that worry about upsetting the old-school fans will lessen."
The way I see it, having a FIFA pro or two at your local football club can't hurt in encouraging new fans to your cause. EA's market-leading soccer series is a best seller for a reason: it's massively popular even with gamers who aren't particularly into the kicking for real. Clubs aren't just looking at the digital version of the beautiful game, either, as evidenced by FC Schalke 04 just recently buying a League of Legends team, after Turkish outfit Besikats did the same in 2015. And as video gaming competitions become better organised, and more prominently publicised beyond specialist media, so the idea of attending an eSports event will become as normal as heading to the cinema or a football ground proper. Which should open the floodgates for more teams like Wolfsburg and West Ham to mix virtual balls with size fives that bounce rather better than an Xbox pad.
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Bytheway identifies "xL Poacher", or Sam to his mum, as a British FIFA player that domestic clubs wanting to move into eSports should keep an eye on: "He's at the level where he's just about to hit the top." And as for Bytheway himself, what comes next is FIFA 17, due out in September 2016, and as much competitive play alongside it as he can manage, all the time while wearing the white and green of Wolfsburg.
"I'm already preparing for FIFA 17, in the way I'm playing now. Adapting each year, to each new version, can be difficult. I'm trying to dominate possession, in the hope that'll be rewarded in the next game. And if not, well, I'll just have to change the way I play."
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