Each year, in the final moments of the summer, there is the usual scramble by football clubs up and down the country to secure players before the summer transfer window closes.
But this year there has been a sudden rise in a new breed of professional football player, who are being signed up to some of the biggest football teams across the world, without ever even strapping on a pair of boots. They join the realm of top flight football without ever physically kicking a ball for their respective clubs. These players are top flight eSport footballers and their game is FIFA.
With the phenomenal rise of eSports it was only a matter of time before football clubs came a calling for a new breed of football player. Premier League clubs such as Manchester City and West Ham have started the movement by signing up players in the UK while German club Wolfsburg and Portugal’s Sporting Lisbon were the first two continental clubs to sign eSports players.
Sean Allen, an eSports player who signed for West Ham United earlier this year, has even been given a squad number and is paid to train for up to 10 hours a day to prepare for the new season for the east London team.
Even a former winner of FIFA’s Puskas Award for best goal has hung up his boots for a career in eSports. Granted, Wendell Lira, a 27-year-old Brazilian, quit due to a run of serious injuries and only played 4 professional games in 2016 for the side Vila Nova, but that’s not to say he doesn’t have what it takes to reach the heights in a different footballing arena. Most recently he proved his credentials by playing against the FIFA Interactive World Cup 2015 winner, Abdulaziz Alshehri, resulting in a shock 6-1 victory.
For professionals in their latter years, perhaps eSports could offer an alternative career once they hang up their boots. As Wendell Lira showed, professional players could have the edge when it comes to eSports due to their ‘football brain’ allowing them to see the game in a different way to you or me. An example of a player who could turn his hand to eSports if he so wished is Italian playmaker and bearded legend, Andrea Pirlo. He is so obsessed with FIFA and PlayStation that he confessed his love for playing the game in his autobiography. Pirlo’s devotion to FIFA lead to him playing against his Italian team mate Alassandro Nesta, just hours before he went on to win the World Cup in 2006. If his incredible skill on the pitch could easily transfer to the small screen, who’s to say he couldn’t also reach the top of the eSport profession, if he wished to do so?
Currently, the biggest prizes in eSports are reserved for MOBA and FPS games. DOTA2 tops the list with a prize pool of over $20,000,000 in its 2016 tournament “The International”. Top of the FPS list is Halo 5: Guardians, closely followed by Call of Duty: Black Ops III at $2,000,000. FIFA doesn’t even make the top 100 at this time, but with the might of the Premier League, the world’s most popular football league, behind it the popularity could spiral. And not only amongst the eSports crowd, which currently consists mostly of gamers. The likes of Manchester City bring with them a worldwide fanbase of millions, and a very different demographic which could see a massive boom in popularity if marketed right. Once the popularity grows, new sponsors come on board, and with them comes prize money!
The eSports industry is in a very interesting place right now. Companies like Activision are putting a lot of time into promoting their games through high-profile tournaments, and video games in general are becoming much more socially accepted. Now that more mainstream games like FIFA are taking an interest, with everything football brings with it, who knows what the future could hold?