Making an eSports living on a pixelated pitch
Wolfsburg (Germany) (AFP)
With Euro 2016 in full swing, many football fans will be taking to their computer consoles to play out their team's fortunes in France.
But those among the world's elite gamers are now even making a living from playing digital football online in what computer-game and football fans alike would regard as a dream job.
The gaming industry is booming and David Bytheway is a professional gamer signed up to represent Bundesliga side VfL Wolfsburg, the first German club to invest in eSports.
"We recognise eSports as important and we want to be among the leading Bundesliga clubs in this area," explained Wolfsburg's director of sport Klaus Allofs.
"Our goal is to make the connection between real and digital football."
Success on the pixelated pitch is being transformed into real-life signings.
England's Sean Allen, who lost this year's FIFA Interactive World Cup final in New York, was signed by Premier League side West Ham last month.
And Wolfsburg's Bundesliga rivals Schalke 04 announced in May that they have signed a five-strong team of gamers, complete with a coach and analyst, to represent them in eSports.
Bytheway is of the few Englishmen who have played in a World Cup final, albeit on the EA Sports' online game FIFA.
The 22-year-old, who still lives in Wolverhampton in central England, announced himself as one of the world's best by reaching the final of the 2014 FIFA interactive World Cup held in Brazil alongside the real thing.
Bytheway fought his way up from among 1.9 million gamers who competed online to become one of the 20 finalists in Brazil.
But his run ended when he lost 3-1 to Denmark's August Rosenmeier in the final.
- 'Thumbs, fingers and wrists' -
"People keep telling me I'm living the dream, but I just want to keep enjoying it," he told AFP.
"I have been playing competitively since I was 16.
"I'd travelled the world on my own, but flying to Rio to play at an Interactive World Cup was nerve-wracking.
"If someone had told me a few years before that I'd be doing that, I'd have laughed.
"The 2014 final was the day before my 21st birthday, so it wasn't the best present. I'd have rather won it."
But his appearance in the Brazil final put Bytheway on the gaming map and he was signed up by eSports agency Stark, who put him in touch with Wolfsburg.
Having dropped out of university after a year of studying computer science, Bytheway is now the envy of most student gamers by drawing a salary from playing the EA Sports computer game FIFA.
"My training depends on what's coming up," he explained.
"Some people will play 20 games per day, but I don't like doing that.
"I have two players from Canada and Malta, who I play regularly.
"I try to keep my sleeping pattern under control, because most gamers are night owls and it's not always easy.
"I go to the gym every day, I'm vegetarian and try to eat as healthily as possible -- healthy body, healthy mind.
"I avoid all energy drinks, a glass of water does me fine while playing."
Leg injuries are a footballer's curse, while for a gamer, keeping the thumbs, fingers and wrists healthy is a must.
"If you break a wrist, you're out. The biggest risk of injury is through frustration, banging your hand against a table," said Bytheway.
"I smashed a few control pads when I was an angry teenager, but now I'm a lot calmer and see it as £50 ($73, 65 euros) down the drain."
While a typical footballers' career is over at 35, the sky's the limit on the digital pitch.
"Unless I get arthritis in my fingers, I can keep playing on," said Bytheway.
"It will get to the point where reactions will slow, but it's not something I have given too much thought to yet."
- World Cup ambitions -
While the salary of top footballers are discussed in terms of millions, Bytheway says gamers are a long way from that level -- for now.
"It's a comfortable living," he said.
"If I was flipping burgers at McDonald's for 40 hours a week, there wouldn't be too much difference in my wage packet.
"But I think gaming will get to the (salary) level footballers are at now.
"You have to think footballers are paid on how valuable they are to their club.
"The marketability of gamers is going up, so one day they could be paid just as well."
Bytheway has met Wolfsburg players Andre Schuerrle and Maximilian Arnold, but has yet to play the Bundesliga stars on the console.
Having missed out on the Grand Final at both the 2015 and 2016 Interactive World Cups, Bytheway says his focus now is on the 2017 event, then Russia in 2018.
"I want to qualify for Russia and win it, if you are ever happy with finishing second, then you should stop playing," he added.
© 2016 AFP