David Bytheway is one of the first eSport players to get sponsored by a professional club. The gamer from Wolverhampton, England told DW us why he and the club are leading the way in this new sport.
DW: How long have you been doing this?
David Bytheway: Competitively I've been playing since I was 16. But I've been playing games in general all my life, since I was about six or seven, playing Sonic the Hedgehog or Crash Bandicoot. At about 10 I first played FIFA. When I got to 16 it got pretty serious and that's when I started moving up through the ranks.
When did you realize that this was a way that you could make a living?
At first it was just a hobby. I just wanted to beat my friends. Then after I started beating my friends I started looking online for websites that offered leagues and to find out what there was out there. Then I started traveling around the country. My first tournament in Liverpool or London was when I started to think 'There's a lot of money in this - perhaps I could make a living or at least it could be a career path that I can follow.'
So when did you start competing internationally?
My first international competition was in New York. It was the Virgin Challenge Series - a pretty big tournament - but I didn't prepare well for it. I had just turned 18 and had only booked my flights 12 hours in advance. I had to be in London the next morning not even knowing if there was a bus that could have got me there in time. It was pretty hectic. That was my first international tournament. A very stressful one but I learned a lot.
At that stage were you taking part in these competitions on your own?
Yeah I literally jumped on the plane by myself. I spoke to my mum about it and she didn't want me to go. I remember sitting in my room thinking ‘It's New York!' knowing that I only had to win one game to make my money back (for the trip) so I wondered how many chances I would get to go to New York. In the end it was 10 p.m. on the night - with the flight at 10 a.m. the next morning from Heathrow - and I thought 'I'm just going to do it.' I booked the flight and I didn't even know if I could get there in time. It was very hectic.
Did you make your money back?
Yeah, but in the first game I was shaking. I was trying to take the pressure off myself by saying 'If I don't win it's just a holiday to New York. If I win some money then it has been a free trip.' But I won that first game on penalties and I've never been so nervous in my whole life. It was horrible.
eSports are still not that well known in Europe - especially compared to Asia and parts of North America. How hard is it for a player who comes from this part of the world to distinguish himself as a professional?
To be honest, I feel I've joined the scene at the right time because it's growing every year. As you say, in Asia it's 10 times bigger than it is Europe. But in Europe it is getting noticed a lot more. The prize money is increasing and in Germany it's getting so much bigger. Some players in Asia are on insane wages and they're basically celebrities over there. Obviously it's not quite like that over here but I'm still getting a lot of benefits. Especially in the knowledge that it's going to get a lot bigger and better.
Have you ever faced any criticism from people - even friends or family?
You get that a lot. I think generally the older generation struggle to realize that it is a sport. In the past, sports has been associated with physical activity but I think we're getting to the age or generation that that isn't the case anymore. There are a lot of mental sports out there - chess being one of them. There isn't exactly a lot of physical activity in golf or snooker. Generally that's what's a little sad. People are of course entitled to their own opinion but I think it's being accepted a lot more now that it's a sport.
Your arrangement with Wolfsburg is something that has never really existed before. How did that came about?
Well, it's just amazing. My contract isn't directly with Wolfsburg; it's with Stark eSports, who have a relationship with the club. They put all of the players forward to be picked from and they flew me over for a meeting around December and we just spoke about projects and what I felt I could bring to them. We just spoke about little things like that and we were all very happy by the end of it.
For someone who doesn't follow the sport, how would you describe what this sort of sponsorship means to an eSports player?
It's massive. When you're in eSports every sponsor is important - however big or small they are. On a personal level this is absolutely amazing but this is big for the whole scene. This isn't just big for me it's big for everyone. It's a massive step in the right direction. Obviously, in the future we want more clubs to be involved and it's something that I think will definitely happen. Football is a sport that clubs can relate to easily, so with FIFA it's not that difficult to put the case forward. This sponsorship for me is absolutely massive. The promotion I'm getting for it is absolutely insane and I'm just lucky to be a part of it.
I suppose no matter what happens now, you'll always have your name in the history books as one of the first eSports players to do this?
Yeah, exactly. I always try to show initiative. I don't want it to ever get to the point where I just stop playing and go for a normal job. I like to think that I've opened a lot of doors for myself along the way. So when it does get to the point where I think 'I don't want to play anymore,' I'll have a lot of connections so I can pick a career path.
So does this mean you always have to play as Wolfsburg in the game?
No, I don't have to. When I am playing I will use them - because they are a good team on the game - but when I'm playing in a serious competition there are so many rules and regulations. Whether I need to play as an international team, etc. so in that case I can't always go as them.
This interview was conducted by Stefan Bienkowski.