23-year-old David Bytheway became the first British esports player to be signed by a football club when he joined Wolfsburg back in 2015. We ask the British Esports FIFA game adviser him what it takes to be a pro FIFA player, what his plans are for this year and his thoughts on football clubs taking esports seriously…
How did you get into FIFA and esports?
I started playing FIFA and games in general in 2008. It was really FIFA 09 that got me gripped.
At the time I didn’t really know what esports was or that it existed. At the time I was just playing because I enjoyed it and I wanted to beat my friends. As soon as I started beating my friends, I then started to realise how good I was. From there I started looking online for new challenges – leagues and ladders to test myself.
I remember the exact time that I realised just how good I was. I went to this ladder where there were around 500 people, they had a matchmaking system where you had no idea who the other person was until you accepted the game and at that point you couldn’t cancel, to avoid people fixing games. So I went into my first game and accepted the match and got the guy who was first on the ladder. He was on a 47-win streak and I ended up winning 3-0.
I was like ‘this is insane’! It was really through the Gamebattles website that I was introduced to the world of esports and the offline events.
So I stuck around that website for a while, met a couple of good people, and then there was this tournament coming up in Liverpool. It was the first EGL – or ECL as it was called at the time.
That was my first ever event playing FIFA 10. I think I finished in the top eight, which obviously looking back was a good achievement, but at the time I was absolutely furious with myself.
I was furious at my performance, but being in that environment with all the pressure and all the people competing, it was a whole new world for me and ever since that day I’ve been hooked on it. I’ve probably been to hundreds of events and I’ve loved every single one of them.
What was it like to be the first British esports player signed by a football club?
I was the first British player to be signed to a football team but Wolfsburg already had two German players already. It’s always crossed my mind that in the past around FIFA 12 and 13, I was always thinking, wouldn’t it be nice if I could represent a football team and there was a virtual league? I’m a Wolves fan and i was always thinking I’d love to represent Wolves and be in the Premiership with them.
This all came from the FIFA Interactive World Cup 2014. It had over two million participants and they narrowed it down to the top 32 and the finals were in Rio De Janeiro. I lost in the final but afterwards I got a lot of attention.
At the time I wasn’t in a pro team just because i didn’t feel like I needed to. I had left TCM at the time and a friend said to me that a German organisation would like to speak to me. I was always wary about speaking to new teams and new agencies. I have been around esports for a long time and i know how sometimes new teams can struggle a bit to fulfil their promises, it’s happened to me a few times, but I spoke to these German guys. They mentioned nothing about football clubs they were just saying ‘we have some big projects, we want to do this and want to help you’.
I liked what I heard from them so I joined. It was few months later that they were working with Wolfsburg and had signed two German players. I was thinking that was amazing and at the time I wasn’t thinking that I would be with Wolfsburg. I was thinking that the next step is to try and get an English team for me, but later that year I got a phone call saying “Wolfsburg want you, they want another player and they want it to be an international player. We want to fly you out to Wolfsburg to meet them and let’s just see how it goes”.
A few days after the phone call I flew over to Germany, they gave me a tour of the grounds, they gave me a signed shirt and we had some really positive talks. The day after, we knew that it had gone well and that both parties had agreed on a deal, we just had to wait to sign everything and it was a few months later when it was announced.
My life has changed so much since then. It was an amazing project to be a part of and I didn’t realise i’d be so directly involved with football clubs like I am.
“People want to represent a team or an organisation so badly that they will all jump at the first offer and that’s not the right thing to do. You’ve got to wait for the one which you genuinely think will work for you. Don’t do it because you’re gonna get a better jersey. You’ve got to do your research and make sure you’re going to benefit from it.”
Are you based in Germany now?
I still live in Wolverhampton. I have been to Wolfsburg many times for events and the such. But the thing is, most of the events they do in Wolfsburg will be with the German media, so it doesn’t always make sense for me to be there as they have two German players.
A lot of the stuff I do is talking to media in the UK, for example I was at the Telegraph Business of Sport conference, where I met [British Esports founder] Chester King. I’ve been to Soccer X and various other things. Those are a lot of things I do, in addition to playing the game.
I haven’t been to Wolfsburg in a while, but if they need me for something and there is international media there, I will go.
What’s the story behind your name? Do people call you Dave or David?
I get asked if ‘Bytheway’ is really my surname at least twice a day. I find it funny every time to be honest! You wouldn’t believe how many people think there’s an L in there, pronouncing my name as David Blythe-way.
That’s why I kept my gamer handle as Davebtw.
At home I’m David, because my dad is Dave, it’s confusing as we have the same name. I get called Dave by my friends.
What do you think about the number of football clubs getting involved with esports?
When Wolfsburg got involved we needed more clubs to get involved, if it was just Wolfsburg it wouldn’t work, whereas when other teams are involved you can show matches and it opens up a whole new realm of possibilities. That’s really what we were going for.
Some clubs are doing it for publicity. I think the good thing about Wolfsburg is they didn’t go directly to the players – they went to the agency first. The agency have such a good team of people who know esports and know everything about it. So they are advising Wolfsburg on what to do what to say, and a good thing is Wolfsburg know it’s in their best interest to have us growing as players and fan bases. Some clubs are there just because esports is a buzzword for them, it looks good for them to be involved.
The likes of PSG and Schalke are investing quite a bit in other games [like League of Legends] whereas others are just going to FIFA because it might be easier for them.
What advice would you give to new FIFA players, in terms of doing their research and being approached by agencies?
I always try and get along with every player I meet. There’s a British guy in the Ultimate Team Championships called Shaun “xShellzz” Springette, he finished second in the World Championships and it was his first ever year playing competitively. He had Paris in January that was his first ever FIFA event. Through that he qualified for Berlin. Only four people out of 32 did, and then in Berlin he ended up coming runner up with $80,000 and it’s a completely new world for him. He has offers coming out of his ears now.
I spoke to him a little bit and said: “Look just, whatever you do, don’t rush into anything.”
Because I think people make that mistake in esports, people want to represent a team or an organisation so badly that they will all jump at the first offer and that’s not the right thing to do. You’ve got to wait for the one which you genuinely think will work for you. Don’t do it because you’re gonna get a better jersey. You’ve got to do your research and make sure you’re going to benefit from it. And it’s not just you being able to say you represent a team, I don’t think that’s worth it.
What do you think of the $1m+ EA Sports tournament and the increased $300,000 prize pool in the Interactive World Cup?
I’ve been with FIFA for so long that I’ve seen it at its peak and I’ve seen it at its worst. We used to have the Virgin Challenge Series, that ran for two years and had a $400,000 prize pool. It was split so broadly that you basically got $700 for showing up and first place got $160,000.
I did that for two years and it was amazing, but the thing is with FIFA, other than the Interactive World Cup that is the only tournament which we know we are gonna get year after year.
Then you look at the $20,000 [last year’s World Cup top prize] and you think that’s a lot, but in the grand scheme of things it’s barely anything. So I do think it’s good that the prize pool has been raised and by so much as well.
There is so much money in it this year and they are tournaments hosted by EA – we know the commitment they’ve put into it. We know we are going to get these tournaments year after year. I think FIFA is peaking again!
“I would say around 90% of players would rather blame the game than themselves. And that’s where a lot of players go wrong. You really need to learn from your mistakes and watch your games back – it’s so important.”
What are you doing at the moment and what are your goals for this year?
To be honest I’ve struggled this year in FIFA – I’ve been working full time in London so I just didn’t have the time to play. So I fell quite a bit behind the standard that you need to be a competitive player. I’ve been working hard to get that back and I know that FIFA 18 before I am back at that level. My plan is to play 17 as much as I can and practice with my two teammates.
I’m hoping that after going hard for the first month along with the work I’m putting in now, I will be back at that top level again. It’s a lot about not letting yourself drop.
This year I definitely let myself drop which I’m disappointed in, but it was one of those things where I was working and I had to choose between the two. And because I’m 23 now, I’m sort of missing that age range. I’m still probably considered an old gamer at 23.
So I’m just trying to open as many doors as I can so that when I stop playing, there will still be a career path for me in this line of work as opposed to just doing something different and these years being for nothing. That’s why I’m working in these events. I’ve gained a lot of experience there this past year and I’m happy with my progress but I do still feel disappointed that my level of play has dropped.
Are you contracted and salaried to Wolfsburg? What is your other job?
I am paid by Wolfsburg but the job I was offered in London was a start up company – and the experience I was going to get there was amazing. It was one of those jobs that doesn’t come along too often. I was working in their marketing team, which was a new experience for me to sort of see what that line of work was like.
Wolfsburg did allow me to do it. I did play as much FIFA as I could and I did as many events as I could along the way. I tried to balance the two. But it dawned on me that I need to get back to that level at FIFA or this just isn’t going to work out.
How much training do you put in when you are at your peak? League of Legends players practice a lot each day.
Yeah, League of Legends players are on another level when it comes to practice. The thing is with FIFA we aren’t quite at that level yet.
FIFA is about maintaining where you are and there can be such big gaps in between tournaments. When there are no tournaments in sight you play to keep yourself fresh and not to get too rusty. So you play two or three games against other top players a day.
But if there is a tournament coming up that’s when you really sort of put the time in. If there is a tournament in say two or three weeks time you want to get at least 15 or 20 games in a day. It’s one of these things where it’s all down to player preference. But you need to be careful as you can burn out on FIFA so easily!
Obviously you want to play as much as possible to get the practice in, but you need to make sure you don’t burn out. I’ve done it before where I’ve been absolutely hammering the game for days and days before a tournament and then when you get there you realise you are absolutely burnt out and can barely remember how to play.
Sometimes playing those two or three extra games is not beneficial to you. You need that break to refresh your mind and if you don’t let yourself do that it can harm your performance, it’s something I struggled with in the past.
When it happened to me I realised straight away what was wrong. So what I started to do was play a lot in the lead up to an event, but the day before I would always leave it so that I could take a breather and regroup. I would go over in my mind what I’d learned and how I had improved but I wouldn’t touch the game. Then when I got to the event I’d be fine.
What advice would you give to aspiring professionals?
Specifically with FIFA, it’s a game that can get you wound up pretty easily. There’s a lot of luck in FIFA. It can go either way. In things like the Weekend League, to be in the top 100 for PlayStation you’d need to win 38 games, you can only lose two, and in FIFA it’s really hard to do that. You see people who win all 40 games every now and then, I’ve had one of those weekends and that was luck.
In a normal weekend you will probably have one of those games where you play terribly or the opponent is better than you but you still won. And then the next game you’ll play your absolute best and then lose to a scrappy goal. That usually puts people off and they don’t want to play anymore.
What you’ve got to do in that situation is just learn from it. There’s a player called Tass who is probably the best in the UK right now, he plays for Hashtag United. He lost in Berlin even though he was the favourite to win and he said in an interview afterwards: “Not enough FIFA players do this, but I’m going to go watch my games back and see where I went wrong and learn from it.”
Unfortunately he is right and not a lot of players do that, they’d rather blame the game than themselves. I would say around 90% of players would rather blame the game than themselves. And that’s where a lot of players go wrong.
What I’ll try and do is record the game and I’ll go do something else. I’ll come back and watch it later and be like: “Oh okay that’s where I’ve gone wrong. I should do this better.”
You really need to learn from your mistakes and watch your games back it’s so important.
Interview by Dominic Sacco, editing by Ryan McVean