Do FIFA and eSports represent the future of football?

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Ajax FIFA 17
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With the FIFA Interactive World Cup and FUT Championship Series more popular than ever, more organised gaming leagues could be around the corner

Have you ever heard of Dani Hagebeuk, Quinten van der Most or Romal Abdi?

I’m guessing you would be surprised to learn that they play for Ajax, Feyenoord and PSV respectively.

Their relative anonymity - for now - is a result of the fact you will never see them on the pitch. Instead, they represent the Netherlands’ three biggest clubs on FIFA 17.

Hagebeuk, Van der Most and Abdi are among 18 gamers in the eDivisie, an eSports league fully sanctioned by the Eredivisie and comprising of exactly the same clubs that make up the real-life league table.

Each club signed up a gamer to represent them, with Hagebeuk winning all 17 of his fixtures in the inaugural season to make Ajax the league’s first champions. Matches are broadcast on YouTube and the streaming platform Twitch, and a weekly highlights and talk show airs on Fox Sports.

It is the first league of its kind in the FIFA world, but it will not be the last.

One of the most progressive and forward-thinking major sports leagues on the planet, the National Basketball Association, is going even bigger than the eDivisie and may offer a glimpse into the future. Seventeen of their teams have signed up to take part in an NBA 2K league that mirrors the actual NBA with a regular season, playoffs and finals.

Whereas FIFA competitions are generally played using the Ultimate Team game mode, where individual gamers assemble teams featuring the best real-life players in the world by participating in what is essentially an online trading-card market, the NBA plans to operate differently.

Each NBA team will sign five gamers to play in cooperation and rather than controlling the virtual LeBron James or Stephen Curry, they will have their own avatars put on the court.

The potential is enormous; the NBA is, in short, dipping its toes into the idea of almost duplicating its entire product and creating a whole new group of stars.

Anyone doubting the appeal of these professional gamers compared to athletes need only glance at the FIFA-oriented YouTube channels with millions of subscribers, or the six and even seven-figure sums being earned by the top players of games such as Defense of the Ancients (DotA), League of Legends and Starcraft.

One report projects eSports revenues reaching $1.5 billion by 2020.

Money can be made in much the same way as traditional sports - through event ticket sales, broadcast rights and sponsorship - but huge companies such as Electronic Arts, who make FIFA, are also incentivised to invest in competitive gaming in order to boost their product.

It would seem to be only a matter of time before a league bigger than the Eredivisie follows in the NBA’s footsteps.

Knowledgeable sources have told Goal that MLS has explored the idea of a FIFA league, with New York City FC becoming the North American top flight’s first club to sign an eSports player earlier this year.

And when Premier League executive chairman Richard Scudamore was asked what league or sport he saw as the biggest threat to the popularity of his competition in 2016, he replied: “I see it wider than that.

“I see gaming, all sorts of digital gaming, I see all sorts of young people spending time on their devices doing all sorts of things to entertain themselves, with social media generally.”

EA Sports has, wisely, already created an international circuit on its own terms.

The FIFA Interactive World Cup - the 2017 edition of which was won on Friday by Spencer Ealing - has been held every year but one since 2004 and has exploded as online play has become the norm, becoming the largest online gaming tournament in the world by participation.

The World Cup is partially fed by another, newer tournament called the FIFA Ultimate Team Championship Series, which the eDivisie champion can reach by going through continental qualifiers.

A network of international competitions, then, is beginning to form but, on a national level, there is something of an organisational and promotional vacuum that actual football leagues and clubs would seem to be the perfect candidates to fill. If they do not, something or someone else will.

FIFA has made great strides in the world of competitive gaming of late but it may only be scratching the surface.

Perhaps in the not too distant future, your best chance of playing for Manchester United or Chelsea will be by picking up a controller.