Signing up the e-sports stars

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Media captionMeet the Premier League's first e-sports player

I've been spending time this week off my usual beat with one of West Ham United's summer signings. Even diehard fans of the Premier League club may however be unfamiliar with Sean Allen. That's because Sean - also known as Dragonn - has made his name not as the new striker the Hammers need but as a champion player of the Fifa video game.

In May, West Ham became the first Premier League club to sign an e-sports player, followed in July by Manchester City who signed up Kieran "Kez" Brown. Both clubs believe that e-sports are about to take off in a big way and this kind of move will show their fans and the gaming community that they are serious about getting involved.

I met Sean Allen at West Ham's training ground where he watched the first team train, sat in on a press conference given by manager Slaven Bilic, then played a game of Fifa with a star player Cheikhou Kouyate. He won 5-0 by the way…

Image copyright All Sport
Image caption Cheikhou Kouyate lost 5-0 to pro-player Sean Allen when he took him on at the Fifa video game

24-year-old Sean's career path on the way to becoming an e-sports star has not been smooth. He started playing in tournaments when he was 16 and won £500 in the first event he entered. But two years ago, he was on the verge of giving it up: "I decided I was too old at 22, I sold my Xbox," he tells me.

But he kept on plugging away and then this year got a big break, qualifying for the Fifa Interactive World Cup, an event he'd been trying to get into for years. He went to New York for the tournament and ended up in the final, losing narrowly to the Danish champion and coming away with $5000.

That's when West Ham came calling, Having signed for the club, Sean can now devote himself to playing the game full time. I'd assumed he spent all his waking hours in front of his console at his home in Taunton - but he says that isn't always the case.

Image copyright Lionel Bonaventure
Image caption Many games, such as League of Legends, run their own large-scale stream of top tournaments

When a new version comes out each September he does immerse himself in it - "at the start you've got to put in a lot of hours and learn the game inside out, Then I play an unhealthy amount - maybe 10 hours a day." But once he's learnt all the tricks of the new version he says he only plays on tournament days, three or four days a week. Now he's gearing up for Fifa 17, which arrives in September.

West Ham now expects him to represent the club when he plays competitively, and to engage with their own fans who play Fifa. The club has just moved into the Olympic Stadium - now renamed the London Stadium - and its head of digital marketing Karim Virani says it was on the lookout for ways of boosting the West Ham brand: "We are looking at options to engage and interact with our fanbase in new and inventive ways. E-sports is growing crazily - over 250 million people follow it globally."

Image copyright Manchester City FC
Image caption Manchester City signed up pro-esports player Kieran 'Kez' Brown

Looking around the magnificent stadium he tells me he can foresee a day when it is filled with spectators for a video game. In fact that already happens in South Korea, where the final of a League of Legends tournament packed out a stadium in Seoul.

But I'm not quite convinced that football teams looking to cash in on e-sports are backing the right game with Fifa because the real money is being made elsewhere.

Even star players like Sean Allen are only making a relatively modest living from tournament prizes. The winner of the Fifa World Cup, the biggest contest in that game, earned $20,000 but the prize pool for the Dota 2 tournament this year amounted to $20m (£15m).

And while star players of games like Dota 2 and League of Legends attract subscribers in their millions on Twitch, the streaming video service, only a few hundred sign up to follow star Fifa players.

Still, both West Ham and Manchester City have seen a future where e-sports could pack out the Etihad or the London Stadium. Don't be surprised if transfer news in the future includes players whose skills are centred on their thumbs, not their feet.

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