Wolfsburg completed several attention-grabbing transfers last summer, underlining their ambition to establish the club at the pinnacle of German football. Among those putting pen to paper were former Brazilian international Dante from Bayern Munich, Germany striker Max Kruse from Borussia Monchengladbach and Schalke’s world champion Julian Draxler. Yet amid all these stellar signings, one name left the experts scratching their heads: Benedikt Saltzer.
Instead of bolstering the Wolves’ attacking or defensive ranks, the 23-year-old is something of a team in his own right, tasked with representing the green and white of last season’s Bundesliga runners-up as a professional EA Sports FIFA 16 player. The Lower Saxony club has broken new ground in the process, becoming the first professional side to enlist the services of a console gamer.
Despite this surprising turn of events, this decision was by no means made on the spur of the moment, as the man with the player name of 'SaLz0r' explained in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com: “VfL had already been fascinated by and interested in the concept of eSports for some time,” he revealed. “I’m delighted that we were able to come an agreement and enable me to play for Wolfsburg.”
The untapped potential in the gaming world is further reinforced by the fact that two million players worldwide took part in the qualifying competition for the FIFA Interactive World Cup 2016. Officials at Wolfsburg recognised this and are now leading the charge into this new arena, said Saltzer, who was first introduced to eSports about nine years ago after his friends became tired of constantly losing to him. “There’s a huge eSports community,” he explained, “and it’s even more advanced in markets like Asia and America, where eSports is already recognised as a sport. Over there million watch tournaments from home via live streams.”
When asked what this new collaboration actually means, Saltzer replied: “I receive support with everything from equipment to making sure that I have ideal training conditions at home. That might mean a new gamepad or a chair to make matches more comfortable for me.”
— Benedikt Saltzer (@VfL_SaLz0r) 12. Oktober 2015
In return, the teaching student competes at tournaments such as the ‘Virtual Bundesliga’ in a Wolfsburg shirt and with their team, making the arrangement a win-win situation for both parties. “FIFA is getting more realistic with each passing year and is also very popular with our fans,” the club’s general manager Klaus Allofs told FIFA.com. “We’re reaching young supporters in particular with eSports, and we’re delighted about that. We want to use our ever increasing commitment in this area to bring these two worlds even closer together in future.”
The opportunities do not end there. As a striker in the seventh tier of real-life German football, Saltzer has already reflected on how the virtual version of the beautiful game can help to improve a player’s tactical awareness. “A computer’s artificial intelligence makes practically no mistakes if you set it up correctly,” he said. “Defenders move phenomenally well and really close down the space. With this in mind, real footballers could analyse a FIFA match to see how its defensive players move.”
Aiming for the Grand Final
Meanwhile 'SaLz0r', who compares his own playing style to that of Mario Gomez, is seeking to take a leaf out of the Wolves’ book by aiming high. Despite winning three German championships and one European championship, one particularly special triumph still eludes him: a place at the FIWC. “When it comes to playing FIFA, it’s the biggest and most prestigious tournament of all, so I’m trying to qualify for it,” he explained, before adding: “I much prefer offline qualifying competitions.”
Daniel Butenko was among the gamers to reach the FIWC in Munich via one of these live events last year. As the pair are already good friends, Saltzer followed the young German’s performances with great interest. “He’s at a very high level in terms of skill. He’s still a very young guy and you can tell from his playing style that he was a little lacking in experience at the FIWC.”
The trainee teacher believes Butenko “will soon put in a good FIFA performance”. He may even become the next gamer to sign a contract with a Bundesliga club; after all, the Wolfsburg man is sure that “FIFA eSports will get even bigger in Germany". "I can imagine another two or three teams taking this step in 2016,” he added.
If Saltzer is proved correct, football clubs will soon be battling it out for titles on consoles as well as on the pitch. The race for virtual supremacy is on, and Wolfsburg have given themselves a head start. Only last week the Wolves announced the signing of FIWC 2014 runner-up David 'DaveBtw' Bytheway – another spectacular transfer that means they can now sit back and wait for other professional sides to follow suit.