VfL Wolfsburg has been involved in electronic sports with the help of Volkswagen since 2015. One of the best players: the professional FIFA e-athlete and reigning national coach Benedikt Saltzer.
Electronic sports, or e-sports for short, is booming. For years there has been significant growth in computer and video game competitions. In 2018, the European e-sports market achieved a turnover of around 240 million Euros according to the management consultancy Deloitte. By 2023, it is expected to increase to around 670 million Euros. With a turnover of 70 million Euros, Germany is currently Europe’s largest e-sports market and the soccer game “FIFA” – belonging to games supplier "EA Sports" – is one of the most popular e-sports games.
VfL Wolfsburg ventured into the e-sports sector in 2015
Especially popular in German-speaking countries: the Virtual Bundesliga, VBL for short. An online game mode from the “FIFA” game series, which was launched in 2012 by the German Soccer League and “EA Sports”. Initially, only single players were represented in the VBL, but clubs are now also playing for the German Championship.
How the Virtual Bundesliga* works
Since the 2018/19 season the Virtual Bundesliga (VBL) consists of four parts: the VBL Open, the VBL Club Championship, the VBL Play-offs and the VBL Grand Final.
- The VBL Open is a free in-game mode. Single players choose a Bundesliga team. The 18 players with the best monthly results qualify for the VBL Play-offs. Each gamer has 90 matches available per month.
- In the VBL Club Championship, 22 clubs from the Bundesliga and Second Bundesliga compete with their own teams in a closed league system for the title of VBL Club Champion. Players of the best teams qualify directly for the VBL Grand Final and further players for the VBL Play-offs.
- In the VBL Play-offs, the qualifiers from the VBL Open and VBL Club Championship fight for entry into the VBL Grand Final.
- In the VBL Grand Final, the qualifiers from the VBL Play-offs and the qualified teams from the VBL Club Championship will determine the German Champion. In addition to the title, the winner receives prize money.
*in the 2018/2019 season
In 2015, VfL Wolfsburg became the first Bundesliga club to venture into the e-sports arena in order to represent the club as a whole, representing soccer from a broad holistic standpoint. In addition to men’s soccer, women’s soccer, youth work and various social projects, e-sports – the fastest growing sport in the world – was to become an important field of business for the club both regionally and nationally, accompanied by successes. Today, VfL Wolfsburg is regarded as a pioneer in club e-sports and signed Benedikt “SaLz0r” Saltzer, the first professional FIFA e-athlete, four and a half years ago.
VfL Wolfsburg and e-sports
For VfL Wolfsburg, the professional entry into e-sports in 2015, was not the first encounter with the gaming scene. In November 2013, a Virtual Bundesliga (VBL) tournament was held at the Volkswagen Arena together with “EA Sports”. Thanks to a cooperation with the games manufacturer, several consoles are also available for interested visitors to the VfL Football World. The heart of the Wölfe's e-sports commitment is the VfL GamingZone: in February 2017, a home for all fans of electronic sports was created in Hall09 in the Volkswagen Arena. There, fans of the Wölfe can compete against each other, with controller in-hand, during a “FIFA” match and also compete against the Wolfsburg-E-Players on selected match days. And: With the founding of the Wolves E-Academy in 2018, VfL Wolfsburg has also scouted and supported young professionals in e-sports since 2018. At the first junior event in 2018, the young players had to prove their skills at the controller over several qualification phases in order to qualify for a Grand Final in Wolfsburg. There, the best 16 players fought under the eyes of an expert jury for places in the Wolves E-Academy.
Volkswagen supports e-sports commitment
Thanks to its commitment, the club can also rely on the partnership-based cooperation with Volkswagen. As the main sponsor and shareholder of the club, the Group not only guarantees VfL Wolfsburg a good infrastructure in Wolfsburg with the Volkswagen Arena, but has also organized and hosted e-sports events together with the club – such as the launch event for the new “FIFA 20” edition this September.
“With the help of Volkswagen, we are in a position to carry out this e-sports commitment in the first place,” says Christopher Schielke, Head of “E-Sports and Digital Projects” in the Corporate Development department at VfL Wolfsburg. “A large number of young, enthusiastic fans follow our e-athletes on social channels and play with them here at local events in the Volkswagen Arena – and indeed in large numbers,” says Schielke. “This also convinced the hardliners that e-sports can be an important part of the entire club.”
Volkswagen and VfL Wolfsburg
Since the first day of VfL Wolfsburg, founded in September 1945 from the Volkswagen plant sports club, the Volkswagen Group has been strongly committed to supporting the association. As early as the 1950s, the club played in the highest German league, then the Oberliga. The Wölfe played their first home games on the factory premises. Volkswagen became visible as a jersey sponsor when they returned to the second division in 1992. In addition, it is above all structural help that Volkswagen provides, for example in the provision of management personnel such as managers, a soccer board of directors or a supervisory board. As a 100 percent shareholder of VfL Wolfsburg-Fußball GmbH, the Group is now the main sponsor and jersey sponsor of both the men’s and women’s teams as well as junior teams.
Benedikt "SaLz0r" Saltzer as first professional FIFA-e-athlete of the VfL Wolfsburg
For Benedikt Saltzer, who currently leads the Wolfsburg team under his player name “SaLz0r” together with Dylan “DullenMIKE” Neuhausen and Benedikt “BeneCR7x” Bauer, the commitment to VfL is a matter of passion. “I know the club; I have known the players for so long that I really feel at home here.”
In his e-sports career, the 27-year-old has already won the German championship and the European championship several times. He has also been represented at many international tournaments and at the official World Cup – FIFA eWorld Cup – where he was able to play his way into the top 10 of the world. “I slipped into e-sports about ten years ago and have been playing professionally for about five years.”
E-sports as constant competition at eye level
Benedikt Saltzer is particularly fascinated by the constant competition at eye level in e-sports. The Darmstadt-based athlete sees the biggest difference to real soccer in the physical demands. “Of course, the real soccer pros are constantly on the move, we usually just sit,” says Saltzer. “But e-sports are mentally extremely exhausting. I personally always notice that when we have a tournament that lasts up to ten hours – after that you're just completely exhausted.”
But Benedikt Saltzer has plenty of stamina, he showed that all too clearly in 2019. Since this year, he has not only been active as a professional e-athlete for VfL Wolfsburg. In spring, he was also appointed national coach of the newly founded German eFootball national team by the German Football Association (DFB), which he led as coach through the first FIFA eNations Cup. “A difficult factor as coach is to get the feeling when you give the players instructions outside of the game. And as an e-athlete, it’s extremely difficult to notice that because you’re stuck in a tunnel during the game.”
E-sports will shape the future
Saltzer is convinced: e-sports will continue to develop into a mass phenomenon at VfL Wolfsburg, the DFB and throughout the world. “The Virtual Bundesliga already exists, we had the eNations Cup with the DFB this spring, and now the launch event for the new “FIFA 20” has already taken place here at the Volkswagen Arena as the starting shot for the new season. I’m sure there will be much more to come in the coming years.” The Volkswagen Group, as a 100 percent shareholder of the club, but also with the core brand as a new partner of the national team, which wants to support soccer in all its breadth and diversity, offers the best conditions for this. True to the motto: Because soccer is what we all are.