By Alan Baldwin
LONDON (Reuters) - FIFA's eWorld Cup may not actually involve kicking a ball through any real goalposts but the virtual game is catching up fast with the club professionals.
Random dope tests and the monitoring of betting trends are a new feature of this weekend's tournament in London, while professional coaches and even player agents are becoming a reality.
Some U.S. universities now offer esports scholarships while many of the top players are affiliated with big name European clubs and earning good money. Saturday's eWorld Cup winner will take home $250,000 (192,204.20 pounds).
Jean-Francois Pathy, director of marketing services for world body FIFA, told Reuters on Friday that the trend was set to continue and this year's tournament was 'year one' of a new model.
"On the prize money, I don’t really see a big move in the near future. What is going to change is the sport becoming more professional," he said as group stages came to a conclusion at the 02 Arena.
"The first steps this year were anti-doping measures, gambling and betting monitoring. I think this we are going to develop and get better at."
The players are emerging as personalities in their own rights, watched by a global audience online that is growing rapidly, and doing interviews in a roped-off media mixed zone.
The 32 finalists have had to stand out from a crowd of 20 million who entered worldwide on Xbox and PlayStation, and with an estimated 80 million players of the FIFA game there is plenty of room for growth.
FIFA have worked on football simulation with partners EA Sports since 1994, with the first virtual tournament held a decade later.
In 2016, the winner took home $20,000 -- small change nowadays.
The EA Sports FIFA Twitter feed counts 6.35 million followers, compared to FIFA's 12.1 million.
"The challenge is to find a structure that fits this huge number (of participants). You need to make sure everyone’s got a fair chance at it," said Pathy.
"But yes, we expect growth in the territories we’re in at the moment, we’re not really touching on Asia yet. That’s an area where we need to go to. It will grow for sure, by how much we don’t know yet.
"We’ve seen in the last three years already an enormous jump year-on-year."
Pathy would not give any figures on projected revenues, other than saying the eWorld Cup was "not a money maker right now" but noted that some analysts had for some time presented esports as the next $1 billion industry.
"It’s good to have a structure, it is good to have agents, players, regulations. This year we’ve got a kit regulation for the first time like at the FIFA World Cup where you can put your sponsors but in a very formal way," he said.
"It will replicate the normal football business for sure.
"The last year, or year-and-a-half, we’ve seen a big jump in that respect with clubs and leagues getting involved, sponsorship deals coming in. The media rights will grow as well," he added.
"It is maturing. I think it will become more and more similar to real football, if you call it like that."
Pathy said there were also a lot of misconceptions about gaming.
The reality, he said, was far from any fantasy of pasty-faced teenagers glued to their consoles, rarely surfacing for fresh air and exercise, eating badly and neglecting their studies.
"A lot of the players that you have this weekend here with us are actually very good footballers," he emphasised.
"We work a lot with them and put them on the pitch and they are actually useful players. They know what to do, they understand the game.
"I think there’s a lot of education to do around the image of esports. That’s also our role."
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Pritha Sarkar)