The footballer who makes more money playing video games
- 12 January 2017
- From the section Business
Former Brazilian footballer Wendell Lira will never forget the day he beat Lionel Messi.
It was a split second in front of the goalkeeper in a match in Brazil's lower league that changed Lira's life forever.
Only 342 people were in the stadium that night for Goianesia v Atletico Goianiense, but Lira's superb goal captured on video travelled the world and became a hit, winning 2015's Fifa Puskas Award for the most beautiful goal scored in 2015.
Lira was soon hired by a bigger football club and his career seemed on the rise.
But in a turn of events he decided to retire from the sport at the age of 27, and is now playing video games instead.
Even more surprisingly, he is making more money as an e-athlete than he ever did as a real footballer.
"I always dreamed of making a living as a video game player, but I never thought it would come true. But it did," he says.
During a side event at the Fifa Award ceremony in Switzerland, footballers were challenged to play a match of EA Sports' Fifa game against the world champion.
Most players, like Cristiano Ronaldo and Messi, declined the offer. But Lira thought he had nothing to lose. To his own surprise, he beat the world champion 6-1.
Before the award, he had become disenchanted with his own profession. Players in Brazil's top leagues can get good salaries and become millionaires if they are spotted by rich European clubs.
But in the Brazilian lower leagues life is hard.
Lira spent the last few years earning 3,000 reais ($880; £700) per month in the weeks that he could find work. Some years he spent up to seven months unemployed. He had four serious injuries in his career.
He had even retired from football and was working in his mother's restaurant when he got an invitation from Goianesia and decided to give the sport one last go.
The goal he scored for the team earned him plaudits and fame. But just a few weeks after the glitz and glamour faded, he was again playing for a small club and suffering from all the same old problems - and having trouble paying his bills.
"People think that because I was a Puskas winner I had a huge salary. It was never the case."
But his good performance in the e-sport match in Switzerland did not go unnoticed. A sports marketing firm in the southern town of Porto Alegre saw potential in Wendell Lira and offered him a five-year contract as an e-athlete.
He now makes money by playing in championships, hosting a YouTube channel with tips for players and selling sponsorship for his online programme.
His channel has almost 250,000 subscribers and millions of views, and Lira says he is making well above his old salary.
Brazil is one of the fastest growing markets for gaming in the world. A report by the consultancy Newzoo says Latin America is the second fastest growing region in electronic game revenues, after South East Asia.
The region has 110 million gamers who spent $4.1bn in 2016 - some 20% more than the previous year.
And video games are not only an entertainment option for players - people are now watching them in stadiums and on television too.
Last year, more than 10,000 people attended the League of Legends final in a football stadium in Sao Paulo.
The country's top TV sports channel is now broadcasting some tournaments live.
Now traditional football clubs are looking for ways to cash in.
Santos, the club that made Pele famous, has recently gone into partnership with an e-sports firm to sponsor teams. It now has e-athletes playing Rainbow Six and Counter Strike.
Its marketing department fears that young audiences are flocking more to video games rather than to football clubs, and that they need to reach out to them in this new environment.
Bruno Andrade, who manages the Santos Dexterity e-sports team, says it is a hard task to run the business. Money is still scarce - funding comes through cash prizes, online channels or sponsorship.
Another challenge is to manage teenagers in a career that is not well-established yet. Santos Football Club provided its e-sports arm with a psychologist.
"Many people still don't understand that this could be a lasting career and they need professional help to guide them," says Andrade.
Staying in the game
Some top stars in the game are playing full-time and making six-figure sums.
Brazil's top e-athlete, Gabriel "Kami" Bohm, is reportedly worth 1 million reais ($290,000; £230,000).
There are teams that train and live together under one roof.
But these are still rare cases. Most players are still struggling to make ends meet.
Wendell Lira says his routine is very hard - he trains several hours every day to win cash prizes in online tournaments and stay relevant on YouTube.
But, he says, it is still much easier than the gruelling world of football - where he had to deal with physical pain and long trips.