During the off-season, the New York Red Bulls acquired an internationally renowned player: Mike LaBelle, who played striker at McMurry University in Abilene, Texas. The 6-foot-1 Houston native was being courted by many teams — including European clubs — but ultimately chose New York and relocated to Jersey City, NJ, in December.
But the 28-year-old won’t actually be taking the field when the season kicks off in March.
LaBelle’s contract with the soccer team is to play “FIFA 18,” the massively popular video game. This past Friday, Major League Soccer announced it was forming a “FIFA” league with each team picking up their own star competitor to represent them in the race for the eMLS Cup, which will take place in April. Winners will have a chance to qualify for FIFA eWorld Cup in August.
LaBelle is part of the new frontier of professional sports: video gamers. Last year, the NBA announced an e-sports league for “NBA 2K” with 17 franchises fielding a squad. In addition, basketball teams including the Sixers have bought high-profile teams for a separate tournament involving “League of Legends” — a video game with fans so rabid, they fill arenas.
“I’m looking forward to the competition. That’s why I got into the gaming world,” said LaBelle, who has over 285,000 subscribers on YouTube and 70,000 on Twitch, a platform used by gamers.
Despite not being physically out on the field, LaBelle keeps in shape with soccer, hoops and a gym routine. He also now has access to the Red Bulls’ training facilities, including doctors, trainers and nutritionists, at the club’s Harrison, NJ, arena.
“I think it’s a misconception that people have, that [gamers] only eat Hot Pockets and don’t leave the house for days,” he said.
LaBelle even has all the trappings of an elite professional athlete: He’s played in front of a crowd of 35,000 in South Korea, is recognized by fans on the street and is dating a former Houston Texans cheerleader.
Not bad for a guy who has never held a 9-to-5 job. Since the age of 17, LaBelle has earned a living from video-game tournaments and YouTube tutorials. He started playing “FIFA” in 2004 as a high schooler in the suburbs of Houston, and soon started gaming online, taking on challengers around the world.
“I kept telling my parents, ‘Hey, I am really good at this.’ Like any normal parents, they were like, ‘Go read some books and get ready for college,’ ” he said of his dad, who works in construction, and mom, a retired teacher. Throughout his early playing years, he said, “[my mom] kept saying, ‘Wait, someone is going to pay you to play a video game?!’ ”
(Neither the Red Bulls nor LaBelle would comment on his compensation or contract length, but LaBelle, who moved to New Jersey with his girlfriend, said: “It’s a real amount of money.” )
In 2005, he started playing competitively and by the next year had qualified for the FIFA eWorld Cup in Amsterdam. Since then, he’s taken part in tournaments in Brazil, Spain, England, Chile and China.
“Real” athletes even want to challenge him at his own sport.