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We Played a Professional E-Sports Player…and Lost

March 26, 2018, 12:00 AM UTC

Dirty Mike is laying it on thick. Michael LaBelle, a.k.a. “Dirty Mike” or “Hashtag Mike,” a 28-year-old Houston native, is a professional gamer who is among the best in the world at Electronic Arts’ FIFA 18. Right now, he’s destroying me. “Tom’s sweating over there!” LaBelle boasts as we compete in his New Jersey apartment. Our match ends in a shutout: 4–0. It easily “could’ve been a 10-goal thriller,” he says, had he not wished to spare my pride.

LaBelle makes a living competing in dozens of major soccer gaming competitions around the world. He’s also an entertainer with 285,000 YouTube followers who flock to his videos (with nearly 40 million views), seeking advice to improve their skills. But LaBelle’s newest gig may be his most surprising. In January, Major League Soccer’s New York Red Bulls signed him to a professional contract to be the team’s first official “eSports athlete.” In April, LaBelle will compete against top FIFA players representing 18 other MLS teams at the first-ever eMLS Cup. (The “e” stands for e-sports.)

Michael LaBelle in his element at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J.Ben Solomon—Red Bull Content Pool
Ben Solomon—Red Bull Content Pool

The event is the biggest sign yet that pro sports leagues are embracing gaming to better connect with fans. (And make money: E-sports annual revenue is expected to reach $1.1 billion by 2019.) Does that mean LaBelle thinks of himself as a pro athlete? Call him whatever you want, he says: “I’m just happy to see that this has become something.” 

Michael LaBelle

Pro e-sports athlete, New York Red Bulls

LaBelle’s no slouch on the pitch himself. He played Division II college soccer at McMurry University in Texas.

EA Sports immortalized LaBelle’s personal goal celebration, “Le Cirque LaBelle,” in FIFA 14.

LaBelle has played against (and defeated) pro athletes like ex–NFL star Chad “Ochocinco” Johnson.