Hashtag Mike: 'I'm not playing in this tournament for myself'

Don’t ask Mike “Hashtag Mike” Labelle for a list of accomplishments.

While the FIFA veteran has competed in no fewer than 15 major championships throughout his decorated career, even having his own celebration, the Le Cirque LaBelle, featured in FIFA 2014, it’s hard for the Houston native to praise himself.

“The only reason I don’t talk about it in a lot of depth to people is because it comes off as very arrogant or cocky. It’s a real fine line, from being just proud of your accomplishments and achievements than being too full of yourself,” Labelle said.

While he may not relish talking about himself, it’s hard not to be impressed by Labelle’s credentials. During the peak of his competitive career, which spanned across eight years, Labelle was arguably one of FIFA’s most consistent and dangerous players, qualifying for tournaments all across the globe in what was, at the time, a relatively mundane esports scene. Whether it was the Virgin Gaming Challenge Series (2012 and 2013), World Cyber Games Grand Final (2010, 2011 and 2012), FIFA Interactive World Cup Grand Final (2007 and 2008), or even the EA FIFA National Tour (2013), where he would earn the title of Houston champion, Labelle was front and center in the competitive scene.

What may be more impressive, however, is his continuing determination to reinforce the notion that esports is for people of all walks of life.

The Rise of Mike

A naturally gifted athlete throughout his adolescent years, Labelle first got into competitive gaming in 2007 after his friend introduced him to online gaming. It was an easy transition for the then 17-year-old, who would go on to play Division II soccer in college, to dabble in FIFA, if for nothing else than to help scratch his competitive itch.

With all the wistfulness of an elder statesman, Labelle describes the early competitive scene, where fans would routinely heckle competitors no further than an arms-length away, in a near blissful manner, admitting the difficult conditions would only fuel his competitive fire.

Competing in a plethora of “satellite” events that would often see hundreds of people gather in single-elimination tournaments, Labelle would quickly climb up the rankings of competitive FIFA, qualifying for a number of a large tournaments that would send him all around the world. Despite his success, only the hardcore competitive fans were seemingly aware of the ascending star, thanks mainly to the infancy of esports, and the lack of positive public perception.

It wasn’t until the rise of YouTube and Twitch that Labelle finally began to gain notoriety. But in the process, his competitive performance began to plateau, giving way to a new challenge — that of personal branding and a desire to better the scene for his peers.

“When I first started, I wanted to have an outlet for the competitive scene,” Labelle said. “I knew I put in a lot of leg work, and I knew there were a lot of players that deserved exposure. But there weren’t these massive platforms. I just wanted to keep playing the game, and maybe broadcast to people, ‘Hey this is what can happen in a match, and this is what you need to do.’ And then I transitioned to tips and tutorials from an entertainment perspective.”

It wasn’t easy for Labelle, who admits he would often do upwards of 10 takes for every one minute of video, painstakingly working on his craft in an effort to provide an avenue for others in the competitive scene to prosper.

Slowly but surely, the hard work began to pay off, as Labelle now boasts nearly 250,000 subscribers to his YouTube channel. That number figures to expand thanks to his recent partnership with Hashtag United eSports Club, arguably one of the most prominent organizations within FIFA.

Centered on the merging of traditional soccer and esports, the marriage between Hashtag United and Labelle couldn’t have fit more seamlessly with his goal upon starting his streaming platform.

“When I see them doing football, and also gaming, it’s a great correlation. And of course YouTube, you are building this brand around a lot of different parts — football, esports — but also you are building an image where people can no longer attach this ‘He’s a basement dweller! All he does is sit downstairs and plays games!’ because of course that’s not the case. We are breaking that stereotype that has been around for years and years and years.”

Goals for a Goal

Now thrust back into the competitive spotlight after qualifying for Stage 2 of the FIFA Ultimate Team Championship Series, which takes place Saturday in Vancouver, Labelle still feels like he has something to prove.

“At this point in my career, I’m not only playing in this tournament for myself, but I want to represent my subscribers as well. Because I’ve been out of commission now for a couple of years, I want to come back strong.”

Despite being one of the oldest competitors in the tournament at 27, Labelle figures his experience will only benefit him on the big stage. Relying on what he calls his “three C’s of success: calm, composed and clinical,” Labelle isn’t scared of returning to the bright lights, choosing instead to focus on the positives of the moment.

Winning obviously remains Labelle’s first priority, but the chance to represent Hashtag United eSports and to better his mission to change the stigma around esports remains at the forefront of his mind.

For a man who has watched an esports scene flourish and prosper into a national spectacle, success can’t just be something so simple. It’s a movement that still needs tending, care and focus. Labelle knows that to remove a few weeds, you must first have a gardener. And it appears he’s well on the way to winning in spades.

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