It seems like professional athletes are known to be avid gamers too. Earlier this month, world-renowned football star Paul Pogba 'signed' for Call of Duty: Warzone Season 5's fictional football club Verdansk FC as a marketing campaign for the popular video game.
Meanwhile, local professional footballer Joel Chew is slowly making his mark in the esports scene, having won several competitions this year.
The 20-year-old, who plays for Singapore Premier League (SPL) club Tampines Rovers, first paired up with with professional esports player Amraan Gani to win the FIFA20 Stay and Play Asian series in April.
Three months later, he teamed up with club teammate Haziq Mikhail to emerge victorious in the inaugural eSPL tournament in July.
Prior to those wins, Joel hadn't won an esport competition.
"My best finish was getting third in the 2018 Asian Football Gaming Championship (AFGC)," he told Youth.SG.
"So I never thought I would win these two competitions this year. I went into it without any expectations.
"Of course, credit goes to Amraan and Haziq as well. I couldn't have won without them."
Like any other young football fans, Joel got hooked onto the FIFA videogame at six years old. A fan of Pogba's Manchester United, he would try to emulate his heroes' feats in the virtual world.
He frequented his cousins' place to play the game until he was 13. That was when he finally managed to convince his parents to get him a PlayStation console after his Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE).
Plenty of hours were spent playing FIFA up to the point when he entered Singapore Sports School. Even at the boarding school, Joel dedicated his free time on weekend nights to hone his FIFA skills.
When he started his polytechnic education in 2017, he plucked the courage to join his first competition, which he described as "a standard knockout FIFA competition at Jurong Point". He lost in the first round and that put a dent in his confidence.
Yet, Joel never gave up - a trait that he embodies whenever he steps out onto the football pitch.
He kept trying his luck at smaller-tier events, improving each time, eventually leading to the opportunity to represent Singapore in the 2018 AGFC, where he netted a cool USD$500 for his third-place finish against opponents from Japan and India.
"I guess those two years, 2018 and 2019, were kind of a breakthrough for me. I started getting a lot better and making it further into various competitions," reflected Joel.
For Joel, 2020 felt like a vindication of his efforts to excel in whatever he does. He even got a chance to rub shoulders with English Premier League winner Shinji Okazaki, the Japanese footballer who was part of Leicester City's fairytale triumph, in the FIFA20 Stay and Play Asian series.
Enroute to victory in the competition, Joel won against the Japan representative 4-0. Regretfully, Joel did not get the opportunity to strike up a proper conversation with the star.
"Most of the coordination was done between FAS (Football Association of Singapore) and JFA (Japan Football Association)," he revealed. "I only got cues on when to invite him, what's his username and when to start the game.
"It was an exciting once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. He's still on my friends' list though, so maybe I will invite him for a game sometime again soon!"
Sure, one may argue that the competition wins were not against the top pros in esports. However, Joel is also a FUT (FIFA Ultimate Team) Champion verified player.
That honour comes with attaining 27 out of 30 wins in the FUT Champions Weekend League, where one comes up against the best in the Southeast Asian region. The verified status earns one Global Series points as they can play in online qualifiers for the rest of the season – with the ultimate aim of qualifying for the FIFA eWorld Cup.
Joel, who plays FIFA for about four hours a day, believes there is no magic formula to his success in e-sports.
"Just like the actual football, you just have to practice a lot," said Joel. "You can start off by watching pros that make FIFA videos on YouTube to learn the ins and outs of the meta.
"It doesn't take a lot of skill to be good at this game and it is certainly not that hard to improve to become a better player."
Currently waiting for his National Service (NS) enlistment, Joel is keeping esports as a viable alternative career option should his football career not pan out the way he wants in the future. He has even gotten the approval from his parents, whom he described as stern.
"My parents used to nag at me for playing excessively when I was younger. But now they're pretty supportive because I see how serious I am in it and the results I'm getting," shared Joel.
With esports now growing rapidly around the world, and already recognised as an official sport in the Southeast Asian Games, Joel's parents have in turn become more supportive of his gaming hobby.
Several Singaporean gamers are already turning professionals, and with the Global Esports Federation headquartered in Singapore, perhaps esports can soon be a realistic career.
"I will most likely pursue university studies after my NS. It may depend on what course I go for and its demands, but esports will always be a part of me," he said.
"I know I'm not a person who can excel in a nine-to-five deskbound job. So who knows if my football doesn't excel and the money is there, I guess that's an option I can go for.
For now though, Joel is focused on getting the best out of his actual football journey although there are no news yet on the possible restarting of the SPL.
Now into the second season of his fledgling professional career, the 2017 Dollah Kassim Award winner is looking to build on a solid 2019 campaign where he starred with a stunning long-range shot to help Tampines clinch the Singapore Cup.
"I guess my esports achievements stand out now due to this pandemic, but I really can't wait to get back onto the pitch and remind people of who I really am," he said.
"No matter sports or esports, I always give my best in whatever I do. For now, the dream is still to achieve my goal of playing abroad as a professional footballer."
BANNER AND TEASER PHOTO CREDIT: JOEL CHEW