Millions of kids around the world dream of playing professional soccer when they grow up—but most don’t have to overcome the obstacles faced by 12-year-old Mikey Poulli. 

At a routine eye check-up when he was just seven years old, Poulli was diagnosed with a rare degenerative retinal disorder called rod-cone dystrophy. Specialists thought it would take many years for his sight to deteriorate completely, but within 18 months the young Arsenal fan, who lives in north London with his parents, was totally blind. 

Despite his condition, Mikey was determined to follow his dream, and after being selected by the England national team for special one-to-one training, he’s now been chosen as one of the faces of Urbanball—a new NFT-based, play-to-earn street football game from EX-Sports.  

Streets ahead 

Urbanball, which is scheduled for release in December 2022, is a blockchain-based mobile game in which players collect and use NFT character cards to compete.

Each card is based on one of the world’s best street footballers, with the first drop featuring three UK-based players: Poulli, plus 26-year-old Radheya Marca, who has appeared in adverts for Adidias and represented the country in a global three-v-three tournament run by Brazilian legend Ronaldinho, and 20-year-old Amin Zahhar, who recently won the Urbanball UK Finals held in Dubai.

Marca and Zahhar both triumphed in regional one-v-one tournaments hosted by two-time World Freestyle Champion Séan Garnier, who has two of his own Super Super Rare NFTs included in the initial drop: an SSR version with 45 NFTs and an SSR Flame Edition that’s limited to just 10 NFTs. These initial character cards are available exclusively through the Binance NFT marketplace, with more drops due before the game is launched. EX Sports will host street football tournaments around the world, with the winners getting the opportunity to feature as character cards within the game.

“EX Sports was developed with the aim to support niche sports, staying away from football and others that are already mainstream,” says founder and CEO Toli Makris. “However, we discovered street football is also a niche that has millions of athletes who have been overlooked by football federations and governing bodies.” 

Urbanball is part of this mission to help underdog athletes increase their exposure and tap into revenue streams that would otherwise be out of reach to them. A large percentage of the money generated from sales of the NFTs will go directly to the featured player, with each $50 Mystery Box including either a character or skill card, the latter of which enhances the performance of character cards within the game.

There are three game modes planned for inclusion in Urbanball at launch: 1v1, a turn-based card game in which players have to defeat their human opponents over a number of rounds; Freestyle, in which players can boost their UrbanBallers’ abilities; and Trickshot, which involves completing tricks and hitting targets in order to boost the potential of the player’s skill cards. These include moves such as the Dribble 360, Confuso and two that Garnier himself invented: The Dragon Step and SeanBrero. 

Card owners can also improve the performance of their in-game characters by training them, but the featured players’ real-world performances in Urbanball competitions will also give cardholders a better chance of winning. Owners will also be able to loan their NFTs out, with the rewards being shared by both the recipient and the owner.   

Making goals happen

If it wasn’t for the large, ski mask-style blindfold positioned over Mikey Poulli’s eyes—a condition of playing in blind football matches that ensures all players are on a level playing field—you wouldn’t know he was any different to any other up-and-coming young footballer, such is the accuracy and ferocity with which he strikes the ball. 

There’s a saying in football that good strikers know where the goal is, and Poulli’s Twitter, Instagram, TikTok and YouTube accounts—where he has a combined following of over 65,000 followers—showcase an endless stream of him firing shots into the net.

Scroll through and you’ll also see clips of him pulling off an array of mind-boggling tricks and dribbling past opponents using a specially adapted ball, which makes noise in order to help visually impaired players locate it at their feet. In one, the youngster even cheekily nutmegs Liverpool and England star Trent Alexander-Arnold, while he also ran rings around former Arsenal and Manchester City full-back Bacary Sagna at an Urbanball launch event in Dubai earlier this week.

Poulli’s condition means he’s unlikely to ever play in the Premier League, but he still dreams of representing England one day, and his goal of earning a living through the beautiful game is by no means over, particularly with EX Sports on his team.

The Dubai-based company has a history of helping less well-known athletes—whether they’re muay thai fighters, powerlifters or freestyle footballers—connect with their fans and develop their own personal brands.

Séan Garnier has already teamed up with EX Sports to launch a range of tokenized collectibles, so the fact that he’s back for more with Urbanball speaks volumes—and the revenue generated from Mikey Poulli’s cards could be vital in making his dream come true.

“Through Urbanball we want to raise awareness of rod-cone dystrophy and blind football,” says Mikey’s father, John Poulli. That should help to fund research into the condition and hopefully one day lead to a cure being found. And for Mikey Poulli and others like him to be able to see again would be the biggest prize of them all.

Sponsored post by EX-Sports

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