College or FIFA pro gaming? For Cormac 'Doolsta' Dooley, 2019 eMLS Cup champion, it's a difficult decision
WEST CHESTER, Pa. -- There's a video online in which Doolsta shows off an impressive bit of skill on the soccer field. He is just inside his opponent's half when he controls a throw-in with his chest, accelerates past two defenders, then rips a shot from 25 yards out before two others converge on him. The blast beats a sprawling, hopeless goalkeeper, sailing into the upper 90.
It's the kind of move a viewer might expect from an elite FIFA tournament, which Doolsta -- winner of eMLS League Season 1 and Season 2, and a pro gamer for the Philadelphia Union -- competes in regularly. But this video isn't FIFA. It comes from a game during the sophomore season of Doolsta, real name: Cormac Dooley.
Before the teenager's rapid rise in the world of esports, he had aspirations of playing Division I college soccer and possibly going pro. Three of his teammates from his club in Ireland are now professionals, including one who is with a Premier League squad. He might have followed their paths too, were it not for an upset win at the Union eSports Open, which earned him a spot with the MLS team and, from there, unprecedented success in the eMLS league. Today, he is traveling the world, playing FIFA, and trying to decide whether to go to college or take a gap year to, as his ever supportive parents say, "continue to build his brand."
He's also missed a few games with his club soccer team. "Lately it seems like when we have a game, it conflicts with my travel," Dooley said. "I haven't played a real game in a while."
Soccer, the physical kind, has been pushed down the priority list.
At the 2019 eMLS Cup in Boston at the end of March, he was hoping to avenge his 2018 loss to Houston's Guillermo "Kid M3mito" Trevino and cement his status as one of the best players in the league. After easily besting Abraham "FIFA Abe" Valbuena in the Eastern Conference semifinals, Doolsta ran into NYCFC's World No. 9, Christopher "NYC_Chris" Holley. The two battled back and forth, with NYC_Chris taking a one-goal lead on three separate occasions only for the Union player to equalize each time. It took penalties to separate them; they executed 13 successful spot-kicks in a row, before Doolsta saved the 14th attempt and headed to the final.
"It feels good. To win two [seasons of eMLS] is a dream in itself, but to win the big one is huge," Dooley said. "It's all I could have hoped for this year. As soon as the final whistle went, it was like, 'What have I done!'"
Dooley had his eMLS Cup, a $25,000 grand prize, 850 FIFA Global Series Points and a spot representing the United States in the first FIFA eNations Cup.
"It's still a bit overwhelming, to be honest," he added. "Some people clapped for me in a few of my classes at school today."
While Dooley's video game success came quickly, it was by no means ordained. Frankly, it was kind of an accident. He was born in the United States but moved to Ireland with his family when he was 10 weeks old. He played FIFA, starting with the 2006 version that his father, Seamus, had. Dooley said he was better than his friends, but he didn't think himself anything special. In Ireland, his parents didn't let him play video games Sunday through Thursday because he had schoolwork and sports. (In addition to soccer, he excelled at hurling, a brilliant Irish game that is a cross between lacrosse, field hockey and chaos theory.) In 2016, the family moved back to outside of Philadelphia, and his mother, Maureen, loosened the restraints on video games.
"I felt sorry for him," she said. "It's hard moving teenagers a town over, much less a country."
Dooley, with his red hair and Irish accent, played against his friends back in Ireland, as much to remain connected to them as to battle them on the field.
It was one of these friends who told him about the March 2018 competition to become the Union's sponsored eMLS rep. Dooley, then 17, beat out more than 100 players to take the crown. In the final, he upset OvO__6IX, who now plays for Sporting KC.
Dooley's deep run was a dream come true. It also made him late for his job as a busboy at a local pizza place. He couldn't take a break to call his boss, so his mom did it for him. At a loss to explain what, exactly, her son was doing, she pretended he was playing in a non-virtual soccer game and that the bus home had gotten delayed. Things worked out, as they tend to do. (A couple of months later, he would come clean. As it turns out, the boss was a huge FIFA fan and already knew of his employee's success.)
A year later, Dooley is living the life of a high school senior trying to figure out his next chapter, while also flying off to Romania -- "Such a pain," he said, "cheapest flight ever" -- or England or other destinations on the weekends to play video games.
His room at his family's home in suburban Philadelphia features the trappings of a typical teen: an impressive PS4 set up in one corner, a display of hats in another and a dozen pairs of shoes near the door. There's a Union bag, Philadelphia Eagles gear, photos and awards from his soccer and hurling days above his many hurling sticks. Jess, the family's 13-year-old dog, roams about, wandering by the couch where father and son watch Manchester United together. "There's Only One," a David Beckham biography; a signed copy of "Invincible," the Mark Wahlberg movie about an unlikely Eagles star; and World's Greatest Footballers Vol. 1 and 2 lie around in careful haphazardness. His trophies from seasons 1 and 2 of eMLS have a prominent display place.
"There's room for one more trophy in between there," his father said.
Even with his eMLS Cup victory and the FUT Championships looming later in the spring, Dooley is looking further ahead. He has been accepted to a few big state universities and has until May 1 to decide if he wants to go. There's a financial aid pamphlet for one such school on his floor, but playing FIFA and going to school might be hard. In Bucharest, he saw two American pros who also were in school struggle to compete and study for upcoming tests at the same time.
"They had finals literally when they got back," Dooley said. "It was tough. I would definitely go to school if my professors were all right with me missing schoolwork." That, however, seems unlikely, especially since the FIFA season runs concurrently with the school year.
Ultimately, his parents sound open-minded. College will always be there. They are impressed how traveling, being on camera and the responsibilities of representing himself and the Union have matured their son. The hardest part, to them, has been decreasing the time Dooley spends on the field to increase the time he spends on the virtual one.
"Coming over here, I think he really wanted to try the professional route," his father said. "Then this came along. He knows he has to give up soccer if he wants to pursue this. That's a real hard one for him."
Being a pro in video games requires a level of commitment you expect from other athletes. Each weekend, Doolsta needs to play 30 games in the Weekend League to earn rewards and points. There's the eMLS Cup League, the FUT Championship qualifiers and qualification for other tournaments. That's before traveling to any of the events, which can happen a couple of times a month. These are high-stress matches against the best in the world, with thousands of dollars on the line. The tournaments are so exhausting that Dooley's mother said they keep him out of school the day after so he can sleep.
The point is: The better you are, the more time you need to play and the more intense the pressure to perform becomes. Plus, making a real living can require streaming, something which Dooley started experimenting with but hasn't committed to fully.
Dooley admires the ability, both streaming and moneymaking, of F2Tekkz. During qualification for Gfinity Series in London, a lower-level tournament, Dooley turned the camera on himself.
"I was surprised that I was able to qualify while streaming," Dooley said. "I did it again a couple weeks ago, and I didn't play as well. A lot of the eMLS guys are full-time streamers. They have a set schedule, whereas when I come home from school, I like to chill out and relax."
Or, as he did on Tuesday, dip out of school halfway through the day to show a reporter around his house, then head to the Union training ground to play Mark McKenzie in FIFA.
They made an amusing pair: the rising center back and a central midfielder-turned-master gamer. Dooley, picking Juventus, played a possession-based style with an assist from Ronaldo's nearly unstoppable toronado. McKenzie's Liverpool was a bit more frantic. Dooley took an early lead before the real-life Union player equalized, a goal that sent him sprinting across the room. When Dooley scored the game-winner, he smiled and said, "That was my right back, as well. With his left foot." A little smack talk goes a long way. (If Dooley does get into streaming more seriously, he could do worse than bringing the irrepressible, enthusiastic McKenzie on for a cameo.)
The day had to end.
McKenzie went off to recover from training and, perhaps, from the FIFA defeat. "Trent [Alexander-Arnold] was shocking," McKenzie lamented.
Dooley, meanwhile, went home to pack; the next day, he was off to London for Gfinity. A few of his friends from Ireland were coming to watch him compete. He would go 0-3, losing to NYC_Chris in his final group stage match. But he gained experience and continued climbing the ranks of professional gamers.
Battling such a high-level of competition would pay off in Boston, where he beat the eMLS field. His 850 Pro Points vaulted him into the top 20 FIFA players in the world. Like a phenom on the real grass fields who goes from grainy highlight videos to a multi-million-dollar transfer overnight, Doolsta came out of nowhere and has no intention of stopping until everyone knows his name.
It's a path as old as sport, and yet completely new, too. So far, Dooley has walked it well.