Cormac Dooley has heard the jokes and the potshots about esports being nothing more than competitive video gaming. He has also heard plenty of compliments and well-wishes from his high school classmates at West Chester East who’ve watched the 18-year-old become one of the world’s top competitors in EA Sports’ FIFA soccer series.
Yes, you read that right. “Doolsta,” as Dooley is known in the competitive gaming world, is just 18 years old and still a high school student. He competes in tournaments as the Union’s official eSports player, against other gamers representing other Major League Soccer teams. Last weekend, he won the eMLS Cup championship at the PAX East convention in Boston, and qualified for the U.S. national team that will play in FIFA’s eNations Cup tournament in London April 13 and 14.
That would be enough of a story in and of itself. But Dooley’s story is also about his unusual rise in the gaming world. While some MLS teams hired professional gamers — most notably New York City FC, whose representative, Christopher Holley, has been ranked No. 9 in the world — the Union picked their player through an open tournament last year. More than 100 players participated.
“When I started doing this, it was very awkward,” Dooley said of his newfound fame. “Now I’m kind of getting used to it a bit. ... You have to just roll with it.”
After winning the Union’s tournament, Dooley won preliminary MLS tournaments in January and February. In the eMLS Cup tournament, he beat Holley in the Eastern Conference semifinals on penalty kicks, then beat the Los Angeles Galaxy’s Giuseppe Guastella, another hired player, in a two-game aggregate title round. Dooley took home $15,000, after winning $5,000 in each of the two earlier events.
“Last year, I think I was the only one selected from an open tournament,” he said. “No one really knew who I was, and I think they didn’t really respect me as much because I came up through that way. But I proved this year that even that way, it’s still good players.”
That leads to the inevitable storyline that a Philly guy with a chip on his shoulder beat out big-money pros from New York and Los Angeles, doesn’t it?
“People were saying that,” he said.
He also said, more seriously: “I think a lot of people were impressed with the open tournament, because it’s giving everyone a fair chance that way, whereas teams are hand-picking guys that kind of have more of a bigger reputation.”
Dooley was born in the Philadelphia suburbs to an Irish father and a West Chester-native mother. The family moved to Galway, Ireland when Cormac was just 10 weeks old. He eventually started playing soccer both in real life and in video games. The family returned here in 2016. When the Union announced their open tournament, he decided to give it a shot.
“I think I shocked myself a bit by winning it,” he said.
Dooley also plays actual soccer for a local youth club, and he played for West Chester East. Does playing soccer on a field help when playing it on a screen?
“Yeah it does, in some ways,” he said. “I play as a center midfielder. Center mids are always passing and stuff, so when I play FIFA, I like to play a similar style: pass a lot and keep possession. You learn a few things, definitely, from real-life soccer.”
When he gets back from the eNations Cup, Dooley will face another big subject: whether to go to college or take a gap year and make the most of his gaming success. He has applied to a few schools in the U.S., has already been accepted to one, and is waiting to hear from a few more. He has considered playing college soccer — his high school coach assured him the prize winnings won’t affect his eligibility.
He plans to make a decision toward the end of this month.
“I’m not really sure what I want to do,” he said. “Sometimes I’m leaning toward going to college, and sometimes I’m like, I don’t know. I still have a few more weeks to think about it."
Dooley also has plenty of school work to do. He is diligent about making up for the time he misses.
“Teachers kind of understand my situation. They try to work as well as they can with me,” he said. “Even before eMLS Cup, I was in London for a week. ... It is rough when I come back.”
But his teachers are supportive, and his classmates are, too.