Jay Ajayi was a soccer fan long before he was a football player. He brought his love of English power Arsenal from his native London to America when he moved as a 7-year-old, and played the world’s game until he was a junior in high school. He even brought the Super Bowl trophy to Arsenal’s stadium after helping the Eagles win the title in 2018.
Now Ajayi is taking his passion for soccer in a new direction. The 26-year-old running back has agreed a deal with the Union to be the team’s official esports player in MLS-sponsored tournaments of EA Sports’ venerable FIFA soccer franchise.
Ajayi has been a gamer for quite a while, and at times he livestreams his sessions. Back in February 2017, he hosted Chad Johnson at his Miami home, and they put their contest up on YouTube.
“When I’m home, as part of my routine of decompressing and having some peace and time to myself, that includes a lot of FIFA,” he said. “It’s something that was a hobby for me, so an opportunity like this — create a hobby, have fun with it, possibly monetize it as well and invest down the road — all those things made it intriguing for me to try and join this club and take on this challenge.”
It’s been only a few weeks since Ajayi was playing for the Eagles. After not being with an NFL team all year until mid-November, he returned to Philadelphia when Darren Sproles went on injured reserve and Jordan Howard was also hurt. Ajayi spent six weeks on the team and played in three games. He was released on Christmas Eve.
Union chief marketing officer Doug Vosik said the Union reached out to Ajayi first, having decided to see if they could find a current pro athlete who would fit the bill as a gamer. The list wasn’t long, and when Ajayi became available, the Union made their move.
“This is by no means any more important than a MLS Cup, but from a business and marketing sense, this is a great fan engagement opportunity,” Vosik said. “It’s a great auxiliary extension of the league.”
The Eagles’ locker room has many soccer fans, most famously Ajayi and Zach Ertz. Ajayi has met Zach’s wife, Julie, and fellow World Cup star Carli Lloyd, both of whom have been regulars at Eagles events. When Ajayi was with the Dolphins, some of his teammates played indoor soccer to improve their agility.
“There’s a good connection between the two sports, and guys respect that side of the game,” Ajayi said. “It’s been pretty cool to experience that for myself in two different locker rooms.”
Ajayi will start representing the Union when MLS kicks off this year’s tournament series on Friday in Philadelphia. The first event, known as eMLS League One, will be held at Union Transfer, 1026 Spring Garden St. Admission is free, but a reservation through the Union’s website is required. Doors will open at 6 p.m., with the event expected to run until 10.
Last time around, the Union picked their eMLS player through an open contest. Former West Chester East High School student Cormac “Doolsta” Dooley won the spot, and went on to win all three FIFA tournaments MLS sponsored in 2019: League One, League Two and the eMLS Cup. That earned him a trip to London as part of the U.S. team for FIFA’s eNations Cup in late April.
In October, Dooley parlayed his success into a professional gaming contract with MLS expansion team Nashville SC. He’s now a freshman at Temple, and as part of the deal, Nashville gave him a scholarship to pursue a degree in sports management. This week, Dooley will compete against Ajayi in the city that both have called home.