On March 21, Cormac "Doolsta" Dooley was supposed to be at SxSW in Austin, Texas, defending his 2019 eMLS Cup title while representing as Nashville SC's esports athlete. Instead, he was sitting on a chair in his childhood bedroom, playing a two-match series against the Columbus Crew's Graham "SKaMzZ1992" Ellix.
With a pandemic spiraling across the globe and millions of Americans confined to their homes, FIFA streams are as close as we'll get to traditional soccer for some time. So FIFA streams they shall get.
"The fans really want to see Nashville be involved with soccer, albeit if that means esports," Doolsta said. "They want to see me play a bit. [Nashville] are looking at me to push out content since I'm in the best position to produce it."
Did that make him feel more pressure, the entire -- and infant -- Nashville SC soccer operation resting on his deft fingers?
"A tiny bit," he said, laughing.
Winning the two matches by scores of 6-2 and 3-1 took a bit of pressure off. Dominique Badji netted a hat trick, with Hany Mukhtar and ex-Brazil great Ronaldo -- triangle haircut and all -- getting on the scoreboard as well. It was a nice, if strange, little Saturday of soccer.
Doolsta and SKaMzZ1992 weren't alone that weekend. MLS clubs, which have been investing in esports for a couple of years now, are pushing their gamers into the spotlight to try to fill the void.
The March 21 lineup featured three matches in addition to the Nashville vs. Crew doubleheader. While the New England Revolution didn't participate in the action, they did stream their game against Real Salt Lake -- a tough 3-2 loss -- producing a pregame and postgame show, as well as a highlights package. They did the same thing the previous week and had their pro, John "JKO1707" Oliveira, face off against the Chicago Fire's Enrique "TheBITW7" Espinoza in a midweek fixture.
Cathal Conlon, the Revolution's vice president of marketing and community relations, is one of the people tasked with figuring out how and what to give fans in this unprecedented time. The first step was working with league officials and his counterparts on other teams to determine the education angle, to make sure that teams were amplifying the CDC messaging and the public health and safety guidelines to fans, as well as the latest information about the leaguewide moratorium. That effort continues -- Revs players Matt Turner and Carles Gil previously recorded informational PSAs -- but there's also time now to focus on what the Revolution do well: soccer.
"There is a little bit of making it up as you go along," Conlon said. "We had to think about the service we provide to our fans. We're a sports team. Sports have always been a relief and a distraction from the news cycle. We wanted to find a way to provide an outlet for our fans but without doing anything that was disrespectful."
Streaming games and treating them like a real match "was a way for us to do it without having to say 'don't worry about what's going on,'" he said. "At 1:30 on Sunday, you should have been with the Revs, and we're going to give you that opportunity to do so if you want."
The fans responded, and Conlon anticipates that they and other MLS teams will continue to stream games. "What we can do well in this next period [of isolation] is to provide some level of normalcy," he said. "Our fans have already planned out the year. April 4 was next home game. They aren't going to be going to Gillette Stadium, but they can still tune in with a bunch of Revs fans and partake in a Revolution soccer experience."
Around the country and the world, gamers are picking up additional slack. Leyton Orient created a 128-team online tournament and Orlando City is participating. Houston Dynamo midfielder Memo Rodriguez recently played Colorado Rapids midfielder Cole Bassett in FIFA. Giuseppe Guastella, the Los Angeles Galaxy's esports pro, has been working with the Galaxy's content team on some ideas like playing 2v2 against another club. "I am bored at home," he said with a laugh. "I have a wife and my son, but I do just want to play video games. It's my hobby and it makes me forget about things. Our whole goal is to be more fun now. More entertaining, less competition."
For Guastella and other esports stars, the shutdown of the traditional world represents an opportunity to break through to a new audience. "Casual fans who go to soccer events, this is a good time to get them to watch esports and to follow me as well," he said. "I can build my following, educate them on esports and how it works." That means streaming on Twitch or another platform, something he hasn't done a lot but thinks will come naturally by being himself.
At FIFA tournaments, Guastella is all business; on Twitch, he can let his big personality out, interact with fans, have fun and enjoy the environment. In turn, this can provide a vital distraction for fans looking for something to watch and also, potentially, a revenue stream for gamers who have seen opportunities dry up as tournaments were canceled. (The winner of eMLS Cup would have taken home $20,000.)
Doolsta doesn't stream much, but he plans to start doing so more as well. "A lot of guys in the eMLS and FIFA scene who never really have streamed before, they are all starting to stream because they view it as a great opportunity to build their brand," he said. "We know that people are out there, looking for something to watch related to the sport. We can give them that. Compared to other sports, esports have a huge opportunity to grow."
He expects he'll also start doing some crossover events with Nashville players. He's heard that midfielder Mukhtar is decent at FIFA. Doolsta and Mukhtar combining to score a goal with Mukhtar's FIFA avatar sounds like a very spring 2020 story, doesn't it?