For some, it’s not about the destination. It’s who you can bring with you. Ciaran “Wings” Walsh is the founder and CEO of Phelan Gaming, driving his players, staff, and Irish esports to new heights. Just how far can he go?
There was some confusion on the line the first time that Wings and I began to talk. As you can imagine, players I interview tend to sit behind overused PCs, with their hand on the mouse and their head in the game. But Wings was on his phone, and by the sounds of things, he was in the midst of some commotion.
“Uh—I had a calf born just ten minutes ago,” he said, laughing. “So, I’m really watching him now and making sure he’s getting on with life happy and sound!”
As well as running an organisation which, amongst other endeavours, competes in the UK League Championship, Wings is also a farmer. I’m immediately thrown from my bustling London workplace into the Irish agricultural life, where a bovine birth is just another Thursday.
“Two weeks premature. So, I’m out in the field now. You’ll probably hear the mother roar in a second or something,” he warned, laughing again.
After assuring me that there was no need to reschedule while “nature takes its course”, we continue with the interview. Rampaging cows aside, I can’t help but be a tiny bit envious of the drastic difference in environment between us, a jealousy which Wings does little to dispel.
“It’s lovely. The sun’s beating down, there’s nice birds surrounding me,” he said. “This is where I come to chill out, because there’s actually no internet! Usually, what I do is turn off my phone, come up here—take, usually, half an hour? An hour?—just chill out, clear the head.”
So how does an Irish farmer end up leading a League of Legends team to the top tier of competition in both Ireland and the UK? Coming from a gaming background, it was no surprise that Wings began to develop an interest in League when the game first started taking off.
“I started playing with friends, or friends I’d met through League. Found out, a few months later, I’m not as good as them!” He chuckled. “They kept on moving up, and I kept sinking. But management is always something that’s interested me, so I just took on the role of manager for their team.”
Management is one thing, but to also own the team is another layer of responsibility… and risk. But, as Wings described, he had his own moral reasons for wanting to be the man at the top of the organisation.
“I took on ownership of Phelan because I had seen stuff that I wasn’t happy with,” he explained. “Basically—actions taken towards players, taken towards players’ rights, that made me mad, and I knew that I wouldn’t have 100% control over it unless I owned the team. […] I read about, y’know, where a team can buy a spot in a league and then dump all the players that actually got into the league without a spot. Those, for me, were a big no-no. If you earned it, you play for it, for me. But I knew the only way I could control this was if I owned the team. Because, at the end of the day, if I was a manager, there’d always be someone above me that would have the last word.”
For Wings, that sense of control was vital for what he wanted to achieve with a team. “I wanted to make sure that everything was done the fair way for the players, the staff, and everyone involved.”
Growth in the UKLC
During the Spring Split, Phelan Gaming finished in sixth place in the league, with three wins to their name. They also reached the semifinals of Forge of Champions, where they lost 2:1 to Diabolus. Though they successfully avoided a relegation scrap and remained competitive in matches against some of the top teams, Phelan never really threatened to take a playoffs spot. But for Wings, there were plenty of positives to take.
“It was a learning experience. We set a goal for ourselves to fight for 4th place. We kinda feel we didn’t meet that goal, but honestly we’re really happy with how things turned out. […] We were like, ‘Okay, we’ve used this first split to set our structure, now it’s time to keep building on the structure, keep learning, and most importantly, keep growing, as an org.’ And so, we felt like it was a really good starting point.”
— UKLC – League of Legends (@LVPukLoL) April 30, 2019
Now, with eyes on the upcoming Summer Split, the focus is on moving up.
“We are gonna set the goal of top 5. Because we do feel like we can actually be there, competing with some of the best names in the UK. And we feel like, if we tried to say any lower, we’d be doing the Irish scene a disservice.
“Everyone has backed us throughout. We’re not going to be happy just avoiding relegation next split. We’re going to be setting our goal on improving on the Spring Split.”
It’s evident that a love for Irish esports is at the heart of everything Wings achieves with Phelan. The organisation has created and run the ‘Irish Proving Grounds’, a series of online show matches, to promote fringe players and upcoming talent. They’ve also maintained multiple Irish players on their roster, a principle that is core to their identity. And, even prior to the UKLC, they had built a remarkable pedigree from competing locally.
“We’ve played in the Irish scene for three years, competing in every tournament,” Wings explained. “And we were basically a household name in the Irish scene.”
For Wings, their growing reputation provided a unique opportunity to give something back. “We were always in the finals. So, a lot of people got to know us, of course. We then used that opportunity to get to know everyone, see what they want with the scene, and try to see if we could help to bring it. Because at the end of the day, growing the org was helping the scene to grow. And that was our goal.”
— Phelan Gaming (@PhelanGaming) November 24, 2018
The interview was coming to a close, but before I left Wings to return to the care of a newborn calf, I wanted to gain an insight to his vision of the future. Where did he want to take this project in the next five years? As usual, his aspirations were on a grander scale than simply achieving success on a personal—or team—level.
“I want to show that Ireland, the country itself, that esports is here, and it’s not going away. It’s not a fad for ten years, or five years. Esports is now something that they have to start structuring for, but in five years I want this to [be at a point] where they’re thinking, “Hmm, we need to start planning stadiums, we need to start making events more accessible for our gamers.” That’s the big thing I want to do.
“Of course, I want Phelan and the UKLC to continue growing to a point where everything is in a team facility over in the UK. If it gets to a point where we’re travelling to LAN centres for games, then we’re ready for that as well. And, of course, that means travel for me, but I really wouldn’t care.
“I’ve said it multiple times: I now work an internship, plus do farming, plus work another internship, and own an org. I’m not afraid of work. I’m not afraid of work, I’m not afraid of travelling, and in five years, I’m hoping it will pay off to a point where everyone in the team, whoever is in management at the time, the guys who’ve been helping us with content, I want everyone to benefit from being a Phelan member in five years.
“Hopefully we’ll be able to help dreams come true for us.”
You can follow Wings on his Twitter, and you can watch Phelan Gaming when the 2019 UKLC Summer Split kicks off next month. Make sure you’re ready by following our channel at twitch.tv/lvpuklol. And stay tuned to our Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for more updates and announcements as all the season’s drama unfolds!