The UK amateur esports scene has seen rapid growth in the past few years, with the Riot-endorsed League of Legends Official UK Championship (UKLC) kicking off at the start of 2019, offering a ‘Division 1’ for the UK scene.
With teams including academy rosters from industry giants Fnatic and Excel, the tournament also offers an opportunity for home-grown organizations to compete on the international stage, with the tournament fielding teams to compete on behalf of the UK in the international EU Masters tournament.
With household names like Misfit’s Maxlore, Excel’s KaSing, and Origin’s Alphari having emerged from the UK scene in recent years, it is clear that the region holds an abundance of young talent, with hundreds more players entering into minor regional leagues like the UKEL and Forge of Champions.
However, in order for these young players to achieve their dreams of turning a passion into a profession, a huge amount of behind the scenes work and administration is required. For that, organizations need a dedicated team of support staff, willing to dedicate their time to the success of their players.
To get a better understanding of the backbone of the UK scene, and the work that goes into building a brand that can compete with the likes of Fnatic, Level Push caught up with Phelan Gaming’s manager Josh Mulgrew and got the chance to pick his brains on all things UKLC.
Mulgrew, who is studying Ancient History and Politics at the University of Swansea, started his journey into esports in the university scene – going from captain of his university league team to working in an administration position for the NUEL, one of the two major university esports leagues in the UK.
His big break, however, came in working with Irish-owned organization Phelan Gaming, the only team from the Emerald Isle to compete in the UKLC. With a 6th place finish in the Spring Split, the organization has gone from strength to strength over the course of a single year, ending their Summer Split run with a third-place finish, beaten only by the star-studded rosters of Fnatic Rising and Excel UK.
So, first thing’s first – how did you get into esports?
Mulgrew: I came to uni, and in my first year our League of Legends was pretty bad at uni. So was I, but I was keen. I captained one of our teams, and when things in that department collapsed, I tried to help out our other team too, which led to me becoming a League rep in my second year, working with both NSE and NUEL, and now I’m part of the society committee too.
And how would you say University leagues led to your current position at Phelan?
Mulgrew: So having both played and worked admin for NUEL, I also got involved in Belong Arena Clash [a UK-based esports tournament run through independent ‘gaming arenas’].
One of the guys in my University and Clash teams was the old manager, so I first joined as an assistant then moved up to manager, using my organizational experience from the Uni scene.
So NUEL seems like it was pretty impactful for you in getting to where you are currently; how important would you say the uni scene is for UK esports as a whole? There is certainly an element of fun about it, do you think it’s actually helping to develop new talent?
I think it’s incredibly important; it’s a really cool way to get some experience doing a lot of things that you wouldn’t have the chance to do otherwise. Lots of people have gone on from the NUEL to have careers in broadcast, player management, and other support roles, with lots of actual players too.
It is a certain level of fun, but the majority of people aren’t of the highest skill level and interest, so getting people involved at all is good – and top prizes allow the best teams to get something worthwhile for putting the effort in.
What do you think about the professionalism of the UK scene? It’s generally considered to be a lot more ‘grassroots’ than, say, the NA amateur scene because of it’s comparative lack of input from Riot – what’s your take on that?
I think it’s true that the UK scene is fairly underdeveloped compared to most of the European regions, especially in LoL. Riot gives a lot more funding and support to the other leagues in terms of regional level but having competing broadcasts where you have LCK, LPL, LCS, and LEC, all better funded and in English makes differentiating the UK scene more difficult.
However, they have gotten involved really well at the university levels with Realms events and opportunities to be featured on the client along with other promotion, so it’s really a mixed bag.
The UK is a pro league now though, along with Germany, Spain, and France, so that’s definitely a step Riot’s taken to make it more legitimate.
What would you say is an area that needs improving for both UKLC and University scenes?
The UKLC just needs more money – you can’t compete with the academy teams at all or even a lot of the teams from the other top emerging region leagues, so it makes it difficult for those without the budget.
I think the uni scene is in a pretty good place right now, maybe needs a lot more support from each university individually, but NUEL and NSE are doing a good job as tournament organizers.
That answer leads on pretty well to my next question: what do you think about the presence of industry giants like Fnatic and ExCel in lower-tier UK leagues?
I mean, they bring a lot more big name brand potential for sponsors because of their LEC sister teams. That being said, when one player on any of their rosters is paid more than the whole of the rest of the league combined, plus having a gaming house, which is so important, it can make it very difficult to compete.
But, they do bring viewership and sponsorship, so it’s just a case of making sure things like the tower format are changed to even out stream coverage and number of games the teams play.
And my final question: if you could walk into Riot Games’ office and demand a rework for one champion and one champion only, which champ would it be and why?
Irelia. Rework her into the ground.