By Jack Coleman
Last April, I was as surprised as anyone when Munster Rugby decided to get involved in the rapidly expanding world of esports. Sure, lots of traditional sports teams have significant investments in the sphere but a rugby team, especially an Irish rugby team, seemed an unlikely candidate. The majority of sports teams currently involved in the industry are the largest football clubs as well as NFL franchises and NBA teams. Munster was fully committed to their esports offshoot, bringing in big names like former League of Legends European Championships (LEC) players Nubar “Maxlore” Sarafian and Aleksi “H1IVA” Kaikkonen. In order to transition into esports smoothly, Munster partnered with an existing Irish esports organisation, Phelan Gaming.
Unfortunately for Munster, their relationship with Phelan quickly soured. Unknown to the general public and many in the local League of Legends scene, Phelan was actually just licensing the Munster name as opposed to working directly with the organisation. The Munster organisation itself had very little involvement in the day to day operation of the team. Phelan had been operating as, for all intents and purposes, an amateur esports organisation previous to their involvement with Munster. The step-up was clearly too much for the organisation and its owner Ciaran “Wings” Walsh. According to Adam Fitch of Dexerto, the teams’ contracts were riddled with mistakes and did not appear to be written by lawyers and payments were delayed by months as Wings seemed to promise salaries that the organisation simply couldn’t afford. After all this information became public, Munster severed ties with Phelan. Surprisingly, this wasn’t the end for Munster in esports as they reformed the team to compete in the third tier of the United Kingdom’s League ecosystem, the United Kingdom Esports League (UKEL). This time Munster were acting independently.
Enter the subject of our interview, Kevin “Kevaman” Jardim Lalor is a well-known figure in the Irish League of Legends scene. The Dublin man is known for his aggressive playstyle and strong work ethic. When Munster reformed to compete in the UKEL, the organisation acquired two Irish players for their roster, Kevaman and Connor “Goose” O’Brien. Prior to joining Munster, Kevaman competed in the Irish scene. Ireland has a strong grassroots League of Legends community with tournaments being held regularly. I asked Kevaman what interested him in trying his hand at competitive League of Legends in the first place, and what made him make the push to elevate his ambitionsto the wider (and larger) United Kingdom scene: “I’ve always been playing sports competitively from a young age, so once I was introduced to League of Legends it was only a matter of time before I began looking for teams and leagues to play in. Once I began to win Irish tournaments at the grassroots level, I decided it was time to push into the UK scene and luckily that lined up to Munster’s return to the scene. Being pro has always been a dream of mine, and it became a goal near the end of college when I knew I would have the time to drive on”.
I figured getting the call up to play for one of Ireland’s biggest sporting organisations must have been an honour for Kevin, I asked him how he felt getting the call from Munster: “Joining the team felt huge, I watched Munster play in the NLC (Northern League of Legends Championships) and always dreamed of not only making it to that level but playing for them. Once I got wind I would be playing for them a few days before my first UKEL split I was almost starstruck and it pushed me to want to improve even more”. It was a tough start to UKEL life for Munster as the team registered only one victory in their first ten games. However, there were some promising signs for the future as the team managed to win three of their last four games. Though Munster finished last place, they managed to survive relegation with the help of new players Tim “Beartree” Guthrie and Neyas “Raizins” Guruswamy. With Kevaman, Beartree and Goose, there was a solid platform to build on for the next split.
The next split was indeed more positive for Munster as they finished sixth place in the regular season with a record of 6-8, qualifying for playoffs. An impressive playoff run saw Munster defeat the fifth-placed Demise Gaming and fourth-placed X7 Esports before losing out to eventual winners LDN UTD, finishing fourth overall. I asked Kevaman how his experience was playing in the UKEL and if he saw significant improvements in his gameplay: “My UKEL experience had its ups and downs, playing with a lot of rookie players and for a ‘rookie org’, it was evident during our first split. But I trusted the process and we became a top-four team by the end of the year. That was a huge confidence booster for me as a lot of the players in the tournament were quite high ranked and a lot of the organisations had either money or experience. I pushed myself hard during this time and was lucky to have the support of Munster’s infrastructure, as well as my family and friends. This made me significantly better and at the end of the two splits, I felt a cut above what I was before”.
Of course, life outside League of Legends has its own obligations and challenges. While playing for Munster Rugby Gaming in the UKEL, Kevin was also pursuing a degree in computer science from University College Dublin. As a final year student attempting to balance writing a dissertation with my own amateur competitive League pursuits and a personal life myself, I was curious to know how Kevaman handled this balancing act:
“Balancing Munster and final year was a huge task for me and didn’t come easily. It came with a lot of sacrifice in other parts of my life and a lot of understanding from people around me. Dealing with the guilt of playing games while I had a final year project to complete was tough for me but in the end, I got through it with a 2:1 degree and 4th place in the UKEL, which I am immensely proud of”.
The future for Munster is uncertain. There has recently been a shakeup in the Nordic and U.K. League of Legends ecosystem and as a result, teams are being asked to requalify across each tier. Munster has been given an opportunity to qualify for the NLC, the first tier of competition. Kevaman has been named as a substitute on this roster and as a starter for the team’s roster competing in the Winter Cup. As a local player to which the organisation seems committed, I asked Kevaman what he thought of being Munster’s de-facto “franchise player”: “Munster and I share a lot of similar ideologies about sport and we work well together. I would love to continue working with them and I feel that reciprocated back. The biggest thing for me is to make this a career option and in an ideal world that would be with the growth of both Munster and I together”.
The qualifiers for the NLC are shaping up to be very competitive. I enquired what Kevin, as an insider in the organisation, thinks about Munster’s chances of qualification: “From seeing how hard the team is working in such tough circumstances, I feel they show a lot of promise to do well. With all the teams in similar situations, it’s hard to tell where all the teams will end once the dust settles. From my side, however, it’s looking good and I hope the team can qualify for the division one spot”.
Esports is a rapidly growing ecosystem, there are job opportunities everywhere within the industry. As someone who just finished college and is hopeful of a career in the industry, I asked Kevaman if he would recommend young people interested in the space to pursue esports seriously: “I would recommend anyone with a passion for esports in Ireland to pursue it. Our representation is low even with how many talented individuals we have, including people who aren’t players like CrimsonCyclist”. David “CrimsonCyclist” McGarry is a regular in the Irish League of Legends scene, known for handling production matters in the various amateur tournaments that occur. As someone with an avid interest in esports myself, I too would recommend esports fans to at least entertain the idea of working in the industry in some capacity if they have the passion. I wish Kevin the best of luck in his possible career in esports and I’ll be rooting for Munster in both the NLC qualifiers and the Winter League. You can catch Kevin streaming daily on his Twitch Channel at twitch.tv/kevaman1.