Long before winning Call of Duty tournaments as "MadCat," Dylan Daly's upbringing was punctuated by prison visits and family issues with police. His father was in custody for most of the pro gamer's childhood – and in and out of Daly's life along the way.
The Birmingham, England native recalls the stress of his father's absence and legal troubles, as well as the pain of seeing friends with doting, present dads. "Growing up, I was a very angry child. I definitely had chips on my shoulder," Daly says. He wouldn't go into detail about his father's situation, but says that extended family members also had run-ins with the law. And the friction and frustration of their family dynamic didn't ease up when his father was freed: "Even when he'd come out, we wouldn't really speak, and we don't speak much now."
Daly credits his mother and grandmother with bringing him up right and filling the void as best as they could. "My mom raised me and my nana helped a lot. My nan really took the role of my father, so I'd say I grew up pretty much with two moms," he says. "My nan really pretty much helped me every way she can. If it wasn't for her, I don't know where I'd be right now."
But as a teenager, Daly felt aimless. He pursued boxing and martial arts, but never felt passion for those or other activities. At one point, he nearly quit school, and began to see an uncertain and perhaps unsavory future unfolding for him. Daly says that he thought he might turn out much like his father. "There was a point where I was close," he says. "But that's when I got into Call of Duty and games, and really forced myself to not be that person."
Playing Call of Duty competitively "really changed me as a person," he says. "It really mellowed me down and made me think about life a bit more, and where I wanted to go, and I started knuckling down. I finished school, went on to college, and ended up being a pro gamer."
Daly's own star rose with Call of Duty's larger esports ambitions, and now the 22-year-old plays for Splyce, one of the hottest teams in the Call of Duty World League. They're the only European squad to win a major North American event (during last year's Infinite Warfare season) since the CWL started in 2016. More recently, they came out strong in the first major Call of Duty: WWII event, finishing second at December's CWL Dallas Open.
Daly has been a member of Splyce since 2016, but this period of stability follows years of bouncing between teams – more than 15 of them. Part of that was due to the state of the still-young pro Call of Duty scene. With much less prize money in play before the World League, Daly says that most players struggled to find solid, stable teams that stuck together. And his own drive to excel didn't always gel with the motivations of teammates.
"I always wanted to be the best, and finding people on my mental wavelength was really hard. Back then, there was no money involved – it was pure passion," he says. "If I didn't really feel the passion from certain people, I'd move on straight away. I always wanted to win, and that's what I still want to do."
However, Daly also concedes that his formerly brash attitude didn't help. He is six years into his pro career, and at first, he struggled to be a cooperative team player. Encountering new and different people in the competitive community helped sand down his rough edges, he suggests, while also providing needed perspective outside of his real-life surroundings. "It was hard, really changing," he says. "But when you spend more time with people in the game world than you do people in real life, it does kind of change you."
Even if his personality has mellowed, Daly hasn't softened as one of Call of Duty's elite players. He typically takes the furthest-back position behind his three squad mates in battle, serving as the last line of defense while also calling shots for his team. That approach has helped Splyce stand tall in the competitive CWL. "What makes Splyce so good is the kind of swagger we have about ourselves," he says. "We aren't the best-known or most-liked, but when we come on the stage and show up, we can take anyone. If we show up and play our best, there's no one that can even come close to beating us."
Outside of competition, his life is "probably the best it's ever been," he says. He's in a "really healthy" long-term relationship with his girlfriend of two years, and credits regular exercise with improving his self-confidence. Although his father remains mostly out of the picture, Daly says his mother and grandmother are pleased with the career he has built and the person that he has become. "Something I always want to do for my mom and grandma is make them proud," he says, "and I think I've done that so far."
Daly believes his mentality helps set him apart in the heat of battle. When it's game time, he's ready for any fight – and as he said in a team video last year, his desire to avoid repeating some relatives' mistakes drives him to be better. "I'm always down for a battle. It doesn't matter who it's against: I'm down for a battle. I'm down for a war… I'm down to go to the last round of the last map. It doesn't bother me, a win's a win," he says. "I don't get complacent – that's not in my vocabulary. And I always want to win."
This weekend, Splyce will wage war in the $200,000 CWL Atlanta Open, and Daly says that the level of competition in pro Call of Duty: WWII has hit a new peak. "We want to win more than ever," he asserts. "There are so many good teams at the moment – whoever wins this has to be the best team in the game by a mile, because there's that much competition at the moment. Whoever tops it has to be feeling good about themselves."
Daly has transformed from that burdened teenager who used video games to help escape real-world pain, and now he's a top professional player of one of the biggest games in the world. But in his view, he's just getting started – and he doesn't plan to rest until he brings his team the Call of Duty Championship. "I'm down to go until my hands stop working, to be honest," he says. "Realistically, until I think to myself, 'You're not as good as you should be,' that's when it's time for me to be done. I'm far from that, though."