The rise of performance coaches in League of Legends

Immortals had finally hatched, the result of a long process starting with CEO Noah Whinston’s idea, securing funding, acquiring a spot in the North American League of Legends Championship Series, hiring a staff and — finally — putting together a roster. Three of the players came from other North American LCS teams, with two — Kim “Reignover” Ui-jin and Heo “Huni” Seong Hoon — coming over from Fnatic, a perennially successful European team.

League of Legends is a complex game in which team unison and communication are some of the most important traits to achieve the highest level of gameplay. Assembling a roster all at once with players mainly unfamiliar with each other left the coaching staff with an important question: How would they all fit?

Head coach Dylan Falco, player manager Jun “Dodo” Kang and performance coach Robert Yip talked frequently about the best way to integrate the players and develop a successful culture from the beginning.

“What you’re looking to do is not make wholesale changes off the bat,” Yip said. “Try not to develop a one (in-game leader) mentality. (We) spoke about that a lot before the guys got here. We wanted to see how the players interacted first, naturally or organically, before we made small tweaks.”

The transition has gone as smooth as could be expected. Immortals has dominated the first seven weeks of the LCS with a 13-1 record. The instant success has been the result of many factors, but cohesion among the players is near the top of the list.

As the performance coach, Yip is in charge of maintaining that. He monitors the players’ nutrition, fitness and all the mental aspects that go along with playing professional League of Legends. It’s an intriguing role, similar to a life coach, and one that’s slowly becoming more common: someone tasked with keeping players in peak mental condition.

“It’s all about changing your mindset,” said Jonathan Carter, a psychology trainer working in a similar role for Ember, a North American Challenger Series team. “My strategy tends to be meet players halfway.”

Yip said there’s maybe four people in that role in the LCS right now and predicted it will double by the summer. (In the time between interviewing him and the publishing of this story, Counter Logic Gaming hired Michael Schwartz as player development coach).

By 2017, Yip said, the entire LCS could have these coaches.

“I think it’s something every team values and understands there’s a big requirement for,” Yip said. “I’m kind of looking forward to more teams jumping on the bandwagon. NA teams and EU teams, once we all buy into that, the players will take notice.

“When (players) get into the LCS, it’ll be a much easier.”

Past problems

Specialized coaches weren’t even a thought during Stephen “Snoopeh” Ellis’ playing career. Hell, having any type of coach was more the exception to the rule.

In a less structured scene, the players for the most part had to handle everything themselves. It created an incredible amount of freedom; it also led to problems.

“It’s very, very difficult because egos get big on a team and it becomes contentious,” said Snoopeh, now retired but one of the most popular League of Legends players of all time. “Nobody’s doing anything maliciously, necessarily, but the issue within that environment is that you need to vent. Players care so much about winning that they need to vent. Previously, it was the role, on my team especially, of the older figures on the team, because they were more mature, to act as some of a mediator.

“It was myself and (Peter “YellowPete” Wuggen) that were a little more level headed. It worked for a while, but nobody’s perfect. It was just a band-aid to something that needed fixing.”

Nutrition was neglected — Snoopeh said dinner usually consisted of a Chipotle burrito while practicing at your computer — and nobody managed what at times could become a toxic environment.

Team-building exercises were — and probably still are — a way for players to stay close. Snoopeh said when his team would arrive in a city for a tournament, the players would go out for a few drinks to get out of the competitive environment and relax for a few hours.

They bonded, but there was no structured way to release all the tension that would occur in a high-pressure environment while being around the same people for many hours.

“It’s not like a therapist. It’s more just having a person to talk openly about the issues you’re having and coming up with the most constructive way to communicate that to team members,” Snoopeh said. “In a competitive environment, there’s always going to be team issues. And that’s not just to deal with conflict among the team, it’s also to deal with the overall mental state of the players, or even with just their life in general.

“Having people specifically for that role can identify and tackle the problems early, which is really valuable.”

What they do

Carter and Yip trace the origins of esports performance coaching to Weldon Green, who was recently hired to be Ember’s head coach. Green is kind of the “father” of esports psychology, and Yip and Carter have both worked with him.

One of Green’s projects is the Esports Coaching Network, designed to act as a way to grow and enhance the coaching profession in esports.

“Largely, the tradition is you are a player, and you fell into the tradition of being a coach and you don’t have any training on it,” said Carter, a former college athlete and military psychologist. “Our dream is to create, especially at the amateur and collegiate level, actual certification and coaching.”

Yip lives in the gaming house with Immortals’ players and staff. His focus is simple: Keep the players in the right mindset at all times. It starts with making sure they’re sleeping enough but also includes nutrition and physical fitness.

It also involves talking with players about any emotional disruptions that might occur. Players are living in gaming houses with their teammates at all times. Conflict is natural in that environment, and it’s helpful to have an unbiased person designated to handle those situations.

“The tagline is make sure the players are physically, mentally and emotionally ready,” Yip said. “We make sure the players don’t have to worry about anything, they can focus on the game.”

The players get up at particular times. They stretch and do tailored workouts. Yip is also in charge of the team’s diet.

The stereotypes about gamers binging on soda and snack food is wildly misguided in today’s environment. On the day of matches, Yip said the players should eat every two hours. He makes sure snacks around the house, including lots of fruits and vegetables, and said players should aim to gain a pound each week.

“The needs requirements for an esports player is giving them enough energy to last the duration of the match,” Yip said.

Carter said there’s still a long way to go with nutrition, as it’s one of the most under-educated areas in esports.

“Mind and body are absolutely connected,” Carter said.

The psychological game

Beyond physical fitness, there’s an important mental component to player health for which these coaches are responsible. One aspect is rest, as Yip tries to ensure players don’t over-extend themselves heading into important matches (such as the approaching spring playoffs).

“A lot of people kind of neglect the effect lack of sleep, stress and poor diet has before games,” Yip said. “You’re a lot more likely to lose emotional control. You’re not gonna be as receptive toward your teammates as you should be (under those conditions).”

Carter gives players a basic overview of what sport psychology is and centers his approach around energy, effort and focus. If something is bothering a player, Carter is the person to talk to. He’s the release, and he tries to get to a point where his players are always in a good place mentally.

Part of his Carter’s process involves handling pressure and stress. Carter wants players to “lean into” pressure and not be scared or worry about making mistakes in the game’s biggest moments.

“One of the biggest things is understanding the difference between threats and opportunities,” Carter said. “Fight or flight. High heart rate. Our brain can trigger that even if it’s not an actual, tangible threat (to our safety).

“But in esports, they look down on the word aggression at times because they think it’s just stupidly going in without a thought. There are definitely organizations that have trained players out of being aggressive, and that’s not good.”

Carter went on to point out three players — all on Immortals, ironically — that exemplify the idea of embracing the moment. He said Jason “WildTurtle” Tran has often received heat from the League of Legends community for making bad decisions every now and then. But the moves — even if some of them go poorly — are justifiable in the name of aggression because it’s better than being passive in those moments.

He also pointed out Huni and Reignover as the two best examples of understanding the moment and going for it.

“Do they have bad things happen sometimes? Yes,” Carter said. “But they’re so much better off for having that aggressive mentality.”

The effect of gaming houses

Gaming houses bring out the best — and sometimes worst — of a team.

Everybody living together makes it easy to develop a bond and talk strategy. It also helps the staff keep an eye on players and eliminate distractions. When done right, Carter said, there’s a clear boundary between personal time and working.

“The one benefit to a gaming house is, as long as moral/cohesiveness is right, you get to talk about, just theorycraft type things over meals or on the couch,” Carter said. “If they’re just playing games all day, they don’t necessarily have those conversations.”

Before moving to a gaming house, Snoopeh said the players developed a real bond simply by traveling to events together. Players also had the chance to simply get away from the team if needed. There’s a bit less of that now, and the gaming house could be a tough place to be – especially if a team isn’t playing well.

“It’s a very toxic environment, especially in the gaming house,” Snoopeh said. “You’re living and playing with these five guys. And it does establish a bond, but it also is a perfect scene for conflict.”

The non-stop time around each other just creates more opportunities for conflict to arise. Think about the age of the players and that many League of Legends pros arise from solo queue, where individual talent reigns supreme, and it’s easy to see how problems can arise.

That makes people like Carter and Yip important to be the unbiased — and structured — release valve for players.

Where to go from here?

Coaching in general has come a long way in League of Legends — and esports as a whole — in recent years. Filling out staffs with performance coaches seemed inevitable, but there’s room for more.

Yip sees the trend as one that can have a long-lasting, positive influence on the game. More coaches means more structure, and that enhances development of players in and out of the game.

Teams aren’t all the way there yet, which Snoopeh attributed to general under-funding in esports. As the industry continues to grow, there’s hope that changes. In the meantime, people like Green, Carter and Yip continue to mold the profession in hopes of improving the quality of the players and game.

“A performance is a performance,” Carter said. “So whether you’re playing lacrosse like I did or League of Legends or you’re a soldier in the army, you’re still the same human brain. So the same thing that helps people reach their peak in those activities translates to esports.”

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