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1-on-1 with Team Liquid coach David Lim: Being a coach and translator, fostering talent and managing potentially volatile personalities

Slingshot’s Andrew Kim had the chance to talk in-depth with Team Liquid coach David “Varsix” Lim on a visit to the team’s gaming house last month. They talked about doubling as a coach/translator, fostering talent and dealing with potentially volatile players.

Andrew Kim: You are very interesting position of translator/team coach where you have to act as the bridge while also leading the team into a direction. Do you find the two meshing well together or are they two separate things?

David “Varsix” Lim: I think it actually works out really well. If you saw the history of imports in general, I think (Chae “Piglet” Gwang-jin) and (Kim “Fenix” Jae-hun) before (Choi “Locodoco” Yoon-sub) came or some of the imports usually take time to play at their peak level because of the language barrier. But if you have someone who can bridge that gap and make sure that all thoughts are being heard, and there’s no resentment or frustrations because thoughts aren’t being heard, then I think it just makes everyone play better. I think Piglet had his best season when Loco first came on board and that was the first time we had a bilingual Korean-American coach.

AK: Do you think that it’s best for most teams to have that hybrid role or do you think it’ll be just as effective with an in-house translator and a coach that speaks English?

DL: I think the in-house translator has to know about the game to a certain level. So I think what C9 have with (Lee “Robin” Seung-hwan) is an extreme, extreme rarity I would say. Someone like Robin can work really well, but I don’t know if there’s anyone with that kind of skill set who also wants to be in that kind of role because I think if you are bilingual, most people would pursue other career paths in my opinion.

AK: What do you mean by other career paths?

DL: Like translation work, and something like that. It’s not rare at all to find someone who can speak Korean and English, but it’s really rare to find someone who can speak Korean, English, and know the game to a certain extent, which Robin does.

AK: Do you also feel that very small overlap in terms of game knowledge to a coaching capacity as well as speaking Korean? Or would you put Robin above yourself in that context?

DL: Robin speaks better Korean and English than me, but since it’s my full time to know about the game, I do feel like that’s just where my skill set is at. I’m not trying to measure myself to Robin, but I do think he’s also someone who’s in a unique spot.

AK: It’s very interesting to be a translator and coach because you act as a mouthpiece for those who can’t speak English, in this case it would be Piglet. Yet you also have to be impartial as a coach while being in-tune with one particular player. Do you find that balance is hard to achieve?

DL: I’d say (Kim “Reignover” Yeu-jin) is 95 percent fluent. 100 percent fluent in the fact that I never translate for him, but 95 percent fluent in the fact that there are college level vocab that he won’t know. Piglet is 65 to 70 percent where I would translate for him every now and then, but he can usually speak for himself, so it works out. I do agree where it’s a delicate balance, but I think I’m aware of that and as long as you keep that in mind, you can make sure that the message you’re sending is known as Piglet’s thoughts and I can convey my own thoughts afterwards or I can say I agree with it because, and then we can continue the discussion that way.

AK: When you’re coaching for a team with strong personalities such as your previous jungler Dardoch, and Piglet, who was known to have his ups and downs, how difficult is it to be in the middle of these volatile players while trying to make the team work together?

DL: So there’s so many factors that go into it. One, just pre-planning. Piglet does have a strong personality, but he is obviously raised in, like, a Korean culture and he knows higher positions, lower positions. He knows all the levels of that culturally, so at the end of the day with Piglet, if he’s frustrated, he’s frustrated. It’s not like, he’s human so he can’t recover right away. But he knows that level of authority and he falls through with it. So whenever you recruit someone, you want someone who’s passionate because you don’t want someone to just be a zombie and just listen to what the coach says. You want them to challenge the coach to make sure that they actually understand where both parties understand where each other’s mindset’s at in terms of what you’re talking about at the time. So you have to make sure you recruit players who have that kind of mentality where they respect the staff and will work with the staff to make sure they come up with the best possible resolution for whatever you’re arguing about at the time. As for when you already have a player or a player’s just having in a bad day so it’s just extra difficult to deal with them at the time, then you might honestly might not find a resolution like in that instance. You might have to work it over time. You might have to give them 10, 15 minutes to cool off and talk to them again. You might have to be like, “Let’s reset and talk about this later. We have scrim opponents waiting for us for our next scrim game.” To me, it still comes back to making sure that the player can have a professional attitude and a professional mindset of ‘I disagree but let’s come back to this,’ and both of us are only arguing about this so the team can become better, not because their pride is on the line.

AK: When it comes to deciding what kind of lineup you want to make during the off season, what are some of the things you want to balance like imports and talent and how difficult is that process?

DL: I think the first place you look at is your previous roster because you know those players more than anybody else knows those players, and you know those players more than you might think you know of a certain player from a different team. So you look at your own roster, and you kind of break it apart in terms of “If we added a positive piece in this regard, would it help this player become better, or would it stay the same, or would it even hurt them?” Then you kinda take that into effect, so someone like Matt (Matthew Elento), he wants to be lane dominant. So he becomes a better player himself or worse player if he also doesn’t have a lane dominant player. Someone like Lourlo (Samson Jackson) would play a lot better with someone who is on the same page with him early game, and Dardoch had great synergy with that, so we also brought Reignover, who also has great top lane synergy and that worked out in making both players better. We also definitely look at traits they have in terms of how do they take training, how do they take criticism, and that we can always evaluate best on players you’ve previously worked with, especially in the most recent season because players change. Some players’ work ethics change, their values change, and you want to look at the most recent information available to estimate how they’ll do for the next season. So you kinda look at that, you look for someone who can also lead early game, and that’s kinda how we built our roster so we have all the raw talent. We believed in Sam a lot more than anyone else did, and it’s kinda showing now and he’s kinda getting hype now, and a lot of people are like looking toward Sam to be a star player. But we knew that with a strong jungler he can shine, so we kinda had all the pieces together. We just tried to find the right one.

AK: When it comes to a team with a philosophy of fostering talent, how difficult is a decision for a coach to determine how to spend at least some time in player investment? You mentioned Lourlo as an example of a player that you believed in and is now paying off.

DL: I think more than time, it becomes a threshold of how many players on the team need that training or that extra time to develop. I think one, maybe two, depending on your staff, it could work out, but a majority of your team needs to be strong in its core where it can build up someone to reach their potential. So if someone has a higher ceiling maybe four weeks from now, but is worse right now, then you can do it with one player, and hopefully four weeks from now that decision blooms and you have a stronger team than you would’ve had four weeks with a different player. But if it’s like two people or three people — since problems in League, I would say snowball off each other — it’s really hard to do that with multiple people. But with one person, there isn’t that much of a threshold with time because I would say that all of the coach’s time is at an opportunity cost because you can always be doing something, right? Even if it’s leisure or rest that like, make sure that you’re healthy for the next day so that you can input more with your time. I could be honestly be watching the very minute details of VODs and spend like eight, 10 hours on it after 10 hours of scrimming, have four hours of sleep but would that be more effective than making sure I have ample sleep, and making sure I’m doing one-on-ones instead. Everything is at an opportunity cost for a coach or a player, so I don’t think time is the issue, but more of how many talents you intend to develop at once.

AK: Andy “Reginald” Dinh made an interesting point that other orgs like Phoenix 1, Dignitas, and Echo Fox that are importing talent don’t know what they’re doing and there’s no guarantee that the imports will do well. There is a layer of logic to that, so do yourself agreeing with him or is it more of a team-by-team basis?

DL: It’s definitely a by-player or by-team basis. I think out of those three teams, some will have more success than others for sure, so I think right now as of today, one of those teams will be a top three team, another will be a top five team, and another might be a bottom three team, bottom four team. So it depends on what staff you have. It depends on if you have the infrastructure to make sure that those players can succeed. It depends on the players. Some players are more hungry in foreign soil than others. Some players bring it down and keep emotions to themselves, and keep thoughts to themselves because they can’t communicate very well. It depends on the personality of the player as well as the skill of the player. Most of the imports that were brought on were old-class talent, so it depends on if they’re able to work with their foreign teammates and if the staff can foster that environment. So it’s a case-by-base basis, in my opinion.

AK: The returning video of Piglet to the team was very interesting with the word “return” being highlighted as the theme. Did the team or players change anything in order to facilitate Piglet to return to the roster? Did you have to adjust anything?

DL: Piglet has a lot friends here in Liquid, including me, Nick (Phan), (Steve “Joka” Perino) and as long as we have the right philosophy that he did in winning, because winning is very important to him right now at this point of his career, and we built a successful roster around them, then he was willing to come back.

AK: One of the jokes that even Liquid fans like to make is the “Liquid is fourth place” joke. Was there any sort of feedback from the team or players after being placed fourth enough to be a joke?

DL: Being honest, I’ve only been here for a year, so I wouldn’t know. And the year before I was here they got third both (splits). Especially in the Piglet era, I don’t think people around here consider it too much. We still joke about it all the time, but it’s not like a major factor here.

AK: What is the best feeling you get as you coach an esports team? Is there something unique that comes with esports?

DL: First and foremost, it’s winning. I think that’s self-explanatory, all your hard work paying off and you just see results. But I guess you could say it’s a byproduct of that or winning is a byproduct of what I’m about to say, but when you’re working to solve a problem or a concept and your team is really bad at it and they work together and put in frustrating hours because you don’t necessarily have to work on that aspect of the game, and you can just play to your strengths. When you strengthen your weaknesses and everyone’s on board with it. Everyone knows this is a frustrating process, but they’re all on the same page to improve and the improvement is visibly shown and seen, that’s when it’s really satisfying because they’re putting in hearts and souls and pretty much their whole lives into this game, especially in this season. And when you see improvement or you see steps to your goal, it’s really satisfying because everyone know when we’re struggling with it. But three weeks down the road we’re like, “Alright, I think we’re in a really good spot for this now and we can actually use it.” Then everyone just becomes that much more confident in each other, and I think that’s really good and satisfying.

Cover photo courtesy of Riot Games