With the League of Legends World Championship closing in and questions looming about the European League of Legends Championship Series (EU LCS) as a region, the spotlight has shifted slightly from lower tier teams. Team ROCCAT’s interesting 2017 season featured the team honing in on and exploiting some of the weaknesses of teams like Fnatic and G2 Esports for unexpected wins, but the players still lack a major following. With questions of format change and the top-heavy nature in the scene, it’s important to consider the state of teams that aren’t Fnatic or G2.
Fabian “GrabbZ” Lohman spoke with Kelsey Moser about his position as a head coach for ROCCAT. He discussed why lower tier teams in Europe have had less success marketing their players than North American teams, some of the struggles of constantly changing rosters, the mindset of players and teams in EU LCS, and the staff deficit with which he has to compete.
Kelsey Moser: Generally speaking, a lot of people don’t hear in these debates of EU is boring, EU structure, we don’t always hear the perspective of some of the lower tier EU LCS teams and how some of these things will impact them. What do you think is something a team like ROCCAT can be a part of in making the EU LCS more interesting to viewers?
Fabian “GrabbZ” Lohman: I think it’s generally always exposure of players, right? If you think about NA, even the last place Team Liquid still has a fan base because they produce content for the players. You actually care about the players who are playing. You know them from the videos like TSM Legends or whatever.
I think in EU generally, of course, that comes less. G2 and Fnatic are doing something, but they’re top teams, of course. Lower tier teams don’t really care about it that much. Why would somebody care about ROCCAT if they don’t know the players? The players are Betsy, Phaxi, whatever, but they don’t know the personalities. Show the audience why they should care about us. This player is funny. Like Wadid, for example, right now has a bigger fan base. So that’s something we should tackle.
KM: In the recent H2K controversy, they’re saying it’s really difficult for EU teams to compete with salary for players who have NA offers. Is this something you feel impacts teams like ROCCAT if you aren’t necessarily aiming to compete for the top tier talent?
FL: It already starts in getting your own players in EU. We already have players in mind who now are playing LCS with higher tier teams, but we couldn’t get them because, of course, the prestige is not there, and the salary as well. It’s not only an NA and EU thing, but even in EU — but, of course, now that NA is franchising, it’s going to be — not an exodus, like Korea to China, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see NA money flowing into EU. Maybe getting more players over there.
KM: People have said that this impacts staff as well. Do you feel EU LCS staff is behind NA staff at all?
FL: It shows kind of that — at least let’s say the average of EU teams has a coach and maybe an analyst or something, and that’s it. Whereas the support staff in NA is way more developed. The players, if they have a need, there’s someone in NA who is going to help them. Is it a cook? Is it a cleaning lady, whatever they want. In EU, it’s more a one man or a two man army behind the scenes. Of course the work stacks up at some point.
If I could, of course I would have five analysts and assistant coaches who I can tell “You watch Korea, you watch laning phase, you do this for me,” right? We don’t have that, so it limits the time.
KM: Do you think in support staff positions, more is necessarily better?
FL: Of course, always, quality over quantity. But there are some mundane tasks that are just very not time efficient. They just take up time. They’re easy to do, of course, if you have a wider staff that can help out. Let’s say look at the drafts. But right now, for example, I have to do everything myself, and I need five hours a day just to see every draft in League in every region and see what I can use for myself instead of having somebody who does it for me.
KM: I think when people think about large support staff, they’re thinking every player has a positional coach and this much loftier idea of what expanded staff might do. A lot of it is busy work, right?
FL: That’s what I mean. If you have staff, you can tell this staff to do busy work for you, and you have more time for the more important things — which is lacking in EU. In EU, every single thing is your responsibility. You have to deal with it; it doesn’t matter if it takes three minutes or five hours.
KM: Some have said that EU feels insanely top heavy as a region. What I mean is that there’s a huge gap between some of the top teams and some of the bottom teams. Why do you think this might be happening?
FL: It’s actually hard to say. We saw teams like ROCCAT and Vitality still have chances to set up big teams and get a game off them. We actually did sometimes as well, so there’s always a storyline. I actually don’t think it’s that bad, to be honest. Just, of course, a team like G2 looks a lot weaker early into the season, and then by the end looks so dominant. That is why the gap seems so big. If you compare TSM to other teams in NA, you will also think the gap is so big between the top and bottom tier teams. But of course, in the middle it waters down. It’s the same in EU.
KM: I do think the situation improved this summer, as you said with Vitality and ROCCAT, from the situation in spring where the only surprising storyline was ROCCAT shooting up. Do you think this was a case of the bottom tier teams getting better or top tier teams didn’t improve?
FL: I don’t think mentality is good in EU about how to work. I think the top tier teams are improving, but they’re not necessarily attacking the correct and important matters, right? They improve the surroundings, but they don’t get to the core problems, which allows lower tier teams to catch up because we are focusing those. That’s why, against lower tier teams, we struggle against chaos style a bit more. Against a team like G2 that’s more predictable because they play the actual game, we look better because we also know the same basics.
I wouldn’t overall say it changed a lot, though. I still think power levels are the same, kind of.
KM: When I talk to ROCCAT players, they’ll always have some idea like “Top Team A has X obvious flaw,” and they can use that to win games. So the first question I have about this is whether or not you think that’s part of why you have had some success against these top tier teams — you’re just able to hone in on these types of weaknesses?
FL: Sometimes they’re very glaring. If you think about the first game against Fnatic — the big comeback — first, of all they had three side laners. They had Kennen, Leblanc, and Kled. Nobody can actually go mid lane, so you can just divert priority every wave to mid control. Even though they were 10K ahead, they couldn’t close out the game. You also know that, back then, Rekkles always ganks for sOAZ. So we know that Phaxi, at some point, you will die. As long as we get something else on the map, it’s fine.
Then there was a scene where Rekkles still ganks the 1/12 Jarvan, and we finished the game. Of course, Fnatic can play this style because they have overwhelmingly powerful players individually. That helps them mask some weaknesses. Some teams have very obvious flaws, as well.
KM: Do you think that teams are aware of the problems they have before they play against you? Are they ignoring them?
FL: I would hope so, but of course there might be coaching staff or players who see the problems, but I just think EU is always so complacent. If they do something good, they feel so proud and perfect. G2 will always be the best because they have the most hungry players. They actually want to be perfect. They want to be the best more than other teams do. That’s why G2 always improves throughout the season, and you can never count them out.
Other teams were at the top at some point, or at the top now, or will be at the top later. I think they’re too happy being good in their region. You just have to think “I’m Top 1 EU, therefore I must be good.” That’s why I think they’re not critical enough, I feel like, talking to some staff and some players, which is kind of sad. But also gives us a chance as ROCCAT to upset them if they don’t prepare properly.
KM: Do you think this is an EU-specific problem, though?
FL: I think it’s a normal thing for human beings to be complacent, right? I think, just for example, why in Korea it doesn’t show as much is because Korea has more filters. To be a pro in Korea, you have to go through more levels of filters than in Europe, for example.
In Europe, you could be good in solo queue, you play one split in Challenger Series, and suddenly, you’re in LCS. It means you didn’t get taught the proper way of thinking. Whereas, in Korea, if you get complacent because you played one good game, you’re out instantly. Even a guy like Faker would say — if Kkoma gets a feeling that he’s complacent, he will make sure that Faker knows that his spot is on the line.
Whereas, in Europe, it’s kind of hard to get new talent instantly to threaten the players in the spot. It’s just a general way of thinking. It’s not taught early enough. That’s one of the biggest things I would like from traditional sports because there we have the youth system. Ten years of playing football before you go pro, and in those ten years, you get taught everything: how to think, how to eat, how to be as a pro player.
Going forward in five years, NA has, right now, academy leagues. I think that’s the first good step to teach the players OK, you’re not ready yet. To be ready, you need to learn, be humble, work hard. This, and this, and this, and this. If they go through this system, there will be players who can achieve those top spots, even internationally.
KM: This is probably an obvious question, but just to make it explicit, what’s the main reason this hasn’t been implemented yet?
FL: Money. Not to make excuses, but of course, at the end, every team is an enterprise and a business. Of course, we can’t just throw money at young players because — either they’re good enough, and you have to compete with Challenger money (which is also not that low right now), or they’re not good enough. Then the whole purpose of developing them is a bit thrown out the window.
When more money comes in, then of course, this will also happen.
KM: There’s been a lot of talk of scouting of new players — that maybe the development of the scouting side is also behind. Do you think that this is, again, you don’t have staff that have the time, or is there some other problem?
FL: I think the big problem with scouting is that you can scout for individual skill and mechanics, but of course, you try them out, and they are going to play for their life the first four blocks. They’ll talk way more than they would normally. We don’t have the time in the league system right now to actually see how consistent is the player and how good is he in a normal game. Every single time, with tryouts, I know from players who I’ve tried out that — this guy doesn’t talk a lot, but in those games, he just didn’t stop talking at all because he wants to be in a team. So, again, money, and time — we don’t have enough time to actually try out people.
KM: What do you think about the idea of watching solo queue. Do you think the solo queue system just is crap or not a good approximation?
FL: I don’t think it’s crap. Of course, you can see mechanics, and they’re a very crucial part of the game. But people forget that solo queue is a way different game than competitive League of Legends. You can grow diamonds out of coal. With enough care and enough pressure, you can make a diamond out of them, but I wouldn’t say solo queue is the main factor to see it. Right now, it’s like players have a kind of feeling if you’re good or not if they play against you. They see your movement and your trading. Then they’re also talking about you, basically. That’s your best chance of getting in. But of course, you cannot measure intelligence of a player in solo queue, and that’s a big issue.
KM: Of course, there’s the LS theory where he mentions a lot of teams in NA or EU are very cliquey, and they’ll promote their friends over someone actually good. Do you think there’s some danger in relying on your players to do scouting?
FL: Yeah, but that also goes back to not being able to teach them how to think as a pro player. This all goes back to the same principle. They’re also fresh in the LCS; they’re new. And of course they like their friends. If you have a friend, you think he’s better than he is because you don’t want to insult him. So you tell teams that this guy is actually good, and the cycle happens.
In more years’ time, if you have the systems in place, that also will be weeded out, hopefully.
KM: As a lower tier team, is looking at a lot of these really raw talents a viable option because it’s difficult to develop them?
FL: We have no choice, right? As a lower tier team, there’s less prestige, less money. Of course the good players want to leave. We had the same with Maxlore, right? He had a good split. He was always big for his boots, but I liked it more than being unconfident, so it’s good for him. But he left. We had a lot of time invested in him being the shot-caller and being the strategical pillar, and he’s gone. So what do we do? There was no real star player or much experience on the market, so we had to take a new prospect. We had Pridestalker, and as you can see in the season, it took a long time for him to click as well.
You cannot compare Challenger to LCS. The levels were different, so we took like six weeks or something until he actually understood how we want to play the game. Afterwards, he showed improvement there. That’s just the life as a lower tier team, there’s no way to prevent that.
KM: Speaking of Pridestalker, working with him, what do you think were some of the challenges? You said you feel like he clicked. If he did, when did you know, or what was the big thing he had to get over?
FL: I just think League of Legends has basic concepts, right? We always talk about pressure, vision, etc. It’s always easy to see those things, but to actually learn them and consistently prove them in the game is hard.
Things like don’t invade if Betsy’s in base should be obvious, but if you’re playing 20 games a day, at some point, you make a mistake. You need to learn more and more, just get into the groove and have the habit of not doing it anymore. That takes time.
It’s not only him, but I think most players don’t have the most healthy mindset as a pro player. Again, in my mind, at least, it’s always a sacrifice. You do something you love. You get money for it. But at the same time, it’s very demanding. It’s easy to say, for players, “I want to be the best, I want to be the best in my region,” but very few players are willing to actually sacrifice a lot for that. Those are the players that, every season, stand on top.
KM: Do you think this is the biggest factor that keeps players from being like Perkz or having an underwhelming debut?
FL: Perkz said in one interview as well that his mindset changed, and he was better from it. He talks more, he knows more about the game, and how his team is going to work. Time is a big issue, and with the youth system, we can have time. As long as you don’t have that, you always have to coin flip. Maybe this guy is actually smart about the game, a new mithy and clicks instantly. But you cannot blame a player for not being mithy.
Every single season, if you have a prospect, it’s a coin flip. As a coach, of course you can influence it, but there are some things about players, you can’t. If it looks good, you look like the best coach ever, and if not, you get the blame for it. But that’s just part of being a coach, I guess.
KM: You also have veterans on your team, like Hjarnan, for example, how do you rely on these veterans when you bring in new players? How do they work within the dynamic?
FL: I am very strict, right? I am very up front. Sometimes maybe the players are over-burdened like “This guy is complaining, it can’t be that bad.” But then I have Hjarnan who has played for like five years, and he says “No, he’s actually right. You’re bad in this.” Oh, if Hjarnan says it, there must be something to it. He’s like my fail safe, in that sense. I don’t need it a lot, but if there’s some point when a player feels targeted by me, having a good player like Hjarnan there helps a lot.
He’s also a big challenge for me, right? Because, of course, it’s easy for me to teach a young player like oh this is pressure, you play that way. But actually improving on those core concepts and getting a step further is harder if you have no one to challenge you. If I have an experienced guy like Hjarnan with a different mindset than me, we can actually clash sometimes, and then afterwards, look for improvements.
Having experienced players willing to speak up is often a beneficial thing you can have in League of Legends.
KM: When I’ve talked to coaches, they will often point out a player like this that they rely on to an extent. Do you think there’s a kind of mechanism where, as a coach, you have a buy-in player who sometimes enforces your decisions? Someone almost like somewhere between coach and player.
FL: I wouldn’t say a buy-in in terms of strategic decisions, but my big weakness is that I’m not the best at keeping the mood up because I am very strict, right? But of course I have players like Hjarnan and Wadid who are just the biggest trolls I have ever met in my life. Legit, you cannot be mad at them or as a team when they’re in a room. They just ape around, jump around — I don’t know what — for laughs.
So, of course, it’s good as a coach if you actually know your weaknesses, and you have players helping with those weaknesses as well.
KM: Your team obviously goes through lot of roster changes, is it important to retain certain players in rebuilds?
FL: Of course, change takes time, and you lose efficiency, and it’s a bad thing. I would not say it’s necessary to keep everyone together just to improve, right? But you have scouting, say you scout a player from Challenger, and he’s willing to learn and motivated, and it’s easy to integrate him. But if you coin flip on a new prospect, and he has a bad attitude, the older players also get affected by it.
If I could, I wouldn’t change anything because they know how I work, and I know how they work. We’ve grown with each other, basically. But that’s not often our choice to make.
KM: This was an interesting season because you had the surge in the Spring Split, and then a really underwhelming Summer. As a coach, what was the most important thing you took from this year?
FL: As a coach, it’s also small things. Tell them a different ward or a different pattern that works. It’s always the most gratifying thing. Of course, there’s the big macro talk — macro is not that hard. You can teach very basic principles. If you understand those, you understand macro, basically. Small patterns are very important.
At some point, I don’t have to talk about not invading alone anymore because a player has got it. I can see improvement, even in scrims. Overall, I would say, it wasn’t that interesting for me because I just saw a gradual increase in skill in us. It’s just that EU, around us, was so very volatile in their skill level. For example, we went 6-0. Back then, I don’t think we got way better. It’s just that EU was actually garbage. The only thing we could play then was 1-3-1 with Gnar, and every single team kept blind picking top laners. We were like “I guess we can play Gnar here.”
Everybody talking like “ROCCAT are so good,” but teams were saying “Oh shit, we actually did not prepare for them. We didn’t counter their style.” Which should be easy by then. Of course, 1-3-1 was not the best style, so we also had improvement there. As coach, improvement is the best part.
KM: I feel like a lot of teams in EU get away with just playing the same way. Is it just harder to prepare for everything in regular season? Is it easy to just kind of go — we know this flaw exists, let’s just save a counter-strategy for playoffs, you know?
FL: Don’t get me wrong, I’m very critical, but I think it’s good to have one basic play style you can build on afterwards. I have a feeling, with most players I talk to — not only my team, right — that there’s a general feeling of, if a play works, therefore it must be good. We don’t grasp enough the basic concept of a play and where it’s good or not.
We just look at, for example, Unicorns five weeks ago were the best team. We were like “OMG their team fighting is insane.” But we didn’t see it’s just because no team had team fighting comps, and they had, and they went mid and team fought and they won.
That’s just, in a nutshell, how EU seems to work. Of course, you have top teams who don’t think that way, and think a bit deeper, and they keep being top teams.
KM: Any message for ROCCAT fans?
FL: Sure. It’s a wild ride with us. Thanks for sticking around. If you like rollercoasters, you’re going to like ROCCAT. I hope we can bring out more of the personality of our players so you actually get to know them and have a reason to cheer for us. You’re not like having 50-50 game every single time.
Cover photo courtesy of Riot Games