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Q&A: Splyce owner Marty Strenczewilk talks League of Legends, esports coaching

His team might be in the European league of Legends Championship Series, but Splyce owner Marty Strenczewilk attended the North American LCS finals in Las Vegas over the weekend. He took some time to talk about his League of Legends team, growing the industry in other esports and his philosophy on finding coaches for his teams.

Vince Nairn: Your first split in Europe and you get seventh. How do you feel going forward into the summer split?

Marty Strenczewilk: I feel really good now that we have infrastructure built now. Getting a coach was a big thing. The first step of getting someone who can run the team from a strategic standpoint. Managers and stuff are great, but you need somebody who is gonna run — the Bill Belichick of your team. That’s been really important for us, but also our players, Sencux and Wunderwear, just because they’re 17. They’re rookies in the truest sense of the word. They came out and had that little sense of brilliance you’d hope for. Wunderwear had a game where he made OP 5. He crushed on that Nautilus game. And that’s what he’s capable of. He’s just gotta be able to bring it on a consistent basis. Sencux would have these — he had that LeBlanc game. People were banning LeBlanc right after that, when he was quadri-killing all by himself. Those kind of things really, I think, showed what we see in these players. It’s just them putting it together.

In scrims, they do awesome. They can play with any team in Europe and play with the best. They lose games, too, but the point is they can compete. Being able to see things like when we played Fnatic and almost perfect gamed them, and when we played G2 the second to last game, we legitimately had a chance to win that game. It was a long game. It was very, very close, and of course, our rookie-ness came through again. And we don’t have any veterans, like they have Kikis and Trick and people that have actually played for a while to pull them through. We didn’t have that so we fell back a little, made a few mistakes, and that’s that. We’re only going to get better in the summer slit with that.

VN: Relegation is always a worry and that causes some anxiety. But how much does it help that the team was able to take some of those bumps and still hang around?

MS: I think just the fact that relegation is off our minds has allowed us to focus on just how do we compete next season. Going into the end of the season, of course, that’s all we thought about, sitting in seventh, eighth, ninth place. We knew that was a possibility. Stay in the league. Stay in the league. Stay in the league. Instead of: What are we doing to get better prep for summer split? How are we going to prep or boot camp. What are we going to do? Now we’re able to focus on that, maybe individual things with certain players. Also with their personal growth. They’re becoming boys to men. You help guide them to be an adult. And (coach Jakob “YamatoCannon” Medbi) does a lot of that. He talks to every single player, every single day, basically. Even when they’re gone, he talks to them non-stop. Even their social media, because that matters in this day and age. Ultimately, it’s more about the fact that it’s a relief to be able to focus on the things that matter.

And that’s the challenge with relegation, right? In a franchise environment, you just go play. We have Smash players, and they just play Smash. And that’s it. That’s all they have to focus on. Because whether they win or lose, they just play Smash. They’re never gonna not be able to go to a Smash event. So (relegation) is a little frustrating at times but understandable why it exists. You want the right organizations to be franchised.

VN: You know, for the organization as a whole, it’s still so young. How have you just tried to tinker and see what works in each game and feed the learning process as it goes?

MS: For us, it was a lot about seeing where we could be successful on the short term. Call of Duty is a good example. We have arguably the best player in Europe in Bance. And so we have this opportunity where we have this 18-year-old kid is the best player if not the second best. That’s a place we can go win right away. League of Legends is going to take some more time. It’s just starting out and we don’t have the proven winning authority there. Hearthstone is another example. We’ve got one of the biggest up and comers this year, so how do we support his growth to get him — we’re talking VLPS — how do we support his growth so that he continues to have opportunities to get into the big-time events and get direct invites and such? There, it’s pick and choose your battle because we have limited resources, and that’s when we had to do things like cut down our Hearthstone team, for example. We didn’t drop those players (for nothing). They’re great players. But we decided that we have to focus on a couple so that instead of giving minimal resources to six, we can give a lot of resources to two. And you’re gonna see, between the two of them, they’re traveling maybe five or six times in the next six or seven weeks. We could have never done that before.

It’s been a learning process for us. The team’s been around since August, so it’s not even that long. Not even a year. So we kind of, from that August period, even when you have six months or a trial contract or three months depending on the team, you learn about that game and that team and figure out what’s important. So Counter-Strike, because our Counter-Strike team we only signed a couple months ago. That was our third Counter-Strike team already. So it’s thinking about how do we make this one more successful than the previous two. What have we missed and stuff like that. I’ve learned a lot in that process.

VN: It seems like building something from the start is a theme for you. Does it help your management style when you have all of your teams kind of in the same line of progression?

MS: We don’t have a Bjergsen, right? We don’t have an established, massive superstar. We don’t have those yet. And I think, to be fair, you’re right. That does make it more consistent, I guess, how I treat the Hearthstone versus the Smash is probably not that different because they’re both on that up-and-coming tier. Four of those guys have potential to be top players. They’re on the way up, not down, which is what we look for a lot of times. We will, eventually, as we grow, be able to go and get those caliber of players. The trick with any non-top tier is to pick the right ones. You’re not going to get them all right.

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VN: It’s like the second round of the NBA Draft.

MS: It literally is. Manu Ginobili is one of my favorite players, but not everyone knows enough to pick Manu Ginobili at the (57th) pick. But he’s a Hall of Famer now. I just think that we try to bring things to the table that aren’t just monetary, and that’s a big part of it. One of my players from my WarCraft team texted me this morning. And he literally texted me out of the blue to say how thankful he was to be a part of the organization. And he’s truly being proud of being a part of the organization instead of being the “sponsor.” That’s a word never a word I want somebody to use. I want them to feel like they’re part of the organization. That, to me, has been kind of quintessential for all our players. I’m their friend, too. I help them through things, whether it’s something as simple as they need some new gear at the last minute or that they’re having a problem in their personal life. That’s part of dealing in any kind of sport. You need to help these guys in their lives because they’re fully dedicated to their sport.

VN: How is your League team going to approach the break between splits?

MS: First, let everyone get a breath of fresh air. We told them to go, take a couple weeks, see their families. These 17-year-olds, that’s the first time being away from their families for so long. Four months and barely seeing their families. Maybe they came to visit once, but that’s it. It’s not the same. Refresh. I think that’s something we miss in games like Counter-Strike, which is never off. It’s 365 days a year. League that’s kind of nice. Call of Duty is another one. I don’t know if you know, but (the offseason) is already over. And we didn’t even know that at first. Whoa, three week offseason. That’s crazy, right? You often complain about how long the offseason is until you have a three-week one. It’s like no, give me back the two-month offseason. So that’s the first thing. It’s nice for them to be able to refresh.

Also, re-tooling the way we practice, the way we run their day. Looking at the infrastructure and the housing of the team. We’re hiring a new assistant coach. At first, we hired an analyst. We realized that’s not what we wanted for the team. We loved the guy. He was a great guy, but he was an analyst. What we wanted was someone who’s on the way to being a coach and can thrive in real conversation with Yamato and challenge him. Yamato wants someone who can stand up to him and say “I differ on this opinion.” And they can work through it and find a common solution. The whole two brains are better than one approach.

Even just our players’ growth. At the beginning of the split, our players would sit there and let Yamato talk. He would tell them “This is wrong, and this is wrong, and that is wrong.” He’s teaching them because they didn’t really know the game. They also weren’t super comfortable. Now, they’ll have a chat after a game and it’s a full-blown conversation. It’s more of they’re learning together. Continuing to grow that is going to be really important for us. That’s what makes the team awesome.

VN: It’s interesting you mention coaching because that’s still a bit of an unknown quantity, or something that’s still at the surface in esports. Nobody really knows what to do with it. How have you gone about trying to figure out exactly how useful that is?

MS: I think that if you look at the two games we have coaching in, Counter-Strike and League of Legends, right now, League of Legends we have an established coach. He’s done it for a couple teams. He’d learned and had his bumps along the way, so we had that advantage. He commanded respect when he walked in the room. He went out and learned. He read books about sports psychology and stuff like that because he wanted to understand how to better be a coach and player.

On the other end you have Counter-Strike, and it’s about strategy of Counter-Strike, and they got this 1.6 player (Garett “Grt” Bambrough), right? It was more about this guy had been to the championship, he was a top-level player, so he knows what it was like to be at the very pinnacle of the game. The opposite approach. More of a “What did you do to get there?” type of thing. In the end, the players brought him on, the players decided to amicably part ways with him. They agreed that it wasn’t quite working.

That’s the evolution you’re talking about: What does a coach need to bring in each game? In Counter-Strike, is it just an out-of-game leader? Or is it someone who helps with their personal development and stuff. One thing I think that worked really well for the League team is bringing in coach Chris Ehrenreich. He just spent a month out in Berlin. He got there the exact same time as Yamato and just helped the team get settled in. He did things like the nutrition planning, their stretching, the way they structure feedback sessions and stuff like that because he’s a trained coach. He went to school for this. He has a degree. He helped not only Yamato but just the players themselves, how to work with a coach. How to get the most out of it. So that’s been a big part of it. If we have a coach, is it the right coach? Helping them to figure out the best way to work with a team. And figuring out the best way to work with the coach, because not everybody knows how to work with a coach.

Joe Cannavino: How do you find somebody like that? What do you look for?

MS: We’re open to a lot of different opportunities because again it is so unrefined. What we’re looking for is someone who has shown a path. They’ve got to be someone who has a lot of self-starter in them. We joke about picks and bans. You’re not a pick and ban person, right? Your job is to be a leader. Your job is to progress things. Your job is to be always trying to get better when nobody is telling you to do it. That’s part of the coaching job. But the main part is leadership. We’re looking for someone with leadership qualities. We’re looking for a self-starter.

Maybe they started creating content and were breaking down plays and showing how this analysis stuff worked. Or maybe he went out and became a shoutcaster. The point being they went out and showed they have the gumption to just go make it happen on their own. And there’s a very clear line between people who do that and people who wait for opportunities. The people who apply for a job when it comes instead of going, “Well, there is no job. I’m gonna make one.”

I think that the other thing is, we’re looking for somebody who has a proven — can exhibit that they’re able to stand up to somebody with as strong a personality, someone as intimidating as Yamato. Let’s be honest, we’re in a game where people aren’t that strong of personalities. So you have to find someone who’s not gonna wilt when you find that Yamato’s gonna disagree with him. If they really feel their point, they should be able to stand up for their point in a good way.

Cover photo courtesy of Riot Games.