Alex “Xpecial Chu and Brandon “Saintvicious” DiMarco are two of the most recognizable names in North American League of Legends. They’ve both been around since before the League Championship Series began and have seen more than just about anyone in the North American scene.
At this stage of their careers, they have come together, Xpecial as a player, and Saintvicious the coach of Apex, which is 5-7 and in seventh place in the LCS standings through six weeks. Apex is still only a game out of a playoff spot, but it’s been a struggle since opening the summer split 2-0.
Slingshot’s Vince Nairn had the chance to talk to Xpecial and Saintvicious during Week 4 of the LCS about Apex, their careers and the state of esports.
Vince Nairn: It’s been an up and down split so far. Being in the middle of the pack, how do you guys feel about where you are?
Brandon “Saintvicious” DiMarco: I think that we are capable of pushing up into the higher standings, I see it. But we have a team of three Koreans and a lot of young players too. There’s a lot of communication issues and confidence issues. It’s hard for a team of rookies to go up against a team like TSM, who has been a team for a long time. TSM is a good team and and will just come in and whoop your ass. They will punish you for small mistakes, like “You forgot to do this and now I’m going to stomp on you for 30 minutes.” That’s what we are going to work on, keeping mentally strong and working as a team. I’m pretty happy where we are at and I’m pretty sure we can get higher in the standings.
VN: You both have been around the game for a long time. How do you use your collective knowledge to get things going?
AC: For me, the biggest thing is I wish I knew Korean. I’m Chinese unfortunately, I don’t know Korean but it’s hard to pass my knowledge and pass my experience to them. The fact that I can’t use any of that because I don’t know the language is really annoying. I can’t have heart to hearts. I can’t be like, “Hey Shrimp, how’s it going?” and, really get down to it. It sucks a lot.
BD: Yeah, all the players speak English but some have like broken English. Keane is full bilingual but Shrimp is not that great. Like if I want to have a conversation with Shrimp or Ray, like ‘I remember when I was there,” like trying to give the coach speech and he’s just like, “What?” So yeah, I’d go with Xpecial and say I wish I spoke Korean. I try to pass on as much as I can. Experience is like, I’ve been here before, I remember what it was like, and you try and share the same type of knowledge.
VN: Brandon, being a coach, are you more of an analyst or life coach? How do you balance the different aspects of being a coach?
BD: Well, most teams, if you look at China and Korea, have a whole coaching staff, they have a head coach, an analyst, a life coach, and a strategic coach. So before, we had Bliss, who was a translator and life coach and we would split some of the stuff that was needed. But because of visa issues he hasn’t been here. So I’m kind of like one man coaching the whole team. I don’t really like analysts, I think they are useless so I don’t use those either. But we are looking for a qualified bilingual Korean person to come in and replace Bliss’s spot if we can’t get him to come in. It’s really hard juggling everything by myself especially since I don’t speak Korean. I use Keane a lot as a tool to translate for me. I think that coach’s job is divided out with what your players and organization expect. A coach can do a bunch of different things.
VN: As you have gotten to this time in your career, is there a point where you kind of just look back and see how much have changed over the years?
AC: Yeah, every day. I just think that every day I need to put in more effort because every day can be my last. It’s just one of those things where I can stop at any point and be content, but I want more. I’m really greedy with that. I want to push more and get more achievements and, that’s just my goal. If I stop today, then I stop today, but I’m going to push until I’m satisfied, and I’m not satisfied.
VN: Nowadays we have things like 10 person rosters, Challenger teams (run by LCS teams), things that weren’t even thought of back in the day. What has it been like seeing all the changes?
AC: I think it’s surprising on how much has changed and how much similar it still is. Yes, we have LCS and all these teams now, but you still have five players, you still have arguments and issues. It’s never perfect. You don’t have a perfect system. It always comes back to it feels like TSM Season 2, we were having arguments, having issues with teams, we can’t get a communication thing down, and every team has issues, and that never changed through the years. I think that is the most surprising thing to me.
BD: I don’t think it has progressed as much as people think. There might be more people around saying their opinion, but I don’t think that the infrastructure — I don’t think that anything has progressed that much. Even the sister team thing. CLG had CLG Black, but, I don’t know, like I think we had some progression and we have come a long way, but I still think it’s still just a big show.
VN: What is it that makes you say that? Is it something that people aren’t seeing?
BD: I think that there is a lot more money in the scene but the stuff behind the scenes is pretty much the same. You have coaches and whatnot but a lot of coaches don’t really do much. Then you have subs, and they don’t do it either. So in the end it’s still five guys with some semblance of a coach. Some teams have gone above and beyond. You have TSM with Weldon Green, you have C9 with multiple translators. They’re doing really well, but the teams that are low on the standings aren’t really that much different than it was in Season 2 and 3.
VN: What are the things that need to change to kind of get to a point where the industry is progressing to where people want it to be?
BD: You need qualified staff, which is hard to find. It’s really hard to find qualified League people that have proven experience and know what the hell they’re doing, in game and out. Coaching a team is managing people, same as in League or anything else. There’s just not that many of those people that are qualified to come in. Also, coaches and staff in traditional sports get paid like…how much do you think a college coach makes, like $5-8 million. So how much do you think a coach for Echo Fox makes? (laughs) It’s just like that with players too. If there’s more longevity to it and they can dedicate their life to it then, yeah that’s where you see the change.
AC: It also comes down to the fact that League of Legends is really the first generation of esports in North America. If you look at Korea, they had Starcraft pros grow up, become coaches, lead their League teams. In NA it’s different. Pros from my generation, who played with me before that have retired now, can come back, have experience, go through gaming houses, been through all the LCS stuff and lead teams, maybe five or 10 years from now can lead a new generation, maybe a new game, maybe the same game in the future. That’s the generation that will do so. Right now we don’t have that. There’s no Starcraft pro from 18 years ago come in to coach us.
BD: Yeah there’s no Kkoma. I’m like the ghetto Kkoma, man. (laughs)
VN: If you look at what players can do at the end of their career, one option is that they can go into coaching. Others become on-air talent. How did you decide you wanted to get into coaching after your playing career?
BD: To be honest, when I was on Gravity, after that I just didn’t want to play anymore, I was super frustrated and was just playing for too long. So I left Gravity, and as I was leaving the people from Coast called me and said they think I’d be a good coach, and it kinda just happened. I tried to coach a little when I was with Curse, but I didn’t know enough about the game and I wasn’t mentally mature enough yet either to be doing something like that. I kind of just fell into it.
VN: Did you want to get out of League after you left Gravity?
BD: I was probably going to stream then probably just work with my father in his family business, something like that.
VN: Alex, have you given it much thought about what your plans are after you are done playing? Would you go into trying to be on air talent, or coaching, or something else?
AC: I have. I’ve been forced to (think about it) when I was in between teams. Personally, while I like talking about the game a lot, I don’t think I’d be a good fit for the on air crew and it wouldn’t really where I would want to be. I don’t really want to go into coaching either. I think I’d just fade away from esports or come back in a few years after college. I haven’t really decided, there’s so many options. There’s plenty of players that work behind the scenes too in esports as well, and there’s plenty of players that go back to school. You named two positions players go into after they’re done playing, but esports is growing and (other positions) just aren’t as popular or just don’t remain in the public eye.
Photos courtesy of Riot Games.