Slingshot’s Vince Nairn caught up with H2K coach Neil “pr0lly” Hammad after his team’s quarterfinal win at the League of Legends World Championship to talk about handling this season’s challenges and what it’s like being the only non-Korean team remaining in the tournament.
Vince Nairn: How would you sum up your thoughts on winning this match and getting to the world semifinals?
Neil “pr0lly” Hammad: Oh man. That’s still pretty crazy. I don’t know. I kind of always expected my team to play at this level, so I guess every coach does. But it wasn’t a feeling, it was kind of knowledge. I knew they had the ability to play this way, so it wasn’t one of those classic, “Oh, I just really believe in my team” scenarios. They’ve actually shown me hard results of how they can play. When they play the early game and get these gigantic leads, it’s not really a surprise to me. I’ve seen it first hand, so it was kind of just waiting for them to be unleashed from the cage. What’s going to be moment that triggers their stage play to be how scrims play? I think that happened during group stages that second week where it just started working like it did in scrims. It wasn’t anything super special, but it just happened. It’s been going on from there. I think as long as we can fix our mid-late game, I think we actually be able to go as far as I want — because I’m still not exactly satisfied with semis. It’s one of those things where I only really think of the next match, and I can’t think past that because it’ll just make me less prepared for the match at hand. After we went out of groups, (the focus) has only been on quarters. But kind of in the back of my mind, I was like, “We can play semis, too.” Now that we’ve finished quarters, I have a soft idea of what I want to do against Samsung Galaxy, but I didn’t want to jinx myself and prepare for them. I’m not superstitious, or that stitious. I’m a little stitious. I am 8-0 with this tie. I’ll say that.
VN: You guys have been through a lot this year, whether it was Ryu’s visa in the spring, or FORG1VEN leaving or Freeze’s injury and FORG1VEN coming back. It’s just been a lot. How have you, as the coach, just tried to handle all of it?
NH: I can’t say it’s easy because that’s purely lying. But I was kind of just prepared for it since I’ve been young because I’m the youngest of three, so I’ve always been prepared. A crazy situation is happening, but I’m not part of it because I’m too dumb and little to understand, and so I just had to ease the tension by being the little brother that doesn’t know what’s going on, so I’m like, “Why is everyone angry?” So that’s how I’ve had to deal with the position on the team a lot of the time. So many things are going crazy and no one has control over it, like the visa issue or the conscription. So it’s kind of like I’ve been doing this all my life, essentially, with my family, so it was doable with them because it’s like “You guys know you can’t do anything about it and I can’t do anything either. We need to focus on what we can actually control in our lives.” So it’s hard, but I had a lifetime of experience dealing with that stuff. So I can be the little brother. I can ease the tension by doing something goofy, or I can get them to focus not on “Oh my god the world’s ending,” but “There’s a pretty flower over there.”
VN: What was the most difficult part of this entire season, if there was one in particular?
NH: I think the Ryu situation was probably the hardest because he’s such a loud voice on the team. He’s also seen kind of as the final say in a lot of stuff in and out of the game. So when he left, we had to re-shape how the team communicated because now we’re playing with Selfie, who that was his first time doing LCS stuff. So he wasn’t as experiences as we were used to. So we basically had to re-learn a lot of the stuff Ryu would do, and we didn’t understand it, the intangible things mid laners do. So that was really hard because not only was it a big missing chunk of knowledge from the team, but we also didn’t know when he was coming back. So it was a big unknown factor, and we had to go re-catch up on how to do all this stuff. All these tiny things on what the mid laner would do, we had to re-teach or go through the mistakes.
VN: How has FORG1VEn progressed? What have you seen from him since he came back?
NH: Well he changed his philosophy a bit, which is important. If someone has a philosophy on something, you can’t really change someone’s belief. You can change opinions but (core) beliefs are really hard. After the bad things that happened with Origen, I think part of his philosophy changed on how to approach the game, and it ended up being really positive, especially for being around our players and how they react. So bringing him back in was a lot easier, and the scrims were a lot better than they were in spring. They worked because he felt a lot better about the game and how he wanted to treat certain things. So it just became a bit easier because that was always the hardest part: Just how people would react to things in and out of game. So the fact that he’s been able to progress that way has helped him be a lot better as a teammate, and it’s been a two-way street. His philosophy changing also helps the players play with him.
VN: It’s like they meet him halfway?
NH: Yeah. because it’s like he gave up something, so now we can give up something too. So it was a good understanding when he came back. A lot of it was chance because we had no clue when we brought him back if it was going to be good or bad. We don’t know what’s happening. We haven’t talked to this guy for like a month. It was a pretty big shot in the dark. It’s funny how things work out because he’s still a ridiculously good mechanical AD Carry. No one really compares to him at worlds. Even though there are good AD Carries who are really smart with the team, no one really compares to the way he plays. It’s a really big factor that people have to deal with. I think the team realizes that when we brought him back. They’ve played with FORG1VEN and without him, so bringing him back was also good because we had that experience already. It was one of the moments where you don’t have something and then you have it again. Not that you appreciate it more, but you can see how it works.
VN: You guys are the only non-Korean team in the semifinals. What does it mean to be the last Western team to try to end this run of dominance?
NH: I think it’s really cool. I was really tired of seeing just — Koreans vs. Koreans is really good high-level (play), but it’s more of the same. It’s kind of always been that way, so I’m really happy that we are the last Western team. It’s exciting to be part of that. I think we do have a good chance against Samsung Galaxy. They’re definitely favorites, but the possibility of us winning that game is (small) — no one beats Korean teams in best-of-five games as the underdog. We have achieved the last Western team, which is really cool. But I want to beat a Korean team in a best-of-five and go to finals. And then maybe we can talk about finals. But I’m happy we won in Chicago. That’s really cool. But I’m not finished yet.
VN: At the same time, do you feel like you don’t have anything to lose? You just said that nobody beats Koreans in best-of-fives. Does that relieve any pressure?
NH: I don’t really feel that way, and I don’t think the players. It’s more factual and not a feeling that we can win. It’s factual that Koreans don’t lose to Western teams in a best-of-five. But facts don’t always mean it’s going to keep happening. I know me and my players will have confidence because I think we have a really good read on the meta, and it fits us well. I’m pretty excited to play them, and I want to show the difference is not as vast between Koreans and other teams. The gap is very big. I would say the Korean teams are just like 10x smarter. But I would say the fact that maybe we’re not as smart mid-late game, but we’re way more aggressive and strong in the early game. I hope that can maybe offset how we play and throw them off. And that’s where we should be getting our advantage