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In-depth interview with NicoThePico on his transition from Fnatic to Ninjas in Pyjamas: “I never publicly defended myself for (my time on) Fnatic.”

NicoThePico talked about his time on Origen, Fnatic and now Ninjas in Pyjamas.
NicoThePico offered his first public defense of being dropped as Fnatic's League of Legends coach int he spring. Photo courtesy of Riot Games.

Nicholas “NicoThePico” Korsgaard has endured an extremely controversial year in the European League of Legends Championship Series (EU LCS). He joined Fnatic in 2016 after an initial period on Origen and started this season as head coach of Fnatic and overseeing Fnatic Academy. After a difficult spring, he and Fnatic parted ways, followed by an almost immediate improvement in Fnatic’s results. When he joined Ninjas in Pyjamas, it was accompanied by an objection from fans when the Fnatic Academy roster was replaced.

After NiP finished the regular season with a 2-0 victory over Fnatic, NicoThePico spoke in depth with Slingshot’s Kelsey Moser about his transition from Origen to Fnatic, and then finally, to NiP.

Kelsey Moser: First of all, it seems NiP’s draft priority drastically improved after the second week into 7.14. Was there a conversation to clarify champion priority or anything like that?

Nicholas “NicoThePico” Korsgaard: Going into the split, I had a very clear idea, which I identified together with Hampus and Shook, which were the first people I sort of locked down on the roster, where we’re going to bring in two Koreans who are going to be good individually for the lanes. And we figure the highest win percentage earlier in the season would be early game-related compositions with split-push. We could snowball early game really hard and work on closing our games.

And for most of our games early in the split, we had 5K leads at 10-15 minutes every game. Same in scrims, and the games were really just learning how to actually close out. If you go back and look at those games, if we replay them today, I think we close out every game with 5-6K gold lead. We just didn’t have the synergy as a team and the understanding of how to close out together.

It’s been a lot of work and discipline, and then, when the tank meta hit, we sort of saw the new patch, and we tried to adapt to it. The new patch is team fight oriented, so with everything that I’ve worked with the team and teaching them the macro of the 1-3-1 (because that’s what we’ve been doing the whole time), I think if you really learn and understand how to do 1-3-1, you can do a good 1-4 as well. We went over how to 1-4, and we knew how to play 1-3-1, and we still get early leads, and we actually — in the end — we learned how to close out our games. Like we took a game off of Unicorns just by actually closing it out with the 1-3-1.

I think we just followed the meta, and we got to the point as a team where we were actually able to close out games and have better communication. We’ve had English teachers with Profit and Nagne two times a week, sometimes three times a week since the beginning, and in-house translator, and they’re actually — almost don’t even need our translator today.

KM: Speaking of the translator, that’s actually kind of rare for EU teams. Why did NiP decide this was a priority?

NK: So if you look at the Europeans that we have — HeaQ played in a team with NighT before. Sprattel played in PSG with Blanc and Pilot. Shook has played with multiple Koreans (GBM, they had Police, and MightyBear). So all of the three European players had a lot of experience actually interacting with Koreans. When talking with Shook and sprattel in the early phase of building the team, it was very clear that we’re not getting any practice time.

We went into the split with two and a half days of scrims before the first match vs Fnatic. So we knew that communication was going to be the biggest thing, so to sort of smooth that out, we just went all in on grabbing a translator and having him in-house as part of the staff to help us get on the same page on the game. I think that, even with a lack of being able to communicate, if you have the same understanding as a team on how to close out games and how to play the macro of the game, you’ll be able to make do with pings and simple English. So, with the time that we had, and it being summer split, and we don’t have any time to waste, I felt it was necessary.

KM: I think one of the big trepidations when the NiP roster announcement came out was actually the fact that your name was included.

NK: Yes.

KM: And of course, there’s been a lot of criticism of you since you parted ways with Fnatic. Do you think there was a major failing on your part on Fnatic that you sought to correct with NiP?

NK: I never publicly defended myself for (my time on) Fnatic. This had been based on the good relations I’ve had with most of the players and staff within the org, and I’ve been content with taking my part of the blame and taking the heat of the community so that the players could focus on their game. When I came in and took over the head coach positions, it was with Deilor’s blessings as he had faith in me and believed I was the right guy to take over the ship.

Even when Deilor was still in the team, from the time that I got in as an assistant coach, I was handling the coaching of the team. Into spring split (of this year), I made a team that I think in the beginning had too many veterans. I wanted to create a space for Caps to grow as much as he could. I was putting all my money on Caps. I had played myself with Caps in a Challenger team called Enigma, and then I coached him in said team. I knew that he was someone I wanted to spend money on.

I created the Challenger team as well, and there was two people — or actually, three. It was Caps, and Broxah, and Nisqy. These were the three talents that I knew, if I secure them for Fnatic, these are long-term investments. These are really good investments for Fnatic. We’re going to have a strong Challenger team, and we’re going to have a very competitive LCS team. And the LCS team, on paper, Day One, I think, was really strong. sOAZ, Amazing already have synergy. The only wildcard was Jesiz, but we had an extensive tryout period. In the end, we decided on Jesiz because of his experience with coaching and bringing in a different point of view into the game (having been a coach and going back to player). So we had more the macro aspect, and then Caps was just manhandling everyone. We almost didn’t get practice before LCS because Caps was just destroying everyone.

I think, a lot of the things in Fnatic — a lot of the first weeks — we had a very wrong read on the champion priorities because Caps could play whatever matchup, and he would destroy. And then we went on stage, and it doesn’t work the same way. There was synergy issues between Amazing and Caps to the point where we removed Amazing from the roster and took in Broxah. That was a move that should have been done earlier.

I think one of my biggest failing in this team in terms of the split was not doing this change earlier. Because, I think, with sOAZ, and Jesiz, and Rekkles, you already have enough veteran power, right? And then two rookies. Even though the jungle-mid lane synergy is important, they’re both Danish, they’re going to have another Dane in Jesiz. He’s going to help them gain control.

If this move was made earlier, the issues that later became issues might never have arisen, or at least might have been easier to deal with once they arose. It’s never easy to change a player in a team, and sometimes even if you have a good replacement there will still be pains from before hanging in the air.

We took Broxah into the team. It was a huge turnaround. Already, first match after we took in Broxah, it was already a new team. You could see that we were actually playing together, and Caps and Broxah had this like — get-go synergy, right? And things were going really well.

But the honeymoon phase didn’t last forever, and there were clear issues in the team that I was not able to handle and sort out. I was not identifying issues that arose early enough and not handling them appropriately. I was unable to become the coach the team needed at the time. So week by week, things were deteriorating on the inside and progressively getting worse.

There came a point where — when we lost to ROCCAT, I think we were the first team that lost to ROCCAT on their win streak. Us losing to ROCCAT with the players that are on Fnatic — they’re very, extremely proud players. sOAZ and Rekkles — even Caps as a rookie — and Jesiz are extremely proud people. Fnatic as an organization is extremely proud.

So we have this team — even though, we knew it was going to be a long-term project with Caps, and I told Fnatic summer split is the split because we use spring split to actually grow Caps into the player we need him to be for summer. When we lost to ROCCAT, it’s a panic. The players panic, and the organization panics, and they’re like — we need to do something, and it was roster lock. You couldn’t change a player. The only subs we had were analysts. I had Blumigan and Zhergoth. Zhergoth is now with me as an assistant coach, and Blumigan is with Dark Passage, but they were primarily analyst subs and there for emergency situations.

If you look at Fnatic as a team, you have Jesiz who has been a coach before. You have sOAZ, who is, in my eyes, the most knowledgeable, wise player in the game. He will always be valuable to any team just for the immense and deep game knowledge that he has, even if his mechanics fail. Rekkles also has a very clear understanding of the game, and Caps was always going to be fine, and Broxah is very plug-and-play.

They needed a change — the players. That’s why the decision was made. Finlay, coming in, just because you had to have someone, but the players themselves with Jesiz having been a coach before, didn’t really need anything. I think what happened was that once I was removed from the team, the players really had to step up in taking their responsibility as they would be in charge of the ship themselves, together with Finlay. And they truly did mesh together and found their identity in the end, as a direct result of me not being there anymore and them getting responsibility forced upon themselves.

They committed to their new style. Caps is a super good player, and sOAZ has the wisdom, Jesiz has been a coach before. Finlay has been around as a manager forever, so they’re going to be able to practice, and they’re still good players, and they still have the best scrim opponents in the league, and Caps with the biggest ceiling of any player in the western scene since Bjergsen maybe is going to grow with good opponents.

So, I think, obviously it’s not fair to say, but I think that if we won against ROCCAT, or if I didn’t get removed, we could have had the same run regardless of me being there or not. But I think you get to some point, especially with a team that’s expected to win, that if you lose, you’re forced to change something. And I was the only thing that could be changed that actually had an impact. It will always haunt me that I was not able to be the coach they needed. I have massive respect for all of the players and staff within Fnatic, and I had a great time there. It’s unfortunate because I have such a good history with and will always have love for these players, especially Caps/Broxah/sOAZ, it just wasn’t meant to be.

KM: Do you think that when you have these really experienced players like that — because you also have some experienced players on NiP — what becomes your role? How does your role as a coach change?

NK: I’ve been in LCS for two years. I started with Origen. On Origen, even though I came in as a head analyst, I was the coach. They had the manager on stage, and the manager was a lock to be on stage for X amount of time until I could come in, but I was the coach from Day 1, and I was working with the team since second week of January. The team was eighth place when I came in, and we went to finals.

The position that I had in Origen in the spring split (of 2016) was more of a facilitator for discussion and sort of trying to set structure in terms of how we practice, how we do our drafts, that we actually do the preparation for every match. That we actually spend a lot of time on scouting. I was watching LCK and LPL and all LCS matches from all regions daily. I just — me trying to get as much information to the players that we can utilize because you have mithy who is going to do all the shot-calling in the world, and it’s just about finding the right synergies with the players.

Obviously, we had Power and Peke. Peke wanted to be an owner, so we tried to make Power work, but Power and Amazing never really had synergy, so we were working with a ship that wasn’t really working, but we still made it work, and we still made it to Finals, and we lost five Barons or something in that final vs G2 to like a Caitlyn shot or shit like this. So that was a good run, and then, obviously, Zven and mithy left. If I knew, and the rest of the players knew in time, I don’t think no one would have stayed. I would have left, Amazing would have left, sOAZ would have left. I’m pretty sure Power wouldn’t have wanted to have stayed either. Because the situation was really, really, really messed up, and you’ve seen everything in the community and the drama that happened around that.

But we didn’t know in time, and I was already locked to Origen, and everyone was already locked to Origen, so we had to try and make it work. We picked up Hybrid and FORG1VEN. The reason for FORG1VEN was sOAZ and Amazing and Peke had a really good relationship with him, and they had really high respect for him. Hybrid had a good split in G2 even though he might have looked better than he actually was, and we still kept Power. Origen summer split was really a mess. There were clear management issues in Origen. I don’t want to go in too much to comment on it, but I was removed from the team, and it was not a player decision, and the players contested it, and I was asked to come back. But I already had my assistant coach role at Fnatic, so it was — it was not something I was really interested in, and I think most of the people there wanted to get off the ship.

So then, coming into Fnatic, that role sort of changed, right? I had two teams that I managed in a way, even though I had a head coach for the second team. We were scrimming each other a lot, so in a way, they’re my 10 players, right? For the main team, also very much a facilitator, but we brought in a mental coach who is with me now. And we really tried to set structure and force ourselves to be a team in every way — like really work hard on structure and try to meld together, and then trying to have consistent team goals and consistent value of our scrim days that every single scrim day, we gain something, we learn something. We have something that we’re working on.

I think, from Origen to Fnatic, on Fnatic, I needed to be a lot more structured. Together with my mental coach, Jens Hofer, that’s what we were. Really put down structure. Force people to work out. Force people to eat healthy. Like try to do all the small things, so that they can perform and be the best that they can be. Having individual talks, helping people mentally, trying to make sure that Caps — you know, Caps came in 16 years old. I knew Caps since he was 13 or 14 and stealing him from his parents, telling them I wanted to sign their son to a two-year contract where he would be living in Berlin.

I think, in Fnatic, I was somewhat of an older brother to Caps and Broxah, who came in as rookies and I had known for a long time, and I was a structure and a facilitator sort of coach for the rest of the players — together with Jens.

KM: On NiP, do you have yet a third different role, or is it more similar to Origen or Fnatic?

NK: So, in Fnatic, when you have sOAZ, and you have Jesiz, and you have Rekkles, the more experienced players you have, especially with these old school European players, they’re the most opinionated people in the world, right? Whenever we’re discussing something, we’re always going to go back and forth, so we’re always going to find solutions together. And sometimes you don’t find solutions, and sometimes it drags on too long, and you’re not able to come to conclusions because there’s three or four different views.

In Fnatic, I never had enough power to sort of make a decision for everybody because you really can’t overpower if you have four different options. Because we have a guy who was a coach before, and Rekkles is potentially all time best EU ADC, sOAZ is the smartest guy in the game who I — maybe respected too much and gave him too much power. Whereas in NiP, a team I built, I have two Koreans who — the Koreans will always respect their coach, right? As long as your coach isn’t really trolling. And I have HeaQ and sprattel bot lane: both extremely open to being coached. I have Shook, who is actually really wonderful, amazing teammate. And he’s been the best possible teammate for the Koreans in terms of including them and making them feel comfortable.

In NiP, I’ve really been able to teach them the game. Whereas, in all the other teams, I have so much experienced players, so I never needed to teach them the game because they already knew the game. And then it’s more about trying to figure out ways to innovate or ways to optimize, whereas, NiP from Day One, we’ve really just been working on macro — like how the game works, how we need to close it out, how we can create synergy, how we build vision, how we use pressure, how we use mid priority — what communication needs to be: who is talking to who, what are your roles. Everything, from the bottom. The whole time in NiP, we’ve just been building the same structure and having the same structure in scrims from the beginning.

Me and Jens Hofer have been very, very strict. Wake up times, waking people up every day if they need to. We have daily out time activities. We go out for thirty minutes every day in between scrims. Make sure that they’re living healthy lives while also having healthy, structured, planned, goal-oriented scrims.

Over the course of the split, I think, without a doubt, you can see that the team has really gone from a team that will win early game and then throw every game to a team that wins early game, and then actually are able to play macro. And you can see that they are a coherent unit today. It’s a thing that — with coaching in League, there is not a set way to coach. You have to be very adaptive, and you need to be innovative in finding out what your players need.

Because everybody is always going to need something. Some people are going to have extreme need to get their frustrations out, and that’s where a mental coach comes in and helps so much. Some players need to have every mistake in the game pointed out to them and just want to learn as much as possible. Some players only want macro. Some players just want to spam solo queue and have as much time. You need to find the balance between the five players you have on the team and potential extra in-house subs and be as much of a person that they need while, at the same time, pushing the structure and the objective and the goals that you have. For NiP, I think that sort of fell in place.

KM: If you had confidence in the FNA team you built, how did it come about that the roster had to be completely rebuilt for NiP after qualifying for LCS? There have been a lot of conflicting statements made about what happened with this FNA team in terms of them being a whole package deal. From your perspective, which are true?

In short, the original plan was to enter EU CS, and then qualify to LCS over the split. We already had most of the roster locked down and set in stone. The Challenger purchase didn’t go through and so the only available spots to buy in were MFA’s and FNA’s LCS spots.

I’d like to add in: we reached out of most of the players in FNA, and I also knew many of these players quite good, specifically Klaj, Amazing, Kikis, who I coached before. Nisqy as we know today went to Envy, and the rest of the group, including their coach, branded themselves as a package deal. You would only get all or none. Rallez later went on to TSM as well.

As we had already pretty much made up our roster, only lacking mid/top, before even starting the purchase process of the LCS spots, and the FNA players would only go as a package, it was not meant to be. I also think, even if Nisqy and Rallez would have stayed, this roster is already formed and shaped by another coach, and I was not interested in taking over an already running ship, and neither was NiP. We wanted to create our own team. We could have had pieces from the FNA lineup in this new team, but we would never take the whole lineup as we already had a near full team put together.

Coming in to NiP, I really wanted to create a new lineup, a new identity, and make a long term working team and brand. It was important that instead of being MFA or FNA we would be recognized as our own team.

Important to note that it was never the plan to buy an LCS slot, and it only became the plan once the CS slots were no longer an option, and at that time we already had a near finished roster, and was finalizing with the remaining players. The only remaining spots were MFA and FNA. We already had a set roster, promises were already made to players and contracts already done.

Whether we bought MFA or FNA didn’t matter. I personally thought we would only be able to get MFA and that FNA as a full lineup would get immense pressure from buyers. But losing Nisqy might have been a big hit to potential buyers for their lineup.

In the end, we bought FNA, and stayed with our roster that we had already signed down. I have good relations with many of the FNA players, I think their whole roster was LCS worthy. I would have preferred us taking over the MFA spot because of my personal friendships with the FNA players, and they know that. I’m extremely proud of Nisqy especially, who’s rocking it over at Envy now, and stoked for Rallez going into TSM. They both deserve it. Kikis and Klaj will always be close to me, and I will always have love for them. Amazing and me were really close in Origen, and even though things didn’t work out with us in FNC, I still wish him only the best.

KM: I just have a few more questions about today’s games. It seemed like Fnatic were picking comps that were kind of difficult to execute in late game team fights. Was this something that you identified and set up in draft?

NK: I wish you had a comment from Broxah here, but — Rekkles posted his summary of the round robin Group A matches on his Fanpage, where he among other things pointed out that “they knew exactly what we would bring, especially with NicoThePico being their coach.” This is still very much the case. Known Broxah and Caps for about 4-5 years, Close with sOAZ, had a good relationship with Rekkles from summer split and worked a split with Jesiz. I have a really good understanding of how this team works.

And, I think, even if the casters are saying that they were trolling draft and trying things — yes, maybe they tried Azir on stage, but outside of that, they were really playing comfort. They were really playing comfort. I think the drafts went exactly how we expected them outside the Azir pick and outside of sOAZ Rumble. They were very predictable, and we got everything that we wanted on our side, and outside of Kalista dying in lane level two, executed the macro really good in how we actually worked to go into the game.

But I think there’s something to point out there too — is that this game doesn’t matter to us. Outside of the huge confidence boost from beating FNC, we didn’t really want to show too much as the most important matches are still awaiting us in relegation.

So the whole two last days, I sort of focused my mind on this game and trying to work around in the draft in a way where we get good drafts without giving away too much information. I don’t think it would have been possible unless it was against Fnatic because if I open this champion, you’re going to pick this champion. If I pick this champion, I know you’re going to respond with this champion. It was the best possible case in terms of both us getting a draft that we were strong with and also drafts that we were comfortable playing into without really giving away any information going into relegation. So it was like the best that it can be, I think.

KM: As a final question, does winning over Fnatic in the end have any personal significance to you, or is it just kind of a friendly thing?

NK: I don’t personally have any grudges against Fnatic, and a lot of Fnatic fans think that I am really salty against Fnatic. But I’ve actually gone out and said it many times: I’m really close with many of the players, especially sOAZ and Broxah. I built this team. In my heart, these are still my players. It’s my players who got first place summer split. I hand-picked all of them and did everything to put them together for Fnatic, and I’m super proud of them, and I really hope they do well in playoffs.

There’s no hard feelings. The value of this win is a huge a confidence boost. I think HeaQ made a real statement today that he’s not to be laughed at. I think, especially in Game One, our macro was impeccable outside of not defending Baron, and we sort of gave away mid tower for no reason. I think it gives a different respect from the Challenger teams that are going to face us, and we have more confidence going in, and we have confirmation that what we’ve been working on is working — and that we’ve been sort of working in the right direct because when we win like this in the situation that we’re in, something is going right, right?

Something is working. Learning the game, communication — things are falling into place. Maybe if it happened two weeks earlier, we would have contested ROCCAT for fourth place, but like I’ve said in many interviews, too, NiP wanted to survive. Going into a split (Summer Split) with two and a half days of scrims, with two Koreans who don’t speak English, it’s a suicide run. But we’re confident that we could go the ten weeks and, together with my mental coach, actually build a strong team, and NiP is a long term project I’m working toward next year. It’s sort of a learning experience and sort of securing our spot, pretty much. And we were confident we could do it, and that’s why, in the end, we decided to do it. Because we could have also gone for Challenger Series, which would have been an easier road.

Cover photo courtesy of Riot Games