Competitive League of Legends has grown past just the five-player line-up. Coaching staff and more people in charge of training, guiding and managing players are becoming necessary for a successful team eyeing a spot at the top of the League Championship Series.
Image credit: LoL Esports/Flickr
Or so says the coaching staff for the Immortals, who spoke to me over Skype about their process, structure, goals and ambitions as one of the largest support structures in the North American LCS. We reached out to them after a commenter inquired in April about what a coach for an esports team actually does. In most ways, the dynamic between players and coaches isn't unlike what you'd see with traditional sports teams -- just maybe with a little extra life management.
Immortals' League of Legends team has seven players: Five starters, two subs. Its coaching staff is composed of five members, including head coach Kim Sang-Su (known as SSONG), team manager Jun Kang, coach Robert Yip, head analyst Brendan Schilling and analyst Nick Luft. It's a stark contrast to the early days of League and even modern esports teams in other games such as Dota 2, which can often get by with a single coach-slash-manager or less.
A day in Kim's life usually goes something like this: The head coach wakes up and, during the weekday, manages the team's scrims. One set of scrims, break to rest and eat, then back to scrims. 10AM to 5PM, it's focused training for the Immortals squad, and after that, Kim sits down at his computer to watch matches and study strategies, from North America to Korea.
Kim celebrates with Olleh after an LCS match.
Kim's focus tends to be on building teamwork and achieving milestones. He's working with five different players who operate at the top of their game in each role -- the trick isn't always getting them to play better individually, but together.
"I treat it as, the five different players and five different positions, I compare it to a real-life job," said Kim. "It's having different occupations -- top, jungle, mid -- they're all experts in their own lane. Since this is a team game and they don't have the knowledge of the other lanes or other occupations, I try to meld them together into a team."
The head coach also diffuses arguments and helps to mediate discussion, but big picture strategy is often Kim's purview. Identifying mistakes, reinforcing good habits, and checking off mile-markers for improvement makes up a good portion of Kim's role in the team. Still, he tries to keep things lighthearted.
"My ultimate goal is that since we're pro players and professionals, that we treat daily scrims and practice seriously as professionals," said Kim. "Then when that day is over, that we just enjoy what we're doing instead of being stressed all day."
Robert Yip, another coach on the team, came into the League of Legends scene in 2012, at a time when most coaches were former pros, recycling the talent pool.
"You would hire people that had really good base knowledge because they were former pros, and they would work with the up-and-coming pros," said Yip. "Normally there wouldn't be a lot of new faces or new ideas in the scene. Slowly but surely, people are incorporating people from outside esports because they bring a different perspective or skillset."
Former esports player and team manager Jun echoes this sentiment of growth in the scene. "When I played, I didn't have a coach," said Jun. "We were just five players. Having someone to talk to about strategy, getting feedback about what I think and asking them, learning about their experience when they were a player, is very valuable."
While many modern coaches are still former pros or high-level players, such as Kim and Jun, support staff membership has been expanding to those with different schools of thought. People with sports backgrounds, physiotherapy or athletic training are becoming advantageous in a league system that resembles modern sports structures more every day.
This manifests in the larger support staffs for teams such as Immortals, where Yip's role is performance coach, a new trend in esports. Unlike Jun or Kim, Yip hails from a sports coaching background. Strength and conditioning, sports psychology, and health are his fortes, and Yip's focus is to make sure the team is exercising, sleeping and eating well, and staying emotionally sound.
"The [performance coach] works with the team or group to make sure people are physically, mentally, emotionally stable and strong enough to compete in a high-pressure environment," said Yip. "It's something that a lot of teams should look into getting. It's something that a lot of the better teams have, and have had someone working with them consistently, and they're seeing the benefits of that these days."
Like physical therapists Matt Hwu and Cait McGee, Yip works with players on posture, stretching and fitness to make sure they don't incur any injuries that might inhibit their performance. There isn't a lot of physicality involved in esports, as Yip mentions, so players spend time doing core exercises and wrist stretches so they don't succumb to injuries.
"What's key is to make sure they have a long career so that they can play for a lot longer," said Yip. "They can reap the benefits of their skills and it sets them up for the future if they want to go into coaching or college, or anything like that."
Jun's role as team manager tends to be twofold: One part is handling the logistics of the team itself. From mediating arguments and overseeing the team's scrim schedule to waking them up in time for practice, Jun handles the day-to-day of Immortals. "I'm basically the dad," Jun tells me. His other role is being a bilingual go-between for the players. Head coach Kim is from South Korea, and Immortals' players hail from South Korea, China, America and the Philippines. Though English is a common enough through-line, Jun often handles translation for Kim during team meetings and interviews, including our own. Though his duties have become more focused on play than the day-to-day logistics in the last year (the team has hired a cook, which Jun was happy about), it was clear Jun was the Cliff Gardner to Immortals' organisation.
All these moving pieces, from strategy discussion and scrimmaging to physical well-being and teamwork discussion, culminates every weekend in the week's LCS matches. It's at this point that the coaches have to let the players fly -- unlike football, basketball, or even games such as Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, coaches are only able to talk to the team during their draft and for one minute after the draft has concluded. The rest is up to the five players, led by their in-game shot-caller.
"We just try to talk to them about the big picture, how they should be playing out the game as a whole," said Kim. "We can't really micromanage small things because the game is volatile, it changes every minute, so they have to figure out what they have to do in certain situations on their own."
At that point, Kim and the others can review what happened and reinforce better ideas, starting with basic concepts. One that came up was improving communications, a general concept but one critical to a game where operating as a whole unit rather than five individual players tends to make the difference in late-game fights.
"We try to isolate, what are the roles and responsibilities of each person on the team," said Yip. "What can they be held accountable for? And with all the coaches and analysts we have, we keep track of all the players and qualitatively map out what they say versus what they should be saying, trying to make their communication more effective."
As franchising looms on the horizon, the coaches had different opinions of what it would mean for their roles. Kim believed it would put more pressure on players and coaches to perform, as you're now a permanent representation of a brand. Yip sees teams taking more chances, bringing in more coaching staff like himself that can focus on minutiae or out-of-play concerns. Positional coaching, having a literal mid-lane coach or bot-lane coach, was brought up. It's an asset some teams already utilise, similar to a quarterback coach. But even greater, organisational assets become possible as established brands can bring on performance coaches to not just work with their League team but their Overwatch, Counter-Strike, and fighting game players as well -- a rising-tide of support staff.
Where the former days of League had team houses encountering health concerns and fire hazards, a growing coaching staff scene is raising the bar for competition, allowing players to focus on the game with expert support. As that grows, cultures and processes can emerge for teams, building eras and dynasties rather than just brands.
"Players and coaches will start looking at the unique selling points teams have," said Yip. "And say, 'This is the team I want to play for.'"