Creating Organizational Excellence In Esports

Let me preface this with the fact that I previously have not worked for a large Esports organization. These opinions mine as an individual and based on my previous experience. My brief background with small organizations and building teams:

  • Ran a DOTA team for 2 years from 2004–2006. Went from an unranked team to finishing 3rd at MLG Dallas.
  • Worked for a company doing $3M in sales with a team of four people (owner, co-owner, myself, and one other employee). Within a year we would be doing 10x that in sales and have 14 employees.
  • Started a real estate company. First year did about $50K in gross profit. Within three years we are on pace to do $700K in gross profit.

Values and Vision Matter Most

Your values are everything as you scale your business. Values drive your decision making and are the road map toward your vision. Initially as a small team values matter less. You meet together every day and make important decisions together. As you grow you will not be in the room for every decision; values now need to be more explicit. Values once codified attract the right people to your organization. Values also serve as a check for yourself to ensure you are making decisions that will move you toward your vision.

The most important thing to recognize as a leader is that very rarely will someone working with you share as strong of a vision as you do. Definitely they won’t share your exact vision. It’s imperative as a leader to make clear your organization’s why as well as the goals of the organization. It needs to be more than “win worlds”, but rather a systematic guide that outlines the following:

  • What does our team stand for?
  • What values do we share?
  • How does our organization solve problems?
  • What principles guide decision making?
  • What standards do we expect from others?
  • What commitments is the team held to?

As you grow, values and vision will be tweaked. Your team will provide feedback and make suggestions. If you have the right people in your organization this is a great thing. Great organizations require buy in from many great people.

Build Goals Toward Your Vision Based on The Present

Once you have a long term vision for your organization you have to build steps to get there. This is very difficult. As a leader you may not have all the answers and that’s ok. A common mistake I have made is that I focus too much on one or two levels below the market leader in my industry. Instead you want to identify within your organization the two to three improvements that if executed would give you the most leverage toward achieving your vision. Go bottom up. It’s easier to spot the next step than the 20 steps required to match the top organization.

Having objective truth about your current performance and position identifies areas of weakness. Being great means identifying the incremental changes that will provide the most organizational leverage and repeating this over and over.

Involving others in decision making exposes your blind spots. Times of rapid growth are often coupled with thoughtful disagreement among people who care about the organization. It’s important to surround yourself with people who you respect and disagree with you enough to keep your ego in check. It’s easy as a leader to assume “Well I’ve gotten us this far and I know what is best to get us to the next level.” The truth is that as you grow a new set of problems show up that must be tackled with fresh ideas and new processes. Leaders must always be collecting feedback.

Thoughtfully Delegate

One of the hardest transitions is going from the leader who does everything to a leader that delegates effectively. Particularly with small companies most leaders got to this point by rolling up their sleeves and doing what needs to be done. Delegating is hard. What you do day to day within the company is based on your experience and the context you have. Seeing something come from nothing gives you a lot more context on what should be done day to day. It’s very hard for most people to remove this experience and teach from scratch.

Members of your team have different skill sets than you. Writing processes down for your team to execute on and setting standards requires a significant amount of effort that most leaders are not naturally inclined to do. Growth in a start up requires moving on to the next thing needed to create the most leverage for your organization. If you are not careful you will miss the value that comes from refining existing processes. Organizations have to create processes to ensure the company standards are upheld and the team is moving toward the shared vision. Thoughtfully delegating is something I struggle with. Some things I have learned:

  • Documenting in detail how a task should be handled. As the expert you need to find a way to codify how you execute lower level tasks to ensure the organization maintains your standard.
  • Understand at all levels of the organization: what are the highest leverage activities that an individual should be doing? What can we automate? What can we give to a VA firm? What could a lower level employee be doing instead? Ruthlessly remove anything from an individual that doesn’t best leverage their time. I have to constantly remind myself of the mental burden placed on others by having them do a significant amount of small tasks that are “easy”. Death by a thousand cuts will kill your star employees.
  • Understand strengths and weaknesses. Ray Dalio sums this up best, but I first heard about this idea from Reed Hoffman courtesy of Ben Casnocha. You and the people in your organization are complicated. All strengths have corresponding weaknesses. In reality a strength or weakness contributes to a weakness or a strength respectively in another area. It’s unfair to categorize someone as good or bad in totality (talking skills not values). Instead find people who possess strengths in the areas in which you are weak and share your values/vision. Make sure these people are in roles that require their strengths. Very often, I’m guilty of this, we over value people like us. Hiring people like you will never lead to the best leverage of yourself and your organization. I understand that I am not capable at being the best at everything. I am good at logical thought, stubbornly pushing through toward a vision, identifying the next step to gain leverage, and finding others who can help solve the problems I am having. My weaknesses include over simplifying steps needed to accomplish something, moving on to the next problem rather than ruthlessly perfecting a task, and solving emotional problems among many others. Knowing these shortcomings I can identify what compensating controls (sorry an accountant in a former life) I need to implement in order to mitigate the damage my weaknesses can cause. I surround myself with people strong in my weaknesses to ensure together we become greater than the sum of our parts. Remove from your plate the things that require strength in areas you are weak and delegate those first. Jim Collins refers to this as getting the right people on the bus and then getting them in the right seat.

The Buck Stops With You

Jocko Willink constantly reinforces this. Starting with you, the leader, take responsibility for everything the organization does. Many times my pride has prevented me from doing this. It is one of the hardest things to do as an individual. You must delegate and take responsibility when delegated items are not completed correctly. Very often the leader wants to start doing it all himself so it’s “done right” rather than working through the gaps in the process that will improve the task going forward and simplify it for everyone. It’s impossible at scale to do every task yourself and maintain a high standard.

What one finds is as they take more personal responsibility so does the entire organization. All of a sudden there is organizational pride in everything the team does. Once you can create this culture you will notice the contribution of the team will be much greater than the sum of the individuals.

Measure Your Success Against Yourself And Get Better

Now we start getting into some esports specific applications of these ideas. In my opinion the above has to be done first. Your ‘Why’ as an organization and an individual is more important than your ‘How’. My competitive gaming experience is limited to creating and running one team. People are people and how we get good at things transfers across disciplines. Now that we understand who we are, where we are going, and have taken ownership of our performance we need to get better. So how does an esports team get better?

  • Players and coaches need to get together and set expectations. Answering questions together such as “How much do we practice? How do we want to play as a team? What are our teams strengths? How do we play to those strengths in the meta?, etc.?” should be discussed. Give players agency over choices so they buy in to what the team is trying to accomplish. Principles and standards are non-negotiable, but how we accomplish our goals is a decision of the team.
  • What gets measured gets managed. The team has to measure themselves against their standard. One week you can be playing the best team in the world and the next the lowest team in your league. Our performance has to be measured against our standards and our abilities. In order to do this you have to objectively measure success within your team. In lane for Dota we would track things such as missed uncontested CS, grade lane trades, discuss matchup expectations and goals, and then provide players with actionable feedback on the ways they could improve their laning phase. Macro is the same way. Players must be measured on performance. Correction is only possible when expectations are set, performance is measured, and correction is discussed. Just doing a VOD review of select plays doesn’t push a culture of excellence in all areas, all phases. It’s true that in sport victory comes down to 5 or 6 moments, but you don’t know when those moments will be. You have to maintain your standard throughout the match.
  • Players must know their responsibility in every situation and understand how their performance will be measured. Macro and lane review should happen for every scrim and player required solo practice should have lane review as well. Players should have a contractual obligation to play a certain amount of solo practice games per week (I see you C9). Teams should have three areas of improvement actively being worked on, in addition to fundamentals, and individuals should independently have three areas of improvement. Most teams and players have way more problems than three; it’s up to the coaching staff to identify the three improvements that will have the most leverage on performance.
  • Players need to be heard throughout the season. The best way to do this is through 1 on 1 conversations. I prefer to use the method I learned at Google which is walking meetings. It’s important that players understand that you care about them as individuals and you highly value their opinion. A coach’s primary job is babysitting egos and pushing the team toward a shared vision.
  • In team meetings the coach should set an example for how to thoughtfully disagree and do so in a caring and empathetic way. When players communicate, negative feedback should be encouraged as long as it is constructive. Coaches must set an example for taking responsibility for the team’s performance. Too often players get emotionally wrapped up in the situation and the coaching staff has to ensure that a conversation leads to positive outcomes. I really like the book Difficult Conversations as a guideline for how to have thoughtful disagreement. Coaches are responsible for handling egos. Great players have egos and a drive that exceeds that of their peers. A coaches role is to channel that energy into productive conversation and inspiring play.
  • In scrimmages wins and losses don’t matter. In League of Legends, for some reason US teams don’t know this, but Korean teams do. How often have you heard US players talk about how they were winning scrims at international events. Coaches should never talk to winning or losing in scrims, but rather grading the performance as it relates to the goals and objectives for that game.
  • A controversial idea I have is that coaches should be on comms for at least part of the scrimmage block. The reason for this is simple. If you watch any professional team (football, basketball, etc), particularly at the college level, coaches in practice are involved directly in scrimmages and drills. The feedback I hear from teams is that coaches aren’t on stage during the games and thus shouldn’t be on comms during practice. In all established sports the coaches have a more hands on role in practice. A coach should be on comms to remind players of key points during that scrimmage. The socratic method, or asking thought provoking open ended questions, works well here: “What’s our next objective? Where are we looking for our next play? What is the other team moving toward? etc.”. A coach should be reminding the players how the staff and players want to communicate in game.
  • The coaching staff has to balance fraternizing with the players and being an authority figure for the team. The staff has to hold itself to a higher standard than it holds the players. Particularly in Esports where the coach is often younger than professional sport coaches. On the other hand a coach can’t be so distant that the players don’t feel the coach knows them as individuals and cares about them. Great coaches balance this dichotomy well.
  • Finally teams can’t be rigid. Great players are given a system then allowed to show their creativity within the system. How the team plays is based on principles and standards, but not rules. Like a great painter start with the fundamentals, but allow experienced/great players to show their creativity. Encourage it.
  • Players should only be responsible for playing. One of the things professional organizations do is take as much decision making off the plate of their athletes as possible. The more physical and mental energy a player can dedicate to the game the better they will perform.

Conclusion

All of these ideas have most likely been stated elsewhere. Typing out a plan is the first 5% of execution, but it’s a necessary one. I see very few teams in the Esports space put a lot of time into thinking about these ideas or at least sharing them externally. Great coaches and great organizations weave a tapestry of culture day in and day out throughout the entire program that creates a standard of excellence. It’s not easy or everyone would do it. I’m not an expert; just avidly curious on how the industry starts tackling these topics. Hopefully, this starts a conversation. Feel free to comment and point out things I overlooked!