Three thoughts on LoL coaching in the West (re: Amazing’s post)

In light of Amazing’s post today about coaching in the West, three points from what he said that either echo or bring up points that have needed to be discussed for a while now.

1) The leader and the strategist.

You’d think of a man’s man. Easily put, though pretty telling, you’d think of a man’s man. In league, you’d think of kkoma, a Deilor or even a Reginald running their ships and keeping everyone on the same track — yet so many teams seem to stray away from having a leader within the coaches role.

There’s an issue here with the fact that ‘leader’ is a fairly arbitrary designation, and what that entails is going to mean a hundred different things to a hundred different players, but let’s step past that.

The mention of kkOma and Reginald in the same sentence is odd, but illuminating. Having worked on TSM, even in a peripheral role, everything I’ve seen says that Reginald is in-place with Amazing’s logic here. He’s very much a guy who focuses on the personalities and the synergy, brings people together, lends an ear when he needs to and a mouth far more often.

kkOma is not that guy, and there’s a reason he’s not the ‘head coach’ of SKT. Your strategic coach and your head coach can very rarely be the same guy, for a couple of reasons:

  1. A very fundamental part of your strategic coach’s job description is telling the players that they’re wrong. Players are going to disagree with strategic coaches at times, whereas your leader has a certain burden to keep everyone happy, or at least make sure they feel they’re understood.
  2. There’s a degree to which a two-level hierachy (i.e. coach -> players) compresses things too far, and combined with what we said in 1) about you having trouble with handling disputes, the players are going to feel — correctly — that they can overwhelm the staff the moment that frustrations build.

The Korean system has a head coach, a strategic coach (which is what we understand in the West as a head coach since he’s on stage), and then the players. Western teams need that hierarchy, and I think the mapping of Korean strategic coach -> Western head coach is doable.

What a lot of teams are missing is that if you’re doing that, you still need the equivalent of a head coach. Some organisations are established enough to do that, but actually, it’s more likely that a strong, active manager or owner has to fill that role. That’s the route that Fnatic went after Nico from everything I know about the organisation, and that’s the route a plethora of teams in every region I’m familiar with the coaching dynamics of have gone.

2) Absolutist notions of knowledge.

How do you respect someone that basically does less work, probably has less knowledge than you, and interacts with the same people in the same group of friends and coworkers as you? Well, you don’t…

There’s a clear pinch of salt that needs to be taken, and is certainly being given, on Amazing’s portrayal of coaches, and to an extent one needs to shrug and move on. One point that should be addressed there — and this is an absolutely endemic problem among EU pros in particular — is that point on knowledge.

There are of course nepotistic cases, but on the whole, teams hire coaches because, in the first place, they want to improve. What are they looking for, then? Well, it varies depending on the team, but at the basic level, you start looking into a coach when you realise that there’s some material way in which he can improve the team through a composite of both education and training.

So, coaches don’t get into teams without useful knowledge. However, the kind of scenario that Amazing is describing here is incredibly common, and it is understandable in a sense. Your new coach comes into the team, and because of how the team and organisation are set up (not having a particularly strong tradition of hierarchy), the organisation has to sell the coach to the players.

So, the organisation says “well, this guy has this knowledge that you guys don’t have, and he can teach you”. There’s a bit of an issue within that with regards to most of the opportunities for growth among pro teams at this point being in implementation of information rather than information itself, but OK, you successfully sell the coach to the players, they’re happily working along.

The relationship between the coach and players can very easily go from there in a very unhealthy direction. You have felt the need to sell the coach, and you’ve done it on “well, he knows this thing”. That naturally triggers players to think about the coach in terms of knowledge. They think of it as his only asset, and consciously or subconsciously, they’re watching the entire time, waiting for him to slip up in that regard.

I’ll talk a little more about that in point 3), but the bigger, more ridiculous elephant in the room about that discussion is this: this entire circus essentially strips the notion of knowledge down to a number. If you have more knowledge, I respect you. If you have less knowledge, I don’t.

That’s not how knowledge works in general, in any professional environment, even in any specifically competitive environment. This discussion could get very, very esoteric, and I don’t really want to do that, but let’s put it like this: academic conferences don’t take all applicants, weigh up some arbitrary knowledge score, and choose who they think to be the smartest guys to come talk.

They invite the guys who actually have something new to contribute, in terms of research, in terms of knowledge, in terms of perspective, whatever it might be. Similarly, if you’re running an American football team, you wouldn’t put a dozen offensive and defensive co-ordinators on your staff because “they know more than the positional coaches”.

This is an extremely common tendency, and it’s one of the single biggest contributors to problems that teams have with coaching in the West.

3) Weakness and authority.

Well, you don’t — unless that person has so much self control that they never show a sign of weakness…The amount of effort and strenght that is necessary to keep up the illusion of being superhuman is almost impossible to come by, and rarely have I seen any coach succeed — which means that their power has to come from a different kind of level, something succeeding the players prowesses outside of the game — authority from above.

It’s absolutely the case that, in the context of the two previous points and gaming-house environments, that there is an expectation for coaches to be incredibly, unreasonably resilient, and that unless you are either the aforementioned manager/owner figure, or you are an extremely passive, essentially non-strategic coach, this is probably going to happen to you at some point.

It’s reasonable that there’s an expectation for coaches to be resolute — actually, I would say strategic coaches more than anyone. But again, a lot of the problem is coming from this absolutist notion — “if this guy cannot straight-up beat me in this particular area, I don’t respect him, I won’t listen to him”.

You need two things from your coach. You need him to have a baseline knowledge (something I wrote about earlier this year — that baseline is probably not as high as you think, and certainly not as high as some players think), and then you need him to have the research, the methodology, the problem-solving skills to contribute, to summarise, to give the word when he needs to give the word.

Organisations are slowly getting a handle on this, and that question of essentially mapping traditional sports and Korean esports models over to how Western organisations practically work. There does need to be a community understanding too, though.

I’m not trying to single out Amazing here by any means, and I’ll reiterate — the viewpoints he’s putting forward here, for right or for wrong, are prevalent among European players in particular. This is a discussion that probably needs to be had, though, and this seems like a good time to start having it.

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