I'm Peanut and I'm an eSports fan who started out in StarCraft: Brood War. I was in the community for a while back in 2008-2010, then got too busy with my career to be really involved. I've been lurking for the last few months and reading a lot of TL's eSports coverage, and I've been consistently impressed by the work I've seen. Feeling inspired, I decided to write about a video I watched last week produced by Fnatic about their League of Legends team because it resonated with me. I hope you enjoy it - I welcome feedback and comments. Thanks for reading!
Props to TL people 343, Zoo, Hungrybox, and Peanuts, who I ran into at Genesis 3 a couple weekends ago - thanks for recognizing me and hanging out .
Note: I am not affiliated with or paid by any eSports organization; this is an independent piece.
Humanity in eSports : Fnatic’s “New Blood”
What’s the magic formula for creating a winning eSports team for team games like MOBAs and some FPSes? If you go by season preview articles or the “meet the team” video interviews that pop up around large tournaments, the recipe sounds pretty similar for everyone: star players, determination to win, good in-game communication, strategic flexibility, and intensive daily practice schedules. Although the faces, jerseys, and native languages may differ, the basic idea is the same: you win at the game by optimizing the way the players, individually and as a group, interact with the game.
Team Dignitas interviewed prior to the Heroes of the Storm World Championship (Blizzard Entertainment)
The thing is, if all of these teams are basically approaching this question in the same way, then tournaments might as well be a craps shoot (or go to the team that has the most money to pay top players). In a rapidly evolving industry where teams are expanding across games and competing for fans, recruits, and sponsors, how do organizations like Dignitas, Team Liquid, Na`Vi, Fnatic, or Team Vitality find the edge that distinguishes them and translates into consistently stellar track records?
One way of finding an answer might be to take a look at the exceptions to the usual formula and their expected results. In certain cases, a team’s unity and singlemindedness can turn a collection of players with less experience and less proven talent into a force that plows through teams with more robust track records and star power; for example, CDEC had an amazing run through TI5 despite its humble beginnings as LGD Gaming’s junior team. On the other side of the coin, teams with talented players and good tournament results can end up dissolving. SK Gaming’s promising Heroes of the Storm team, which was one of only two teams to take a game off of the eventual champions of the recent Heroes Rising tournament, disbanded due to “personality conflicts.” All of the teams represented at TI5 did their best to optimize their performance in the months leading up to the $18.5M-prize-pool tournament, yet CDEC managed to out-compete most of them with fewer resources. Something similar occurred with the teams at Heroes Rising — SK Gaming’s defunct Heroes team had more resources than other teams but still ended up falling apart.
GosuGamers: CDEC's counter-initiation into taking two melee rax in game one of TI5's Upper Bracket finals vs. EG
The way these outliers ended up rising or crashing seems indirectly influenced by gameplay optimization, at best; the main factor appears to be the way the players were or were not able to mesh together as a group off of the battlefield as well as on it, a concept sometimes called “team chemistry.” Determined teams may be trying to improve their squad’s chemistry in addition to their gameplay, but this can be difficult in an industry where rosters change multiple times per year, and where players from different language backgrounds and different perspectives on their game are thrown together under constant time and performance pressure. The ineffable, touchy-feely nature of team chemistry, in contrast to the highly quantifiable and analyzable nature of gameplay, also contributes to its relatively invisible status in discussions about team management and success. How can a team possibly work on something so mysterious and difficult in a systematic, empirical way?
Fnatic attempts to answer this question in their half-hour long "Life of Legends: New Blood" video, which opens a window directly into the daily lives of their League of Legends team. The setup is a perfect laboratory for their experiment: the team has just lost three star players in the postseason (including their shotcaller) and acquired talented, fresh-faced replacements who are trying to adjust to a new home right as the League Championship Series spring season begins. Will the newbies be able to integrate with the veteran players and rise as one to rival or surpass the 2015 roster’s excellent track record? In telling this story, “New Blood,” the first episode of this year’s series, turns the camera firmly away from the ins and outs of gameplay optimization and focuses on a path that squarely addresses the touchy-feely, distinctly human aspects of becoming a cohesive and functional team. This path involves an innovative, comprehensive set of strategies that demonstrates a marked departure from the usual approach to team management, including investing in players’ holistic personal growth, prioritizing organic interpersonal bonding, and insisting on a long-term, learning-oriented perspective over short-term achievement. What does this mean for Fnatic and for eSports as a whole?
Fnatic's "Life of Legends | Season 2 Episode 1 | New Blood"
Personal Growth 101 with eSports Psychologist Weldon Green
In my adopted home of San Francisco, where tech startups pop up like lurker spikes at the ramp to Zerg’s natural, you can’t throw a bitcoin without hitting a debate about software development methodology. Agile, scrum, waterfall — these are all ways to conceptualize the process of creating a complex product (in this case, software) in an iterative fashion; by specifying and following a strict plan of smaller steps (design, implement, test, release, repeat), companies end up with software that is higher quality and easier to maintain. Tech startups are keenly aware that the development methodologies they subscribe to have a strong impact on their internal culture and efficiency as well as their products, so it pays to be very intentional about not just what the programmers work on, but how they work on it.
Just as writing good software is much more than coding, Fnatic asserts that being a top eSports player is much more than scrimmaging and watching replays. Weldon Green, MSc. Sport and Exercise Psychology from the University of Jyväskylä, Finland, enters the Fnatic video at around 2:14 to explain why in the world the team is going through vinyasas and Downward-Facing Dog yoga poses (also very popular in SF) at the episode’s start instead of practicing map rotations and teamfights. As it turns out, Green is essentially creating a development methodology for the Fnatic players themselves; he is there to design, implement, and iterate on specific steps the players need to take to mature as people as well as a larger vision of personal growth.
Why is this necessary? Green observes in his company MindGames.GG’s intro video that there is significant psychological work involved in turning a passion for competitive gaming into a profession: “When you transition from a video game player to an eSport athlete, that has to be accompanied with a professional identity that goes along with it, a work ethic towards the game that isn’t very natural when you’re just playing for fun.” The implication is that if a player can’t adjust to the new identity and perspective on the game, even if they have a lot of skill, they won’t make the cut as a top pro in today’s competitive scene. Some gamers have been able to transition well on their own, but many have not; Fnatic wants to accelerate and support this process by bringing in an expert instead of leaving its players to figure it out themselves.
“The Mental Edge,” an informational video by MindGames.GG.
The players seem to understand the potential payoffs as well. At 5:38, Martin “Rekkles” Larsson, AD carry and incipient team leader, explains that (pro) gamers know how to play 14 hours a day but not necessarily how to optimize those hours to become more effective at playing. If a player is not eating or sleeping right, those 14-hour marathons might not be worth very much in terms of being able to learn and execute with greater and greater skill — they get tired and sloppy, screw up a gank that should’ve been easy, and no progress has been made. Green helps them with both the fundamentals of physical health and the more abstract journey of developing healthy mental and emotional habits to better support their intense training. At 6:50 in "New Blood," Green takes it a step further and describes the way his methods add value outside the Summoner’s Rift: “… it’s a holistic approach to just being a better person. Better people make better athletes, yeah, but but better people also make better employees and better parents. I think Fnatic is in a great position to help their players develop in this way, and it’d be great if everyone had the opportunity to do something like this.” Fnatic (and others) is betting that this perspective on player management and training will pay off through better in-game performance, even if it takes precious time away from scrimmaging, and even at the risk of losing that investment if/when players leave the team.
The Beginnings of Friendship: Spirit and Febivan
The subplot of Lee “Spirit” Dayun’s initial steps on the path to being at home on the team, particularly his interactions with Fabian “Febiven” Diepstraten, demonstrate that Fnatic prioritizes the organic, unstructured development of interpersonal bonding as an important factor in team growth. About a month ago, Fnatic announced that Spirit, Noh “Gamsu” YoungJin, and Lewis “NoXiAK” Felix were officially joining the roster, filling the dismaying void left by the exit of Bora “YellOwStaR” Kim, Heo “Huni” Seung-hoon, and Kim “Reignover” Yeu-jin. In the intro video accompanying the roster change announcement, Spirit comes off as your standard young Korean pro new to a foreign team — excited about his teammates and the Fnatic organization, slightly cheeky about his abilities and potential, and dutifully focused on learning English.
In Fnatic's announcement video, Spirit talks about joining the team.
A month later, at 7:25 in the “New Blood” video, right after Weldon Green has finished a monologue on eSports psychology, we see … Spirit playfully patting his teammate Fabian “Febiven” Diepstraten’s stomach like a tom-tom as the latter reclines in his branded gamer chair in pajamas and chuckles bashfully. Spirit is utterly unselfconscious as the camera angle shifts to catch both his and Febiven’s actions and reactions; Febiven looks around a bit nervously and asks/comments, “You’re recording now?” to which Spirit responds by goofily repeating “recording now … you’re recording now” and lightly grabbing Febiven’s chin with his right hand. Spirit’s affect is that of guileless playfulness and transparent regard for his teammate, and Febiven reciprocates by gently bopping the side of Spirit’s head. This is an interaction that could not possibly be scripted or prescribed, and it’s utterly charming. These goofy, tender, awkward moments are not exactly the cornerstones of the typical pro gamer image, but they are very relatably the stuff that true friendships are made of.
At 12:27, Febivan is interviewed about his perspective on his new Korean teammate.
“I was very surprised how Spirit acted when he just joined the team, because he’s so — like, open-minded and his culture is so different from mine, and his way of acting is so, I guess, adorable. We just both think that we are, like, good players, we have good mentality, we have good acting out of the game, we can just have so much fun together and improve so fast because we really like each other. He’s cute, he’s good at the game, so, I don’t know what to — what I need more.”
Febivan candidly captures the crux of team chemistry: interactions that naturally reveal compatible personalities and develop friendship and trust promote better in-game attitudes and teamwork. At first, Febivan was surprised by Spirit’s personality — after all, it’s very different from the relatively serious Spirit of the intro video. It doesn’t seem like Fnatic management tried to get their new players to act more “professionally” in order to get along well with each other, even if more structure could’ve allayed any initial discomfort. Spirit is allowed to be his adorable self, and Febivan is allowed to react to that in an honest way where he asserts that being “cute” — not serious or determined or dependable— is a real asset in a teammate.
This budding friendship, and the complex circumstances around it, comprise an important facet of the changes that Green hinted at in the transition from gamer to pro player. When one is playing at the professional level, team communication and trust can mean the difference between a 2v1 pickoff and a 2v2 fair fight. Do you leave your teammate to die, or do you turn around and trust in your combined ability to turn the tide against unfavorable odds? Wearing the same jersey and living in the same house are not guarantees for developing that kind of bond — it also takes a kind of maturity and a willingness to adapt in the face of the unfamiliar and challenging. By showcasing these moments and this story in candid, unadulterated form, Fnatic demonstrates a nuanced approach to managing team chemistry — rather than structuring all of the holistic growth occurring within the team, Fnatic picks its battles. Unlike personal growth and maturity, which is guided by the sports psychologist, interpersonal growth is player-led. You can’t force people to trust each other, the video seems to say — you can only give them the tools to be good people and the space to act naturally, and they have to take care of the rest.
The Architect of Long-Term Vision: Coach Deilor
At 27:46, the scene isn't so rosy for our heroes, as they’ve just lost their second match of the season to Team Vitality. The players are remarkably sanguine, with Febiven, NoXiAK, and Rekkles all barely acknowledging the loss or even any burning desire to repeat last year and win the Spring Split (it’s OK as long as they make top six and advance). They have their eyes on worthier prizes: the development of the team (Febiven), making it to Worlds (NoXiAK), and stepping up to lead in YellOwStaR’s absence (Rekkles). They carry themselves with a substantive, patient serenity that can’t be explained by yoga classes alone. At 29:20, in a meeting with the team after the Vitality game, we find out that the players’ tenacious willingness to see their losses as necessary and positive steps on the road to greatness comes from Deilor. He neither sugarcoats nor berates; he does not dwell on any details of the game; he instead acknowledges emotional realities and then instills, firmly, repeatedly, and positively, a larger perspective.
“I don’t want you guys to get really down, or sad; this is just a learning process… Let’s focus on learning, let’s focus on improving, and let’s focus on tryharding in scrims so we’re better, we learn more from our mistakes, and then we’re better in the LCS. OK? If we learn, then the mistake is worth. So, let’s learn from this experience.”
Deilor does a superb job matching his tone to the mood in the room and then transforming it, laying out a concise yet thorough vision with sincerity and resolve. At the end of his speech, the team gets into a huddle. “We’re going to learn, we’re going to improve, and we’ll be beast,” Deilor repeats. Again and again, he affirms the core message, slightly differently each time, but in the same colloquial, quietly galvanizing manner. It’s magical. Although some teams may claim that they value learning and improving as much as winning in tournaments, the pressure to perform under the scrutiny of thousands or millions of eyes often (temporarily) reshuffles priorities. Fnatic, by contrast, asserts that it is 100% about long-term improvement over immediate achievements, even in as visible and important a series as the LCS Spring Split.
Humanizing eSports: Fnatic’s Larger Impact
It seems evident that Fnatic is taking some pretty clear stances on managing extra-game factors that impact in-game performance: help players become better people, let them befriend each other autonomously, and focus on long-term improvement to the potential exclusion of shorter-term wins. But why would they take such great pains to show us their secret sauce, especially when their emphasis on the fuzzier, softer elements of their approach somewhat contradicts the tough and uber-competitive image that eSports teams typically want to project?
One reason could be to recruit and retain top players via demonstrating a friendlier model for what a pro’s life and career path should be. eSports is an industry where players are infamously catapulted to stardom in their teens and burn out by their mid or late twenties, leaving players wondering how to fill the hole in their life once they leave the scene. With the Fnatic approach, being a pro gamer suddenly sounds a lot less like sacrificing their life for their passion and more like harnessing their passion to become someone they want to be. They learn life skills that can benefit them beyond eSports. That’s a powerful sell. Another reason could be to increase their fan base’s emotional investment in the team by making their players seem more human and relatable. Just as Americans may vote for a president they can have a beer with over a president who has good policies but comes off as standoffish, so people tend to root for pros who feel like them in personal, meaningful ways. As long as the players continue to play for Fnatic, this investment benefits the larger organization as well.
These reasons probably factored into the idea behind this video, but it seems like there’s a bigger play here. Deilor’s philosophy and Weldon Green’s methods emphasize a broader, learning-based approach to life instead of getting caught up in the performance pressure of professional gaming, which is a potent, differentiating declaration with respect to the status quo in the eSports industry. This perspective perhaps speaks to a desire at the organizational level for Fnatic to align itself with movements outside of eSports that are investigating similar ideas, like whether encouraging more humane traits like kindness and good citizenship is better than emphasizing traditional achievement-based standards when it comes to predicting and developing success in life.
As a very visible example of this movement, Harvard University recently released a report called Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good Through College Admissions which tackles the problems created by a culture that “sends young people messages that emphasize personal success rather than concern for others and the common good.” The stance of the 80-plus stakeholders that endorsed this report is that these cultural messages, along with the intense academic pressure experienced by students and other ramifications of the current system, are doing more harm than good in society. They want to fix this by changing the criteria by which the college admissions process evaluates and accepts students — the values that students organize their lives around when preparing for the admissions process and which are then perpetuated at the university level and afterwards. For perhaps the first time in history, the top establishments within this system are collectively recognizing their pervasive influence on the lives of millions of students and their families, then intentionally using that influence to nurture a new generation that will more actively contribute to making the world a better place for everyone, not just the high achievers.
The Atlantic: "Palo Alto’s commuter train has become a common instrument of teen suicide [due to academic performance pressure]—and a constant reminder of lives lost. (Brian L. Frank)"
In the Fnatic video, it’s not difficult to see the parallels between their team structure and a postsecondary school (in the US/Canda style) — intellectually rigorous training for “students” in their teens/early twenties, a dormitory-style environment, and high-stakes events where their training is tested, to name a few similarities. In examining these parallels and the spirit behind them, the message seems to be that a pro eSports team can be (and, Fnatic might say, should be) more than a black box that swallows basement-dwelling gamers and spits out trophy-winning pros; it can also be a place where you learn how to think about the world, relate in a healthy way to your fellow human beings, and mature into a fully-fledged adult, all while honing your skills. By insisting on values that, in many ways, run counter to the norm in eSports, Fnatic is signaling to potential pro gamers and others in the industry that its criteria for evaluating success represent a new way of wielding its substantial influence as a top eSports team to impact the cultural expectations of pros and the industry as a whole.
If Fnatic’s experiment works and more teams start adopting their approach, and being a pro player becomes more about being a good person and getting along with other people and less about winning every tournament, this could be a major and beneficial change to the tenor of the eSports community . Pros are very visible and often set an example for others to emulate, both in-game and out, and this shift could reduce the toxicity in some communities that sometimes pushes talented people out of the scene. It remains to be seen whether this move will have its desired or profound impact, but it’s definitely a story worth watching.