This past weekend, Heroes of the Storm held its Western Clash. The tournament was billed as North America coming to battle against Europe’s finest. Europe took home the top three placings, seemingly ending the conversation with Europe on top. However, there was something else going on under the surface that few recognized.
Ultimately, Dignitas was victorious at the Western Clash. All season long they had been objectively weaker than their European kinsmen on Fnatic and Misfits. However, something happened at this tournament. Each day Dignitas got stronger by an order of magnitude. By the grand finals, they were virtually untouchable by teams that routinely trounced them only weeks ago. What was the difference? Simply put, Dig was the only team at the Western Clash to bring a coach.
Ride That Train
Former world champion, Dunktrain, was flown out to be the team’s coach for this event. From the moment of the announcement, I was determined to watch Dignitas closely. It was my belief that Dig’s performance in this event would be the data point necessary to prove a theory about the need for coaching in Heroes of the Storm. To me, Dig’s victory in this event proves the advantage that having a coach provides. I believe that, without a coach, Dig would have struggled to take even third place at this event.
Watch the difference in the team from the group stage through to the finals. Their abilities are better synced, their drafts more directly target their opponents, and the team played more comfort picks and pocket strategies than they had all season. Under the watchful eye of Dunktrain, Dig was able to grow more in three days than they had in four months. Why?
The Difference Maker
I’ve had this conversation with dozens of players over the last five years. “What’s the point of a coach? I already know how to play the game, and I’m a better player than you. What could you possibly do for me as a coach?” This is a very logical concern. When people think about coaching, they often think about a tennis coach–someone who is focused on helping to teach you the proper swing and footwork. Someone who is better than you, who can improve your ability to play the game by teaching you new techniques.
However, think for a moment about the head coaches in major sports. Was Bill Belichik ever a better quarterback than Tom Brady? Could he tackle better than Junior Seau? Did Phil Jackson ever have a better jump shot than Scotty Pippen? Taking it back to eSports, the greatest coach ever in League of Legends was Deilor. He never played a professional game of LoL in his life! Before coaching Fnatic, he was a coach in high level poker. And yet, he took a struggling mid-tier team to the best world championship run of any western team since Season 1. Despite having played at the highest level, I can promise you that Dunktrain had virtually nothing to teach James Baker and company about how to play Heroes of the Storm. If that’s the case, how on earth can a coach be so impactful?
What We Do
To over-simplify, there are three main factors that determine success in a MOBA–preparation, communication, and execution. Preparation covers everything before the gates open and the game starts. This includes VOD review, opposition scouting, drafting and so much more.
Communication refers to both in-game and out-of-game. The way the team bonds and grows as a unit, but also how they relay information and time their abilities within the game.
Execution is simply your play within the game. How well you land skillshots, your positioning, map awareness, etc. Really the only way to improve execution is to play the game. It’s the other two factors that are greatly improved by a coach.
Consistent, high level execution is incredibly draining. It requires hours of practice, and intense focus at all times. When your mind and body have to focus on things outside of the game, it will affect your execution. A coach relieves the burden of preparation and communication, allowing the players to focus almost exclusively on execution. Essentially, it is the job of a coach to put his players in the best position to win. Lets look at some of the ways that manifests.
How To Coach
First, the coach helps the team with organization. They help organize the team’s practice time so that everything is intentional, and works towards a specific goal. Scrimming and grinding hero league are great, but without clear, intentional goals it is difficult for the team to really know well their practice is going. Teammates will often disagree on how much time should be spent in solo queue versus scrims versus VOD review. With a clear goal in mind, the coach organizes practice in a way that will help the team best achieve their goal.
Second, the coach operates as a mediator for the team. In MOBAs, team synergy is critical. It is very hard for the team to settle disputes, or to be critical of each other effectively, because everyone is on the same level. As an authority figure, the coach can help resolve arguments peacefully. They can also provide direct feeback to a struggling player, without that player feeling attacked by their teammates. This structure allows every member of the team to remain equal, which helps them bond as a unit.
FInally, the coach can serve as an extra pair of eyes. Not having played in the match, they see the game differently during VOD review. Often the observations of a player are colored by their emotions, or what they thought was happening during the game. The coach is a cold, critical eye that simply observes the facts of the match. He sees what works and what doesn’t, uninhibited by player bias.
Lets look quickly at two examples from North America this past weekend, and how they could have benefited from a coach. First, Team 8. Glaurung’s crew outperformed every expectation this past weekend, but could have done so much more. The players are talented enough and executed very well in every match. However, look at their match on day 2 against Dig. Particularly the match on Battlefield. Multiple times in this game, Team 8 won a big teamfight and claimed the Immortal. However, time and time again they would push into an enemy structure, and stay too long giving up multiple kills. For a more disciplined team, this would have been a 15 minute game and an easy victory.
Team 8 instead found multiple ways to lose. This lack of discipline is something that would be worked on by a coach. The coach would spot these tendencies in practice, and work with Glaurung to recognize the situation and know when to pull out. This would be a point of emphasis in practice, and every member of the team would be coached to look out for it. With a coach, Team 8 likely wins this game, and possibly the series.
Gale Force Esports is another team that could greatly benefit from a coach. This is a team that gets by on its execution alone far too often. The team’s core of Fan, Udall, and Khroen is simply so much better than every other North American team. They can play whatever comps and strategies they want, and often simply out play their opponents. However, this stops working specifically against international opponents, and Tempo Storm, their North American rivals. On the global stage, every team has players as talented as GFE’s core three. The team cannot outperform their opponents. When you are equal in skill, but weaker in strategy, you will lose every time.
GFE has no clear team identity. You never see Mene or Quacknix playing Muradin, yet GFE is perfectly happy to mix up their roles all the time. Ask yourself, why was Udall playing Abathur when his teammate, Fan, has been known for years as one of the best Abathurs in the world? GFE does not need a coach to help them play better, they play amazing. What they need is a coach who can help the team find it’s identity. To design drafts and strategies that play to the team’s strengths and attacks their enemies’ weak points. Essentially, GFE needs a coach to protect the players from themselves. Let these allstars focus on being the amazing players they are, but hire a coach that can better define each player’s role, and draft accordingly.
Edit: Now, it should be noted that GFE currently has a coach in Yuuj. Yuuj is a great player and very intelligent, but it is clear from GFE’s history with their coaching staff and their current performance that the issue lies less with the coach, and more with the way the organization and players utilize their coach. While factually GFE has someone in the coaching role, they are not utilizing it properly in my opinion.
It took four years for coaches to become standard in League of Legends. From that point the level of play across the world accelerated beyond what many thought possible. The game got better to watch, the matches were more competitive at every level, and the teams became stronger as eSports institutions. My hope is that HOTS will learn from its predecessor, and turn to coaches now. Particularly in North America, this is the only way we will ever compete on the international stage. It is time for the players to allow themselves to focus on play, and give the reigns of team organization to someone trained for that role. It is time for players to be willing to be coached.