Robert is a practicing Sports Psychologist as well as an accredited Strength and Conditioning coach. He has worked in gaming for almost two years. His articles focus on the parallels between gaming and mainstream sports with an emphasis on performance training.
I recently had the pleasure of speaking to a progamer that contacted me asking for advice about how he should be conditioning himself for tournaments. He is a seasoned professional and has won many tournaments. “Preparing for tournaments” is the exact same whether you play video games or regular sport. Two aspects interested me from the onset. Firstly the fact that he openly admitted to not having understood the importance of how diet and exercise can play such a large role in mental acuity as well as physical. He already knew about what types of food were good and bad, but actually being given some information seemed to solidify his desire to self-improve. Secondly he was overtly humble and enthused during the talk. He took notes, asked questions and shared some links. It is quite unusual for pro-players to be proactive regarding issues like this and it was very well received.
The current climate in gaming, history of play vs training
“How do you train your players?”
“We have a coach…he is Korean.”
Slayers`Boxer, the original superstar -> supercoach (image from gosugamers)
This line of thinking encapsulates the current mentality surrounding what is perceived as “good” training by many progamers. The end result is a situation in which many players believe that, if they cannot practice in Korea, their efforts are wasted. I hope that this article will be informative enough that people will start asking questions about training priorities.
Gaming culture’s roots are like shifting topsoil; there are few aspects of gaming culture that scream longevity or consistency. Old hands reminisce about classics being better than their current iterations, pale imitations of past glories. We tend to glorify the olden days and revere the heroes of their time.
Regardless of when you began and which game you’re playing, the unifying experience is always fun. It is the sensation that makes us come back for more. We play because we enjoy the game and this gives us a far higher chance of investing more time into a game . As this investment continues, there is generally a steady increase in skill attainment .
That we will improve with time invested is a concept most gamers understand instinctively. Some people will require more time than others to improve the same quotient while another select group will forever struggle to reach certain heights . One thing that is certain is that everyone plays for enjoyment (some with more of an emphasis on winning), even progamers.
Those that attain the coveted status of a ‘professional gamer’ have developed from the same situation as every other person that enjoyed their chosen game with fervour and devotion. Every person in their right mind would jump at the chance to get paid for doing something that they not only enjoyed, but something that they already invest a considerable amount of time into. In essence, adolescents would get paid to play a video game. To many this would be viewed as a fruitless endeavour, something that would inevitably detract from important school studies or social aspects. This is the stigma that attaches itself to gaming as a legitimate source of employment and experience. This perhaps has arisen because of the perceived lack of positive benefits of playing video games. Were players to improve their life on a personal level while training to compete it may well sway public opinion away from the obese, socially inept person that the media often portrays.
For the aspiring progamer, there is nothing to do but play the game and try to get as good as possible. Once a certain skill level has been reached, a little positive exposure can lead to a team offer. This is the supposed pinnacle for the majority of athletes in sport. You work all your childhood and teenage years to get a chance to prove yourself against other like-minded and competitively inclined people. In global sports, there are huge amounts of money that are invested into the development of players from a very young age . It is not out of the ordinary for children as young as 6 to be provided with their own coaches to help them develop . This will continue through their formative years until they will either make the grade or not. This investment into their future potential is seen as worthwhile expenditure. The alternative is allowing these players to develop themselves until they reach an age where they can be assessed to determine their ability. The resulting fallout from the latter would leave many facets of their development up to chance . They would not be afforded the best coaching and advice that specialist experienced coaches can offer while being consequently forced to rely on hearsay and conjecture to train and monitor their own progress. This is unfortunately the direction that the vast majority of gaming athletes are forced to take as support systems are sorely lacking. Players continue to lean on the facets that made them successful in the beginning. Play, play some more and should time allow, play a little more. The expected linear increase in skill compared to time spent playing is just not there. At some point you will hit a level of diminishing returns . So when this blueprint for success results in insufficient outcomes, dips in motivation and diminished mental and physical capacity can rear its head. The high turnover of players combined with the plethora of potential amateur players mean that player improvements are often overlooked in lieu of how the best teams can market their brand and stay afloat. With player lifecycles so short, investing in them can seem futile. Were ‘pro gaming’ given the chance to enjoy the resources of the mainstream sports we might find a greater push towards player development than we see now.
Why are coaches important?
When we look outside of gaming, sport is an arms race with teams looking to develop the latest training ideas or practices. This practice forces a continual development with the more stagnant teams dropping by the wayside. When players are younger, they have skills and habits that benefit their professional performance instilled in them. This is so that when the players mature, these habits become ingrained into how they live their life . The work of an athlete does not only constitute the time they spend training or playing tournaments . The time of the 24-hour athlete is here and now. The more dedicated trainers will look to every hour of the day to create the best scenario possible. Sleep, diet, mental/physical exercise, recovery, planning and personal development all take place outside of normal training hours. All of these hours count towards how well prepared an athlete is and how efficient they can possibly make their practice. Neglect this idea and we are working with blunt tools.
The benefits of having a coach in your corner
The coach provides a vital role for both player and team. Depending on the type of coach their role will differ according to their strengths. A stronger analytical coach will focus mostly on the data and statistics while a more routine based coach ushers in regimen changes. The overriding purpose of a coach “is not to lecture, but to foster the learning inherent in the activity itself by pointing out existing learning opportunities and by transforming failures into learning experiences” . With help from a coach the player will be provided with a much more stable base of support which will result in quicker and more refined changes. These changes will come about through careful planning and communication between all parties involved (not just player and coach). With the coaches in place working with each other for the betterment of the players it affords the company the time to focus their efforts on a different direction best suited to their skills. You will be paying for peace of mind that everything pertaining to the player’s best interests is being looked after. All parties in the organization will be able to become more productive as coaches will have a positive impact on organizational productivity and directed group effort . Being in a situation whereby you have unqualified individuals giving advice about exercise, diet, psychology, life issues, injury or equivalents will only foster the premise of general coaching over specificity.
The exact benefits of coaches are often measured in winning and losing. Is your favourite team doing better or worse than previously? While the purpose of the coach is to improve the players this can sometimes not be evident in the outcome. How the preparation and training affects players can often only be seen in the finer details throughout the year. Losing does not invalidate excellent coaching nor does winning correlate with being an excellent coach. Coaching is a complex dynamic between all personnel within the company. Only when professionals within the scene are more prevalent will the overall disparity between coaches be apparent. This is not something limited to gaming; it is a concept with ties in all fledgling sports that moved from amateur to professional ranks.
Coaches should always have on eye on the development of the player. They should look at how best the training can be individualized to increase motivation while still adhering to the overall objectives. There is a definite amount of trust required from the player in order for him/her to take onboard anything new . Once this rapport has been established the player will be able to focus on the training laid out in front of him rather than the direction. There is an implied trust in each other to work hard and keep lines of communication open . Often I see or talk to players that seem lost and unable to formulate what needs to be done. They revert to type and the repetition continues. This would usually only last a few cycles before people will question the validity of their actions, but because the occasional incidental positive outcome happens their way it reinforces the cyclical behaviour. The coach should be able to remain impartial, sustain emotional control and help the player work through adversity or setbacks .
A coach will provide a positive and progressive work environment for players to best apply themselves . We often presume that because there is no centralized team-house where training can be co-ordinated up close that it is too difficult to do this over longer distances. A lot of work with semi-professional athletes as well as lower visibility sports will have to make best use of time and resources. International consults are not abnormal as quality coaching is sometimes not available locally so one must look elsewhere. The improvements or benefits are more evident in players that can best apply themselves but it is nonetheless important for players to be educated and given the chance to get better. Players that do not have access will struggle to reach their full potential which is bad business any way you look at it .
All coaches outside of the specific in-game coaches will be able to seamlessly permeate between different sports or games. Their knowledge is general as it relates to the athlete, the mind, body, and/or best modalities of training/recovery. These coaches would have the ability to work for an organization as opposed to one player or one team. Various rosters would benefit from having these coaches and as a result, over time, will foster a professional environment for existing and incoming players. The requirements for training do not change for the different genres of games. Irrespective of game skill all players improve from direct coaching.
For example, Team Liquid currently has 13 players on their roster over 3 games. EG’s roster is 23 players over 4 games. Team Dignitas (according to their website) are associated with 57 players over 10 games. For certain teams being able to provide a specific coach for every game is not possible. The logistics of having players in different countries also makes it difficult to provide adequate coaching. These are some of the barriers to entry that coaches have to contend with and some of the reason that you do not see more coaches in gaming.
There is a huge amount of work that goes into the running of a major gaming team especially if your roster is made up of multiple games. The organization must strive to grow their brand, attract sponsors as well as keep their players happy. All this combined means that there should be a considerable workforce turning the cogs. We have a situation whereby many people are not able to make a full time salary from esports and many positions go unpaid. Staff and management make due with what they can and the main focus is on the players. An advantage of a coach is the freedom that they provide management to pursue business related ventures without the workload of managing the logistics of players. With the players being looked after and being held accountable for their actions or inactions the productivity of said players would be of great benefit to both their training as well as advertising for the brand.
How a coach affects the players
“You don’t need to have been a horse to be a jockey.”
Arrigo Sacchi (Former Coach of AC Milan)
The mainstay of thinking for some years is that gaming coaches require a very high game knowledge yet do not need to have high game mechanics to be effective. With this in mind, potentially every player that retires fits the mold of someone that could go straight into coaching. Even with their advanced knowledge and experience their approach or style will not necessarily correlate with the characteristics of the student. It is for this reason that coaches have to undergo training in order for them to be able to communicate their experience in a variety of ways. For something as complex as chess, Starcraft, League of Legends, or Dota 2 there is indeed a need for distinct knowledge. Professional players will make their mark honing their specific race, style, or position in a team. They are chosen to excel in this role and as a result will have extensive knowledge within the confines of their niche. When they are in a position to apply their knowledge to similar counterparts then they can offer insight for discussion. The problem arises when their expertise does not match the needs of the task. Will a former player that made his name as a “jungler” be able to offer extensive help for a “hard-support” or will a top former “Zerg” player be able to provide help for a team made up of the two other races (Protoss and Terran)? Outside of his/her comfort zone the former player would fulfil an advisory role for the other players. This is also an important role within the team as a good coach can stimulate cogent discussion. Coaches should provide things that are missing from an organization. A good coach will be able to ascertain what are the missing components to success from the get go and focus on improving these aspects. The initial boon that is associated with a new coach being implemented is often spurred from a distinct change in atmosphere or transitional period. This is more prominent when a coach enters a team that has never worked with a coach before. Sometimes the coach himself/herself does not elicit a positive change any more than the action of hiring a coach does.
The coaching staff for a premiere Korean Starcraft Team – SKT1 (coach Park is in the middle)
“There were problems with the most fundamental things. The team didn’t have a good base. If you don’t have a good base, then nothing you do as a coach can really have an effect. When I say a good base, I mean an environment where players can focus on practice, and that environment just wasn’t there in EG-TL. Also, there were some problems with the players’ mindsets, their practice habits, and their habits in general. Overall, the players had a good grasp of the game, but some of the players were stubborn since they had been playing the game by themselves.” – Coach Park (Taken from the EG-TL experience article)
When we look at the body of a coach’s work what should we associate the expected improvement of the players with? Are the players getting better because of the game knowledge being imparted to them or are the benefits purely from a change in routine? Research shows that having a consistent and progressive routine will help player development. Being able to initiate and maintain a well-planned regimen will improve the efficiency and effectiveness of training. A coach’s influence in the training structure may provide the primary influence in improving performance (even over the direct game advice). Many progamers still have the amateur mentality whereby they struggle to make the most of their time. Their training can be inefficient and the consistency of their practice can fluctuate from week to week. To remedy this I would be a proponent of players and teams working with sports coaches in order to improve the physical and mental faculties of players. Not only this, but sports coaches will be capable of designing practical training routines that will maximize work and time . Sports coaches will have the experience to understand how to prepare players for competition with the training tailored as such. This will still have a positive effect on the gameplay of a player while also having the added benefit of prolonging a player’s career and personal development .
What types of coaches do you need in Gaming?
In an ideal world with infinite resources available to teams there are multiple improvements that could be implemented. From having excellent training facilities (KT Training House) to comfortable living conditions, players need a good balance of hard work and recovery. This is something that should be balanced through careful planning. While coaching is viewed as a luxury as opposed to a necessity there are obvious layers of coaching that are held in higher regard. Outlined below are the main coaches that would form the complete coaching staff of a professional team. Each of these practitioners play a role within the team and all of them work together towards a specific complete goal. If we were to be missing one of these components we would have a situation where another coach would have to fill in the vacant role. This results in the quality of both roles being diminished due to fractured direction of effort as well as role inexperience. Without any coaches the void will be filled by friends, players, managers, and other external personnel which is an inefficient use of time and energy.
While I did not include managers within the coaching spectrum they are undoubtedly a very important cog within the team machine. Currently many of these managers will be doing more than their mandate requires. Players must be afforded the opportunity to train and compete without having to worry about wages, travel, accommodation, and all the other logistical information which can negatively affect performance . Good managers will be able to organize the above information and communicate it efficiently while the really good managers build a rapport with the players and provide much needed support for them. On the other hand, there are obviously evident cases of owners or managers acting in highly unprofessional and irresponsible ways, which often get much more media attention than the good work of managers that can often be behind the scenes. I would like to think these bad apples fall from the tree because they try to work far outside of their experience zone rather than their incompetence. Similarly to coaching, you will not realize you lack a good manager until you have worked or spoken to one for comparison.
“I think the most important thing managers need is to have a genuine interest in the people they’re working with. Without the genuine interest, work tends to become tedious and you’re not driven to strive for a better tomorrow, which should be anyone’s goal in life. In the past people have asked me what game I enjoy the most to play, and how it is to manage multiple teams in different games and I tend not to have a clear answer for them. To me it doesn’t matter what game you play, how good you are or what role you have in the game. It doesn’t matter if you play StarCraft, Dota, Melee or any other game out there – what’s important to me is who you are, who you’re working to become and how you’re doing it. No matter what game you play, it’s people you’re working with and you’re not any different because you’ve chosen to master another craft”. – Robin ‘Bumblebee’ Nymann
Analyst Coach: Someone to look over the qualitative aspects using replays as a point of reference. There is a huge push towards acquiring a data analyst in Dota as of late. This is seen as a direct effect coach that can change how a team will play. The coach should have a decent understanding of the game with the emphasis on collection and presenting unbiased data sets of interest. This coach would work closely with the in-game coach as he will have a much greater understanding of the game and therefore will ask for specific data based off his observations.
Can help with:
A general analyst would be useful in any type of game as being able to break down hundreds of hours of training into more digestible informational pieces contribute to a more retrospective approach to improvement.
Not every player has an aptitude for stats so they can sometimes feel unmotivated by the ‘boring’ work. Other players can lose themselves and many hours dredging through the sea of data.
Emotions can play a key role in how people remember certain things. High positive or negative emotions can increase the likelihood that an incident will be remembered incorrectly. ‘I always win with this strategy’ is a much less relevant statement than the information a statistical coach can provide. ‘You win with this strategy 64.5% of the time and only under these four conditions’.
Sport Psychologist: When you think about the growing number of people that have publically stated that their mental components are lacking and their training or tournament success is negatively affected as a result it is somewhat discouraging that there is not more emphasis placed on this. There is a stigma attached to Sport Psychology with people thinking that only players that suffer from problems need to speak to one. Similarly player that are playing well or winning can also benefit from getting better. Players should always be in a continuous state of progression constantly looking for increments in areas that others would not.
“As a player my biggest problem was always getting a good night’s rest before and during an event. My personal problem was that I generally got too hyped up on the day of travel. Then I simply couldn’t wind down and get my brain to shut up, which meant only 3 hours of sleep or less. On the day of competition my lack of sleep wouldn’t always remind itself immediately. At some point during the day though, when the high of the first few adrenaline rushes had subsided, I’d inevitably slump hard and have the feeling of watching myself in the third person. I’d fully consciously see myself making mistakes while being unable to do anything to correct them.” – Faton ‘Lalush’ Rekathati
Can help with:
Players suffer from anxiety and stress just like mainstream athletes. There is nothing worse than not being able to perform at the level you know you can perform at. Getting in the right mind-set is not something you can turn on and off especially at the highest levels.
Interpersonal dynamics between teams are of the utmost importance in Dota and League. You have a core group of players that will have shown that they can work together. Team cohesion can be very easy when everything is going well. When the tides change and the tough questions need to be asked there can be a distinct lack of communication or explorative discussion. More often than not this can lead to changes in roles or changes in roster. Rather than work with the players these changes in the team are in hope rather than confidence (because confidence has been drained). Working together can be just as important as the strategies that they hope to implement.