Building an infrastructure, learning from WoW, the All Blacks and Korea.
Lets talk about infrastructure. What it is, how it works and how the best teams and organizations use it to create winning teams and outcomes for both their organization and their region over an extended period of time. With how to apply it to the west to develop talent. To preface this, this is part of my job IRL, developing systems for businesses and organizations in how to improve efficiency, develop and maintain high standards and cultures etc. (I will try to avoid using work examples)
I am going to use 3 examples that encompass different aspects of it that I think are all important to developing an effective infrastructure, but also the similarities between them all as well. World of Warcraft, in how to develop and maintain consistently a player base that is capable of the highest level using my own personal experience and external sources within the highest levels of WoW. The All Blacks, in how to mold, develop and maintain both talent and depth of playerbase with a smaller pool of players at such a high level. And Korean infrastructure itself within LoL using SKT as the example with the incentive structure that exists within Korean league. And how it manifests a higher quality Solo Queue. These are 3 very different aspects of player and personnel infrastructure in which we can learn and use the skills required in all of them to help develop and create better infrastructure for League itself. And how to grow the player base in every region to improve the game and the player base worldwide.
The 4 major things that are the backbone to making high quality cultures for long term success creating an infrastructure, that are relevant to League of Legends (and E-sports in general) in my opinion are:
They have intense competition in every position constantly.
They rotate players in almost every position all the time, including the stars.
They bring in upcoming talent into their wider training camps.
They make playing for the team an achievement in itself.
What we can learn from World of Warcraft. The infrastructure required for WoW (in terms of competitive raiding guilds) I think is far deeper and far more onerous than league. Especially for the highest end guilds, at least when I played. Lets talk about what is required for a WoW raiding guild at the highest end. You needed 25 (20 now) people for a raid (40 in vanilla), that are able to play for 12-15 hours straight until content was cleared. At a consistently high level that didn’t tilt. Not only that you have to deal with it being an amateur (as in not paid, not the level people are at) event. Now how do major competitive guilds maintain 20-25 man rosters (40 in vanilla servers) consistently. The answer is infrastructure. Now how do they do this, maintain the culture of the guild (standards) and maintain player motivation, and with such a high personnel number requirement. Especially with a fluid player population and no pay. Here is at least from my experience the answer to this with an interview from the best GM staff I was ever under Mackzter from Ensidia https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uradjUeBByw (although he doesn’t talk in the interview much it was only Meka). (this is a theme you will see throughout this analysis). You create a culture of both exclusivity and pressure on the current players within the guild, and you create a climate of where unless people are at the highest levels, performing at the highest levels people won’t want to associate with people below the standard that you set. This applies to people both in the guild and new recruits, if someone starts to under-perform they get removed or benched. One thing I remember Macken saying about guild maintenance was that people perform to the lowest common denominator, that what you allow the worst player to be and operate at is what you will allow the raid and guild performance to be, it’s exactly the same for league. The trial process has to be intense in order for the best to rise to the top, just like in top WoW guilds league teams need to do this in order to develop talent. There is no secret to this, its a HR, time sink that anyone who wants to succeed as an organization needs to do. Taking players out of challenger / master tier and straight into high end teams will almost always end in failure, atleast in the beginning, no top elite organization does this ever in any code be it sport, work or any other type of high end organization. Outside of the 1 in a million talents (Think Faker, Lebron James etc) taking players from raw talent to competitive is a recipie for disaster, they need time to develop, grow, learn the highest end of play. Most of the time this takes years for athletes in team sports, to do this consistently over a large number of players is what is required. This approach is why these players coming straight out of challenger/master tier solo queue and into new teams will almost always end in failure of those players, no matter how skilled they are and it’s something the west is going to need to change if it wants to ever compete legitimately with Korea.
One of the criticisms I have heard towards NA is the low player base compared to say China or Korea, I am going to make the argument that this is a false narrative using an organization that for over 20 years with a small player base in comparison has dominated their sport, the All Blacks. Being from New Zealand I thought I would share my perspective on the infrastructure that the All Blacks have and how they are so successful. Some context on their recent victory, they could have used the third best player in each position and still won the world cup fairly easily imo. In 2011 we had 4 injuries to the same position and still fielded one of the best players at that position in the world. How can a country of 4 million, with a competitive player base that is tiny achieve this type of success in terms of player depth. Obviously it is the infrastructure they have in place, but what in terms of specifics do they do to achieve this is what we want to know, and how can we replicate this for LoL and E-sports in general.
The intense competition for every position is something that people aren’t used to seeing as a factor to performance, but having 2 or 3 people that can take your place at any time if you start to under-perform is a serious motivator (as with the top wow guilds doing the same thing). If you know you are comfortable in your position you are not as likely to train as hard, work as hard or perform at the very best you can do. Now this also adds to player pressure, knowing that every game could be their last if they start to under-perform and their counterpart performs extremely well. But I would argue this is essential for players to get used to playing under such pressure all the time, it means when they are playing the biggest matches, they are used to playing under pressure. Think what happens when teams choke at playoffs or at important times, if players are not used to playing under pressure, when it happens nobody knows what they will do or are capable of. Putting them under this type of stress trains them for the important events in my opinion and that league doesn’t do enough of. To put this in a league context, look at 2015 TSM, WildTurtle would never have performed the way he did if there was another ADC to replace him at the time. He would have practiced much harder in solo queue, or would have been replaced. Lets look at CLG pre summer split, these guys were notorious for choking right when it mattered, they had never played under pressure to perform and took them years to learn how to cope. These types of things would be ironed out really fast.
Player rotation in almost every position is something you don’t see in E-sports, let alone in all sports. Especially your star players, but this is exactly what the All Blacks do. Every position is rotated, every position has new talent coming in learning, adapting and competing for the starting spot. This puts pressure on the incumbent player of that position to maintain their skill, fitness, attitude, work ethic etc. But it also does something else, it means that if something were to happen, injuries, player issues whatever comes up there is someone there to take the position at an elite level. But there is another aspect that is overlooked, especially with rotating the star players. It shows that the team is not propped up by a few players or one player in particular, no 1 player is above the team and every player is expendable in a sense. This creates a humility to every player that plays in the team, that they are both replaceable and not required in order to win and succeed. Doesn’t mean that they are not wanted, but it gives the coaching staff power over the players that you don’t see in e-sports currently, or atleast in the west. Players are not arrogant or think they are invaluable to a team in the All Blacks, the humility of being replaceable forces them to act bot humbly and listen to the coaching staff. (insert CLG jokes here) This is something that is plaguing league I think at the moment. Think of Piglet forcing the team to play around him and the coaching staff allowing this, this would never have happened under SKT and think of what wonders having Keith replace Piglet had on him. It motivated him to actually perform.
The bringing of upcoming talent into their wider training camps is something the All Blacks are famous for in New Zealand. They will bring in players after a year or so in professional rugby, to give them a taste of the team itself, the standards they have and it gives those players a goal in the future. They send the new players away with a laundry list of things they have to improve on, it allows the coaching staff to monitor the talent available in the country and their development. They groom new talent for 2-6 years in the future. Tomorrow’s team is developed now. They incubate the raw talent, and allow for something most are not aware of – Knowledge transfer. These camps are where the older veterans teach the newer upcoming talent of things that only veterans know. Knowledge transfers are so important in terms of player development and depth maintenance. This prevents the “knowledge death” that happens when people leave a team (or think in the real world when a staff member leaves a company). Retention of knowledge is something that people only really learn once it disappears, there is a reason veterans are preferred to younger talent. Even if the younger talent is superior in terms of fitness or mechanics, there are the things that veterans know instinctively over experience that the younger talent wouldn’t. At the highest level of most things, it’s who makes the least mistakes generally wins, not who makes the flashiest plays. This definitely applies to league now. New and upcoming challenger talent are not getting the chance to showcase their talent or grow simply because of this, and until the west addresses it honestly, we can’t hope to compete with Korea.
One thing that I was going to leave out but I think it’s extremely important and relevant to this topic was the effect of bringing in high elo SoloQ players into training camps per sae on SoloQ itself. This is the reason Korean SoloQ is so highly regarded, getting high rank in Korean challenger almost guarantees you atleast a trial at almost any team, if you get top 20 or so this is almost a certainty. Think of what would happen if you get top 20 in NA? Nobody cares because the talent development infrastructure doesn’t exist, and thus the incentives for challenger and master tier to be competitive doesn’t exist. Incentives matter, lets get that really clear, and having no reward for achieving high LP in SoloQ other than the border is why NA SoloQ is regarded the way it is. It has nothing to do with ping, it has everything to do with culture and peoples perception on the risk reward of effort put in.
Finally they make playing for the team an achievement in itself. Much like how top wow guilds do this as discussed earlier, playing for the team is an achievement for the players. Making it through the selection process, training process etc. Putting on the jersey has an inherent pride to it as an achievement itself. This is not a small thing, players in NZ turn down big money overseas for just the opportunity to potentially play for the All Blacks. The effort and workload to get there is known to all, being an All Black represents your skill, mentality, work ethic etc. Everyone knows what is required to get there and it’s a reward in itself (think special forces like the SAS in the army). Getting to play for the team is a privilege not a right, every player knows this and treats every game with both gratitude and an opportunity to impress for next game. That is how they perform at such a high level every game. Everything flows from that, that’s where the quest for perfection comes and the dedication to the highest level of play from everyone. This is when the social culture kicks in, when everyone plays like this, having someone who doesn’t treat it with the same respect brings you down, social ostracism kicks in real fast. This is how high quality cultures are both maintained and created, and something we don’t have in league yet. Atleast in the west.
Now lets look at the winner of worlds this year, SKT T1. What does SKT do that others don’t, and what do they do in terms of infrastructure that I have talked about that others don’t. Lets look at them step by step. They have an intense trial process, everyone knows or has heard about people trying out for SKT. They have a high standard of selection, but they also take care of their players too (financially and personally). This is extremely lucrative and desirable for almost any korean teenager coming through. Playing for SKT is an achievement in itself (look at Scout). We know that any player that plays for SKT is going to be of the highest caliber, even if hes unknown to us in the west. The glory of having the SKT jersey is this in itself. People respect Scout / Tom etc as players simply because they are in SKT and know what type of environment it is. They have an intense player competition for positions, even their star player gets rotated (faker / easyhoon). They groom upcoming talent in wider training camps (Scout) and they treat every game seriously. They have an amazing coaching staff and clearly coach the upcoming players in solo queue specifically too (there is a reason why scout is #1 and Tom was like #6 or something). Everything they do is to improve themselves as players and as a team. But they also do it efficiently, something the West is slow on doing. (How to do this is another topic entirely and trade secrets to an extent) However SKT and it’s success is a pure product of culture and infrastructure as to why they are successful. And until we in the West learn and adapt, we will always be miles behind, with only lame excuses and groupstage medals to comfort our sorrows.