This year no team has surprised as much as Fnatic. A squad featuring four League Championship Series (LCS) series rookies took the title before nearly reaching the finals at the Midseason Invitational. But those four rookies weren’t the only newbies on the squad.
Their coach, Luis “Deilor” Sevilla Petit, just completed his first season coaching a professional League of Legends team. But the 28-year-old from Spain managed to take Fnatic’s hodgepodge roster further than any other Western coach took their team so far in 2015.
Fnatic stormed to the EU League Championship Series title despite a seemingly shaky roster heading into the season. Then, at the Midseason Invitational, Fnatic nearly toppled Korean titans SK Telecom T1, the best team in the world’s best region featuring the world’s best player, Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok. It took five games for SKT and their legendary coach “Kk0ma” to beat Sevilla’s squad.
At the Midseason Invitational, I talked to Sevilla about his coaching style, the challenges of a rookie coaching a rookie team, the future of Fnatic, and their performance at MSI.
“We’ve accomplished nothing,” Sevilla says.
This week Fnatic began the next chapter of their journey, opening the Summer Split of the LCS with two victories, including one against last season’s runner-up Unicorns of Love.
A coach who’s actually a coach
The easiest place to find a coach in esports is the ranks of declining pro players. It’s only natural. They have deep knowledge of the game and plenty of competitive experience. They know what it’s like to play on stage and compete in front of thousands of screaming fans. But there’s an important question often ignored when signing them up in a coaching role: do they actually know how to coach?
Coaching is about more than just devising strategy, or telling a team what to do in a given situation. The key is facilitating learning—teaching players to take advantage of the coach’s knowledge and teaching them to be better players. And while many former pros are knowledgeable, they don’t know how to impart that knowledge on other players. Sometimes they don’t understand why something worked for them as a player, only how they did it. They don’t know how to handle the unique mental issues other players may experience.
Sevilla entered esports with a nearly unique leg up on his peers: He already had more than 2,000 hours of professional coaching experience before before entering the esports scene.
League of Legends is not played by emotionless robots.
The Spaniard worked as a poker coach for mid-stakes and high-stakes players, parlaying his success as a player into a teaching job. Sevilla sees himself as a cash poker player, but he competed in 15 tournaments around Europe thanks to a sponsorship deal.
“I’m not a tournament player,” he says. “I don’t enjoy it at all.”
That second statement sums up his relationship with poker—a way to make ends meet. When people around his office started playing League of Legends, it intrigued him.
“League of Legends became super popular,” he says. “I had to ban playing five-versus-fives in the office because they were so loud.”
Eventually Sevilla tried the game, and he was hooked, playing casually off-and-on through Season 1 and Season 2. As League of Legends grew, Sevilla eventually realized it could support a career swap.
“I never enjoyed playing poker,” Sevilla explains. “For me it was just a job. A way of earning money. I wanted to do something I enjoyed. It was as simple as this. I really enjoy League of Legends. I knew the transition would be easy, from coaching poker to coaching League. So I just prepared for it for a couple of months.”
He studied the game, focusing on tactics, strategy, and the way to approach it. He was already a Diamond 3 player, he says, so he understood the basics. “It’s not like I have super deep knowledge of matchups, but I understand how the lane works in that sense,” he says. Instead he focused on figuring out what he could offer players who were already skilled in that regard.
He took his first dip into coaching with 34united e-Sports Club, a Spanish multigaming organization, working with the team for about four months. Then he saw Fnatic publicly announce its coaching search. He sent in an application. After a back-and-forth interview process, the team offered Sevilla the job.
Fnatic introduced Sevilla in January. Five months later, he was on stage in Tallahassee, Fla., leading Fnatic against the best team Korea has to offer.
Falling to Korea and the Midseason Invitational
The Midseason Invitational featured the best team from each of the major League of Legends regions across the globe. Fnatic entered as the best team from Europe. But the top three teams in Europe were mostly rookie squads, leading many to label Fnatic as underdogs.
But they opened the event with a victory over American side Team SoloMid before nearly besting SK Telecom T1 in a close group stage match. Despite faltering against Taiwanese club Ahq, Fnatic reached the semifinals, landing them in a pivotal series against SK Telecom T1.
Sevilla puts much of the blame on himself.
“Normally before every match in the LCS, we gather, hug, group. We do a short motivational speech reminding a couple things, what we have to do, depending on the match it’s different,” Sevilla says. ““I think I have to do nothing to motivate them for a match like this. The match itself is pretty hype. I did nothing special.”
Before the event, the team was not confident they could challenge teams like SK Telecom T1 or China’s EDward Gaming. But after arriving in Tallahassee and practicing against the Koreas, they realized a best-of-five against them was winnable.
“We knew how good we were against them,” Sevilla says. “It’s not like what fans thought, what casters thought, what analysts thought. So we were pretty motivated going into it.”
The two teams traded games in an explosive match where Fnatic plumbed their trademark aggression and SK Telecom T1 struggled to find an answer. When the Koreans adjusted their picks and bans to shut down the aggression, Fnatic pivoted their team composition to another that fit their blitzkrieg style.
“I think our drafts were really good until the last game,” Sevilla says. “Not really good, but at least good enough to be at least at the level of their drafts. The draft against SKT is pretty difficult because their champion pools are pretty deep, and their strats that they can pull. They can play completely different styles in the same best of five. I think we did a pretty good job there.”
That is, until game five, when SKT pulled out Nunu in the jungle and put Fnatic’s early game on ice. After the match both mid laner Fabian “Febiven” Diepstraten and AD carry Jakob “Steeelback” Medjaldi pointed to the Nunu pick as a cause for their loss. The team wasn’t ready to play against it and let the Nunu have free reign in their jungle early, meaning their own jungler Kim “Reignover” Yeu-jin couldn’t make the early plays he had all series.
Sevilla puts much of the blame on himself.
“First of all, we lost that draft pretty hard,” he says, referring to that fifth game. “Secondly, it’s lack of preparation.”
For Fnatic, Sevilla, and his staff, preparing for a tournament with five teams and a variable schedule over two weeks, proved to be a new and challenging task. Researching Chinese and Korean teams was more difficult than European ones. Even finding their solo queue accounts, for example, proved a hurdle.
“I didn’t prepare properly for this event, or at least as good as I would prefer for LCS,” Sevilla continued.
“In normal circumstances, if this semifinal was the semifinal of the LCS, then my players would know all the bad things Nunu can do. There’s not infinite options. [SKT has] been playing Nunu for a while and I’ve been watching them, so I know what they are capable of doing. So in this sense, it was my failure because I didn’t tell them what they should be expecting. But at the same time, I didn’t have enough time to prepare properly. I didn’t have the experience to understand that this could happen this way. So it’s just really pretty poor drafting, this was also partially my fault. Not enough preparation.”
That’s part and parcel with attending his first international event as a rookie coach. Just as the players took the tournament as a learning experience, testing themselves against the most talented players China, Korea, North America, and Taiwan had to offer, Sevilla had the opportunity to learn how to properly prepare and how to efficiently use preparation time.
The team felt little pressure entering the event. “There were really no expectations of us having a good result,” he says. The event was more about improving as a team so the next international challenge, the Riot World Championships, they might create expectations and exceed them.
“I really knew this was an event to improve, to learn, to practice against the best teams in the world, compare our play style to them, individual matchups,” he says. “For me, it’s the same … As a rookie coach, I am open minded. I know that I am learning a lot and I know that I have a lot to improve. I am just, like the players, trying hard to be the best I possibly can.”
When Sevilla accepted the position, he didn’t know who he would be coaching.
It was only the third best-of-five series this version of Fnatic has ever played, and it was the third to go five games.
“Each best of five, I understand better, for example, what mental issues happen during a best of five. I learn better how to handle it,” he says. “Like what things we need to do, how I need to talk to the players, what I need to say to each player. This is extra experience for the next best of five. Of course, I learned a lot of subtle things. My way about thinking of X is just a little bit different, in many different cases. I’m just a little bit better. This experience as a whole makes me better.”
Building a European champion
While a coach deserves plenty of credit for his team’s success, especially in such a tactical and strategic game like League of Legends, it’s the players who must execute and perform to secure a championship.
The construction of Fnatic’s 2015 roster looked like a disaster from the outside—two Koreans with questionable pedigrees, a French player who hadn’t even played in the Challenger Series, and a talented rookie mid laner backed by the veteran Bora “YellOwStaR” Kim.
When Sevilla accepted the position, he didn’t know who he would be coaching. When he first saw the roster, that didn’t change. “I was pretty worried,” he says. “Because I knew nothing about four of these guys.”
He didn’t follow the Challenger Series or amateur scene, so he had never been exposed to Fabian “Febiven” Diepstraten or Pierre “Steeelback” Medjaldi. While he watched OGN regularly, he knew nothing of Kim “Reignover” Yeu-jin, and Heo “Huni” Seung-hoon had never appeared in a professional match.
Of course, Sevilla himself admits that he’s a horrible scout of talent. While many other coaches like to have a large influence on roster decisions, Sevilla is content to play with the hand he’s dealt. But Fnatic’s composition presented some unique challenges.
“I was pretty worried because I expected really big communication issues, the Korean and English communication. Also the bot lane was French, so they were going to speak French, and of course they did. I was pretty worried. But when I went to the gaming house and saw them play, I was surprised how good they were already.”
“They were way better than I expected as a team, not individually,” Sevilla says.
Of course he expected the players to feature strong mechanics. They wouldn’t be recruited by Fnatic for the LCS if they didn’t, after all. He knew the lone veteran Bora “YellOwStaR” Kim had deep knowledge of the game.
“What I didn’t expect was this good synergy,” he explained. “They had a style without even, like, talking. Of course they worked on it, they were practicing and all this stuff, but they were fine playing together without knowing each other for more than a couple of days.”
That kind of natural chemistry is rare, but a hallmark of some of the best teams. Sometimes things just work in such a way that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and in some ways Fnatic was an example right out of the gate. That certainly made Sevilla’s job a bit easier—instead of struggling through dealing with communication problems and synergy issues, he could focus on honing that fast-paced, aggressive style or choose to build new ones.
Learning that style
One common criticism surrounding Fnatic throughout the Spring Split was their reliance on a specific style of play: early aggression focusing on the playmaking ability of their top lane and jungle. The team put Heo “Huni” Seung-Hoon on top lane carry champions and let ReignOver feed him through early ganks, taking advantage of his teleport and YellOwStaR’s penchant to roam as support to exert impressive map pressure early. But if the team couldn’t build a big enough early lead, they’d potentially fall off in the late game against better scaling team compositions.
Critics wondered if Fnatic would be “figured out”—if someone could find the lock that shuts the door on their rampant aggression. But their strength at that style, and their versatility playing it, with many team compositions at their disposal with varying power spikes and strengths, proved exceptional.
“To beat SKT, we don’t need a different play style,” Sevilla says. “We just need a more polished play style. I think right now we can win any team… If we were just a better team with the same style, we could beat anyone.”
Sevilla is content to play with the hand he’s dealt.
That’s, in part, thanks to Sevilla’s plan for the team.
“We were really good at one specific thing. Not really good, but potentially really good at one thing. I focused on trying to be our best in what we were already good at,” he says. “At the same time, I tried to be our best in our bad things. For example during the split we have been training different play styles, different strats.”
During the LCS, for example, they played a double AD carry composition, much different from their regular play. But focusing on breadth of styles over honing your strengths can be dangerous for a young team.
“From my point of view, the way of being the best for us at the beginning was focusing on what we were already good at,” he says. Yes, learning a breadth of styles will make a team deeper, but that doesn’t necessarily means it will make them better. Will any of those styles be strong enough, for example, to beat a team like SK Telecom T1, or even H2k Gaming?
“So when we play in the LCS we lose way more games, and this has consequences for example in the mental state of the players,” he says. “Because if the players are getting smashed, or they are losing frequently, or they feel uncomfortable because they are doing things they are not good at, they will lose confidence, improve less, will not be willing to train at that same level.”
“So I thought the best way of doing it was just focusing on our strengths. It looks pretty basic, but it has really deep consequences.”
One of the things that makes SK Telecom T1 so tough to play against is that they’re comfortable and successful with so many different styles. A variety of options makes a team more dangerous, especially in a best-of-five scenario. But that isn’t the only way to building a strong team: if you can play what you’re best at and understand it at a level better than anyone else, it’s still possible to win.
Of course, it’s always better to have more cards in hand. That’s something many teams struggle with in their quest to challenge on the world stage. Much like Fnatic, Team SoloMid is successful in North America with one primary style of play: a mid lane focus, taking advantage of Søren “Bjergsen” Bjerg’s prodigious talent. They’ve tried to build other successful builds with mixed success, sometimes causing conflict within the team.
That’s one of the biggest challenge facing coaches like Sevilla or Team SoloMid’s Yoonsub “Locodoco” Choi: teaching players that failure is part of the process.
“When you try something and the players fail, explaining to them that they failed but there was an improvement… it’s pretty tough,” Sevilla says. “When you fail continuously, for the mental state of the players it’s really tough. Because they are not used to failing constantly.”
But that failure is inevitable while training to expand your repertoire, whether that’s expanding your champion pool, new team compositions, or new strategies. And that’s tough to stomach for a player used to winning with what they know they’re good at—why do they need to do something else?
“When you force them out of their comfort zone to do something they don’t 100 percent understand or agree with, mentally it’s really tough,” he explains. “The thing is, if they don’t accept it and acknowledge it, when they go into the game and practice this strat, they are not going to give everything they have, so playing other strats, other styles, evolving our play style is the most complicated part.”
That’s going to be the challenge for Fnatic during the Summer Split. Sevilla believes the team is good enough to challenge at international tournaments and place somewhere in the top four. But to win the championship, they’ll need more versatility.
“If you have more comps, more styles, in a best-of-five you’re a stronger team because you can adapt any way that your opponent cannot predict or prepare for in game,” he says.
While the team may not have picked up a wide variety of play styles, so far, they’ve certainly managed to improve over the course of the Spring Split: macro strategy, or “understanding what we need to do on the map,” Sevilla explains.
“At the beginning of the season, we had not no clue, but nearly no clue. At the end of the season I think that we had a really, really strong grasp on this. From my point of view, we had the best in Europe.”
He admits that’s a biased perspective, but an informed one. He says he’s studied the macro strategies of every team in Europe, including Fnatic’s, and he’s found ways of exploiting them for all teams but his own.
Of course, analysts who watched Fnatic challenge Unicorns of Love in the EU LCS finals may dispute Sevilla’s claim. That match left Christopher “MonteCristo” Mykkles so disgusted during an attempt at analyzing it that he simply shut off the match and refused to do it. But even Mykkles had to admit that Fnatic, despite playing what he felt was a high risk style, played very solid at the Midseason Invitational.
Sevilla just shrugs off the criticism regarding the Unicorns of Love series.
“The Unicorns of Love series doesn’t really show our strengths because Unicorns of Love has an ability of tilting teams. Literally,” he says. “Their play style, how much time they have been together, and how good they are at coming from behind and creating chaos and playing good in this chaotic style makes it look for the experts in League of Legends that it’s a really bad match.”
The thing that analysts like Mykkles seem to ignore, he says, is that League of Legends is not played by emotionless robots. They don’t always make the best decision in every circumstance, not because they don’t know how to make good decisions, but because the circumstances of the game can cloud their judgment.
“Experts in League of Legends have really no knowledge or really no knowledge of how emotions work and how they affect the players,” Sevilla says. “They only evaluate their actions by what they see in the game. And they need to understand that there are human beings playing the game. So you need to understand what’s the effect in the brain of the play.”
The Unicorns of Love seemingly have this ability to insert a certain kind of doubt into their opponents. But Fnatic seems to have conquered that problem in the Summer so far, putting together an impressive and convincing victory against the Unicorns to open the split.
That match showed the team has the ability to control the pace of play, and even slow it down, something their frenetic pace sometimes kept them from doing in the Spring.
Some might say coaching is an art, not a science. But if anything’s clear over the history of sports and the many other avenues benefitted by coaching, there’s no one right way to do it. Every coach has their own unique style, their own way of tackling tasks.
As such a new phenomenon in Western esports, at least at such a professional level, it’s common for coaches to take inspiration from many places. Many League of Legends coaches look up to SK Telecom T1’s Kim “kkOma” Jung-gyun due to his impeccable record and impressive results, building teams of solo queue stars into champions. Peter Zhang, the Team Liquid coach who took LMQ into the LCS and beyond, tries to take after basketball legend Phil Jackson, an 11-time champion famous for his ability to promote the selflessness of his players, not their egos.
“We’ve accomplished nothing.”
Sevilla is actually a Lakers fan, insofar as he will watch them play when it’s on. But despite his apparent Lakers love, he doesn’t take after Phil Jackson like Zhang. And while he certainly has a healthy respect for SK Telecom T1 and their coach, mentioning their golden age multiple times during the interview, he doesn’t idolize KkOma.
“For me KkOma is like, whoa! This guy is really good! But I have no idea,” he says. “I read like two articles about this guy in some years. I cannot have a role model because I have no information about these guys.”
At the time, he hadn’t had a chance to chat with his SKT counterpart besides their handshake on stage. The language barrier was too great. But later on, he had an opportunity with a translator present to pick the Korean’s brain.
If KkOma imparted some wisdom unto Sevilla, the Spaniard likely had some nuggets of his own to offer in return. While KkOma’s experience coming up in Korean pro gaming in StarCraft 2 and League of Legends certainly defines him, Sevilla’s time as a poker coach, the ultimate game of high pressure competition, colors his coaching style, as does the Western vision of sports.
“I imagine that I have a better grasp of how important emotions are and how they affect the game, every stage of the game, how they affect the learning process,” Sevilla says. “This is something that is crucial in poker.”
That’s one of the issues in League of Legends coaching right now. Most of the coaches may have game knowledge and experience, as former players, but they don’t know how to teach or manage the mental aspects of training in a rigorous environment.
Sevilla believes the future of coaching will involve a staff well-versed in all those aspects, at least if League of Legends continues growing enough to support a continued investment in providing the tools to win.
“I think that organizations don’t even know what they need,” he says. “Even for me, I’m new in this. I’m not completely sure what I need. But when I came to Fnatic, I had an idea of what I wanted and what I need. More or less I still have the same idea.”
In the NBA, a roster of 12 players features a staff of 25 people supporting them. They have a head coach, coaches for offense and defense, individual positions. There’s multiple trainers, massage therapists, and a sports psychologist. If Sevilla had infinite resources, he’d adopt a similar structure.
The key is facilitating learning.
He sees two rosters of five players, with the potential to train together and swap between them to open up more strategic options. He’d have a head coach with his hands in every aspect of running the organization, and a host of coaches below him. One would handle team strategy and development, similar to Sevilla’s coaching role right now. Another might coach players in micro and lane matchups, or even individual coaches for each lane.
In fact, that seems to be what some teams are already doing. While the Korean structure may be held up as the golden model for many in esports, traditional sports also provides a successful template. Counter Logic Gaming, for example, just introduced a new head coach with a sports management background. While he has League game knowledge, it’s not the intimate kind of knowledge needed to plan strategy; instead Counter Logic has a different coach for that.
Another thing Sevilla would love to bring from poker and traditional sports: the importance of statistics.
Taking advantage of statistics
Any sports fan has a healthy obsession with statistics. Numbers are often the best tool to impart the story of a match, sometimes better than words on a page. As a poker coach, Sevilla is intimately familiar with the use of statistics in valuing performance and governing how to act in specific situations.
That’s something that’s missing from League of Legends, he says. In League, statistical analysis “does not exist.”
“I would love that this exists, because it would be so much easier in so many aspects,” he says. “But there is nothing that exists. Nothing compared to so many stats in poker. The stats that we see for League of Legends is just a joke.”
He uses basketball as an example, noting how you can measure things as seemingly insignificant as how often a player suffers injury from going for a layup in certain ways. A League of Legends example might be how often a player dodges a skillshot by going to his left or right.
“In League of Legends, you could have combined stats like this, hundreds of these stats,” Sevilla says. “If you play a lot and you have all the stats and you could have them in a database you could improve in a lot of things that are right now is just impossible.”
Professional sports teams are already taking advantage of advances in statistical analysis. The Houston Rockets, which just got knocked out of the NBA semifinals, were built through the lens of statistical analysis. Baseball teams use statistics extensively to make personnel decisions and inform decisions on game management.
In League of Legends, a game that could potentially completely automate much of the work in compiling those statistics, advances seem almost inevitable—if esports continues to grow, that is.
“I think that organizations don’t even know what they need.”
“I would love it, but what is the budget for this? Maybe it’s just impossible to develop something like this,” Sevilla says. “Right now in League of Legends there is not even a replay system that is official of Riot, so I don’t know if this is something that will happen.”
In poker, Sevilla was known as a coach particularly well versed in taking advantage of statistics. “I think I would have a huge edge because I am really used to working with databases and analyzing stats”
Of course, like his desired staff structure, that’s still a dream for the future. But it’s something that teams with resources like Fnatic may start thinking about more and more as League continues to grow as a sport.
Fnatic opened the Summer Split with two straight victories, putting them on the path towards defending their title and a date with destiny at the Riot World Championships in October. Should they make it, they’ll try to build off their solid results at the Midseason Invitational. They were the first Western team to take a Korean powerhouse so far in a best-of-five series, the Koreans needing that fifth game to put down the European upstarts. But as Sevilla and Fnatic are sure to remember, they still lose that series.
In January, when Sevilla joined Fnatic, he said that coaching “is what turns a good team into an amazing team.”
As the MSI result shows, Fnatic is still not that type of team.
“I don’t think we’re an amazing team yet,” Sevilla says. “We’ve accomplished nothing…. Yeah, we won the LCS, but I wouldn’t say we are a great team. We faced SKT, but we lost the match. We didn’t even go to the finals.
“We are not a great team yet.” But, he says, Fnatic will be.
Photo via Riot Games/Flickr