The players for the best team in the League Championship Series (LCS) right now live in a cozy apartment just a few miles from the league’s studio in Santa Monica, Calif. The team’s CEO and founder, Noah Whinston, gave me a tour on Friday, the day before his team, Immortals, played Team SoloMid. It lasted all of two minutes. It’s not a big space.
The players were set up around the living room playing a scrimmage with their coach watching intently. A fight breaks out in the jungle and the players yell. In a dining area in the kitchen, there’s a couch and massive television with the scrim on it. Robert Yip, the team’s “life coach,” as they’re often labelled, sits on the couch, watching. For Yip, that label almost sounds demeaning; he’s a practicing sports psychologist with a masters degree and certification as a strength and conditioning coach.
There’s preperation for the day’s dinner ready in the kitchen, what looks like red curry waiting to simmer in a wok. Yip is watching Immortals battle a team with a top laner aliased as Smeb. “We’re playing KOO Tigers,” Whinston jokes. Immortals is pushing down the second tier top lane tower after catching out a kill in the jungle. The faux Smeb never knew what hit him.
We move back to the door, where I can see the players frantically communicating and Yip just past the kitchen intently watching on the couch. Whinston waves up the stairs, and says there are just bedrooms up there. At that, I see myself out. A self-described workaholic, Whinston’s got more on the agenda.
The Immortals house is hardly one of those celebrity mansions you’d expect to see on MTV cribs. But it gets the job done. Whinston and by extension his team is anything if not pragmatic.
The Immortals house is hardly one of those celebrity mansions you’d expect to see on MTV cribs.
“I think Immortals’ coaching philosophy, is sort of to set up the players so they have absolutely everything they need to succeed,” head coach Dylan Falco told me last week.
“They have all the best information. They have all the best. Their health is taken care of. Their diet is taken care of. Their exercise is taken care of. Everyone goes to the gym every other day. Everyone eats healthy meals timed by our nutritionist.”
Yip and the team’s manager, Jun “dodo8” Kang, a former LCS support for the team slot Immortals acquired, Team8, take care of the players outside the Summoner’s Rift. That leaves Falco tasked with taking care of their in-game health. He provides the team with a goal every time they play, even often for solo queue practice. He makes sure the players enter every game as a team, not just as talented individuals.
“We make sure we’re set up to be as healthy and efficient as possible, and I make sure we practice with specific goals and we play as a team,” he said.
So far, that healthy environment is making the team’s name seem particularly apt. This could be a season no one soon forgets.
If there’s one team everyone is afraid of at the LCS, it’s Immortals. In discussions around the proverbial locker room at the LCS studios in Santa Monica, other pros whisper that they’re unbeatable. So far, that’s held true: Through two weeks they’re 4-0, the only undefeated team left.
The new franchise became the talk of the offseason when they signed big ticket free agents Heo “Huni” Seung-hoon and Kim “ReignOver” Yeu-jin away from last year’s Fnatic, the most successful Western team in the history of League of Legends. But much of the team’s success is so far predicated on the play of their domestic players. All three were benched or in danger of losing their spots on their previous teams, yet on Immortals they’ve become part of a powerhouse.
Immortal so far
“It feels really good right now because we’re playing really cleanly,” support Adrian “Adrian” Ma told me last week. “We’re not making any big mistakes. We just feel really dominant right now.”
The team seemed to click right away once all five players took to the Summoner’s Rift. They have a kind of natural chemistry that makes the game look easy. No team so far has shown the same kind of coordination and teamwork in their games, and Immortals seems to have an attitude that they truly are Immortal, that no matter the situation, they won’t lose a game. Against Team SoloMid and NRG eSports, they fell behind early only to seize control at key moments.
“Everyone is really positive,” Adrian said. “No one is going to rage. We’ve got no history of being mad. Even if we do bad, everyone, we always come back, we bounce back. We don’t tilt from making mistakes.”
Adrian, Jason “WildTurtle” Tran, and Eugene “Pobelter” Park credit that to it being a team filled with veterans. Four players in the lineup have won an LCS championship and all of them have at least one year in the LCS under their belts.
So far every player has shined in their role. Huni continues to show he’s one of the premiere top lane playmakers on the planet, both carrying games and enabling his teammates with well-timed initiations. ReignOver is a facilitator, capable of snowballing all three lanes and directing the game with his own knack for finding favorable fights. Pobelter has shown he can play a variety of mid lane styles, recently pulling off an impressive Zed performance.
WildTurtle, meanwhile, has carried games by showing the same aggressive play that made him so fun to watch in the past but that had been missing during his 2015 slump. Sure, that aggression has led to a couple questionable deaths, but that’s part of the package. (“The team is really confident in Turtle so he’s really confident in himself,” Adrian says.) Adrian himself scored the LCS weekly MVP this week, pulling off a signature Janna ultimate to turn a big fight against Team SoloMid, showing he’s become an even more able and comfortable playmaker while still demonstrating the same ability to control vision he did last year.
The team takes a “democratic” approach to shot calling, as Adrian puts it. They’re working to add more organization and make sure they don’t step on each other’s toes.
So far, it’s working. The team is playing great and they’re enjoying it, too. Players like Huni, WildTurtle, Pobelter, and Adrian are all famed for their ready smiles, the way they seem to truly enjoy playing League of Legends, whether on the big stage or otherwise, and that attitude is infectious this season.
Pobelter, who helped Counter Logic Gaming (CLG) secure their first ever LCS title last year, keeps a bit more of a level head.
“On CLG, we really liked to play the game too,” he said, noting that you never know what might happen in a long season. “It will be a harder test when or if we start to lose. Everyone is happy when you’re winning, right?”
Even Pobelter snuck in that qualifier—“or if.” Producing an undefeated season truly is a fanciful dream, but there’s a belief that this team has the quality to do it.
Maintaining a healthy environment
There are plenty of studies that show a healthy body could have an effect on the virtual playing field. Exercise increases reaction time. Lack of sleep leads to impaired decision making. Robert Yip himself has preached on these topics with regards to esports since 2012, when he first began working with Team Liquid StarCraft 2 pro Dario “TLO” Wünsch. But sometimes it’s still hard to understand if what should be good process is producing tangible results.
The players, though, believe they can feel the difference.
“Our schedule is really structured right now,” Adrian says. “We wake up at the same time every day. We eat healthy. We got to the gym every other day. We have a healthy lifestyle right now. And it feels way better. I’m sleeping better. I’m waking up better. I feel like I have more energy.”
The team’s jungler, Kim “ReignOver” Eu-jin, agrees.
“I think Immortals are taking care more of the players than Fnatic,” he said. Fnatic’s coaching staff did a great job, ReignOver said, but on Immortals the team puts more focus on taking care of them outside of the game—and making sure they put the game down sometimes. “I just feel like I’m getting more healthy at Immortals. Resting well and then eating well and then exercising well. Even though you cannot practice as much as other players, I think still by doing that you can perform even better.”
That’s not to say Immortals’ support structure is revolutionary. For Pobelter and WildTurtle, things are mostly the same. Counter Logic hired a coach with sports experience to oversee operations and enforce healthy practices at the start of 2016. Team SoloMid always seems to be at the cutting edge in terms of investing to support their players, using an extensive coaching staff to enforce a strict and competitive practice environment to produce consistent results.
Perhaps that isn’t much of a surprise considering Falco worked for SoloMid as an analyst part of 2015. That gave him experience working with elite players and understanding how top teams run things—and what he can copy and improve.
Both Pobelter and WildTurtle feel that Falco runs post-game reviews more efficiently and effectively than their previous teams. Immortals also enforces a stricter schedule outside of the game. But one key difference, if Falco and Yip get their way, will be consistency. Immortals believes they’ve developed an effective regimen and they plan to continue with it throughout the year, whether the team is preparing for a week-six match against Team Dignitas or for the LCS championship.
“One big mantra we have is just not to get complacent and to be consistent, because right now I think we do have a training regimen and team environment and team priorities that are working well,” Falco said. Maintaining that discipline for an 18 week season, playoffs, and beyond, though, can be difficult. And if the team’s results deteriorate, change may be needed.
A lack of consistency got Counter Logic into trouble last year, Pobelter said. The team started the season with mandated gym time, but that fell to the wayside as the team started spending more time in-game, taking an extra two hours of scrims each day.
Most teams in League of Legends play two three-hour scrim blocks, with preparation and review time surrounding each session. That amount of time seems to get efficient results, allowing players to compete at their peak each focus each day. Adding two more hours doesn’t seem like much, especially when many players just spend that time in solo queue anyway, but “it was pretty horrid, actually,” Pobelter said. “Usually our performance in those last two hours compared to the first or the second set was much lower.”
He admitted that, for some players, grinding out 10, 12, 15 hours a day might be a realistic or even optimal way to practice. But for most people, balance is needed. “I don’t want to make it sound like I’m not as committed, but every player is different,” he said.
There’s always a creeping feeling that, when others are spending so much time in game, you need to as well to keep up. Counter Logic felt that pressure as their results led them against tougher and tougher environments, like the LCS finals and eventually the World Championship.
“I think that just made us really ragged,” Pobelter said. “Hurt our team environment. Everyone started to kind of lose their edge around each other, because we were just practicing really hard for over a month without a break. Then when I came to Worlds, I think our level was not as good.”
If Immortals continues to sustain their success, don’t expect the same to happen to them. Falco and Yip preach consistency in preparation, ensuring that the team’s practice environment is as similar to what they’ll face on game day as possible.
“I think that a lot of teams have parts of the puzzle when it comes to coaching,” Falco said. Teams need to take care of their player’s lifestyle, their in-game preparation, their picks and bans. They need to scout their opponents, scout new talent, scout the meta as it shifts across the globe. “A lot of teams do it really well in one area, or two areas, but I don’t think a lot of teams have the full structure to bring it together,” he said. The formula Immortals has produced may not be the most optimal one, but so far it’s producing results.
A new start
One of the oldest cliches in sports is that a confident player will be a successful one. Sports journalists often opine about “analysis paralysis,” when a player can’t play their game, can’t play their style, can’t use their instincts, because a coach has them too worried to make a mistake or too caught up in playing to a system.
Often that’s just used as a story to excuse a run of poor performance, but for WildTurtle last year, it was a very real problem.
Multiple people at the LCS mentioned a rumor that Team SoloMid enforced a “one mistake rule” for WildTurtle during the Summer, putting a muzzle on their weapon. There wasn’t a mandate as dramatic as that, WildTurtle told me, but he did say his coaches reined him in some. “My coaches just told me not to do anything crazy, just don’t make mistakes, basically,” he said. “I kind of just didn’t do anything last split, I guess.”
When you put a collar on WildTurtle, you’re just left with an animal that’s scared to leave its shell. “I guess it’s pretty bad for confidence,” he said. “It was just pretty bad overall.”
That’s backed up in the numbers. In the Spring, he posted 570 damage per minute (DPM), topping all starting AD carry players. For the Spring, he only put up 405 DPM, ranking above only one player. The season was by far WildTurtle’s poorest, and while part of that is likely because Team SoloMid itself wasn’t as strong compared to their peers as in past splits, one of the big reasons was that WildTurtle couldn’t go wild.
Of course, WildTurtle really does make some aggressive mistakes—he admitted he made a few against SoloMid on Saturday, and he’s looking to fix them. Perhaps SoloMid believed they needed a tighter leash after three years of them. But you need to find a way to improve without killing the identity of a player.
You need to find a way to improve without killing the identity of a player.
In many ways, that’s a theme for the American players on Immortals. Last split, WildTurtle’s new bottom lane partner Adrian went through a similar experience. He ended up benched midway through the season, apparently scapegoated for a midseason slump.
“I want to be way more confident in my plays, trust in my teammates and trust in myself,” Adrian said. “Last year I lost a lot of trust in myself and my teammates. I wasn’t a confident person. I would always underestimate players or overestimate them. I should just play everything the same.”
He regrets that he didn’t play better, but it was still his rookie year, and he needed to learn how to be more confident and vocal. Doing that on Immortals is much easier. Instead of being an outsider on a team featuring two Koreans, a Korean coach, and a Chinese mid laner with years of tenure, Adrian is now one of the guys. Immortals features a team of players of similar ages and similar temperaments, a team of jokesters that love playing League of Legends and love playing together. Adrian gets along particularly well with WildTurtle, who he calls a “really chill guy.”
“When we wake up early in the morning I’m half asleep and we’re going to the gym, he says the randomness things and I can’t stop laughing,” Adrian says. “I’m half asleep laughing. He just says the stupidest stuff. He’s a really fun guy, I like being around Turtle. We’re both really good players. We both understand how we want to play with each other. We just talk about everything. He’s really good.”
For Pobelter, last year certainly wasn’t a frustrating season like it may have been for his teammates. He helped Counter Logic score their first ever LCS title, ending a title drought for one of League’s biggest franchises. While he spent most of the season playing safe mages, that was all right with him. The team favored saving their counter pick for the top lane, something no one else did. It worked. “I think people realized after we won that maybe it’s not the best idea to just always counter pick mid,” he said.
It may not have been the flashiest year for Pobelter, who used to put up hefty scorelines on assassins while playing for Winterfox, but it got the job done. That wasn’t enough for Counter Logic, though. During the offseason, the team told Pobelter that he’d be taking the bench role held by Choi “HuHi” Jae-hyun in the Summer. They explicitly told Pobelter that if HuHi played well, he may never see a game. “I think a lot of people are under the impression that I didn’t want to share playtime with [HuHi], which is not true,” Pobelter said. “That was what I agreed to when I originally joined the team.” So he sought a transfer, and the team helped him find a new home.
“Actually, I’m really thankful that they let me pursue other opportunities,” Pobelter said. “They were really helpful about it. It was of course not the decision that I wanted to be benched, but… they were really helpful in connecting me with a lot of teams, what they thought was good, what I should look out for.”
As a so-called “VC team,” an organization backed by private investors with deep pockets, many assume the Immortals roster was built on a foundation made of cash. Adrian didn’t shy from revealing how much he made just for signing with the team (the equivalent of his salary last year). But that’s not the only reason why so many players decided to don the teal uniforms. And it didn’t stop a roster of potential mercenaries from forming into a team.
Adrian joined in large part due to the leadership. He was impressed by Whinston’s pitch and confident in the coaching of Dylan Falco. Adrian was familiar with Falco’s work at SoloMid and H2k Gaming in 2015, and Adrian believed he was a better coach than some of his other offseason options.
Pobelter and WildTurtle cite similar seasons. “I chose Immortals because I was pretty impressed with Noah and Dylan, and also the roster looked pretty good,” Pobelter said. At the time Pobelter signed, that roster only had Adrian locked in. That was also enough for WildTurtle, who specifically wanted to play with Adrian.
“I think Adrian had a lot of potential, but he wasn’t able to use it,” he explained. “On TiP he had some pretty good games where he had some pretty good ults, and I think Adrian is pretty good.”
Are they truly Immortal?
“Huni is always yelling, ‘We’re going 18 zero, 18 zero,” Adrian said.
“Huni is always yelling, ‘We’re going 18 zero, 18 zero,” Adrian said. When the team is watching other LCS games waiting for their game to begin, their coach usually notes which result Immortals needs to keep atop the standings. But Huni, Adrian says, doesn’t care about those results. “We’re going to win every game so it doesn’t matter about the standings,” Huni says. “We’ll be on top anyway!”
If you had made that claim a few weeks ago, even as many predicted Immortals to win the league, it would have seemed almost crazy. Everything can go wrong on a long and winding 18-game road. But after two weeks of winning, it just barely seems possible.
Going undefeated is a tall order, but one that almost seems possible after Fnatic accomplished it last year. Immortals have a magic about them that makes you think they just might do it, a team that’s instantly found their groove and seems to have infinite potential to continue improving.
Of course, some of the other veterans on the team are a bit more pragmatic. Pobelter doesn’t want to go “balls deep” on predictions, he says, noting that if a few things went differently against Team SoloMid and Immortals lost the game, many might perceive the team as struggling. But both Pobelter and WildTurtle admit the possibility, that they have belief they really could pull it off.
All it takes is one mistake to derail that dream. Maybe Immortals takes a loss. Maybe they hit a losing streak, and they need to tweak their formula for consistency. But that won’t stop Immortals from marching on towards the playoffs, the championship, and the world stage.
Photo via Riot Games/Flickr (All rights reserved, used with permission)
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