Saintvicious on Gravity's surprise season (and how to earn his respect)
On Saturday, they upset returning champions Team SoloMid, who just won the Intel Extreme Masters (IEM) Katowice tournament the week before. Gravity pulled out a surprise Urgot pick, showing a little of their trademark creativity and capitalizing on an uninspired draft from SoloMid. On Sunday, Gravity trounced Dignitas in a rather easy game. And in that time, team captain Brandon “Saintvicious” Dimarco, one of League of Legends’ elder statesmen, didn’t miss the smite, as the jungler is famously derided for often doing.
Gravity is becoming one of the more decisive teams in the LCS.
He managed to secure Dragon in a key early smite-off before leading his team to a commanding victory. Saintvicious also didn’t die, at least until he met Dignitas’ fountain, after the game was essentially won. His 0/1/10 Sejuani, an ultra-tank who built a solid farm lead and landed the perfect crowd control, wasn’t flashy. It maybe wasn’t the kind of play you’d expect from the Saintvicious you saw in 2011 and 2012, when he was the king of the jungle and in the conversation for the best player in League of Legends, though it still showed off his talent for farming up in the role. But it’s what Gravity needed to win.
Unlike many of League’s original stars, the 27-year-old Saintvicious has managed to extend his career as contemporaries like Andy “Reginald” Dinh, William “Scarra” Li, and George "HotshotGG" Georgallidis fell by the wayside, taking roles in management and coaching as their skills eroded and their drive to perform waned. To do that, Saintvicious has had to reinvent himself both in and out of game, morphing from a more me-first and egotistical player into a leader and team player.
It’s worked. As the shot caller for Gravity, Saintvicious has led one of this season’s biggest cinderellas to a 9-7 record, just a stone's throw away from securing a spot in the LCS playoffs. Not bad for a team that entered the league from relegation.
Rising up the standings
Of course, Gravity wouldn’t be on the cusp of playoff qualification if they hadn’t pulled off a surprising win over SoloMid. But while the community was largely surprised, Saintvicious wasn't.
“Going into this week, I thought it was going to go really good for us since scrims were going so well,” he said. “It came to the point where when we were scrimming we’d literally pick whatever we wanted.”
Early in his career, he was famed as the original carry jungler.
When he says literally, he means it. Picks like Jarvan IV mid lane don’t exactly scream viability. But "it doesn’t matter what we pick," he says. "It’s coming to the point where the picks don’t matter. We can just play what we want and just win the game just because we understand the game better than the other team.”
You are forgiven if you think that sounds a little hokey, like the blind monk who transcends normal senses and reaches a zen state of higher understanding. But in some ways that’s an apt analogy as Gravity has found their “comfortable zone” where everyone knows what they’re doing (at least, when they aren’t diving Bjergsen with stars in their eyes, Keane).
It’s taken a combination of things for Gravity to reach that point, from simply grinding games together for months to the addition of Nick “LS” De Cesare as coach. De Cesare goes over every Gravity scrim and points out their mistakes. “He helps a lot with the rotational stuff,” Saintvicious says. But a bigger factor may be Saintvicious himself; he’s getting “a lot more confident” in his shot calling.
That shows in-game, as Gravity is becoming one of the more decisive teams in the LCS.
“You have to evolve. So, we’re always looking to evolve,” he says. “It’s so tight in the middle of the pack to get to playoffs, so I think we’re a lot hungrier than the other teams too.”
Gravity: the chillest team in the LCS
One thing that seems to separate Gravity from many of the other teams in the LCS is their team attitude. The squad gets along extremely well and seem to have figured out the perfect balance of taking professional video gaming seriously, but not too seriously. And much of that comes from the top.
“It’s so funny because I was looking at posts, and Liquid pretty much had the same standing as us going in the last week, and people were asking to bench players, move this, change that!” Saintvicious says. “But like hell. We could get seventh place and [Gravity owner Davis Vague] would be like, ‘Well, good job guys! See you next split! Do better next time!’ And I think that takes a big burden off people. Everybody tries hard on their own, everybody pushes each other.”
Gravity is a “self motivated” team, he says, and they’re also very self sufficient. They have to be with a young rookie owner in Vague, the enigmatic teen who purchased Curse Academy after they earned a spot in the LCS in the expansion tournament. Vague is “really hands off,” Saintvicious says. But that’s just fine with the team. “We were a really self-reliant team when we were in [Curse Academy]... So we’re a really independent team.”
“I think we’re a lot hungrier than the other teams.”
But Vague has provided them the tools they need to perform. Saintvicious believes their living situation is one of the best in the league; everyone has their own room. They have a top-notch coach in De Cesare who provides them with any analysis they need through his own team of analysts. “We never feel like we need something and we can’t get it,” Saintvicious says. “We have everything we need to succeed, for sure. Gravity has been really good to us. [Vague] has been really good to us. I just feel like we’ve all helped out along the way.”
Of course, it hasn’t all been sunshine and roses. The team had a bit of a dust-up in the middle of the season, when young coach HughBo “SoulDra” Shim stepped down because he couldn’t handle the role. That lead to talk of the hard-headed Saintvicious as a coach-killer, a veteran notorious for his stubborn attitude failing to give a rookie a chance. But Saintvicious says there’s a simple way to earn his respect.
“The same way you earn respect as a player to a player,” he says. “You need to show me that you understand the game and that you’re motivated and you put the effort in. Every person on the team works their ass off. They eat, breath, and sleep League of Legends. This is my particular problem with Souldra. If you’re going to show up you’re not going to have the same heart in it as me, the effort, the knowledge, I’m just not going to respect you. I feel like LS really cares about the game and he understands it well and he really cares about us doing well too. It’s really easy to show mutual respect there.”
That mutual respect is what makes Gravity run. They’re down to joke around and have fun, as long as they’re on point when they need to be. They’re okay with Keane picking off-the-wall champions in scrims, because they know he’ll perform when it counts. “If you don’t enjoy scrimming and enjoy the game, you’re just not going to do well at it,” Saintvicious says. “The team gets along really well. I think we have one of the best team atmospheres.”
That stands in stark contrast to Saintvicious's teams in the past, like on Team Curse where he got into an infamous shouting match on stream with teammate Cody “Elementz” Sigfusson, or one of the many disputes with Counter Logic Gaming owner Hotshotgg. It’s also a contrast to the team Saintvicious in his Team Liquid days.
“I think that, just from me being on Team Liquid before, there’s too much pressure to perform,” he says. “It just becomes a really tense environment, and that doesn’t lead to healthy growth. Yeah, there needs to be structure in place, but there needs to be flexibility within that structure as well.”
Team Liquid’s management takes a very proactive role in the team, handling conflicts by sitting players down with each other to hash things out, talking to every player individually after every match to figure out what they perceived were potential issues. It’s a system methodically designed to produce results, but one that also produces stress. For a squad like SoloMid, it’s working. But maybe not for Team Liquid (though Saintvicious also lays blame on Liquid’s picks and bans—”they’re really faltering in that”), and maybe not for Saintvicious.
Of course, much of tension within Saintvicious’s past teams came from his own abrasiveness and competitiveness. On Gravity, it works in part because of personalities surrounding him. But he’s also managed to soften some of his rough edges.
Saintvicious: re-inventing himself
In October, 2013, Team Curse was heading for a shake-up after a disappointing year saw them in relegation. Saintvicious moved out of the starting lineup and into a coaching role, like so many of his old-school contemporaries. It looked like the end of the career of one of League of Legends’ greatest pioneers and smartest players, forced to step down as young guns with quicker fingers fill the competitive ranks. But Saintvicious wasn’t finished.
“I really think this split is a split for us to get ramped up and next split is the split we’re going to make our run.”
Aside from thankfully short-lived cameo appearance as a Curse support (“I am not a support player,” he says adamantly), it would be nearly a full year before he returned to competitive League of Legends. But it was a year well spent.
“When I took the time off I was really burnt out and I started to play really badly,” he says. “I didn’t enjoy the game much at that point… not really the game, but playing at the competitive level. I was just burnt out on it.”
Instead of competing, he spent his time relaxing and learning. He started his “LoL Lessons with Saint” video series, in which he interviewed various players, coaches, doctors, and whoever else he could get to apply their knowledge to League of Legends. “I got to interview a whole bunch of really cool people like coaches, Chris Kluwe, people from the Lakers, grandmaster chess players,” Saintvicious says. “All these different minds, and I got to get all this information, the way they viewed things, competition and teamwork. It made me a much more well-rounded player.”When he decided to make a return to competition, he was “refreshed."
“That gave me a big edge on everybody that had been playing the game," he says. "Also, this whole time I’ve been watching the game, looking at it from an outsider perspective." During his time off, he still lived at the Team Curse house. Being around that squad, but not actually a part of it, was a learning experience too. “Just being on the outside of that and just coming back into a team, it’s a lot easier for me to address things and to work as a team.”
It also helped open Saintvicious up to more varied play styles. Early in his career, he was famed as the original carry jungler, farming up to become a team fight monster before William “Meteos” Hartman made it cool. He’d build a huge lead and crush the enemy jungler to give his team an advantage. But he’d scoff at playing some of the babysitting roles many teams require of their junglers today.
“Both Hauntzer and Keane in solo lanes are able to carry, and Cop is also performing really well, so what they need is someone to back them up when they need it,” he says. “That’s my job in the meta right now.”
Would he be able to do that two, three years ago? He laughs. “Probably not, no. I would have been like, ‘I gotta farm everything and do this!’”
Back in action
Last week, SoloMid became the first American team to win a major international title at a tournament featuring Korean teams when they took the IEM Katowice title. Saintvicious won an IEM title of his own in Cologne way back in 2011, nearly four years ago. But don’t think he got all nostalgic watching SoloMid trot on stage and hoist their trophy.
“I refused to go to Katowice! They actually asked me if I wanted to cast,” he says. “The trip is just too long! I can’t… it’s just way too long. It’s like snowing there… it’s so sunny here! Why am I going to leave this right now? I’d rather just prepare with my team right now.”
The international experience is always nice, he says. But, as SoloMid jungle Lucas “Santorin” Tao Kilmer Larsen lamented in an interview, the team didn’t even get to play Korea’s best, GE Tigers. “They played last place WE instead,” Saintvicious says. “I feel like [TSM] didn’t really get any experience out of it anyways, so. That tournament I’m down to miss out on.”
The one he’s not? The Midseason Invitational, which will hit Tallahassee, Florida in May. The number one team in each of the top leagues in the world will earn an invite. For Gravity to get there, they’d need to not only reach the LCS playoffs but win it. Saintvicious is confident in his team’s form right now, but not ready to go that far—yet.
“I really think this split is a split for us to get ramped up and next split is the split we’re going to make our run,” he says. “That’s what we’re looking for.”
That sounds reasonable, if a common sentiment among many teams in the LCS this season. But the team has come a long way from where Saintvicious and company started with Curse Academy, entering the challenger series with dreams of the LCS. Mission accomplished.
“We have everything we need to succeed.”
“I thought we had a good shot at LCS,” he said. “The team that we put together was really strong. It’s pretty much what I predicted. I thought we’d be about where we are now. I definitely think we can climb up to the top ranks though. I feel really confident with our team.”
Confidence, of course, is not something North America’s genius jungler has ever lacked. But it seems especially well-placed in his Gravity teammates, a rag-tag band who has emerged as a rising team in the LCS this season. It’s not just any season of the LCS, either—it’s more competitive than ever.
“Organizations have gotten of course more professional,” Saintvicious said. “Especially in the NA scene; teams have gotten astronomically better as a whole. There are not that many weak links. There’s Coast, and that’s it. I know that Dignitas and Winterfox are down there, but they’re not as weak as the weaker teams before. There’s a lot less easy games and easy teams to prey on. Then the top five is starting to get really, really close too. NA as a whole has progressed as a region. We definitely can compete with any region on the level right now.”
But for Gravity, topping North America needs to come first. They'll face Cloud9 on Saturday and finish their regular season with a bit of a grudge match against Team 8, another 9-7 cinderella directly competing for that coveted spot in the playoffs. The two are familiar from their time during last year’s challenger series. But Saintvicious isn’t worried.
“I feel really confident against Team 8, to be honest,” he said.
That’s no surprise. Right now, Saintvicious and Gravity are confident against everyone.
Photo via Riot Games/Flickr