The Thorin Treatment: Reaching the Unreachable

How do we reach uncoachable or difficult players in esports?

The release of Team Liquid’s brave and powerful “Breaking Point” documentary, which shows the difficulties and break-downs of their League of Legends’ teams NA LCS Summer campaign, has once more brought to the forefront of the collective consciousness of the community the topic of difficult professional players. Throughout my time as a journalist covering esports I have found that I have been able to befriend many of the players cited as “difficult” or “uncoachable” by their team-mates or community and come to see them from a valuable different perspective than even many of those around them.

A strange stench

While they cannot allow be simply bundled into one category, the likes of FORG1VEN, NaNiwa, Dardoch, sOAZ and Doublelift have all been cast in this inherently negative light and written off as beyond help, at times. Most of them have had similar issues plaguing them throughout their whole careers, largely because these are issues with their characters and how they relate to others, so they go on to manifest in their team-work with their colleagues. Once a reputation for negative or disruptive behaviour is established, then it is too often the case that many people write the player off according to his label and consider him a lost cause.

I’m reminded of a theory the psychedelic philosophy Terence McKenna brought up in one of his talks having heard, where an aspect of how Schizophrenic patients behaved with the world was being modelled on the basis of it possibly being connected to pheromones. The thinking went that these people gave off a different smell, possibly undetectable to the other person’s sense of smell under normal circumstances, which caused the other person to treat them differently, which then exacerbated the Schizophrenic’s behaviour, since people around them behaved and treated them strangely. In the case of these kinds of players, once they have acquired the label of “difficult”, “uncoachable” or the deadly “toxic”, then many team-mates, coaches or fans may simply treat them even more harshly, thinking they deserve it and thus they can be right to feel paranoid, as it is always assumed that they are the sole problem in any scenario.

The gap between what I want to be and what I am

A unifying quality I can tell you is almost universal with these kinds of players is that they are incredibly driven to win, to an extent which often exceeds the ambition or effort of others, and they genuinely do want to be good team-mates along the way. The primary problem is that when the former condition is not met then the second fails as a consequence. These players want to be liked, respected, relied upon and accepted, but their behaviour pushes away and makes enemies of the very people they need the most.

These young men have difficulty venting their frustrations in a non-threatening manner, communicating how they feel and trusting others to help them or improve. This inability to trust almost always seems to manifest as a reversion to a mindset of “I have to take care of myself, as the others can’t be relied upon” when they are under pressure and feel frustration setting in and the team unit failing. Thus, the team environment suffers even further, from their bailing on it, and they can’t utilise their team-mates to achieve the success they so badly crave.

Coach doesn’t get it

A large problem when it comes to dealing with such characters in esports is the lack of experienced or specialist coaching staff. In top level professional sports, there have been individuals who have become famed for their ability to deal with difficult characters, shape teams around them and get them to buy into the team concept. In esports, even the good coaches often apply a fairly general approach to their coaching which treats many players in a similar manner and may work for most, on some level, but fails them and the difficult player badly when it is applied in their direction.

Such coaches typically take either the default authoritarian approach which can be simply stated as “You will respect me and do what I tell you to” or a softer “talking cure” method where every action and request is explained in a calm voice and the player is asked to work with the coach, asked what he needs and told when he is behaving in an unacceptable manner. The former approach almost always seems to alienate this kind of player, since they feel as if they are being scolded and punished, so it sets them at odds with the coach and it becomes a battle of who is right. Often times, these confrontations take place in public, as the coach wishes to show the other members of the team that bad behaviour will not be tolerated and he has heard their own concerns and is addressing them. This is a deadly dynamic to establish, as to the player it sends them down a “you vs. me” path.

The latter, more delicate approach, misses the mark because it relies too much upon specific words being decoded and attempts to address the problems with logic, when so many of them are tied up with the way the player feels. This approach often simply amounts to explaining over and over to the player that he is making the situation more difficult for his team-mates, contributing to them lacking confidence and that he is not communicating what he wants effectively. Not only does this accomplish very little, in almost all cases, but it provokes feelings of guilt or outrage in a star player who feels as if he is being blamed for the wider problems in the team and is the only one being asked, in any meaningful kind of way at least from his perspective, to change and fix the problems the team is facing.

The typical reaction from the difficult star player is to rebel and retreat into themselves, disconnecting from the team concept and wider communication on these matters, or to imagine they have to put on a fake front and simply tell team-mates inauthentic things like “good job” or “we’re improving”, in place of what they actually think or feel. Allowing these players to feel picked on or as if they aren’t listened to or accepted alienates them and their behaviour is exacerbated further than simple disagreements or low morale in the moment.

Some players even internalise their struggle with what is coming to them from the outside world and when they fail in a big moment, once the rage of denial has passed, they suddenly accept it all as if it were fact, crucially including their own misperceptions and exaggerations of what it must say about them and their failure as people, and we see overly emotion responses. Think of s1mple weeping after his team narrowly qualified for the MLG Columbus major with him playing somewhat poorly in the deciding map. Or Dardoch blaming himself for being unable to help Piglet secure the LCS title which might have completed the Western portion of his career. Doublelift’s twitlonger after TSM’s group stage elimination at the World Championship also falls in line with this kind of outpouring which almost represents a kind of emotional self-flagellation.

You teach; I reach

The largest impediment to the world seeing these players the way they see themselves is their own ineffective method of communication. When they get frustrated, they cannot simply and effectively explain their issue, so that causes frustration at their own inability to communicate and this is compounded into a sense of anger. When they tell a team-mate he is “shit” or that their game is “a waste of time”, they are not communicating what they actually feel, which is often more along the lines of “I don’t what we are doing wrong as a team and I’m trying hard individually and some of what I’m doing seems to be working, so I’m frustrated that I can’t see the disconnect between your actions and mine and what we can do to make our collective effort more successful. As a result, I feel hopeless.”

The vital difference in those approaches to communicating the same feeling is that the latter, were it able to be translated by outsiders, would elicit sympathy and encourage others to keep working to understand them more. The former pushes away outsiders and makes them think “Fuck this guy! Why is he making me feel bad?”.

My success in befriending these players stems from my approach of getting to know them in the literal sense of wanting to know what and how they think and feel. I don’t come in with preconceptions, judgements and criticism. I listen to what they have to say and try to help them uncover what they have been unable to say about how they are thinking or feeling. I think of it like being an anthropologist encountering a new tribe out in the jungle, who have not had contact with Western civilisation before. In this case, the player appears to speak my language, but experience has taught me that his internal dictionary of what he thinks he is communicating is very different from mine, so I treat our discussions as if I am learning a new language entirely and discovering what he means by what he says, rather than what I might have imagined he might if I simply interpreted his comments literally or took them at face value.

This is why so many episodes of ‘Reflections‘ series seem to evoke sympathy and understanding for otherwise controversial or disliked characters. Thanks to my research and getting to know the player in question, I seek to help him communicate what he thinks in a space where he is not judged, where he has as much time as he needs to explain himself and provided with the assistance of nudging him in the right directions to include additional and vital context he would not have realised was important to being understood as he wishes to be.

The primary message of this approach is “I don’t know what you’re thinkiing or feeling, but I want to know and I want to help you express it. We’re a team and we’re working together, so whatever problems we run into we’re both collaborating to overcome them in our own ways.” Response to this approach seems to have been overwhelmingly successful, in my experience. Where others seek to teach the player how to behave or respond, I simply try to reach them and then translate to and from their language.

There is an excellent example of this process being undertaken all by the individual in question in the documentary “Kobe Bryant’s Muse”, where the legendary basketball great, famed for his demanding approach to team-mates, outlines the development he had to undergo over of learning to communicate his competitive drive to his team-mates in a productive manner and seek to find what it was within them that drove them and tap into it to put everyone on a similar page.

Actors on a stage

What makes such stories compelling is that all of these players are among the most talented in the world, that’s why they’ve made it this far, as a player with such behavioural difficulties but not an immense amount of talent simply does not progress to the top level and is cast aside far earlier. As such, the competitive scene becomes the stage upon which these individuals play out their personal battles and struggles and esports the primary vehicle through which they seek to fix or heal the flaws in their characters and how they relate to others.

When they succeed, there is a great sense of satisfaction and life-affirming joy to be experienced even as an outsider. Sadly, many struggle on without rapid progress and further feeling victimised by the shame of the labels attached to them and a system which tells them they are the problem, rather than sometimes victims of a broken bridge of communication on both sides.

Think you can’t understand why Dardoch or FORG1VEN behave the way they do?  You’re literally right, but not in the way you may imagine.

Photo credit: lolesports

About the author