Humanity in eSports: Fnatic’s Novel Approach

[Posted on Medium and TeamLiquid]

What’s the magic formula for creating a winning eSports team for team games like MOBAs and some FPSes? If you go by season preview articles or “meet the team” video interviews that pop up around large tournaments, the recipe sounds pretty similar for everyone: you win at the game by optimizing the way the players, individually and as a group, interact with the game.

The thing is, if all of these teams are basically approaching this question in the same way, then tournaments might as well be a craps shoot (or go to the team that has the most money to pay top players). How do organizations like Dignitas, Team Liquid, Na`Vi, Fnatic, or Team Vitality find the edge that distinguishes them and translates into consistently stellar track records?

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Fnatic’s new League of Legends roster. Source: Fnatic.com.

Fnatic attempts to answer this question in their half-hour long Life of Legends: New Blood video, which opens a window directly into the daily lives of their League of Legends team. The team has just lost three star players in the postseason (including their shotcaller) and acquired talented, fresh-faced replacements who are trying to adjust to a new home right as the League Championship Series spring season begins. Will the newbies be able to integrate with the veteran players and rise as one to rival or surpass the 2015 roster’s excellent track record?

In telling this story, “New Blood” squarely addresses the touchy-feely, distinctly human aspects of becoming a cohesive and functional team – not (just) the aspects related to gameplay. This path involves a set of strategies as innovative as it is comprehensive, including a focus on players’ personal growth, organic friendships, and a long-term, learning-oriented perspective. What does this mean for Fnatic and for eSports as a whole?

Fnatic’s “Life of Legends | Season 2 Ep 1 | New Blood.” Source: Fnatic YouTube.

Personal Growth 101 with eSports Psychologist Weldon Green

In my adopted home of San Francisco, where tech startups pop up like lurker spikes at the ramp to Zerg’s natural, you can’t throw a bitcoin without hitting an op-ed about software development methodology. The gist is that by specifying and following a strict plan of smaller steps instead of going at it willy-nilly, software developers end up with a product that is higher quality and easier to maintain. Thus, it pays to be very intentional about not just what the company’s programmers work on, but how they work on it.

Just as writing good software is much more than coding, Fnatic asserts that being a top eSports player is much more than scrimmaging and watching replays. Weldon Green, eSports performance coach, enters the Fnatic video at around 2:14 to explain why in the world the team is going through vinyasas and Downward-Facing Dog yoga poses (also very popular in SF) at the episode’s start instead of practicing map rotations and teamfights. As it turns out, Green is essentially creating a development methodology for the Fnatic players themselves. He has a plan to help the squad mature as people, not just LoL players.

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Weldon Green going over a League of Legends game. Source: Weldon Green (@mindgamesweldon)

Why is this necessary? Green observes in his company MindGames.GG’s intro video that there is significant psychological work involved in going pro that has little to do with gameplay: “When you transition from a video game player to an eSport athlete, that has to be accompanied with a professional identity that goes along with it, a work ethic towards the game that isn’t very natural when you’re just playing for fun.” If a player can’t adjust to the new identity and perspective on the game, even if they have a lot of skill, they won’t make the cut as a top pro in today’s competitive scene. Fnatic wants to accelerate this process by bringing in an expert instead of leaving its players to figure it out themselves.

 

The players seem to understand the payoffs as well. At 5:38, Martin “Rekkles” Larsson, AD carry and team leader, explains that (pro) gamers know how to play 14 hours a day but not necessarily how to optimize those hours to become more effective at playing. If a player is not eating or sleeping right, they get tired and sloppy, screw up a gank that should’ve been easy, and no progress has been made. Green helps them with both maintaining their physical health and developing healthy mental and emotional habits to better support their intense training. At 6:50, Green takes it a step further — his program helps the players become better people, not just better players:

“… it’s a holistic approach to just being a better person. Better people make better athletes, yeah, but but better people also make better employees and better parents. I think Fnatic is in a great position to help their players develop in this way, and it’d be great if everyone had the opportunity to do something like this.”

Fnatic (and others) is betting that promoting general personal growth will pay off through better in-game performance, even if it takes precious time away from scrimmaging. That’s a pretty interesting idea.

Good Friends Make Good Teammates

About a month ago, Fnatic announced that Lee “Spirit” Dayun, Noh “Gamsu” YoungJin, and Lewis “NoXiAK” Felix were officially joining the roster, filling the dismaying void left by the exit of three key elite players. Are the new players ready to prove their worth? In the intro video, Spirit is serious, driven, and eager to take on the world, radiating a professionalism meant to erase any doubts.


In Fnatic’s announcement video, Spirit talks about joining the team. Source: Fnatic.com.

A month later, at 7:25 in the “New Blood” video, right after Green has finished a monologue on eSports psychology, we see … Spirit playfully patting his teammate Fabian “Febiven” Diepstraten’s stomach like a tom-tom as the latter chuckles bashfully. Febiven looks around a bit nervously and asks/comments, “You’re recording now?” and Spirit goofily repeats “recording now … you’re recording now,” lightly grabbing Febiven’s chin. In this moment, Spirit is unselfconsciously playful and affectionate towards his teammate — a huge change from the Spirit in the intro video — and there’s a sense that this is the way the “real” Spirit acts around his friends. These goofy, tender, awkward interactions are not exactly the cornerstones of the typical pro gamer image, but they are the stuff that true friendships are made of.

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Left to Right: Febiven, Spirit, Gamsu. Source: Fnatic tumblr.

At 12:27, Febivan is interviewed about his perspective on his new Korean teammate.

“I was very surprised how Spirit acted when he just joined the team, because he’s so — like, open-minded and his culture is so different from mine, and his way of acting is so, I guess, adorable… we can just have so much fun together and improve so fast because we really like each other. He’s cute, he’s good at the game, so, I don’t know…what I need more.”

Febivan candidly captures the crux of team chemistry: friendship and trust promote better in-game attitudes and teamwork. In showcasing these candid moments, we see that Fnatic picks its battles when it comes to team management. Unlike personal growth, which is guided by the sports psychologist, friendship is player-led. You can’t force people to trust each other, the video seems to say — you can only give them the tools to be good people and the space to act authentically, and they have to take care of the rest. As a result, the players are motivated to help each other and work together not just because they have to, but because they want to.

This is the kind of team chemistry that fueled CDEC’s Cinderella run through TI5 despite its humble beginnings as LGD’s junior team. Unity can make undistinguished teams great, and Fnatic is hoping that it’ll make its great team unstoppable.

Coach Deilor’s Long-Term Vision

At 27:46, our heroes have just lost their second match of the season to Team Vitality in the EU LCS Spring Split, the regular season of the premier LoL pro league. Unexpectedly, Febiven, NoXiAK, and Rekkles all barely acknowledge the loss. They aren’t obsessed with winning every game, or even winning the Spring Split — they are fine with placing in the top six out of ten, the minimum requirement for advancing to the summer season. Team development is the focus, and games or matches lost are simply bumps on the road to greatness.

At 29:20, in a meeting with the team after the Vitality game, we find out that the players’ patient dedication to the long term comes from head coach Luis “Deilor” Sevilla:

“I don’t want you guys to get really down, or sad; this is just a learning process… Let’s focus on learning, let’s focus on improving, and let’s focus on tryharding in scrims so we’re better, we learn more from our mistakes, and then we’re better in the LCS. OK? If we learn, then the mistake is worth. So, let’s learn from this experience.”

1btq04wvepqufdbmk3_vbvqDeilor in a huddle with the Fnatic team. Source: Riot Games flickr.

Deilor does a superb job matching his tone to the mood in the room and then transforming it, laying out a concise yet thorough vision with sincerity and resolve. At the end of his speech, the team gets into a huddle. “We’re going to learn, we’re going to improve, and we’ll be beast,” Deilor repeats. Again and again, he affirms the core message, slightly differently each time, but in the same quietly inspirational manner. It’s magical.

While many teams focus on individual matches or top finishes in tournaments to motivate their efforts, Deilor and Fnatic are playing a longer game. The players, the coach, and the organization are aligned in a quest to achieve a deep kind of solidarity as a team — the kind that takes maturity, a willingness to trust and adapt in the face of great challenges, and can’t be rushed. Is this pointless idealism or a genuine path to success? Time will tell, but at any rate, this is an approach that treats pro players like real human beings and not just KDA machines. For that alone, Fnatic should be commended.

Humanizing eSports: Fnatic’s Larger Impact

Fnatic’s team management methods are a breath of fresh air in the eSports world, and being different from one’s competitors in an ever-more-crowded scene certainly has its advantages. But why would Fnatic throw its weight so adamantly behind this program, especially when the emphasis on the fuzzier, softer elements of this approach somewhat contradicts the tough and uber-competitive image that eSports teams typically want to project?

One reason could be to recruit and retain top players by demonstrating a friendlier model for what a pro’s life and career path could be. eSports is an industry where players are infamously catapulted to stardom in their teens and burn out by their mid or late twenties, leaving players wondering how to fill the hole in their life once they leave the industry. With the Fnatic approach, becoming a pro gamer suddenly sounds a lot less like sacrificing one’s life and more like enriching it. That’s a powerful sell.

Another reason could be to make their players seem more human and relatable. Fans tend to root for pros who feel like them in personal, meaningful ways, even when they lose. As long as the players continue to play for Fnatic, this investment benefits the larger organization as well.

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Fnatic DotA 2 team meeting fans. Source: Fnatic twitter.

The above might factor into Fnatic’s reasoning, but it’s not the whole story. While this approach might seem unexpected and isolated in the context of the eSports industry, it’s actually part of a larger cultural movement — one that seeks to effect social change by altering the way we measure and define success. Instead of pushing people harder to achieve the same old goals, this trend moves the goalposts.

As a very visible example of this movement, Harvard University recently released a report called Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good Through College Admissions. The report discusses the problems created by a culture that “emphasize[s] personal success rather than concern for others and the common good” and the role of the college admissions system in setting and perpetuating this standard. As a result, pre-university students are subjected to intense academic pressure, sometimes with dire consequences.

By changing college admissions criteria — i.e. the values that students and their parents then associate with success in life — the supporters of this report hope to nurture a new generation that’s not only less stressed, but also better citizens. Harvard and other stakeholders are interested in improving their own communities, sure, but they are also cognizant of their impact as industry leaders. They realize that they are setting a tone that will resonate beyond their own walls and that they hope will change society for the better.

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Harvard is changing its admissions process to promote healthier student lives and better citizenship. Source: Glenn Cooper/Getty Images via Business Insider.

In the Fnatic video, it’s not difficult to see the parallels between their team structure and a postsecondary school (in the US/Canada style)— intellectually rigorous training for “students” in their teens/early twenties, a dormitory-style environment, and high-stakes events where their training is tested, to name a few similarities. The parallels between Harvard’s new ideals and Fnatic’s are remarkable, too. Instead of telling students to get better test scores to succeed in life, Harvard is saying that some of this effort is better invested into being good people and good citizens. Instead of telling players to scrimmage harder to win more games, Fnatic is saying that some of this effort is better invested into being good people and good teammates.

This focus on the fundamentals of humanity is a lot like playing a macro game of StarCraft, where building up a solid economy over a huge army in the early game results in an overwhelming advantage when it’s finally time to crush the enemy. Teaching pro players to be good people may not look much like LoL training, just like making bases and workers might not look like the killing blow to an enemy’s army. But, if done correctly, this may be the best way to win the game — and it may result in a better eSports community. Fnatic thinks so. Do you?

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