(Image Credit: Esports Insider)
What has been the most exciting moment for Team Vitality in 2019?
The first teasing of our new HQ, of course it's just teasing at this point, but we were overwhelmed by the fan's reaction and we're very much looking forward to playing in the new place when it's ready.
Team Vitality has distinguished itself as a top competitor in the LEC, a big difference from where the organization started. What have been the biggest changes since the early years?
When we actually came into the EU LCS it was 2016, we were coming from a Call of Duty background and Fifa, so the EU LCS at the time was quite a new challenge to us, especially because we acquired the slot of Gambit Gaming very late in 2015, so we had to set up so quickly. We did it, and were ready for the 2016 season, but it was a very new thing for us getting into the pc scene. A lot of what we had to learn was running the team from afar, there were a lot of challenges. The first two years of the EU LCS was a lot of learning, a lot of experiences and learning the system as a whole, the right way to train the coaching staff, so it makes a lot of sense in hindsight that we weren't as successful so quickly.
Would you say it was mostly infrastructure?
Every game in esports has a different background when it comes to the level of players, coaching staff, the stability of the ecosystem. League of Legends was very new to us, so we had to learn the way to interact with the team and giving the keys to the coach to let them run the team, which was not what we did at the beginning. In the beginning we were very hands on with the team which was a mistake in retrospect, and after awhile we started to realize that's not the right way to do it. So we hired YamatoCannon as a coach and told him it was his decisions as the coach and that he had free reign of the team in decisions like trading, adding new infrastructure to the team, and the way the players train physically/mentally.
When it comes to raw starpower on the Rift, few can match Jiizuke. Did you always see this in him or did it come as somewhat of a surprise?
So back in the 2017 season we knew we had to reinvent the team because it was not clicking, we didn't have the right talent at the time, so we sat with Yamato and started thinking of the strategy for the year to come. We had a list of players and we very quickly settled on the strategy of betting on rookies. We went through a lot of roster changes previously that were not very good, so we understood we wanted to start fresh from close to the ground up but keeping Cabochard. Yamato was adamant in making Cabochard leader of the team because he's a true leader, we wanted him for years to come, so we knew we wanted to keep Cabochard. We started a new project and we felt it would be very good to add those rookies, and Yamato was very confident in the talent of the guys we chose, so we told him again that it was his project and to make it a success, and we were very confident in the project. Of course when the team instantly clicked and performed it was great, because thought we had the potential to grow into a contender but not to immediately perform, but from day 1 it worked.
How well did Jiizuke mesh into the team environment on stage and off stage?
The interesting thing with those players, Jiizuke and the others, is that they performed better on stage. When you bring a player to the stage for the first time, you don't know what you'll get. Some of them will just be shaky, stressed, of course in the new environment some will play normal, and some players are empowered on the stage and perform even better. Jiizuke for example is like that. From day 1 in the scrims Cabochard would tell us Jiizuke is a very special talent and I can see that, but on stage it was a treat to see it work so quickly.
We know keeping 5 top level League of Legends talents level headed and focused on stage is a challenge, what would you say is the biggest obstacle to keeping this balance?
There's a lot to do on the communication side, people don't realize that communication is so important in League. Of course you can listen to comms and communication, we saw overall the communication improve a lot, a lot less emotions, of course in communication you need positive emotion, but a big part of improving the environment of the team was improving the way they communicate and on that side a big emphasis for the coaching staff was to keep players communicating well and staying level-headed. It's a lot of work on the mentor side to prepare them to stay calm, like when they make a mistake to get back up again, make good decisions. That's where a lot of the success of the team is, and where a lot of the work is. On top of course of understanding the meta.
Would you say Cabochard is important in striking that balance?
100%, when I compare the comms of Cabochard in 2016 to 2017 and beyond, the guy improved like a beast. He's truly the leader of the team, making decisions, orienting the team, and that's why I think Cabochard has been very underrated up until this season where he got first place top laner in the LEC, I was extremely happy for him. A lot of people don't see behind the scenes of the communication and teamwork, so we knew the value of this guy from the beginning.
YamatoCannon is one of the most prominent minds in League of Legends, he makes a lot of appearances, he's on the analyst desk a lot, how would you say this helps or hurts the team?
I do like the idea of coaches that put themselves on the forefront, it's a way to offset pressure from the players, and you can see that in football and a lot of sports. I would say it's not as black and white as that. It's a unique way of being a good coach, but you can be a good coach that makes decisions and stays out of the light, you can be a coach that's not the best at strategy but good at motivating the team to the right state of mind, there's a lot of ways to be an excellent coach. Of course the best coaches have the same level of confidence. YamatoCannon is one kind of coach, I'm not saying it's the only way to be, and I would understand that some people might not like that, but for us YamatoCannon as a brand and Team Vitality as a brand work well together. I think it brings a lot for us. I think all coaches that go up on that desk take good care to not give out any strategies, so I don't see it as an issue.
Vitality Bee just picked up Toaster as a mid laner after Cookie left, what led to this transition and how has it changed the dynamic of the team?
What we want to do for Academy, we're not focused on winning, that might sound strange, of course we would take the win, and we won the French championship and were very happy about that, but the role of Vitality Bee is truly to prepare for the future and develop talent. Right now we have excellent promising talent in the team, we saw Cookie as a very promising talent as well, but it just didn't work in terms of contributing to the team and being a team player. He struggled to adapt to what we wanted from him, it just didn't mesh well with what we were looking for, I'm not saying it's just him or just us, but it didn't work out as a collaboration, so we felt that we needed to change something there. We went to Toaster which is not exactly what we wanted to do with the team in that we want to develop young guys and Toaster has already played in the LEC, but it's also good to bring a mix of youngsters and veterans, so right now I think we have a good balance of those veterans and the young players, and maybe before with just one veteran and four youngsters, maybe it wasn't the best as it didn't work. So right now the balance of 2 veteran players and 3 younger guys might be better.
Talking more about the talent from that team, Saken was brought up to the main roster. What led to this move and do you see him as a potential alternate to Jiizuke?
What happened quite frankly is medical issues for Jiizuke, so I can't say that we played him as a proper sub from a team decision, it's just that we had medical issues and we needed the fit. In a way, though, it was an opportunity to try him out on the big stage and I think that it was very good, I think the guy's mechanics are very good, he has to learn the way to properly communicate as a pro team and play as a team player. This was a very good opportunity to see him perform, and see him perform very well on stage. He has a lot of potential. Now as a proper sub to Jiizuke, even if a lot of teams will tell you about 10 man roster, I don't think we are there yet, where you switch people one week to another, I wish it would be the case I just think it will take time to grow and change. Even the teams that said they had 10 man rosters at the end of the day didn't make that leap into regular changes, so I think we will be there in a few years, but it will take time and we are not there right now. Right now Jiizuke is the starter and he will stay as the starter.
We want a lot more interaction and to create a lot more interaction between the academy and main teams, having them train more together, and I think a lot of teams in the LEC are on that same path. I think this will bring a lot of value to both team's performance, you can test ideas in scrims and it's a big difference than testing that against opponents in the league. It's something that we want to develop more and more.
We can also see it internationally with teams like Cloud9 in NA succeeding bringing up so many new players from the Academy roster.
Yes but I think there's a difference because the North American teams, they have those proper academy teams that are only there for academy purposes whereas in Europe the market makes it that our B teams are real teams that are competing in real competitions. Not saying anything about the academy teams in the LCS but obviously it doesn't add the same value as a French team, Spanish team, those are actual leagues with a lot of viewers so it's a bit of a different relationship. But the academy model that's working in the LCS right now has done wonders for several American teams so I like it very much.
How has franchising effected Team Vitality, both inside the office and on the player's side?
From day one when we started to see more and more movement toward the franchising system in esports we felt that it was right for the ecosystem because we all know that the esports system is otherwise having a lot of issues in terms of creating sustainability. Moving toward the franchising system is key because we can create an environment where we align with the publisher to create a great product for viewers and overall working to create growth for the league. I think franchising is great for esports. Of course different teams have different approaches to that, for instance you can't adjust to franchising in Counter Strike because the structure of the game makes it so that the old system is important, but as a whole a more closed or semiclosed system with more sustainability is key. So from day one we wanted to be a part of every big franchising movement in big games, so when Riot brought the franchising model to North America we were jealous, then it was a big focus on the staff to do the best possible application. We were confident because we knew how to develop and Riot knew that, that's why we were selected. But as a whole it's been great, the LEC's start with franchising has been great, a lot of hype, great viewership, great sponsorship and a great product overall, so I'm more than happy to be a part of it.
The LEC has recently seen some huge imports, Mowgli included, do you expect Team Vitality to continue to move into the direction of importing more players?
It's not something that's philosophical in the sense that it really depends on the opportunities. In the past we struggled with Korean players, and that doesn't bring me to say that it isn't the right idea to import Koreans, this year we did it again with Mowgli, we expect it takes time to integrate into the team and make it mesh well. The way I see it though it's not about the importing it's about making the right choices for the future, creating the right roster, what I want to do and what we want to do overall is keep roster stability. It's something that was lacking in esports in the past. We started Call of Duty in 2017, and every game we would lose a player and change rosters, of course this is the extreme example of where esports was at the time, but with long term contracts that we see in the LEC I think it's great, I think you create a team that plays well together, look at the bigger teams, look at Astralis in CS, stability is very important. But of course when things aren't working you need to step up and make the right changes.
Imports to me is not the question, if we think we can import the right player to grow the team over the long term we'll do it, if we think a purely European roster is the right move for the long term we'll do it.