On a cool October day in 2013, a group of wiry South Korean boys stand on the Los Angeles Staples Center stage. Clad in matching black sweatpants and red polos, their foreheads are beaded with sweat. They are only moments away from hoisting up a large silver trophy skyward and starting their empire atop the world's largest esport.
The tournament's host nation has long since been eliminated from consideration. But this year, for the first time since 2013, North America will host the League of Legends World Championship Series. The region will finally have its chance at redemption on home soil.
Strategizing at the helm of the continent's hopes and dreams are the coaches, a group of men tasked with keeping their teams focused through defeat, scandal, and roster changes.
Unlike traditional sports, esports teams live together in one house, an environment ideal for an 18 year old learning to make ramen for the first time, but less suited for a man trying to be a pillar of the organization's values. Teams travel as a pack and days can last much longer than the regular nine to five, amping up pressure on the coaches. Players and staff wake up, eat, play solo queue, review VODs of games, scrim, hit the gym, and play more solo queue.
The effect is a gamut of stressors that has led some teams to hire coaches specifically tasked with keeping tabs on the psychological state of players, like Immortals' performance coach, Robert Yip.
The soft-spoken and genial Yip and his counterpart, lanky head coach Dylan Falco, are rarely apart. In fact, they sleep in the same room in the team house. The unyielding pressure of leadership has left Falco with less time to watch games compared to his days as an analyst on Team SoloMid, so the duo largely credit their 17-1 run during the regular season to their constant efforts to remain a consistent and united front.
"As soon as you get up in the day, you're immediately trying to set an example, and set up a leadership role, so people can follow you," said Yip. "You don't take into account how full-on it is. Much more than if I were coaching, say, a basketball team."
Much of each team's success is owed to how well coaches have learned to amplify their roster's natural talents. For Falco, a big part in maintaining the team's mantra of consistency has been centered around how the team structured itself at the end of 2015.
"When a lot of people are scouting for players, I don't think people take a lot of time really watching games with detail," said Falco. "I found a lot of times, the public perspective of a player's skill -- like when you mute the casters and really watch what they're doing -- a lot of times you'll see a different story. You'll notice that fights are being won due to a player the casters are never talking about or that the community never talks about."
North America's reigning champion, Counter Logic Gaming, has found that there's truth to Falco's words. During last year's roster changes, the team let go of star player Yiliang "Doublelift" Peng, a decision that was a major source of ire for fans. In CLG's eyes, the move was necessary in order to re-establish trust among existing teammates. Tony "Zikzlol" Gray, head coach of CLG, maintains that this is CLG's best team yet.
"On other teams, people are very reluctant to give that same level of trust that we have on CLG," Gray said. "It's game five of the North American League Championship finals against TSM and we literally built a composition around our rookie AD Carry, who the community had completely s--- on for the past week to two weeks."
After placing first in North America, CLG took an exhausting 11-hour flight to China for the Mid-Season Invitational, where top teams from every region were invited to compete. Though they were disparaged by many for being "the worst team besides the International Wild Card," the comeback kids placed second, just behind the South Korean behemoth and former 2013 World Champion, SK Telecom T1.
Gray credits much of CLG's success in the domestic and international scene to the team's culture and its mantra: respect all, fear none.
"I think [other NA teams] just focus on strategy more than any other aspect of being a team," said Gray. "It just seems that every coach has been hired because they've been smart in the past about the game, but they know less about coaching. It just seems like their focus is always the game."
He pauses, "I might be wrong with that statement."
Despite being at the forefront of North American competition, Gray stays predominantly out of the limelight. Outside of the occasional interview at MSI, he was most often seen pacing briskly behind his team's chairs before the start of a game. He'll occasionally stop at a fixed point with a booklet in hand, focused on doling out strategic advice to players like a professor lecturing his students.
It's a style that suits CLG's all-for-one attitude, but for a coach like Team Liquid's Choi "Locodoco" Yoon-sub, who made the perilous jump from pro-playing to coaching, the sudden lack of recognition was a bit of a burn.
"When I first started coaching, I really didn't like coaching," said Locodoco. "It's not about getting attention. Now, I actually don't care. But I think a lot of coaches struggle a lot with that, like not being in the public eye and just being underappreciated. But that's part of coaching, and it looks really really bad on the coaches when they brag about their achievements or they're really boastful, like 'oh my team won because of me'. It looks really f---ing bad."
Known for his blunt humor that entertains an online audience of thousands, Locodoco voices his contentious opinions, narrow features hidden by heavy-rimmed glasses. His most recent position, prior to this one, was as a coach for Team SoloMid. When asked which Game of Thrones house he would assign his former employer, Locodoco said Lannister.
"I would say [Team Liquid is] Stark. Renegades would be Hodor," he said.
While most teams in the NA LCS have built their identities around their roster, it's hard to ignore the influence of Locodoco's leadership on Team Liquid. For the first time in a long time, ADC Chae "Piglet" Gwang-jin was performing in a manner reminiscent of his time on SK Telecom T1. Liquid managed to hold its own against CLG in a grueling best of five. Though Locodoco has years of experience, he says he still relies on his strong sense of intuition to run TL.
"I want a bigger say and more structure in how our team fights," said Locodoco. "I definitely had more than I did on TSM. I had even more this split. But I let the players make a lot of choices. It's not like the players are bad people or stupid, but I have a lot more experience and I researched this. It's my job to know this stuff."
Going into summer split, Locodoco plans to assign specific shot-calling duties to each member on the team in order to foster a sense of accountability on TL. But Locodoco, who had family in the Starcraft pro scene, isn't afraid to say that League players, on a whole, don't take their jobs seriously enough.
"In League of Legends, there are pros that become pros within six months," said Locodoco. "They joke around and people don't have as much respect for their jobs as Starcraft pros do. I really want to make sure that my players don't have that mentality."
"It just seems that every coach has been hired because they've been smart in the past about the game, but they know less about coaching."
The season's structure is also a source of heartburn for coaches. Due to the lack of international competitions, Falco said, North American teams often go into big tournaments blind. They become accustomed to their own meta and lose sight of what works on the grander scale.
"In Korea, there are very few players on top teams that are below par. But in North America, that's not true," said Locodoco. "Even in top teams, you have players who are weak links. So when two top teams scrim, you may have a team that picks an off-meta pick and has consistent success with it because people aren't well-rounded. North America has suffered from that before. We think a certain champion is good because it's working in our little ecosystem."
So to ease the learning curve, coaches have learned to dissect and react to their mistakes during the regular season. CLG has developed a checklist that it runs through after each match, Gray said, and the team welcomes failure early on in the season to take inventory of what works and what doesn't. Last split, CLG's early loss against TSM saved it from the sinkhole that Immortals stepped into during its best of five in the playoffs.
According to Falco, IMT has since adjusted its approach.
"We learned that we need a more broad and open-minded perspective to playing the game," said Falco. "Being a bit less passionate about what we believe is the correct way."
Though divided in their efforts, the coaches and players are united by their common objective: North America winning its first League of Legends World Championship title. The coaches have rallied around this objective, fostering a brotherly competitive environment.
"North America's level of skill is definitely higher than the community perceives, so I do think we have a legitimate shot at the World Championship next year if we keep this pace of learning and hard work," said Gray. "All I know for sure is that CLG will make sure North America is never the laughing stock of an international event ever again."