The other day at the LCS Arena in Santa Monica, California, covering the North American LCS, I sat in the press area waiting for matches to end so I could interview one or two of the participants. To pass the time, the other media and myself started discussing the upcoming awards for the league, getting into a debate whether Phoenix1's Noh "Arrow" Dong-hyeon or Team SoloMid's Kevin "Hauntzer" Yarnell is the frontrunner for MVP.
As we go discuss individual accolades, we stopped on the vote for the Coach of the Split award. I confidently gave reasons why P1's Kim "Fly" Sang-chul was the obvious winner; he plays more solo queue than any coach, took a club that was in the doldrums to a title contender in a single season, and by all accounts from his players, he's an elite mind that not only dealt with the strategic side of things, but the emotional well-being of his players as well.
Another journalist brought up Cloud9's Bok "Reapered" Han-gyu. Another TSM's Parth Naidu. David "Cop" Roberson of Dignitas who came in mid-season and helped turn the ship around. Counter Logic Gaming's Tony "Zikz" Gray. Who deserved it? Why? Best drafting? Best narrative? Coached the team with the best record? One member in the room, after a bit of discussion of the topic, said, "Why are we even voting for this? We don't know what each coach does behind closed doors."
Weeks later, when the award was officially given to Reapered with Fly coming in second, my first thought was disagreement. Cloud9 only had one member change from a team that made the top 8 of Worlds last year. The team actually degraded in form as the season went along following a hot start. How could this be? While the other choices could be defended by stats and the handy eye test of watching the players week in and week out, the process for picking the coach for each voter was different.
At that point, going over the reasons in my head why I thought Fly deserved it over Reapeared, I realized: This is stupid, what do I know about who is the better coach? So what if Fly plays a lot of solo queue games; does that really qualify him as a head coach? Of course the narrative plays in his favor, P1 leaping from zero to hero in a single split, but wouldn't that have more to do with the signings of veteran South Korean stars Arrow and Yoo "Ryu" Sang-ook?
Coaching in esports, especially League of Legends, is still in its development phase. It was only a few years ago that having a coach seemed foreign to most regions, and a lot of clubs used the position without a care in the world. Still, but for a few cases in each major region, it's the coach that needs to win over the players and the management instead of the other way around. In traditional sports, such as the NBA or NFL, the players need to win the favor of the coach; unless your name is Kim "kkOma" Jung-gyun, there are not many clubs in the world that will choose to stick behind a coach over a star player.
Being an esports head coach can be like participating in the Hunger Games. Start off slow, and you can be on the chopping block. Every season there is a slew of changes in the coaching ranks for a majority of the teams. League of Legends is still at a place where teams are still trying to find the best way to utilize a coach. How many coaches does a team need? One for strategy, mental, and a team manager to round everything out? In a state where a lot of teams still don't know what makes the best coach, how in the world should anyone outside of an org know? Sure, we can go off interviews and interactions with players, but it feels like we're years away from having the right information to vote one coach over another.
In traditional sports, coaches bring a style of play with them. A Phil Jackson-coached team will likely play the triangle. A Mike D'Antoni team will run and gun. Again, unless we're talking about kkOma, the coach of three world championship teams, there aren't many coaches that deploy their own style. For most cases in League of Legends, the team is built first, and the coach comes second -- an accessory in some cases.
The MVP award can be dissected a number of ways, but each argument should be tangible. Same with the Rookie of the Split. This is how important a player was to a team -- you can see that. Stats. The eye test. The flow of play, and how that player affects it.
For Coach of the Split, as coaching changes continue to roll on throughout the five major regions, is still guesswork, at best.