Neil "Pr0lly" Hammad, coach of H2K Gaming, has received three Coach of the Split awards out of a possible six: spring 2015 and this year's spring and summer splits. Yet H2K has never made a European League of Legends Championship Series final, and most recently it lost 3-0 in demoralizing fashion to G2 Esports in this split's semifinals.
Whatever environment Pr0lly cultivates collapses under pressure. His reputation clashes with his postseason results. Critics have suggested Pr0lly doesn't deserve his awards but have offered almost no viable candidate as an alternative.
Part of the controversy comes from misconceptions and a lack of insight about what a coach does. Pr0lly's public persona conflates his willingness to accept responsibility with the idea that he has absolute power. Combined with the general inexperience of coaches and unrealistic expectations from the players in the industry, the rubric for offering Coach of the Split has become confused. Pr0lly earns his keep through the expressed respect of his players and by helping more than harming. The standard for Coach of the Split simply needs to be lowered.
G2 Esports coach Joey "YoungBuck" Steltenpool -- who received the Coach of the Split award once, in spring 2016 -- set the baseline by which one can judge an EU LCS coach. During that split, YoungBuck called himself "the least strict coach" and said his role consisted almost entirely of maid or managerial duties such as cooking to make sure his players had nothing to do but focus on the game.
G2 won, and arguably that's all the team needed him to do to succeed that split.
"Since coaching [in esports] is very new," YoungBuck said recently, "it's very easy for a coach to be harmful to the team instead of being helpful."
That small point -- helpful over harmful -- should be the real rubric by which voters judge coaches. Instead, it has come to theatrics.
What the community knows about Pr0lly and his relationship with his players comes almost entirely through their showmanship, and this has helped shape a misinformed western coaching narrative. One of those players, Marcin "Jankos" Jankowski, helped build Pr0lly's reputation by praising the coach's knowledge of the game and lane swaps, particularly on the analyst desk in spring 2016.
A player praising his coach put eyes on Pr0lly because, in an environment where coaches were considered novelties, it simply didn't happen.
"I respect the fact that they try," Fnatic player Paul "sOAZ" Boyer famously tweeted in 2015, "and it's gonna be better in the future but now coaches = useless."
This, coupled with the misconception that coaches run the show entirely created a mythos around Pr0lly. Much of the perception of Pr0lly today still includes the notion that he decides what his team should do, and then tells his players which matchups to play and what the correct rotations are, imposing near-dogmatic control.
"Two-versus-ones that go wrong, Baron calls that go wrong -- these are all things that should be controlled by the coach," Pr0lly said in 2015.
In a postgame interview after H2K beat Splyce in a meaningless spring 2017 match, Jankos deferred to the "every match is important" narrative as Pr0lly carefully looked on. The audience can easily believe the jest that, if Jankos had not acquiesced to Pr0lly's wishes, negative consequences would befall him, perpetuating a strict narrative of control.
But there's a difference between taking responsibility for decisions and the team's direction and having top-down control of how decisions and choices are made. Observing how Pr0lly himself has discussed specific examples of H2K's choices provides more insight into how the coach-player relationship in League of Legends actually works.
In 2015, when Lauri "Cyanide" Happonen asked Pr0lly how he instructs players in vision control on the desk, Pr0lly deferred to two players: Raymond "kaSing" Tsang and Jean-Victor "loulex" Burgevin.
"They do a lot of work with that," Pr0lly said. "The kind of influence I have with that is a lot of times there's only one way to get vision, and that's either by grouping or by sending, like, the jungle-support duo to do it together. ... So I basically am like, 'All right, you know you can get vision here.' 'Yeah, I can get vision here.' Then I'm like, 'Then go together,' so I kind of push them to play together more often."
It isn't the only example of deference to his players that Pr0lly gives. Earlier that year, he described the relationship between himself and Yoo "Ryu" Snagwook, who had more independence in his on-stage strategies.
"I'm glad he's really respectful," Pr0lly said, "but there are definitely times when I'm sitting there like, 'Hey, Ryu, why don't we do, you know, this and this with mid?' And he just looks at me and goes, 'Bad.' And I'm like 'All right, so we're just not going to do that.'"
The example of Pr0lly deferring to Ryu in choosing champions in high-pressure situation is also famous. Pr0lly has said he, at times, feels the game can be salvaged only by a player carrying. His role is instead to "make sure my team doesn't get to this state where I'm relying on this one person to make these big plays."
Striving to take responsibility for the failures of his team, earning respect from his players -- not in how it is expressed, but the simple fact that it exists -- and simply not doing harm are things that Pr0lly does that make him stand out in the developing climate of EU LCS coaching.
"Since coaching is very new, it's very easy for a coach to be harmful to the team instead of being helpful."Joey "YoungBuck" Steltenpool, G2 Esports coach
Many players themselves subscribe to the idea that coaches should have absolute authority, which may have stunted the growth of coaching in the scene.
Mysterious Monkeys jungler Maurice "Amazing" Stückenschneider wrote on Facebook that players and the community hold such high expectations of coaches that they must never show weakness. They must always have an answer and provide players with the solution while interacting and living with them day in and day out. He went so far as to use lofty phrases like "authority from above."
By his own admission, Amazing's image of a coach doesn't exactly exist in League of Legends -- at least not in European League of Legends. If anyone judges coaches based on a rubric of perceived absolute authority, they do so based on sensationalism and desk appearances.
Based on the evidence, Pr0lly certainly doesn't adhere to the picture Amazing painted. Pr0lly and many other coaches rely on their players to understand matchups and share knowledge. They lean on players heavily because those players should already know what they're supposed to do. A coach's real role comes down to making suggestions.
None of this, of course, is meant to suggest Pr0lly has no impact on his team -- for better and for worse. What makes Pr0lly stand out as a coach is his insistence that he should be in control and his accountability both in wins and losses. He accepts responsibility even if a lot of his role is bargaining or suggestive. The cracks only grow in playoffs, which fall outside the scope of the Coach of the Split award.
In observing H2K's last two summer semifinal losses in the EU LCS (in 2016 and 2017), much criticism has gone specifically to top lane. Andrei "Odoamne" Pascu has expressed preferences for playing "the bad matchup." Watching the evolution of Trundle, a counterpick against Cho'Gath -- with Odoamne selecting Cho'Gath blind or into Jarvan IV, a flex pick jungler that can put a lot of pressure on Cho'Gath early and a theoretical top lane bully pick -- and then H2K Gaming choosing Cho'Gath as the very first pick in Game 3, it isn't unreasonable to assume that a lot of the influence in these choices comes from Odoamne himself, with Pr0lly signing off.
After a season in which two teams improved shortly after firing their coaches, it's clear that the public expectation of what a coach needs to do should change. The person who wins Coach of the Split does so by having the best desk presence and the best reputation. The winning coach does so by convincing an audience that he has the kind of control he very likely does not have. But when we find out this control doesn't actually exist anywhere, a powerful alternative to Pr0lly is still hard to find.
The testimony of the team, the acceptance of responsibility, and overall performances matter even when time on the mic is stripped away. By this rubric, Pr0lly has made a case for himself. He has helped more than he has harmed. It may not sound lofty or elegant, but the alternative is no award at all -- and that's a separate topic entirely.