A belated and joyless anniversary greetings to the unholy matrimony of disruption and ill-timing known as the Valve coaching rule.
In August 2016, a leaked letter revealed the Valve Corporation's decision to severely limit the ability of Counter-Strike: Global Offensive coaches to communicate with players over the course of a map. Although the rule change applies to Majors and Major qualifiers, many tournament organizers followed suit to the immediate detriment of the CS:GO professional scene.
Strong five-man leaderless rosters became increasingly acceptable throughout 2016, and the rule played a growing part of the roster-swap calculus moving into last year's August player break. But the coaching rule change didn't just hurt just the job security of coaches. The change was also a tragic sideswipe Cloud9 and Natus Vincere, who unsuspectingly took a brawns-over-brains approach to the offseason and were left without an additional brain to lean on. The news was also a nasty surprise to teams such as Ninjas in Pyjamas and FaZe Clan, who were already relying on a coach/six-man-caller.
Most of these problems arrived because a lack of transparency on the part of Valve. But putting that unfairness aside, is there any merit to the sudden change? Should coaches have unfettered access to talk to players as they play out each map?
For many, restricting communication from coaches to warmups, halftime, and four 30-second timeouts is problematic because it negatively affects quality of play. For example, Chet "ImAPet" Singh, Counter Logic Gaming's former coach and upset architect, told ESPN that he thought the changes were "overall harmful" and required coaches "to do a lot more preparation before the match" in order to have impact in-game.
But why is its effect on quality of play the go-to litmus test? For example, if tournament organizers wanted the best highest possible level of play why would there only be one coach communicating with players during the match? Shouldn't they allow a tactician, a sports psychologist, an economy tracker, a demo reviewer, five ex-pros/positional coaches and any additional support staff you can think of to have unrestricted access to players throughout the match as well? Shouldn't each team have an unlimited number of timeouts to best prepare for each round? Shouldn't players play in sealed spaces completely away from crowds to prevent players playing worse under the pressure? Shouldn't players be encouraged rather than discouraged to use performance enhancing drugs?
Beyond expense or impracticality or the detriment to the spectator, most of these ideas will never be implemented because this overriding philosophy doesn't seem to exist. Rather, tournament organizers try to structure their competitions to better answer this question:
Who is the best at this game?
If you look at traditional sports, you can broadly separate each game and how they are coached into one of two types. More disjointed games such as football and baseball alternate between going live and breaking with every play. In both, coaches are allowed to communicate with players pretty extensively when the game is not live, whether that be through hand signals in baseball or headsets in football. Coaches can direct each play or pitch beforehand but have next to no impact during the action because of the very short and intense intervals of play in these sports.
In more continuous games such as soccer, hockey and basketball, feature action that doesn't regularly break between points/downs/plays and can continue for extended stretches. The game can only stop through certain triggers such as the ball going out of bounds or a penalty call. Here, instead, coaches have uninterrupted access to players in a limited way via yelling or signaling from the sidelines and periods of more straightforward discussion that are sparse. Coaches can only have the full attention of their players at the end of the half or quarter or play period, or they can use a certain number of timeouts.
"Most of these problems arrived because a lack of transparency on the part of Valve."
Counter-Strike falls on the more segmented side of the equation with its round-by-round system. If we accept the pattern created by traditional sports, you could argue coaches should be able to communicate between rounds in addition to during timeouts.
However, CS:GO is a weird hybrid. Most rounds are not short, all-engrossing intervals of action; they can last much longer and can have downtime. So perhaps there's a case for coaches to be able to communicate in the middle of rounds.
But there are two primary problems with this argument.
First, just because traditional sports do it obviously doesn't mean it's correct or unimpeachable. Second, many esports, and CS:GO specifically, diverge from traditional sports in that the games revolve around imperfect information.
Not knowing the position of the opposing side in CS:GO and other esports titles means that players have to constantly engage in an information game or visualization exercise that doesn't exist in most traditional sports. Coaches being able to communicate with players in esports has the potential to affect play more because there is simply more uncertainty to parse. Accordingly, perhaps coaches should be able to participate less frequently given the greater possible advantage.
Also, if we accept the premise that organizers don't intend to create the best play but instead should work to best reveal the leading lineup, then in some sense it would be prudent to obscure any possible outside advantage. Even in tennis, where there is large mental component but no hidden information, on-court coaching has traditionally been disallowed. The argument is that a lack of coaching creates a more mano-a-mano, gladiatorial atmosphere where two individuals determine who is better purely through their own individual actions.
This is almost the exact same reasoning Valve gave when it officially announced the coaching change a year ago, "distributing the work of five players across six people ... was not in line with our goals."
But this approach, to make each match more determined by the quality of the five-man lineup actions, seems equally unpalatable when taken to its own logical extreme. No one would suggest these players be forced to abandon all coaching or outside analysis in-between tournaments or even play out an entire map without talking to their coach.
While we can certainly criticize Valve's rule as a tumultuous pivot from the established precedent, there doesn't seem to be any definitive discussion-ender. In the absence of some prevailing philosophy or perfect parallel, it's a topic that hinges more on pragmatism and opinion. The overriding question instead seems to be: "What's the best-looking shade of gray?"