Coaches come from many backgrounds. Some are the star players of historically great teams, others materialise with little apparent background in the competitive scene, yet they possess such a deep understanding of the game and can impart that knowledge in a way that can make them incredibly valuable. For this article we want to focus on the former, the pro players that made the switch from playing at the highest level to coaching at the highest level.
MAKING THE SWITCH
As with any job or profession, there comes a point where pro players have to call time on their careers. Often it’s because a new crop of rising stars has burst into the competitive scene, sometimes it’s unfortunately down to injury, and other times it’s because they find a new calling. Former LCS players tend to go down the coaching route, some more successfully than others. In the EU LCS in particular we’ve seen a rise of pro-player coaches over the last year; YamatoCannon, Shaunz, Nyph, YoungBuck, Pr0lly, and Aranaea all played professionally and have since transitioned to the coaching role.
After retiring from pro play, Vitality’s coach Shaunz saw coaching as the perfect way to apply his knowledge in the League scene. “I felt it was the perfect job for me,” he tells us. “On one hand, after getting my engineering degree, I noticed I was good at handling projects and especially people. On the other hand, I studied the game a lot in terms of rotations, team movement and statistics.”
For Splyce’s coach YamatoCannon, the lure of the pro scene was still strong, despite repeated failed attempts to qualify for the LCS, but he quickly found a new passion in coaching. “There was a time in my career as a pro player where it just made sense for me to take a break from playing,” he said. “Team Solo Mebdi was disqualified from the LCS qualifier, DragonBorns failed to re-qualify for LCS, Heimerdingers Colossi fell apart and aAa just did not work out.
“I had to catch up with studies, but while doing that the scene lives on and it loses its faith in you. I casted the EU and NA LCS and the World Championship in season 4 so my game knowledge remained relevant. I loved the scene but I knew reaching pro-level mechanical play would be a long process, I wanted to jump into the competition again as soon as possible. Riot made a post about coaching becoming a part of the LCS and I was still in touch with some of the players that I played with in the past (MrRallez, Nukeduck and Mithy), and they said that I would fit the role of a coach. Sceptical at first, I got the opportunity to coach my first LCS team and I found out quickly that I have a love and passion for coaching.”
And for H2K’s coach Pr0lly, the success he had while he tried out a new coaching role convinced him to make the switch. “At first I had an option to try coaching, without sacrificing the chance to play,” he says. “So I started coaching just to try it out, and after a few months I enjoyed it enough and was feeling good about the results that we were producing, so I made the switch. I think if i was enjoying the similar success playing, I would have probably stuck with playing.”
PROS WITHOUT CONS
Not all LCS coaches are former pro players. Indeed, we’ve seen successful coaches like Deilor guiding their teams to dominance without ever playing the game professionally. Some would argue that former players do make better coaches though; their knowledge comes from actually playing the game, and their experiences playing in big tournaments could be a boon to a team competing at the highest level.
“I believe having past competitive experience within the sport you’re coaching offers an advantage,” says YamatoCannon. “You can relate to the situations you put your players in and you can relate to the emotions that go through the players’ minds on stage. It becomes easier to recognise qualities that make a player a winner and what it truly takes to be on top. I have gone through decisions a player has to make in his career and I have a clear idea of what is the best for the players.”
Shaunz doesn’t think that pro players make better coaches, but he stresses the importance of having a deep knowledge of the game. “I don't think we [pro players] necessarily make the best coaches, but it's really important for a coach to know about League of Legends, and usually if you didn't play at decent or high level, you might have trouble understanding the most tactical aspects of League of Legends,” he said. “It's like in football, the best coaches are often former players, but you can find a lot of non-high-level coaches that were not pros. I think it’s a mix of a lot things. For example, I lived in a gaming house for seven months at a semi-pro level, so I know what I liked and what I disliked. My experience helped me make decisions in the gaming house as a coach.”
It might seem like a no-brainer, but the temptation of hiring a coach from outside the League scene must be high, especially for the bigger teams with spending power. The chance to work with a highly experienced coach that has won it all in another sport seems like a great opportunity, but unless they know the game, their impact would be minimal or even detrimental to a team’s performance and attitude towards the coach. There are few things more detrimental to a team’s performance and morale than a coach players don’t believe in, as witnessed with TSM in the spring split.
Anyone that follows football knows that the best players don’t always make the best coaches. Diego Maradona, who some would consider the best player in the history of the sport, had a short-lived managerial career after a poor spell with Argentina, barely guiding them to a spot in the 2010 World Cup before being routed by Germany in the quarter-finals. Sir Alex Ferguson’s playing career was mostly unremarkable and he never played outside the Scottish league, yet he became the best manager the sport has ever seen when he coached Manchester United.
Is League of Legends a different case? A cursory glance at the players-turned-coaches in the EU LCS would say no. Of the six former pros, only Nyph was crowned EU LCS champion (with Alliance in summer 2014), and Nyph is also the only one of the six to make it to Worlds. It’s probably safe to say then that player skill does not equal coaching skill, though high-level players can offer some extra personal experience and bring that into their coaching. “It's not that impactful for coaches to have player skills, since some skills like mechanics wouldn't translate at all,” says Pr0lly, “But having the ability to critically think and theorycraft a solution like you would in a lane matchup, that would transfer to coaching.”
YamatoCannon agrees. “I do not believe coaching ability scales with player skill,” he says. “The experience is relevant, but there are abilities one might have that translate to team strength rather than individual strength, and those abilities translate well to the coaching role but might not be appreciated coming from a player. When I say abilities, I mean the skill to recognise what is required to win besides flashy mechanics. Football has the best example where the most successful coaches are ones that have played in the past with lesser results and they are the coaches that I look up to the most (Sir Alex Ferguson and José Mourinho).”
So will Faker be the next great coach? Quite possibly, though it’s doubtful his mechanical ability will be the deciding factor governing his coaching ability. Working under SKT T1’s coach kkOma, however, could be. The SKT head coach guided the organisation to two World Championship victories (in 2013 and 2015) and an MSI victory (2016). Few players have the opportunity to be coached by someone that talented, and it’s hard to see a scenario where his knowledge isn’t transferred to Faker through his example.
We have some talented coaches in the EU LCS, and not all of them are former pro players. The extra experience can make a difference, but the key takeaway here is that game knowledge trumps all. So if you’re a pro player investigating a new career path, or you’re about as mechanically skilled as I am (a.k.a. not at all) but have a deep knowledge of the game and its intricacies, plenty of opportunities exist for you in the coaching world. We’ll leave you with some wise words from Shaunz on what it takes to be an awesome coach:
“Be flexible, accept criticism and learn about how to handle communication between people. I think you need to be both good at the game, in terms of strategy, understanding of the depth in League of Legends, but also be a good human being and look to help your players more than anything!”