Back in 2018, Team Vitality turned a few heads when they acquired the core players from Challenger team Giants. Three rookies were brought into the league, with Italian Stallion Daniele "Jiizuke" di Mauro in the midlane and a botlane combo of Amadeu “Attila” Carvalho and Jakub "Jactroll" Skurzyński, all under the eye of the experienced and somewhat eccentric coach Jakob "YamatoCannon" Mebdi.
The seemingly risky move worked wonders as the team performed exceptionally to qualify for Worlds that year as Europe’s third seed, where they would go on to put in one of the greatest underdog displays ever seen in League of Legends.
It’s unsurprising then that there were high expectations of the team coming into Season 9, but the roster didn’t come close to reaching the same heights. The team managed to reach the Summer Split Playoffs following a tense tiebreaker against SK Gaming only to be dismantled by Schalke.
“We aren't going to put a lot of time into analysing what went wrong in 2019 – we have a clear vision of that now.”
Vitality CEO and co-founder Nicolas Maurer was very honest in his assessment of the season and claimed there were multiple factors to the team’s short-comings. “I think in 2018 we exceeded expectations compared to the skill of some individual players, and the way the team played, it was crazy good,” he says.
“In 2019, we weren't able to replicate that because I think players didn't have the same level of trust in their game; there has been some frustration and also some communication issues, but it's not really about x or y player – we didn't really click as a team.”
“So we don't think it was an okay season, we think it was very bad because we have way more ambition,” he added. “We aren't going to put a lot of time into analysing what went wrong in 2019 – we have a clear vision of that now. We're revamping a lot of things, our structure and our general approach, to be sure that 2020 will be very different and much better.
While roster changes tend to be the common answer to a difficult season, Maurer believes that isn’t enough. Instead, he is taking a holistic approach to the improvement of his team as he lays down the infrastructure he hopes will set the standard for the industry in years to come.
There are big changes afoot for the organisation, including the relocation of its academy team, Vitality.Bee, to Berlin where the young stars of tomorrow can learn from and practise with Team Vitality’s starting players. It’s the kind of experience that benefitted young midlaner Lucas "Saken" Fayard who impressed when he stepped in for Jiizuke for a couple of LEC games earlier this year.
It’s the kind of step that Maurer wants to see more of. “We don't have the same perspective as many teams in the LFL. At the end, for us, it’s about developing talent – that's way more important than winning in France. If one or two players go from my LFL team to my LEC team then that's a huge success for this team.”
Healthy body, healthy mind
But perhaps the biggest update for Team Vitality will come outside of the players. The organisation are prioritising players’ health outside of game with the development of a training facility within Stade de France and an impressive group of support staff which includes nutritional therapists and physical strength trainers.
Among the team is also Vitality’s own player mental strength trainer Andre Pisani who looks at the minute of details which can help a player perform. In particular, he has been working with players on helping their decision making and looking at what causes each individual to hesitate, as any moment of indecision can be extremely costly at the top level.
With Vitality’s players struggling with confidence and communication last season, the work of Pisani could be crucial to their in-game success – but he says he’s looking to help players outside of LoL too:
“The biggest thing I'm trying to teach the players is this is now time to shut off – this is time to shut off the computer and shut off the brain, and stop thinking about your strategies or anything else.”
Switching off is something that former professional volleyball player Terry Martin admits he struggled with too during his career. Now, the former athlete is transitioning into the esports ecosystem as the high-performance player consultant for Rewired.GG, one of Vitality’s main backers.
“I was taking them to a strength trainer and you'd see Lee “Mowgli” Jae-ha climbing under a bar and doing Olympic lifts. Not one player complained.”
It didn’t take long for Martin to notice differences to the traditional sport world he knows so well: “The very first game of the Summer Split we lost, and we lost badly. We all went back to the house and watched the game and dissected it for two hours. I just remember thinking wow, there's no way you would have got me in a room with my teammates for two hours after a bad performance; we would have been killing each other.”
Yet, at the same time he’s realised that esports players share similar qualities with himself that saw him climb the ladder in his own sport: “The biggest question that everyone usually says to me is these guys aren't professional athletes, but they absolutely are. I think the people in this organisation were doubting that the guys would be doing what they're doing now, more than than the actual athletes. I’ve had zero problems from them.
“I was waking them up at nine in the morning, getting them this thing called breakfast; I was taking them to a strength trainer and you'd see Lee “Mowgli” Jae-ha climbing under a bar and doing Olympic lifts. Not one player complained, they're competitive individuals, they're devoted and dedicated. It was a big change for them but they understand that in order for them to have a longer career, these kinds of things are necessary.”
When explaining why working on health and fitness can help LoL players, Martin points to F1’s Michael Schumacher who would undergo a rigorous workout routine despite “just sitting in a car,” as racing requires a lot of endurance to maintain a concentrated state and the same can be said about LoL best-of-fives.
“We think you don't need to train 14 hours a day; there's only marginal gains at some point, you'd rather work on having a healthy and balanced life.”
While Maurer wants success for his organisation, he’s also committed to protecting the health of his players, which in turn he believes will improve his team’s performance in any case: “We think you don't need to train 14 hours a day; there's only marginal gains at some point, you'd rather work on having a healthy and balanced life.”
Balance is the keyword for Martin. “Five years ago, I think there were a lot of esports pros retiring looking like praying mantis,” he says. “A lot of this functional training we're doing is helping prevent that; a lot of my guys have problems with their hips sitting in a chair for so long, so we have massage therapists and physiotherapists working a lot on their lower back, neck and obviously the arms.”
“We were really able to improve the length of time that they were sat at a computer without pain which is also a double-edged sword,” he says. “Because we're really trying to pull back on the overtraining.”
The esports industry is one that is constantly changing. Maurer has big plans with the Stade de France facility, a new community area in Paris called the v.Hive and an aim to move away from the gaming house model. Yet, he says he can’t predict what will happen in the next five years, as Vitality is only six years old itself. The winds of change are blowing through Vitality but it remains to be seen if the org can weather the storm in 2020.