After their loss to Cloud9, I spoke with OpTic Gaming’s Head Coach Thomas “Zaboutine” Si-Hassen and General Manager Romain Bigeard about the 1-4 start, baseball, and their measurements for success.
Miles Yim: You’re coming off a difficult loss to Cloud9, a good team on a hot start. What was the preparation like to face them, and how well did you feel you executed?
Zaboutine: I’d say it’s mainly the same thing. Every team we face, we have a plan and we try to stick to it. You have to find your own playstyle, the way the player wants to play the game. There’s many ways of winning actually, so try to catch one and do it the best way you can. It was the same approach for Cloud9. We worked the whole week trying to figure out how we wanted to play on the new patch. I think we found some new things, and we showed it today. But unfortunately, I think we lost the flow of the game, and eventually we lost. But that’s fine, that happens.
Romain, I’ll modify the question for you. I know you’re not on stage calling picks and bans, but what is your role in game prep?
Romain: I’m just making sure everyone is doing his job. So I’m making sure the players are doing the job of practicing efficiently, making sure Zab is happy doing his job, making sure upper management is happy with us. It’s a bit of nothing and everything at the same time. And it makes me obviously implicated a lot in any kind of win or loss. Today, for example, I believe we had a really solid plan, we failed the execution, but on the other hand, C9 were really, really good. So congrats to them.
Let’s talk about that plan a little bit. One pick that stuck out was the Urgot from [Derek “zig” Shao]. I know he’s played it before with Phoneix1, and then you picked up Kalista and Nunu, two strong objective controllers. What was the thought processes in pick and ban that led to that composition?
Z: I’d say first, we thought with [Tristan “PowerOfEvil” Schrage] having Orianna and the Nashor’s Tooth build plus Nunu was right, and we tried it. It does an insane amount of damage, so that jungle-mid we wanted to save, and we had it in the draft. And then, I still think as a coach, it’s better for your player to play champions he’s confident on, than having you know, “Oh look, it’s [Kim “Khan” Dong-ha] playing Jayce!” destroying everybody, but if your player doesn’t feel so, there’s no point saying train on Jayce and be Khan. It doesn’t work. So if he says, “I think Urgot is really good against Gnar,” and he has a counterpick, why not? It’s just one game, it’s just 1v1, the beginning of the season. We’re only in Week 3, so for me it’s worth a shot to let him. And I think the laning phase went fine. Even though there’s improvement to do as a team, this loss is not because of the pick, and I’m really happy that zig could have showed that Urgot is viable in competitive.
How do you keep the team motivated through this rough stretch of games?
Z: I’d say this is the only criteria we selected the players on, the key factor is motivation. They’re always hungry. I don’t have to motivate them. They come in the morning and only want to play, and when scrims are over, they’re in soloqueue. They’re literally the biggest grinders I’ve ever seen. I think in the long run, it will be effective, because when you’re on top, you maybe become lazy, whereas when you’re at the bottom you just have to grind. It’s not a team of big names, but there is a huge synergy, and as long as we can keep a fresh approach to the game, and there is no blame in the team and everybody’s hungry, I think it pays in the long run. A season is very long.
R: It’s exactly as he’s saying. It’s about staying positive, staying focused on the game, and even if we’re losing a lot at the moment, it’s a marathon. It’s not a sprint; it’s Week 3. We’re facing really big names at the moment. We had a pretty rough start, we’re going to get some points. The goal is to reach playoffs, and as soon as we reach a best-of-five, everything is different.
Z: I don’t know if you remember Splyce in 2016, they started as a brand-new organization, and they started pretty bad because they went to the promotion tournament. They were last or close to it, and then they went to Worlds after the Summer Split. It’s just about trying to fix what’s wrong, and then we’ll just grab wins after wins. We’re close to winning most of our games, it’s not like we’re destroyed in 20 minutes. We have space to grow, and I’m confident in that.
Well, the game changed this week as we moved to Patch 8.2. There were significant support changes, and Nunu is back after a buff (and then a quick hotfix). How did your team go about adjusting to the new patch this week?
Z: Preparation-wise, it’s pretty hard. LCS players play more scrims than soloqueue, so they have less time than others to figure out what’s good and what’s bad. And you cannot really mimic Korea, because Korea is all about refining your own gameplan, so they are the slowest to adapt. Most of the time, they have the patch applied on the tournament server one week after. So we have to be the first guinea pigs of the new patch. That’s pretty complex, so you try things, and if it works you just note it and try not to forget it. Then you mix up all the good ideas and try to find a comp.
But the first week of a new patch like this week, it’s a mess. We saw most of the games were messy. I don’t know how, but Galio came back, for instance, and Galio is awful. He should never exist, this champion is horrible. The most anti-playmaking champion you’ve ever seen. He came back, that’s horrible, we have to deal with it, and whatever, you know? That’s what figuring out a new patch is as a coach. A champion comes back, and you say, “Ah fuck, we have to deal with that. Okay, let’s rethink everything we did for the last month.” And you do it, and you come to LCS, and that’s it. Next week we’ll be better.
Both of you joined OpTic Gaming in new roles. Zaboutine, you were a commentator before for OGaming, and Romain you were a team manager for Unicorns of Love. What did you think the new jobs would be like before you got them, and what have they turned out to be?
Z: I would say I had a pretty clear approach to the thing. It’s less structure than what I thought I wanted, because you have five men to take care of. Five different opinions, five egos, plus every material need they have, all peripheral information you have to deal with that you wouldn’t like to. We’re still trying to figure out how we work as a team because we’re new, but my mind was pretty clear on that. It’s just human management, and I’ve done that. I was a commentator, but I was also a financial engineer, so I worked for six years at a software company. I know what it is to wake up in the morning, having process, having Google Documents to actually schedule things on. For me, it’s just another job, but a more pleasant one. Even in these few months, there’s never been something that’s a pain for me. I was precise…maybe I thought we’d be winning a little bit more in the early stages of the season, but I’m taking it just fine.
R: It’s exactly how I pictured it. It’s messy, full of improvisation. It’s funny, every day you live ten lives in one week, because you never know what tomorrow is going to be made of. I can tell you right now we’re a bit sad because we just lost a game, but maybe tomorrow evening we win versus Echo Fox and we’re king of the world, you know? And then Monday’s going to start, then Tuesday…That’s what I love with esports, why I’m so happy to be a part of this industry. Every day is a new day, and things are changing really, really fast. You can get fired on the fly, you can get hired on the fly, you can move from one country to another. If you came to me a year ago to tell me where I’d be today, I would have never believed you. I have no clue what will happen in the next six months or one year. Maybe we’ll go to Worlds, maybe we’re gonna end up tenth. At the end of the day, put all your energy into it, and just hope for the best, pray for the best. At least you can’t be mad against yourself when you look back in six months and say, “Ah! I should have done that. Ah! I should have done a bit better.” Nah, go full. And that’s what we’re doing. It has been an incredible adventure so far. I realize it’s only a month since we’ve been in [Los Angeles].
Z: It’s crazy.
R: We literally live ten lives. Two months ago, we were in Dallas preparing everything. It seems like a long time ago.
Dallas is of course where OpTic Gaming is based, and while they’ve been a presence in shooters for years, this is their first venture outside the genre. What has their backing and level of enthusiasm been like?
R: They trust us. They hired us me to do the job, and I believe so far I’ve been doing it. We have free hands to do however we think the game has to be played and train and processed. We have really nice people around us to back us up, money to back us up, we have everything. I’m really happy with that, of course. I hope, sooner or later, that we’ll start to win a bit more so we can make them proud, but they know how it is. They know it cannot happen in a week. And I’m pretty sure that if we lose one more week, no one is going to get fired. It’s a long process.
We actually saw [Hector “H3CZ” Rodriguez and Ryan “J” Musselman] on opening day, cheering you on in the front row against 100 Thieves. What’s it been like educating those guys in League of Legends?
R: So H3CZ…
Z: They’re apes! Call of Duty is an ape game. [Laughs] You just run and you shoot and you don’t think.
R: [Laughs] You’re going to get in trouble!
Z: No, no, I said it many times: H3CZ, I love you, but your game sucks man. It sucks a lot. But I love you and J!
R: They’ve been incredible. Those two have known each other for maybe 15 years, and it’s a two-man show to see them talking to each other, trolling each other. And at the same time, you just snap, and instantly both of them are in business mode. They know what to do, how to do it, where to do it, who needs to do what, and so on and so on. I’m really happy out paths crossed actually. They are both funny and clever and business oriented and a bit trollish on top. They don’t take themselves too seriously. But it’s been really cool, an adventure. It’s new stuff for them as well, because the way League of Legends does esports is absolutely different than Call of Duty, and I don’t want to even discuss Overwatch or CS:GO, all those games. And now we’re all in the same big family, and things are moving really fast.
Z: I’d say the same as Romain. I’m always mocking their games, but we went to MLG Dallas for Call of Duty, and there was a lot of enthusiasm for OpTic and for FPS as well. I think it’s always nice to mock each other game to game, but at the end of the day we are all in the same boat, all in the same industry, and I truly appreciate that. I couldn’t be here if there wasn’t Call of Duty and OpTic, so it has to start with something. I think they did an insanely good job when you see the reach they’re doing on social media, the content they’re producing. We just enter it from all of that. It’s very hard to teach Hector. J plays League of Legends; Hector doesn’t understand shit about the game. But that’s actually a pleasure to share the enthusiasm of watching a game that is very tense. He really enjoyed 100 Thieves versus OpTic, and as long as he enjoys it, I’m okay with that.
Take it a step higher, Neil Liebman of the Texas Rangers has certainly helped grow OpTic’s footprint in other games with his large financial investment. But you see varying levels of engagement from all these new businessmen investing in the scene. How do you gauge Neil’s interest in esports?
R: I met him, worked a bit with him. He’s so down to earth. It’s funny because you have this…He’s not really tall—and you know I’m a small guy, so I know what I’m talking about—but he’s worth in terms of money more than the whole room, wherever he enters. This guy has seen everything, he owns a lot of stuff, and he’s so humble, so clever. He’s always working. He’s on his phone with some people around him, thinking, processing, and if you need him, you ask a question, he’s instantly focused and will answer you. Super nice, and he was genuinely excited to hear us talking about the game. He was asking so many good questions about it. Him and all those big names, all those rich people, are I think really interested because they want to understand what’s happening. Because it’s so new for them. Those young kids, spending so much time in front of a screen, I believe some of them thought we were just autistic. But now, they realize it’s a full industry with hundreds of millions of people, and they’re able to fill stadiums while hundreds of thousands of people watch online. What is that? I want to be part of it, I want to understand it. I know Rick Fox as well, for example, it’s so cool to see them around and to see them really happy about it. I went to a baseball game with him, so he introduced me to his own environment, and then we showed him a bit of League of Legends. 2018 is the first year of some really interesting stuff.
Romain, you’re French. Had you ever been to a baseball game before? What was that like?
R: That was the second time in my life, I believe. I had my first hotdog at a baseball game, it was really cool. I wasn’t expecting the show to be that much in the crowd, because it’s a pretty slow game. Most of the time you just wait. It’s fun, you go there…You don’t go to the stadium the same way you would go in France. If you go to watch football, rugby, handball, or volleyball in France, the game on the pitch is the core stuff. Here, I had the feeling some of them were just coming and not even watching what was happing on the pitch. They were just coming to enjoy a beer with their friends, the sun was nice, you’re going to stay there for three hours. Yes, if the ballgame gets interesting then you’re trying to catch it, but it was like a family thing. That was new for me, definitely.
Z: I’ve never went to baseball. American sports are pretty different from European sports. I think it has grown with TV, so it’s all about having advertisement. But that’s good, because the people who created US sport as it is are the same that are thinking of esports right now. They’re trying to find a place to actually have sponsorship, and without the brands, we’re nothing. I know people blame advertisement, but we are absolutely nothing without the brands that are trying to reach the Millennials. I’m not a huge fan of American sports—except I watched the All-Stars of the NBA and a few matches because I like basketball—but I feel when you’re watching baseball or American football, you understand how esports works. It’s kind of the same, formed exactly the same way. It’s funny.
Shifting back to OpTic in the NA LCS, at 1-4, what would you consider a successful Spring Split at this point? What metric will you measure yourselves by?
Z: Success is not about winning or losing, because we can be tenth, losing 90% of our games because other people improve faster than we do. It’s all about fixing what we do wrong, and why we lose. For instance, let’s say PoE dies five times a game, and we lose because of that, and at the end of this he only dies once. And the game is pretty close, but eventually we lose it because opponents improve on other aspects of the game. Yeah, that’s unfortunate, but we still improved. The goal of the coach is making your players and your team just a better team throughout the season. It would be very unfortunate to be tenth and tenth, spring and summer, but someone has to be tenth. Yeah we’re big, yeah we have investors, but it’s the same for every single team right now, this big franchise. No one’s small, and someone has to be tenth.
I don’t feel pressure at all. My only goal is to see my players play a game they enjoy and playing it the right way. I want them to be proud of the game they do. If they say, “Yeah, we did everything, we had a 10k gold lead, and we lost on the Baron, that was stupid and I know why,” that’s fine. And if you lose playoffs because of that, that happens, that’s life. Team Liquid has never achieved a final, and they’ve invested so much money and had so much growth, so many great players in their team. It’s all about patience in the long run, and my goal is to make my players like the game as a competitive game, not soloqueue, and fix their own mistakes. That’s the real success to me.
R: Playoffs, for me. Reaching a playoff, and it’s a long run. We’re in Week 3, we’re 1-4, maybe we’re 2-4 tomorrow, maybe we’re 1-5, maybe next week we’re 3-5, whatever. At the end of the day, a soon as you reach playoffs, everything is different because you play everything again. Of course, if you end up first or second it’s easier because you have a bypass to semifinals. Still, discuss it with Misfits last August, for example. When everyone thought they were gone, they ended up facing SKT on stage. I only have EU examples, but discuss it with H2K, with Splyce, even with Unicorns of Love we had some pretty bad—
Z: Say it to Samsung in 2016. They actually were into the final, they were eliminated, they played the gauntlet and they eliminated KT Rolster…and then went to Worlds and they went to the final. The next year? They had exactly the same run, they eliminated KT and win worlds 3-0 against SKT. It’s all about being right time, right place, and that’s it. People will forget everything else. As long as the players play well, you don’t care. If they play well in the long run, they will win.
R: What’s for sure is NA LCS seems pretty stacked right now. 21 new players, most of them directly imported for a very high amount of money from Europe/Korea. It’s cool, I really like it because it forces everyone to work really hard. At the end of the day, history is going to forget tenth, ninth, eighth and seventh place. Only the first six are going to have a chance to do something. So we just need to be top six, and then everything can happen. Literally, best-of-five, it’s one good day, one bad day, one couple of games, one pocket pick you do not know how to improve from. Really looking forward. I want to go to playoffs and I think we have the team for it.
Your next game is against Echo Fox, a team that’s looked great so far but looked beatable today. What do you make of that team so far, and how do you like your chances tomorrow?
Z: To be honest, I think playing scrims right now, the best team is Team Liquid. They are insanely strong, just an all-around stronger version of any aspect of the game. They just lost early because they have so much expectations, the TSM effect you know? TSM is really strong as well, they will improve the more time goes on, people get into the routine of LCS and not feeling that pressure about the first matches, because when you lose two matches, you’re last in the first part of the season. When you go 0-2 one week in the middle of the season, it doesn’t change that much. So Team Liquid for me is the best team. Echo Fox plays without any kind of stress. They just play like a scrim, so they like the messy game the skirmishes, the going HAM because they have [Heo “Huni” Seung-hoon and Joshua “Dardoch” Hartnett], very oppressive players. You feel real pressed, but as long as you keep your game, you know what they’re going to do and you don’t get into their kind of game, you can outplay them in the thought aspect of the game, thinking smarter than them.
R: We’re gonna win. We’re gonna win because we’re going to play happy, and we’re going to tilt them. I think that’s their biggest weakness, that they’re tiltable, which is most of the time the price to pay for greatness. They are an incredible team, I would not be surprised if they win tomorrow, but that’s going to be us.
This transcript was edited for clarity.