Immortals’ performance in the 2017 Spring Split was a riddle.
Consistency was an issue. They lost to Team Liquid and Team EnVyUs in Week 6. Two weeks later, they put up a win against an 11-3 Cloud9 roster.
In the midseason, Immortals found their answer. Now, with the final week of the NA LCS Summer Split about to get underway, the team is tied for first with Team SoloMid and, with the theoretically easier week, have a chance to take first overall in the regular season.
The addition of veteran jungler Jake "Xmithie" Puchero is undoubtedly a big part of the team's revival. But one other move from Immortals, arguably as important to their success, has flown under the radar: the addition of coach Kim "Ssong" Sang-soo, who coached both the ROX Tigers and Longzhu Gaming during his LCK tenure. Prior to that, Ssong had earned a reputation for tactical excellence as a player, and he continued to demonstrate that talent when he made the transition to coaching.
The question of what Ssong has done and how he has done it offers a glimpse into a team's midseason redemption, and possibly a future path for other teams looking to make drastic changes.
Nicholas "Lufty" Luft, an off-site analyst for Immortals, said he was initially skeptical about the addition of Ssong. He noted that he had a high opinion of previous coach David "Hermes" Tu, but admitted that "some things about the team environment made it difficult for his particular coaching style to succeed there."
While support Kim "Olleh" Joo-sung and top laner Lee "Flame" Ho-Jong are Korean players, Eugene "Pobelter" Park also speaks fluent Korean. That means that Cody Sun and Xmithie are actually in the minority in terms of Korean comprehension.
"So when Ssong came in ... I was curious about how Xmithie and Cody would react to having a Korean coach, because a lot of the post-game reviews or post-scrim reviews that we'll do are primarily in Korean and then translated, and a lot can be lost in that process," Lufty explained. "So far it's been going quite well. I think that most of the players are responding positively to his style, and the language barrier isn't as much of an issue as I had thought."
While Ssong's native Korean hasn't acted as a barrier for those players, it has acted as a bridge for others, allowing him to communicate in greater detail than might be expected with an English-speaking coach. Ssong's impact, according to Lufty, is most keenly felt by Flame and Olleh.
For Flame, Ssong's style has encouraged him to communicate more frequently and more effectively, allowing him to better coordinate with the team's new jungler. Lufty also said that the presence of a Korean coach has allowed him to break into greater detail about specific improvement points for his game.
"He was very quiet at times during the spring split, and there was often a pretty large gap between Flame and the jungler in communication, or Flame and other roles. Since Ssong has come in, Flame has been more comfortable, even in-game speaking English with his teammates, and he's been more of a vocal member of our shotcalling."
Olleh, meanwhile, has seen improvement to his macro play. In the 2017 spring split, he was lauded by many for his mechanical skill at the support position, and his wards per minute were high.
"But some of his warding was not very effective," Lufty explained. "He had high warding stats, but that wasn't necessarily a good demonstration of whether he understood where the wards needed to be, or how he wanted to play his game out. But he's improved tremendously in that regard."
Olleh told theScore esports that while the basics of English communication are no problem, he feels he gains more specific information — as well as an improved bond — by communicating with his coach in Korean.
"Like, I can't talk about specific stuff. Like, 'You can go here, you can do this, this and this.' But in Korean, I can talk with everybody more specific. And maybe sometime [Ssong] can teach me like, 'You have to do this because the enemy is going to think like that,' so it's really good to have our coach for a limited time," he said. "And even out of game, if my attitude is not good he always talks to me as a kind of Korean old brother."
Improved communication and more effective ward coverage don't just improve Flame and Olleh's individual performances: they give Xmithie, who handles a large share of the in-game shotcalling and leadership, the information he needs to make important decisions.
Method to the madness
Both Pobelter and Lufty agree that Ssong's presence on the team is a major factor in the team's turnaround this split. The question of his methods, however, is a different discussion.
In an interview with Inven, Ssong was asked about the perception — communicated by Flame — that he possesses a "cold objectivity" in his discussions with players.
From the players' perspective, Pobelter talked about the fundamental differences between Ssong's style and previous coaches he had worked with: differences that could potentially be construed as cold, but which really just demand justification for player opinions.
"My experience is that he is very confident in what he believes about the game and is very good at explaining why he thinks a certain way, and if we do something contrary to what he thinks, then we'll have really good conversations and arguments about what the right thing to do is," Pobelter explained.
He contrasts that against other coaches he's had, which he says seemed "more collaborative." It's an interesting distinction, because Pobelter concedes that Ssong is still asking players what they think — he just requires that those opinions have a verifiable basis in fact.
Lufty agreed with that point, noting also that Ssong does not hesitate to correct players.
"So he will tell the players that they're wrong if he thinks they're wrong. And he'll do it fairly straightforwardly," Lufty said. "He's quite honest with his opinions, and he's pretty efficient. That can come off as fairly cold or impersonal, but it just proves effective, especially when some of our players are less experienced, like Cody."
In that way, Ssong acts as a sort of nexus for the team's opinions — aggregating them, setting aside personal player bias, forcing them to examine the larger picture. While he allows each player to offer input, he requires that those viewpoints pass the sniff test when placed in the greater context of the game.
"I would say, well, he just kind of takes in everyone's input and then a lot of the time people will kind of just be tunneled in on their point of view, which might not be right all of the time and then he can offer an outside perspective," Pobelter noted. "'No, no, no that's totally wrong and the reason why is because this, this, and this,' and then sometimes people are like, 'Oh that makes sense, I thought that way because of my own personal bias, but now that you bring it up, I can understand it.'"
It's tempting to ask how much of the team's improvement comes as a result of Xmithie and how much was Ssong's doing, but Lufty isn't willing to put either substantially ahead of the other in terms of contribution. Without either of the two, he said, "the season would be significantly more rocky."
"[Xmithie]'s leadership is really, really crucial for a lot of the players. He's such a big part of the picture when it comes to our macro play and shotcalling that... I think that it's probably slightly more Xmithie, but I don't want to understate the role that either of them have," Lufty said.
"Both of them have done really great work on their own parts to help grow this team, and help us to really improve over this split."
While Ssong's style has worked to bring Immortals' unique blend of player talent together, what of other LCS teams? Is the addition of a Korean coach some kind of instant fix? Will the promise of a franchised NA LCS system bring even more Korean talent to the region?
In that same Inven interview, Ssong made a claim that could very well be tested in the coming seasons: that if "70% of coaches in LCS are replaced with Korean ones, the teams will see about 70% increase in performance."
That's a bold claim that remains to be truly proven. But with a night-and-day reversal from spring 2017 to summer, it's clear that Immortals aren't too hung up on the numbers.
Josh "Gauntlet" Bury is a news editor for theScore esports. You can find him on Twitter.