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CLG’s Unsung Hero: Tony “Zikz” Gray's emergence as North America's best coach

by theScore Staff Apr 21 2016
Thumbnail image courtesy of LoL eSports

In the aftermath of Counter Logic Gaming’s second straight North American championship, public discussion has mostly centered around whether or not Trevor "Stixxay" Hayes deserved to win series MVP over Jake "Xmithie" Puchero, with a side dish of drama around some of Zaqueri "Aphromoo" Black’s post-game comments. The players are alternately being celebrated and being labeled overrated, while TSM fans lament how close they came to another championship .

Meanwhile, one man has faded somewhat innocuously into the background of CLG’s victory: head coach Tony “Zikz” Gray.

Zikz has quietly established himself as the best coach in North America over the past year, leading his team to consecutive championships but somehow never finding himself in the spotlight. It’s time for that to change.

As Zikz and his team prepare for the upcoming Mid-Season Invitational, let’s break down what makes him such a valuable coach, and what he needs to do to get his team ready for the international stage.

Best Coach NA

Zikz worked with CLG as an analyst before being promoted to strategic coach for the 2015 summer split, where he shared top duties with titular head coach Chris Ehrenreich. That partnership proved very successful, and Ehrenreich later said of Zikz, “He may very well be one of the most naturally intelligent people I’ve met.”

In his first split in a leadership role, Zikz moulded his team into a smooth-functioning, macro-oriented early game machine that was built around excellent laning play from their side lanes which helped set up star carry Yiliang "Doublelift" Peng to take over teamfights. It was the best iteration of CLG we’d seen in a long time, as every player knew and executed their respective roles. CLG swept their 2015 NA LCS Summer Finals series against TSM all the while displaying their superior structure and team identity.

For the 2016 NA LCS Spring Split, Zikz took over as the team's head coach. For his first challenge, Zikz had to find a way integrate rookie AD Carry Stixxay and former substitute Huhi in place of Doublelift and Eugene "Pobelter" Justice Park, both of whom had played key roles in CLG’s summer championship. Judging by the team’s second-place finish at IEM San Jose, their first tournament together, they handled the transition almost seamlessly— something made easier, perhaps, by the fact that both Huhi and Stixxay had been playing with the team for several months.

Despite their strong IEM showing, CLG entered the spring split with middling expectations from the community. Fans and analysts alike criticized Huhi and Stixxay as talent downgrades (myself included) and pointed to the raw talent that other teams managed to recruit in the offseason as evidence that CLG would fall off. But Zikz and his team didn’t care how low pundits predicted them to finish: they went about their preparations with veteran poise and let their actions on the rift speak for them.

Throughout the split, Zikz proved his coaching prowess by displaying his adaptability, perfectly understanding his team and getting the best out of his players.

Adaptability

In the 2015 NA LCS Summer Season, Zikz followed the age-old CLG pattern of building around Doublelift. But under his strategic leadership, CLG executed that style better than ever. When CLG's roster shifted for 2016, Zikz pivoted the team completely: they still operated a clean, coordinated macro game — the combined work of Zikz and in-game shotcaller aphromoo — but found most of their strength through map play in the mid/late game rather than the early game. Zikz displayed the ability to rotate his team’s style to fit both a changing meta game and his reworked roster, and that’s the hallmark of not just a good coach, but a long-term leader.

Knowing Thyself

A lack of self-awareness sometimes proves to be the downfall for Western teams as they try to chase a style or level of play that doesn’t fit their tendencies or skillsets. It’s important to understand the key priorities within an evolving meta game, but it’s equally or more important to understand the strengths and weaknesses of your team. Sure, Zikz showed his understanding of the playoff meta by working with Darshan to shy away from split push champions in favor of tanks, but also by ignoring the Sivir pick that has been so popular internationally. Instead of prioritizing the Battle Mistress, Zikz elected to draft around AD carries like Caitlyn and Lucian who are safer in lane and can reposition themselves in team fights, to cover some of the weaknesses Stixxay is still working through.

Reaching the Ceiling

CLG played closer to their ceiling as a team than any other North American team — teams like TSM, Team Liquid and Immortals all seem to have more to give. Whether they need to develop more synergy, a better understanding of the meta or more consistency, all of those teams played below their theoretical “best.” On CLG, however, every player played at or near their best right through to the end of each five-game playoff set they played, thanks at least in part to well-constructed practice regimens as well as consistent positive reinforcement, especially for Stixxay, to counteract the community's frequent negativity.

A Lack of Recognition

Despite his stellar record, Zikz has yet to receive an individual award for his work. Last summer, he and Ehrenreich lost out to Team Liquid’s Peter Zhang, perhaps partly because the voters weren’t sure how to factor CLG’s dual-coach setup into their selections. This spring Zikz was once again superseded, as the Immortals’ rookie coach Dylan Falco took home the honor due in part to his team’s 17-1 regular season record.

LCS awards voters appear to have a habit of picking “Best Coach” winners as if wins and losses are the only available metric. Since the LCS began recognizing coaches in 2015, five of the six “Best Coach” awards across North America and Europe have gone to the coach whose team finished first in the regular season. The only exception so far has been H2K’s Pr0lly, who led his team to a third-place 2015 EU LCS Spring Split finish, but won the award due to his team’s clean objective-focused play style.

Evaluating coaches is very difficult from the outside, but it’s time for the criteria to shift. When a coach like Zikz achieves a second-place regular season finish by demonstrating such strong tactical play with a roster that has received so much criticism (or when a coach like Locodoco turns three raw rookies into a legitimate playoff contender), it’s time to go beyond a first-place finish and give credit where credit is due.

Looking Forward: The International Test

With MSI only a few weeks away, Zikz and his team will face their next big test. CLG may have proven themselves domestically, but real international success has eluded them. For CLG to make a splash in Shanghai, Zikz will have to push his team’s ceiling even higher, matching himself up against legendary international opponents, including either NoFe of the ROX Tigers or kkOma of SK Telecom T1, two of the most respected LoL coaches in the world.

To stack up against this kind of talent, Zikz will have to meet some key coaching challenges.

Mental Strength

CLG failed to make it past the 2015 World Championships' group stage, dropping games to Korea’s KOO Tigers and Taiwan’s Flash Wolves. Through uncharacteristic early-game mistakes, such as absorbing unnecessary turret shots while trying to harass the opponent, CLG found themselves unable to generate and hold early gold leads that they’d been used to in North America. Those mistakes were signs of players trying to do too much. Zikz and team captain aphromoo will be responsible for keeping the entire team, especially Stixxay and Huhi, on an even keel. If the roster plays like they’re intimidated or if they try to push too hard and do too much, then their shot at glory will take a big hit.

Evolve the Draft

I praised Zikz for drafting around his team members’ strengths and weaknesses, specifically with the Caitlyn and Lucian, but CLG need to keep evolving. Champions like Sivir, for example, may not fit CLG’s preferences at the moment, but other major regions have made her a high priority. CLG can’t afford to ignore meta-topping champions against top international competition, even if they were able to get away with it domestically. That means there’s work to do over the weeks leading up to the tournament to keep expanding CLG’s horizons.

Scout Effectively; Avoid Predictability

Unlike the playoffs, where CLG faced teams they’d watched closely over the course of an entire split, MSI will feature a completely new set of opponents. Self-awareness and a good grasp of the meta won’t be enough, as scouting the opposition will be crucial. At IEM Katowice, CLG seemed to have a reasonable grasp of what their opponents, SKT and Fnatic, had been winning on in their own leagues, but MSI will be a larger challenge due to its round-robin format.

The other side of this coin ties into the previous point about expanding CLG’s horizons — they need to avoid being too easily scouted themselves. At IEM Katowice, it was easy to predict that CLG would plan around powering up Darshan and setting up mid-game split pushes. CLG’s opponents were able to plan around that predictability and play for team fights.

In the playoffs, CLG already looked a little less predictable than they were mid-split, but their opponents will still be aware of CLG’s split-push tendencies and team fighting weaknesses. CLG will need to prepare a curveball or two, both to keep themselves from being pinned down and to exploit any weaknesses they can scout for their opponents.

Zikz has been an incredibly valuable contributor to CLG’s success, leading two different iterations of his team to domestic titles.

Effective coaching has been one of the biggest gaps between Korean LoL teams and their international counterparts. The Western LoL scene needs to recognize and celebrate the success of coaches like Zikz, and other coaching staffs in the scene should take note of the adaptability and self-awareness CLG have shown under his leadership.

MSI will be the next opportunity for Zikz and his team to show growth and development and lead the way for North America. Fans and analysts will be watching closely to see whether CLG is up for the challenge. A good performance at MSI may seem like a longshot for CLG, especially given North America’s historically weak international record, but that’s why they play the games.

After all, we’ve underestimated CLG before.

Tim "Magic" Sevenhuysen runs OraclesElixir.com, the premier source for League of Legends esports statistics. You can find him on Twitter, unless he’s busy giving one of his three sons a shoulder ride.

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