Coach of the split. This is a lofty title granted to coaches in the League of Legends Championship Series, frequently to the coach of the team that wins the regular season. Despite not receiving the same volume of public accolades from his players as H2K Gaming’s Neil "PR0LLY" Hammad, G2 Esports’ Joey "YoungBuck" Steltenpool came away with the prize in the EU LCS. G2 then went on to win the EU LCS playoffs and qualify for the MidSeason Invitational.
YoungBuck himself said G2’s season-winning playstyle "actually came really naturally to them ... most of [G2's approach], I think 95 percent of it, came naturally. The last five percent may have been coaching or just the team learning themselves."
The Coach of the Split Award has always seemed like a puzzle. No transparency is provided in uncovering the reasoning that lead to the award winner. It’s extremely difficult to determine the best coach in the LCS without inside information, and even then gauging the effectiveness of a coaching style is impossible.
What makes a good coach in League of Legends? An exhaustive answer to this question is outside the scope of this article, but theScore esports sat down with G2’s YoungBuck to reflect on G2’s 2016 Spring split and discuss his role on the team. Ultimately, one size doesn’t fit all, and YoungBuck’s account of a laid-back coaching style outlines a less-talked-about way to think of coaching.
G2’s success story is a surprising one. After failing on multiple occasions to qualify for the LCS and undergoing numerous roster changes, G2 battled it out for first place through most of the season. “I didn't expect us to be at the top,” Glenn “Hybrid” Doornenball confessed. Initially, he said, “I expected us to be more … in the middle."
Mateusz “Kikis” Szkudlarek and other players on the team continued to emphasize the surprising ease with which the team came together. “We even played a poke comp against Fnatic the first game which is pretty hard to execute, and we didn't practice that much, like to be honest we only played a few games of it. It doesn't seem like we need a lot of time to learn the team comps because we are smart and we can execute them properly."
YoungBuck corroborated his players in their insistence that G2 came together as a team from Game 1 in practice. “The only things that needed a lot of tweaking was the lane assignments after laning phase.”
As a result, YoungBuck was willing to give his players a great deal of trust regarding how and what they wanted to play. “Picking Zed into Lissandra,” YoungBuck said, “to me it’s still bonkers, but PerkZ says he’s good on it, and therefore I will give him the trust, because he knows more about his lane right now than I do.”
Many of YoungBuck’s meetings with the team between scrim blocks are short and very collaborative. Kikis said for each match, “YoungBuck just prepares stuff from our analyst and he prepares a first sketch of the draft, and we tell him about what we want to do — what champions we want to get, what are the priority picks, and what we don't want enemies to get.”
“After a game,” YoungBuck said, “I can just pick out two or three moments and run through them. It only takes five minutes. The attention span of a player is long enough to listen to me! Pretty much any team that isn’t G2, it takes about a half hour to analyze games between scrims, and I can just imagine other players paying attention for the first five minutes, and then going on their phone or whatever because it isn’t a fun thing to do.”
Because G2 are able to work well together in many situations, YoungBuck can be more selective about the errors he wants to fix at a given moment and point out. As a result, he thinks this stays with the player better. While some coaches have said they struggle to correct mistakes in winning teams, YoungBuck believes G2 are more willing to listen to feedback and improve in a positive environment.
This process is often also deliberately collaborative. “I will look at a moment in the game, then I will ask them individually what they think we should do. Then I will show it and say how we can correct it. If they say something that I don’t agree with, I will add my opinion, and we can just discuss this in a nice way.” YoungBuck keeps these discussions focused on coach-to-player interactions, and so far he says there haven’t been major player confrontations on G2.
“A lot of times players will just complain to me on their own instead of complaining to the other player then wait for me to take care of it.” In this way, YoungBuck is also able to keep the environment healthy and facilitate discussions between players in addition to providing both positive and negative feedback when dealing with players 1-on-1.
Many of YoungBuck’s contributions have been suggestive. G2 have a specific communication system where each player has authority over another in types of calls. YoungBuck insists that this, like the team’s playstyle, came naturally, and he’s only had to remind them of these roles in specific instances.
Following G2's loss to Fnatic, YoungBuck emphasized communication roles with the team in the following week. “It was something that I wanted to remind players of in that particular instance because in the previous game against Fnatic, someone not the jungler called a Baron, and the jungler said ‘No,’ but the jungler didn’t overrule the call. The other voice became stronger. It lost us the game.”
A lot of YoungBuck's work also comes through one-on-ones with players, as he prefers not to call them out in front of the group if he has a suggestion. As a former top laner, YoungBuck will often provide more individual feedback to Kikis. “Pretty much after every game, I would tell him, ‘Hey you can do this differently, hey you could do this in this matchup, and this and that,’ then we would talk about Teleports in general, how to communicate them, how to communicate your waves with your jungler, and things like that.”
Though YoungBuck didn’t take credit for Kikis’ easy transition to top lane and only suggested that perhaps the extra attention pushed him harder. In general, YoungBuck spoke highly of Kikis, especially in terms of his Teleport ability.
“From the first game he played, his TPs were very good … I only take credit for one moment in practice where he had two or three bad TPs, and he said, ‘I need to think more about my TPs before I do them.’ So I pulled him aside and said, ‘No, you need to press the button, then think about what you’re doing. TP first, then look at the map.’ He kept doing it like that, and I can honestly say he has the best Teleports in Europe right now.”
That didn’t mean G2’s entire split was easy due to the individual strengths of the players. There were moments when YoungBuck realized his more facilitative style of coaching was imperfect. “I had this great philosophy that, if a player knows what’s best for him, he’s probably going to do it — yeah, that didn’t end up working very well. So I thought okay if I educate them about something, they will probably do it, but this wasn’t always true.”
One of G2’s largest problems seemed to be on the macro side earlier in the split. G2 were willing to experiment with lane swap styles, at times to their detriment. “I think at that point,” YoungBuck said, “Kikis came from Unicorns of Love as a jungler. He then played in G2 as a jungler, but in both teams, with their different lineups, at that time, they didn’t really know how to lane swap very well.”
“At some point, because we were consistently shying away from the standard, I had to hammer it down that I really didn’t want to see any experimentations anymore.” This approach seemed to characterize most of YoungBuck’s account. For the most part, YoungBuck allowed G2 to dictate a lot of their playstyle and approach, but when he noticed things consistently going wrong, YoungBuck said he would make a point of intervening.
Another example is related to champion picks. YoungBuck believes that players will associate an emotion or feeling to a certain pick, and it’s best to allow them play what’s comfortable or avoid matchups they don’t like in draft, but in certain situations, YoungBuck says he has had to insist on champion picks for the team.
When the team started to prepare for playoffs, YoungBuck had to insist Kikis stop practicing carry top laners. “This was the moment where everyone was starting to play tanks, even Cabochard … So this was the moment where I had to say, ‘Hey, we know what we’re going to play in the playoffs. So train what we’re going to play in the playoffs and drop the carry champions for now.’”
Yet G2 were likely at their most dire in scrims. “About Week 3, out of the blue, we started losing [scrims] — I think more than half. We started to go 50-50, even against teams that weren’t that high up in the ranking.
“I was waiting for us to just drop a game [in LCS]. I was just constantly hammering, ‘Hey, we need to play standard, we need to play seriously, because this is going to translate into an LCS game at some point. Then we’re going to fall.’”
This situation seemed to correct itself in time for the final week, and G2 managed to finish first in the regular season and come through victorious in the playoffs. G2 used their time more efficiently when it really mattered, but this kind of approach could still be a warning sign for the team in future splits or as competition becomes more severe at international events.
YoungBuck has had to learn to put his foot down a few more times than he had expected early on in the split, but he characterizes his style as extremely lenient. “I think I am the least strict coach of all the top teams,” YoungBuck said. “I give them all the freedom in the world basically … I think this style really works for this team, but I can imagine a team that needs to be on a leash. G2 is not that kind of team, I think we are team that does really well with a lot of freedom.”
This isn’t just in coaching them — G2 also lack a live-in manager, and the team’s only analyst isn’t in-house. As a result, YoungBuck takes care of most of the cooking and cleaning as well as managing the team outside the game.
“I think it helps a lot that they don’t have to do groceries or make their own food. I think it’s those little things that help a lot with keeping a good atmosphere,” but YoungBuck did mention one thing he would consider being more strict about next split. “The players know about that already, so it won’t be a problem. It’s about going out and keeping the house clean, mostly.”
The overall impression from YoungBuck, however, is that he is pleased G2 are able to handle themselves easily and focus on being motivated and integrated as a team. When the team are able to solve problems they’ve been stumped by, he’s extremely proud.
“We were struggling to keep timers on both enemy TPs,” YoungBuck said. “That was the biggest deal.” G2’s aggressive playstyle often means that playing too far forward and not accounting for enemy mid land and top lane Teleport can be extremely punishing.
YoungBuck calls the TP timing G2’s largest improvement for the latter half of the split. “Especially in the LCS final, I told the guys I was extremely proud because they didn’t miss a single mid lane or top lane TP timer in the entire series.”
When others have been critical of G2 benefitting from meta shifts, YoungBuck defended them. “Yes, we are really good at teamfighting. At the same time, I think it’s been really unfair this split when analysts or the community have said that we have only one playstyle when I think we have won games in the LCS on pretty much every single team composition you can think of.”
“G2 has to constantly make a lot of decisions,” YoungBuck said, “but also forces the enemy team to make a lot of decisions. Other teams usually just wait for other teams to make mistakes and have really low decision-based games.”
YoungBuck and other members of G2 have said that the team’s intelligence and adaptability should suit them easily to meta shifts, despite criticisms. Though YoungBuck has conceded G2 may not adapt well to a carry top meta, but not because Kikis cannot play carry tops. “We usually excel at picks that are very good at making plays around the map with Teleport. Carry champions usually don’t have this. I’m thinking about someone like Fiora. She doesn’t have the greatest TPs.”
If G2 shift into more difficult territory, they may require a stricter approach from their coaching or management. Time will tell if YoungBuck can adapt to the challenge if it’s required of him, but a facilitating coaching style is often underrated. A coach who gives his players freedom to develop their own style may also be the coach of a more self-sufficient or creative team, as long as he’s also able to demand certain changes when he feels the team drifts into an unproductive direction. According to YoungBuck, he’s insisted on change in at least a few occasions so far, though he has been far from overbearing.
H2K’s players are often quick to heap public praise onto PR0LLY, while G2’s players have been more reserved on the matter of YoungBuck, despite the team winning the season, and even YoungBuck himself is quick to place much more credit on G2’s players. That doesn’t make his style less effective.
Especially in the EU LCS climate where the effectiveness of coaches have been called into question and G2’s own Luka "PerkZ" Perković suggested Origen don’t actually need a coach because he believes their players are smart enough to succeed without one, YoungBuck’s style might be one to consider more closely. It relies a lot on players to dictate team style and decisions, but it also focuses on creating an environment and guidance that allows them to do so.
The MidSeason Invitational is fast approaching. G2 face their toughest challenge yet. One of the biggest stories to follow is how well G2’s Coach of the Split and his minimalist system will hold out on the international stage.
Kelsey Moser is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter.