After Jakob “YamatoCannon” Mebdi officially got out of his two-week quarantine in Korea and took his first victory with SANDBOX Gaming at LoL Park, the team continues to ride the high momentum. One can only imagine how sweet the two consecutive victories must be after a five-match loss streak. With the ‘Yamato Magic’ fully operational in the LCK, SANDBOX hopes to relive their glory days of being a Worlds contending team, with their sights set even higher.
Inven Global was able to meet up with YamatoCannon at a café near SANDBOX’s team house. YamatoCannon was in more casual attire for this interview, as he was able to spare some time for this interview amidst SANDBOX’s busy schedule. Truth be told, it was an odd feeling for us to have a conversation at a café in Korea, as the only times that Inven gets to sit down with him for an interview is during the LoL World Championship.
In the conversation with YamatoCannon, he provided insightful answers to his unique approach to the game, the potential that he sees within the players on SANDBOX, and the state of the LCK. He insisted that despite all the team’s spotlight being on him, the players are the ones doing all the heavy lifting, and all the credit should be going to them.
How was your first weekend after your two weeks of quarantine?
It’s been good. Everything’s moving forward so fast, so I can’t even remember my time during the two-week quarantine. We have a lot of work to do and I was just ready to jump into everything. I’m just busy all the time, and it seems that time flies. Being busy is good.
How’s working with the translator, Miffy? Based on my personal experience as a translator, the job is definitely not easy.
Even though I’m not fluent in Korean by any means, I’m learning the mannerisms of the players, so even though things were a bit tough at first, he’s doing an incredible job as a translator. While the job is definitely getting easier for both him and I, his job is definitely far from easy.
Are you learning Korean?
A little bit. I’m learning words like 의사소통 (communication) and a lot of in-game vocabulary as well. Basically, key phrases that are pushing the players in the right direction.
How did the players look after SB’s first victory in the LCK against Team Dynamics? What kind of feedback was there?
We came back to the team house, had a very nice dinner, and after that first victory, I could tell that there was a confidence boost within the players. They now have tangible proof of all the things that I’ve been trying to make them understand, in terms of what they’re capable of. They can now look back and say, “If we work together, we are so much stronger.”
Without revealing too much of the team’s secrets, what are some of the things that you’re trying to teach them?
I have great individual players. Their mechanics are incredible, and that alone is great potential. However, when the players are going through losses, it’s easy to forget that, and practice becomes harder as well. When I joined the team at the team house, I told them that we’re starting over, and all the losses in the split didn’t matter. We take what’s good from the losses, and leave every other luggage behind.
We hit the reset button, and I made them remember their motivations, their own stories, their strengths and reminded them that everything becomes easier when playing as a single unit. This is what we’ve been practicing, and allowing ourselves to draft to counter the enemy’s team composition, rather than just having three strong lanes.
There are a lot of fans that want to know more about you. How did your career in esports begin?
I’ve always been in love with games, and I grew up in a household where my whole family loved playing games. Naturally, I loved playing as well, and instinctively, I love to compete. The worse I am at something at the beginning, the more motivated I become to improve. I played World of Warcraft and Warcraft 3 at a high level and eventually came across League of Legends. I was a terrible player in the beginning, so that motivated me to become better. After putting in many hours into the game, I went from the worst player among my friends to the best, and that’s how my first team was eventually created.
I always had this vision of what esports could be, because I grew up watching Starcraft on TV. The most memorable match I watched was the Korean Air Starleague finals in 2010 between Effort and Flash, held in an airplane hangar. Since then, I knew that esports was going to become my life. That’s where my journey started, and here I am now.
Because of the obvious language barrier, in addition to the fact that Team Vitality didn’t perform too well when you were part of the team, there were many voices of concern on joining SANDBOX. SB is a team that’s desperate for change, and many fans pondered whether this move was too drastic. Were you aware of such fan reactions?
Honestly, I couldn’t care less about the negative reactions. Obviously, compared to Vitality’s success in 2018, 2019 wasn’t a successful year. People only look at the results, so while this may sound silly because I know what difficulties the team went through, I’m very proud of my accomplishments in 2019. In the first split of 2019, JIizuke, our star mid laner at the time, had major health issues, so we couldn’t even practice properly, yet we managed to get to the playoffs twice.
I think my key mistakes came from not properly helping Mowgli adjust to the team. He comes from a different background (Afreeca Freecs), and when I gave Jiizuke and Cabochard a lot of freedom, Mowgli was stuck between them, not knowing what to do. I was hoping to replicate Mowgli’s performance on Afreeca, but it was my fault that I couldn’t provide what Afreeca provided Mowgli.
Another key thing that I missed with Vitality was with our bot lane. Before we signed the bot lane, they were playing in the Spanish league finals, so while they were in their top form at the time, there was a long break in between because of Worlds. During that long break, Jiizuke decided to go bootcamping in Korea, and while he returned in top form, he was exhausted. So the players’ levels were all over the place, and it was my fault that I couldn’t properly manage all those factors and bring the team together to work as a unit.
Coming into the season, we were at a level far below our expectations, and so we needed to work ourselves up. However, despite all these issues, we managed to find a playstyle, put wins on the board, and make playoffs. So while I do understand that being in 6th place after playing at Worlds in the previous year may not seem exciting to people, it’s one of my proudest years, because of the effort that the team put in and of the things I learned. People doubted me and my players when I was on Team Vitality, and I proved them wrong, so I look to do the same with SANDBOX.
SB, in their prime, was a team that was assessed as a very stable team with tight teamwork. Because of such, some analysts concluded that because of how the meta doesn’t fit SB, they’re underperforming. Thoughts?
I think the meta is too wide open right now. If we stick to a certain playstyle, there would be clear weaknesses to the team, so I think being able to become flexible as a team is essential to success. You can’t stick to playing around one lane, because there’s no doubt that we’d fall into traps in drafts. There are so many options available right now, and any team that can’t adapt situationally is going to be in big trouble. My job is to prepare SANDBOX for everything.
One of the most important reasons why you decided to join SANDBOX was because you believed in their potential. However, ever since the start of the Spring split, the team’s performance has, in all honesty, been abysmal. What kind of potential do you see in the SANDBOX players?
There’s definitely a reason why the team went from a Worlds contender to a disaster of a team. Sometimes, the solutions are simple, while sometimes, they’re not. However, the fact of the matter is that they’re a proven quantity, so I need to just glue the pieces together and figure things out. With some of the names on the team, I knew that these players are going to be great, and while I had a little bit of doubt due to outside perspective before I joined the team, those doubts were cleared as soon as I hopped into the first scrim block with the team. It’s all about highlighting the strengths while hiding the weaknesses through unity.
What are the differences between “EU” style of coaching as to the “KR” style of coaching? Although it hasn’t been long, which ‘EU methods’ work with the KR players and which don’t?
What’s interesting is that even though I’m from Europe, I believe that I have a very distinct coaching style from other EU coaches. That’s why when I joined SANDBOX, I didn’t have this mentality of ‘bringing the EU to the LCK’. I’m just going to assess the flaws, and in the process of solving them one by one.
Something that I learned while working with Mowgli and H0R0 was that some players lacked freedom of expression. When players are allowed to freely voice their opinions and share how they feel, I believe that you can cater to their strengths. The reason why Team Vitality achieved as much as they did was because I allowed Jiizuke to play what he wanted to play. I pushed that in practice and made it work. At the time, he had a different take on the meta, and when nobody was playing Ekko but him, it worked. Attila was playing Draven when nobody was playing the champion, but he beat Uzi with it, so I think it’s important for players to express themselves, and I realize that it’s difficult with the players on SANDBOX due to cultural differences. I’m trying to break that wall down since it’s all for a good cause in the end.
There’s no doubt that you did a ton of research before you came to the LCK, and I assume that one of them is figuring out how other coaches do their work. Can you tell us which coaches from the LCK left an impression on you? (Especially cvMax, who’s a coach that everyone talks about?)
There are many coaches hailing from Korea that I have an incredible deal of respect for. Mowgli told me about cvMax’s background, where he was a great player to begin with, beat everyone in the 1v1 tournament, and came into Griffin, transforming a team that no one had eyes on in Challengers Korea to create star players in every role. Coach Kim’s very impressive as well, where he turned every top laner in every team he’s ever been on into star players. In terms of gameplay, there are some coaches that I had my eyes on, but I don’t want to reveal too much [laughter].
Many of the SB players said that they did not play well as a team, and they were playing as if they were playing solo queue. Did you catch onto that as well, is it correct, and how’s it being fixed?
Definitely. What I always push for during review is focusing on game ideas. I make sure that we’re on the same page. Even though we might make a play from the top side, it also affects other lanes as well, in how other lanes should be warding and their immediate goals, so everything is connected. Although something might not be happening to them in their lane, I make sure that the players pay close attention to how it can affect them indirectly. This is what separates a team game from solo queue, and this is one of many things that we’re practicing.
How has online feedback been different from feedback face to face? Who’s the player that changed the most from online to offline feedback?
It’s been very tricky. Miffy translates for me, and sometimes, without hearing them, I could tell that they’re not focused. In person, I can demand their attention, by looking into their eyes and using body language to communicate. Even now [in this interview], I’m always using my hands to describe things, so the delivery really matters. However, in quarantine, this was very difficult, as everything had to go through Miffy, as it didn’t have the same cadence when the players were hearing my voice through a microphone. This aspect was very difficult, and I felt like I was trapped inside a cage during quarantine, while I was hungry to do more.
Based on the players’ interviews, it seems that they have complete trust in you. Can you tell us what you think about each of them?
While I have great impressions about every single player on the team, I’ll just talk about the players that started for the team against Team Dynamics.
Summit’s always in a good mood, and I enjoy that a lot. Even if he goes 0-18 on Jayce in a solo queue game, I can always joke around with him about it. Sometimes, the practice doesn’t go the way we want, and when I address Summit, he sets a bright mood for the team, and I enjoy that a lot.
OnFleek usually has a very calm demeanor, and he’s very attentive, but he always wants to fight the enemy inside the game, so it’s very interesting to see a different side of him when he’s playing.
FATE is always laid back. He can be in the most intense moment inside the game, yet his voice doesn’t change. It’s always shocking to see him so laid back, when other players are hyped up, yet he’s always calm. He’s super chill, and I appreciate how he always spends time watching VODs to learn. He’s very knowledgeable when it comes to the game, and I can always rely on him to make the right calls.
Route doesn’t like to speak too much, but whenever he does, it’s always gold. I always tell him to speak, “Route, everything you say is so good, so if you speak out more, we’re going to win more (laughter)!”
GorillA always takes care of everyone. He even takes care of me! He’s the big brother of the team, and I can tell that he genuinely cares for everyone on the team. The other day, I got hungry, and he disappeared for 10 minutes, came back, and brought me this triangle Kimbap (similar to Onigiri) and some ramyun. It doesn’t matter what situation he’s in, he’s always taking care of everyone. It’s an incredible thing to watch.
Speaking of Kimbaps and ramyun, how are you adjusting to the Korean delicacies?
I absolutely love it. The chef at SANDBOX is amazing. The delivery food is amazing, (Fried chicken tastes the best when it's delivered at 2 A.M, correct?) Definitely. Every time we order something new, I ask the players, “Should we really take a chance in trying something new?” but I’m always surprised at how good everything tastes.
The other day, we had some spicy marinated crab, and although it’s food that I’ve never tried, it tasted amazing. Only in Korea will I be able to experience food that’s foreign, but tastes incredible at the same time. I trust Korean food to taste good every time.
Because you left such a great first impression in the LCK, some say that the LCK needs more foreign talent. Historically speaking, LCK was pretty closed off to foreigners in the league, so does the fact that you may be the one to start this trend excite you?
Obviously, I don’t have an agenda to bring in more foreign talent myself [laughter]. Korean players are very disciplined and in the past, and the game rewarded the most disciplined teams. That’s why I believe it was so easy for the LCK teams to be at the top in the past.
However, I don’t imagine western talent coming into the LCK, because I don’t think the issue necessarily lies with the players. Individually, the Korean players are super talented. I think it comes down to have more freedom in voicing their opinions, allowing them to step away from discipline just a bit, and that it’s okay for them to make mistakes, as long as they learn and improve from them.
DRX is a good example, where the team wanted the mid laner for the team, Chovy, playing Zoe, but he’s doing his own thing, by playing champions like Morgana. I view him in a different light because it seems that he has fluidity in his approach to the game. The top teams in the LCK are beginning to be more flexible in their approach to the game, so it’s just a matter of time.
The term ‘Yamato Magic’ is an expression used in the LCK to speak highly of the positive light you had on SANDBOX. However, the term itself seemingly steals the spotlight away from the players, and as I assume that you probably don’t like that as well. What are your thoughts on this matter?
In the end, I just want what’s best for my players. I’m responsible for my coaching staff and my players, and I’m very fortunate that the players are very easy to work with. They can adapt to new ideas very easily. This ‘Yamato Magic’ thing is all fun and memes, but in the end, I’m blessed to be working with a stacked team, and the recognition should all be going to how these players came together to work as a team. I’m just on the team to tell them the obvious, and help players figure out what clicks.
From your quote regarding the Dragonballs to your quote about a fist (which was mentioned during the player interviews), the players are already calling you “Motivational Quote Generator.” Do you like to share such motivation quotes with the players? What’s your favorite quote?
Words stick to everyone in different ways. In the press room interview, I mentioned how “Growth is an uncomfortable process”. I actually heard those lyrics in a song, which was in a Netflix show. Those lyrics stuck with me. Sometimes, analogies and metaphors stick with you, and it can potentially reshape your whole life. Such quotes are powerful tools to use with the players because sometimes, the pen is mightier than the sword.
My favorite quote is “When you conquer the enemy within, no enemy outside can do you no harm.” It means that while people might say different things about who you are, you’re in control of how those words affect you. In the end, if you’re at ease with yourself, that’s all that matters.
Just like the old rendition of the LEC, LCK is now the challenger to become the best in the world. Eventually, the LEC found its own color and now performs well in the international stages as well, so do you think LCK also needs to find its own color? What do you think the LCK needs?
I think the LCK is moving in the right direction already. With the new generation of coaches in the LCK, like cvMax and coach Kim, I think they’re capable of changing the approach of the game, and they’re already doing it. It’s no longer validating to keep your players inside a box. LEC teams allow their players to express themselves really well. Copying a region’s playstyle no longer works, just like what the LCS teams are trying to do, with the exception of C9.
MAD Lions, for example, are very wild in how they approach the game. Vitality, Misfits, G2, and Fnatic are all great examples of this as well. You can just see how strategies are formed around players trying new things, and that’s what’s really important. Players are often in situations where they need to find solutions to the problems that present themselves inside the game, and it’s the coaches’ jobs to help put them into a state where they need to be actively thinking of solutions. It’s the next level of the game.
What’s the direction and the goal for this Summer split? What kind of a team do you want to shape SANDBOX to be?
I always want to achieve as much as possible, so my goal for this split is to win the LCK. Some people might ridicule me for having such a high goal, but what’s the point of setting your goals low? I don’t care what those people say, and I don’t care if I’m wrong in the end. I’m going to do everything I can during practice, push the players in a direction with the intention of winning everything, because I believe that you need to set high goals for yourself.
I want SANDBOX to be a team that’s like water. Aligning with Bruce Lee’s definition, I want us to be fluid, and be able to adapt to what’s in front of us. I want the team to be focused on the moment, and always approach every situation with an open mind.
When players bond more through teamwork, that’s when the Dragonballs all gather in one spot to summon Shenron. What is your wish that you want to make to Shenron?
To be honest, I’d be scared to wish anything. Trials and tribulations are what makes everything worth it in life, so I feel afraid to wish for anything. Maybe something simple, like tons of money, or making everyone happy [laughter].
As a coach, what’s your ultimate goal?
I just want to leave a legacy. I realized that I’m a pioneer in the field of coaching, especially in the West. My idea is to leave something behind that I can be remembered by, and although I may have coached for a long time in esports years, realistically, it’s not a long time at all. I want to continue coaching for 20 to 30 years, and the privilege of being involved with something that always evolves is something I want to hold onto.
Thank you very much for having this conversation with me. Lastly, can you say a word to your fans?
Annyeonghaseyo! I’d like to thank all the fans for supporting SANDBOX. The players are working incredibly hard, and we’re super happy to start putting wins on the board. I think the players have so much potential, and I believe that they’re capable of achieving so much, so please give them all the credit for their achievements!
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Striving for perfection to achieve excellence in esports