Longtime Riot Games color caster, Joshua "Jatt" Leesman, put away his microphone for a head coaching position at Team Liquid who had just come off a ninth-place finish in Spring 2020 and a trade of their former all-star AD carry, Yiliang "Peter" "Doublelift" Peng. With Jatt coming on in the break between spring and summer, and with so many longstanding members amidst the roster and staff, Jatt joined a fully-fledged org with a pre-established culture and system, and one that would change months later heading into the off-season.
In Jatt's first off-season, Liquid made several coaching and staffing changes, as well as another couple of roster changes, all under Jatt's guidance. Jatt was able to help the team go from 9th in the spring to Worlds after summer and broke TL's single split win-loss record with 15 wins and only three losses in the Summer Split regular season. He had a lot to learn and catch up on in 2020, but now headed into 2021, Team Liquid has completely revamped thanks to Jatt and the rest of the staff's work this off-season.
We spoke with Jatt just before the start of the LCS Lock-In about the lessons he learned in 2020, his off-season approach, his goals for 2021, and the narratives surrounding him, his players, and the LCS.
You have completed your first full split, you went to Worlds, you also had an off-season, so you've now done everything. What was the biggest lesson you learned, or the hardest thing you had to figure out in the new role? How do you think you're better equipped in this upcoming split?
The hardest thing about the new role last year was that I was effectively entering a leadership position in a team that had already been functioning for a long time and had a bunch of understood procedures and norms for everything. So you have to be really calculated about the things that you change and are willing to deal with. And that's always going to be a difficult situation.
I'm just feeling a lot more comfortable because I had a much larger hand in constructing what my coaching staff is going to look like and even just targeting the free agents that we're gonna go after. And luckily, we got our top choices.
What was the hardest thing about adjusting during Worlds specifically? What did you learn there that gives you an advantage and helps you coach?
Just that the overall effort will be a lot higher because everyone is willing to put in that extra amount of effort. And for what it's worth, it's not feasible to do that in NA during a regular season. You can't just play every day for 14 hours forever. But in the two-week sprint that is Worlds Groups you can. So you do get a higher level of focus overall, which gets you more confidence.
The second thing is, the level of play in scrims is so much higher that you can be more sure when something doesn't work. That's the conclusion we came to when we were beaten so soundly by Suning on our second group stage game that it finally pushed us over the edge to finally push us to that other style that we had been actually scrimming a lot, but never really thought it was worth it to do on stage. We were like, "Well, you need to have a really good early game and you're on a clock" and you don't need to do that because the other way is more reliable. But when our "reliable" way to win was just a reliable way to lose, we were willing to take more risks.
That leads into the off-season. How did you approach it knowing you were going to make changes, knowing you want to set it up but also not having done it before, and being the new person?
It started with a lot of questions to Steve and Kang "Dodo" Jun-hyeok about what they did in past off-seasons and how they ran things and then getting recommendations from Steve on how to approach it. Then, we put together a very confidential list of the players that we were most likely to target and what our back-up plans would be if things didn't go our way. Dodo and I did a ton of research in all the different combinations of our team and we made our recommendation to Steve about what the best, second best, third best is, and then Steve went and got it done. [laughs]
That was the nice part for me, where he has the ability to do that. [laughs] It's not rocket science to say, "Hey, I think this Alphari guy might be pretty good", so I have to give it to TL and Steve for getting it done.
Obviously, you haven't gotten all five of them here yet, but what is your expectation for this roster once everyone is here?
I'll just say what we've been doing first. We started full practice on Jan. 4 and even though Alphari and Lucas "Santorin" Larsen haven't been directly scrimming with the team, they've been a part of every single one of our daily meetings, they've watched all our scrims, participated in feedback. We've been running kind of a seven-man roster so I think when they do join in, it's hopefully with them already knowing the concepts that we've been practicing for the first weeks of scrims.
Overall, the expectations are gonna be really high. I don't necessarily think we need to win every game right from the start, I think there will be natural losses. We're going to try and experiment and become a lot more flexible during the split, so we're not doing that halfway through a Worlds group stage. [laughs] But since we have a 54-game regular season, there is room for error.
How has dealing with substitutes been going down?
We've been scrimming with two subs, because even though Barney "Alphari" Morris' visa has been approved, he's just getting into the US right now. So we've been scrimming with Thomas "Jenkins" Tran and Jonathan "Armao" Armao and, additionally, Jonas "Kold" Andersen has also been from Denmark because he will be here sometime in early February. We've had a large portion of our team scrimming online and, additionally, Jenkins was at the east coast with his family for New Year's so he was doing quarantine before we let him in the TL facility. So we had people spread out everywhere.
But at the same time, we had a little bit of experience of that last year: when we started Summer Split, everyone was fully remote. And for the Worlds quarantine, we were fully remote for two weeks. So we have a hybrid of some of us being on-site and the other half being remote, but we're still operating as if it was fully remote, which has worked much better than it did last split, partially because we have a clearer delegation of responsibilities.
Do you think that having 54 games will be just as impactful as what you can do as a coaching staff?
I'm really curious to see how the schedule will play out as we get down the road. Because even though we're playing one more stage game per week, most teams are going to play fewer league games per week. Almost everyone runs on a six-days-one-day-off schedule and last split that meant four scrim days, 20 scrims, and two stage games — 22 games. But now if you play three stage games, you only have three scrim days. So you just took 22 games and took it to 18 on average. Though, your actual stage games are higher intensity, so you're probably learning more.
We'll see how many teams decide to put scrims on top of their stage days and how many teams decide to skip the off day... We're still feeling this out for ourselves.
I talked to Nicolaj "Jensen" Jensen about some things I want to follow up with and one of those is with Yiliang "Peter" "Doublelift" Peng and Jeong "Impact" Eon-young leaving, Jensen is now one of the longest-standing members. I asked him how does that change his place on the team and he basically said, "I want to do experimental stuff. I don't want to be on a team that can only do 1-2 things." What is your plan to be able to get that done?
I think it's a goal of almost any team at the start of the split. "Oh, we want to be really diverse." We said that at the start of Summer, too. And as you progress throughout the season, you make concessions to either pick wins on stage, make your practice better, or maybe just make your team environment function well.
The reality is, it's a really complicated game with really hard champions and it's almost impossible to play absolutely everything. One thing that we can do to try and become more flexible and experimental is first we have to agree on the thing that's really important to us. And then we have to say, "OK, what does this actually mean," and breakdown all the things that it's gonna cost us. It is gonna make us lose more scrims. It is gonna maybe weaken what our best-best is. For instance, if we say last Summer our best-best was Ornn, Graves, Azir, Aphelios, Thresh/Bard comp — that's not gonna be as good if we're putting so many more scrims into all of these different styles.
You have to be willing to take the short-term hits with the confidence it's gonna be better for you in the long term. That's the high level. And then on a more individual note, the players have to be able to make sacrifices. If you're playing through mid or top, you have to be able to get the short end of the stick fairly frequently.
So far, everyone's bought in on that and we'll see how it goes.
You used to be the person talking about Jensen and Søren "Bjergsen" Bjerg, and everyone else, but now you're behind the scenes, you know a lot more personal things about the players. How has your understanding of them changed after you were with them for a week, then five weeks, now a whole season?
It definitely gives you more context. The only people I can comment on are those on TL, but you do get to see levels of passion and contribution and how much they can contribute to a team environment.
Was there anything you had to unlearn? I was listening to the Bevvies with the Boys episode with LEC coaches, Fabian "GrabbZ" Lohmann and Peter Dun, and they were having a funny back-and-forth about, "You don't understand what we do, but you talk about it!" and the casters were like, "You have to tell us what you do..."
Yeah, that's going to be a really interesting point. I left casting several times. The first time I left was to join the game design team and when I returned, I thought I was a better caster because I had a new perspective. I think likewise, if I was to end or retire from coaching, I think I'd be a better caster again, because I have additional context.
I don't think there's one specific thing that I can necessarily point out. On one hand, as a caster, you're always working with limited information and part of your job is to guess right and make a lot of assumptions and hope they are right. That's going to be frustrating for the coaches because they have all these contexts, but it's in their best interest to not tell people the context and also not correct it when it's wrong, and not confirm it when it is right. [laughs] Because if you do, you're just giving away information to other teams.
Some things that go behind the scene in regard to drafts and champion pools are perhaps the most interesting and the most confidential. Like we've talked about earlier, last year in LCS, you'd play 22-25 games off-stream and then two on-stream against different teams, so you're missing so much. "Oh, TL doesn't play any champions, I wonder why that is." You never really know. Is it because we tried them a bunch and couldn't make them work? Is it because we tried them a few times and abandoned them quickly? Or is it because we had high confidence that what we're playing were actually the best champions and we didn't want to waste time practicing others. It could be any of those things, and probably a few more that we're missing, but we're also not just confirming it. Publicly, you say, "We can play anything, of course, we're flexible" but you're really not. [laughs]
Were there any things you realized were just not true about specific players that you worked with?
I think I'll take the fifth on this one. [laughs]
The only other question I'd have is after Lock-In, once we're in the regular season, which teams do you expect to do very well. Generally, I think everyone has a pretty solid and maybe obvious tier list, but what would be some call-outs from you?
It's definitely us. We have the potential to be really good. Under-promise, over-deliver! Obviously, everyone has a lot to say about C9, I think they are gonna be really good and dynamic once they get clicking together, and I think that will be true for TSM as well.
Everyone knows Golden Guardians made a great sprint last split. Now they've added Ssumday and changed their name, so 100 Thieves are gonna be good. [laughs] And then EG tries to make a run every year. Those are the teams almost everyone has as their top 5, but there's always a surprise team. At least one of those teams will click and make some noise.
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