Interview With Griffin's Head Coach cvMax: His Gladiator Coaching Philosophy, Unique Team Culture, and Playing With No Shotcaller

cvMax is an intriguing, fascinating man. He took a once challenger team to the LCK Finals in one Split. He sculpted a team that no one knew about into one of the strongest in the league.

League of Legends esports is a merciless environment for new teams, as the strong teams have drawn a near-uncrossable boundary between them and the bottom tier teams. The only organizations that were able to break that said boundary were the ones willing enough to heavily invest in a set of already developed players and coaches. Climbing from the bottom, all the way to the top with no notable resources seemed impossible in the already structurally developed League of Legends esports scene. 

But Griffin did the impossible. The word miracle is a fitting way to describe their run this Summer. I wanted to know the secret behind that miracle. Until now, none of us knew about cvMax in detail. 

Sharing his feelings about how it felt to compete in the LCK for the first time

It's too soon to share that; I don't have the leisure to talk about that yet. If I was asked that after our Finals match, I would've given a more thoughtful answer. We have an important match coming up; I don't have room for emotions. 

December of 2017, cvMax states that his goal is to win the 2018 LCK Summer Split
- Finding the value in the essence of things

I personally find it funny. I was always the same. Since I joined the team, my goal of winning both the LCK and the World Championship never changed. I always had the certainty that it's possible. 

With time, it was really funny seeing how people changed their opinion regarding our team. When Griffin was a 7th place team in the Challenger league, people saw me as a joker when I said that we were going to win Worlds. "It's always good to dream big," they'd say. When our team made it into the LCK, those same people were baffled. 

It's because those people don't know how to look into the true essence of things. League of Legends is a strategic game that looks unpredictable on the surface, but some players exert athletic performance that will always exceed others. I'll explain this further by comparing it to traditional sports: a basketball organization sent a scout to a high school game. There is an ace player; but to all the spectators, he's a normal high school kid that's just really good at playing basketball. But the scout perceives it in a different way. 'That flexibility, that skill, and that reaction time are inhuman!' 

People that know a sport inside and out can catch the smallest of details and know the value of it. The slightest of movements in the wrist and ankle, normal people can't comprehend it all. I didn't just 'dream big' with Griffin. I simply saw the potential that this team had. Every sports team will state that their goal is to become the 1st placed team. That's a vague, far-fetched goal for most. But mine isn't, and it never was. 

What's important is the process 

Before I joined the team, I evaluated each players' mechanical skill. It gave me the impression that all they needed was a bit of refining. During scrims, I became certain; that they'll continue to grow and that the direction of the said growth was on the right path. The team was still far from being competent enough to be a Worlds competitor at the time; but with practice, I felt that Griffin could reach that state in 2-3 months. 

That's when I began talking about winning the World Championship, but people only pretended to listen. I felt that they lacked the eye to see real potential. The majority of people had said, "Kongdoo, bbq, and even MVP did well in the Challenger league. Griffin will struggle in the LCK." They were blinded by the numbers. 14 wins and 0 losses aren't important. What's important is the process of achieving that number. 14-0 could be achieved in many different ways, and not all of those ways are the correct ones. 

Removed from the bucket list: staying undefeated
- Losing their 1st match of the Split

During the Split, a couple of things from my bucket list were removed. One of the goals that were removed was to stay undefeated in the LCK, as we lost to KT Rolster in the 1st round robin. (Laughs) I was devasted. I even cried. I then told my players: "We're done. We failed to make a legend of ourselves," to strongly stimulate them. 

"If parallel universes really exist, the Griffin that defeated KT Rolster will continue to move forward. But the Griffin here in our universe is now dead. The defeat we faced today will remain with us forever, even if we win another 100 games in a row. Our dream, our legend, is now over. The record that was in the works, a record that could've been written in esports history is now gone. We're now nothing special. How does it feel? Are we all just simple salaryman here? Should we just spend the rest of our career without achieving anything special?"

After tasting defeat in Round 1, we changed the way we operate. There's no difference between 100-1 and 100-3. There is, however, a big difference between being undefeated and having 1 loss. Since we failed to remain undefeated, we didn't go out of our way for just 1 win. We focused on improving our performance for the long-run. We also experimented with many different strategies. 

The reason for the harsh feedback
- The gladiator mentality

I told them to feel it, the feeling of defeat. The feeling of falling into a pit after having chased after something for so long. A big shock followed by a loss is very beneficial to the players. Of course, the players already felt shocked, but I wanted them to feel more. Strong mental strength is seen as something hard to attain, but I personally don't think that's the case. 

"Biologically speaking, retaining a resolution for even 3 days is a feat. Who am I kidding, even 3 minutes is difficult. The human brain is moved by hormones, so it'll be hard to stay focused and do well. That's why I'll always have you guys at gunpoint. I'll make sure to give you both the carrot and stick."

When the players were heavily underperforming, I've gone as far as to say, "If you are playing the game with a bomb tied to your neck like in the movie 'Saw', would you have made that play? Even if your head was on the verge of exploding? Are you so incompetent that you can't even avoid your own death?" 

I was extremely harsh on the players, to make them feel that they could truly die at any moment. But when the players did good, I made sure to give them their well-deserved praise without any pretense. I'm a person that makes sure to get my feelings across to another, so I always said what was really on my mind. "Are you a genius? How can a human being make that play? Have you been acting all this time?"

I coach the players with a gladiator's mentality. Even if a gladiator wins a hundred fights, a single loss will cost him his head. Those who tasted defeat couldn't live to see tomorrow. But for us, being born in this era, we can still live to see the next day despite losing. Professional gamers are cyber gladiators. I asked the players to play like gladiators, and I made them understand the meaning behind it. 

A shaky Round 2 in the Summer Split

We were too ahead of ourselves. We made plays in desperation, trying to protect our 1st place spot in the LCK standings. We didn't play like ourselves. 

Rephrasing that, we learned a lot through this Summer Split. I also started seeing things more realistically. Even if we can finish the first round robin undefeated, I felt that staying undefeated all the way up until Worlds was impossible. I came to realize just how competitive the LCK is. 

cvMax's leadership
- To distinguish fairly, not discriminate

I treat people differently. I'm not discriminating them, I'm simply distinguishing them in a fair way. Unlike other animals, humans all have individual, unique traits. Therefore, not all of them should be taught in the same way. But you can't make this too obvious; in order to prevent doubt and conflict, you need to frequently converse with who you're teaching. You have to make them come to realize that there is a reason behind your method of teaching, to make them say, "Oh, this is why cvMax did this instead of that."

Team owner Cho had already done a good job of educating the players regarding professional mentality and life in the gaming house, so it was easy for me to start coaching. The players were able to keep up with my coaching from the start. 

But with that said, I actually criticized the players when they agreed with everything I said. "If you don't understand what I'm talking about, don't heed what I'm saying. We're in a horizontal relationship. A vertical relationship between coach and players is inefficient in this environment. You need to constantly have doubts. That's how scientists think. Do you have no doubts about anything I say? Don't live so passively," I told them. No progress can be made if you simply say "yes" all the time. I'm moving forward with the players while making sure they 100% understand what I'm talking about. 

A change in lifestyle: no longer being impulsive
- Directly-opposed ideas coexist

While working as a head coach, I changed. I used to be an impulsive person, but now I look at the bigger picture. I still do act on impulses, but I make sure to plan out my act before going through with it. I have a lot of trust in my instincts, so I still sometimes allow my impulses to dictate my decisions from time to time. 

League of Legends is no different. Two directly-opposed ideas could coexist within the game. For example, you could be both proactive and passive at the same time. You can also play offensively and defensively at the same time. It may look like it doesn't make sense, but it does in League of Legends. Between offense and defense, finding the balance between the two is 'skill' in itself. The same thing applies for picks and bans. You draw a big picture first, then make decisions on an impulse here and there to strengthen it. 

I feel a bit frustrated. As you can see from this interview, I enjoy boasting. But as a head coach, you look egotistical if you boast; and if I explain in detail why I'm boasting, I'm basically releasing our team's secrets to the others. 

Playing without shotcalls
- Causes unnecessary movements and clouds the mind

I believe League of Legends is a game that has a definite way of playing it, a quiz that has a specific answer to it. For example, you're at a crossroad of three. The 1st path is for all five members to march down mid lane. The 2nd path is for four members to stay where they're at and send only one member to split push. The 3rd path is to play the 1-3-1 macro game. Normally, in this type of situation, only one of the paths will be the correct one to take. Even if you can win by taking all three paths, there will be minor differences in stats depending on which path you took. Therefore, two of the three paths are the wrong paths to take. 

In this type of situation, all five members playing the game must be able to make the same, correct decision. That's what's truly important. When each players' ideas take on a different direction, no matter how much they try to set each other straight through shotcalls, they'll make plays that lack detail.

Let's say that the correct path to take was to gather mid, but only one player managed to choose the correct path. If this player can somehow successfully persuade his teammates to listen to him, do you think they'll win? No, they won't. The other four players will make unnecessary, garbage-like movements, and their minds will be clouded. They'll lose, 100%. 

If players are persuaded or forced into making a certain play [as explained above], and it fails, it'll bring the worst outcome. The four players will give feedback that the correct path to take was to split push. The single player that offered the actual correct answer will fall into confusion. This team will split push later down the road when faced with the same situation. They will continue to decline. And in the end, the team will implode, unable to make results. 

If all five members made the same decision to gather mid, they would've won. As a matter of fact, if all five members come down to make the same decision in any given circumstance, they can turn a wrong answer right. What's important is that everyone thinks in the same way, and if they do, there is no need to make shotcalls. Even if playing without any calls is impossible, it needs to be a goal that we need to chase after. 

A teamfight with no shotcalls
- A single second is all it takes to win or lose a teamfight

A team with a player on Malphite is looking to start a teamfight. While looking for an opening, the Malphite player spots an opportunity to open up a fight and win. In this situation, however, making the call -- then going in afterward-- can make you miss that opportunity. An opportunity will only present itself for a short moment. Shouting, "I'm using my ultimate!" before doing so can jeopardize the entire fight. If there is a frequency, - No, No, No, No, AN OPENING! No, No, No, AN OPENING! - it'll be something like this. 

All five players need to be in sync in relation to looking for opportunities. If you fight to only respond to a shotcall, you will make clouded judgments and make unnecessary movements. Even if it was the correct decision, you'll lose. The players will then think that they made the wrong decision. In the end, they'll fail to recognize the real problem. They'll continue to make the same mistake in future matches. 

For the Malphite player, it would've been better to have said, "If I see an opportunity, I'll use my ultimate right away!" before the teamfight. Then everyone needs to remain silent until an opportunity shows itself. That's how you win.

A head coach that knows the correct path
- Respect earned through his in-game knowledge

Finding what is correct from amongst the piles of wrong is hard. You need to look at the game at a broader angle, and I'm confident at doing that. I haven't done my military service, I am not social, and I'm violent on top of that. I don't have a girlfriend, and I don't have a lot of friends. To some, I may look completely incompetent. But I'm not incompetent in League of Legends. So far, I'm still confident enough to tell my players that "if you think differently from me, you're wrong."

When I first joined Griffin, I asked the six players if there was someone here that knew League of Legends more than me. I played 1 vs. 1 against all the players. Not a single one beat me. Then, in a feedback session right after, I proved to them just how knowledgeable I am about the game. I did my best to earn their respect and trust. 

"I don't want your respect just because I'm your head coach. 'He's a coach, so I should listen to him!' Not at all. Listen to me because I'm good at the game."

Of course, I still need to constantly reevaluate myself. I can't forget that I could be wrong, too.

When his idea of the game clashes with the players' idea

My players have often talked back to me during feedback. And I've never left a question unanswered. For example:

"We lost because you recalled at a wrong timing. You should've cleared another minion wave before going back to base."

"Coach, you're correct when looking at the outcome of the game; but at the time, I had no information of where the enemy jungler was. I didn't feel confident enough to clear another wave. Couldn't me dying have jeopardized the game even further?"

I'm really thankful when the players talk to me like this.

"Even if you had died while clearing that last wave, it would've been beneficial to the team. If you died, the enemy jungler would've revealed his pathing, then our jungler could've made a move on bot lane. It would've been a low-risk, high-return play. Even if the gamble failed, it wouldn't have created a significant global gold difference. The gamble had a high chance of succeeding, the mid laning phase would've been over."

In actual practice, I tell them more, in detail. We picture the possible outcomes that could've happened in our heads while looking at the replays. Normally, the player comes to admit. "Oh... we could've won that... we lost because of me."

I always want my players to have doubts in me. That way, I can make them truly understand. When I told that [above] player that he should've pushed in another wave, and he just responded with a "yes" without thinking, it would've been catastrophic. That should never happen.

I never leave a problem unsolved. At first, all my players always responded with a simple "yes" whenever I gave them feedback. That's when I started asking them backward. 

"Why did you need to clear one more wave? Will you take responsibility if you die to the enemy jungler while doing so? Are you out of your mind? Look at me in the eyes when you talk. Go and bring your chair and sit next to me. Why did you need to clear one more wave?"

After this process, the players started asking me first whenever curiosity struck them.

Griffin's unique team culture

I tell my players to be 'extremely strict with one's self.' Simply put, I tell a player to blame himself, and only himself, no matter what the situation is. The same thing applies to me as well.

We live together openly, in an unreserved way. The players sometimes imitate my voice as well. (Laughs) The structure of the team is different from that of a normal sports team. I'm really lucky to have joined Griffin.

The Finals against KT Rolster won't be easy

I'll have to scrim against them first before making any predictions (Interview Date: Aug 24th). I haven't scrimmed against them yet, so I don't know for sure. Every LCK and LPL organizations are putting everything on the line. As expected, the official league is not easy. I was a fool to have thought that it wouldn't be this tough. The Finals against KT Rolster won't be easy. I'll simply do my best to find a way to do better than the enemy team.

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