While Team Liquid, 100 Thieves, and Cloud9 bootcamp in Korea ahead of Worlds, the remainder of the NA LCS teams have entered the offseason.
For Nick “Inero” Smith, the off-season is the perfect time to plan his next move. Fresh off of nearly 2 years of coaching with Echo Fox, Inero was most recently seen in the 2018 NA LCS Summer Split working with Golden Guardians as a consultant. Inero also consulted OPL team Order in an effort to get a better look at team infrastructure from the outside.
Inero has new goals he is looking to accomplish, and he was gracious enough to share them with me the week before the start of the 2018 World Championship.
Thanks for taking the time to talk with me, Inero. What have you been up to since the end of the summer split?
Since the conclusion of the summer split, I’ve been playing a lot of World of Warcraft. I’ve also been preparing for next year by doing some independent work for myself in the same realm. I’ve had a lot of free time in the offseason, and it’s been a good change up to get an actual break from League of Legends.
I can imagine, you’ve been coaching for the better part of two seasons. What did you learn from your experience on Echo Fox this year that you think will help you in the future?
Working with that team was the first time I had worked with a full team of veterans. Everyone on the roster had been around for a while, so I got to improve my understanding of the game. You can get a lot of different perspectives from veteran players.
I had mostly been teaching rookies and focusing on the fundamentals of the game, so getting game perspective from Dardoch and Huni, and even Fenix, Altec, and Adrian too, was really great. I enjoyed it a lot, and I think that’s where I grew the most personally this year.
What was your experience working with Fenix, Altec, and Adrian?
Going off of spring split, working with them was great. We didn’t really run into any huge problems, but we had some inefficiencies in the bot Lane. We were definitely trying to experiment with adjustments throughout the split to see what could work better, but we were still happy with everyone for the most part.
I knew the guys were putting in a lot of effort. Altec especially put in a lot of effort whenever we spoke to him about improving. He was definitely someone who cared a lot about getting better.
Did you have any hand in the bot lane roster changes?
Adrian had been off the LCS team prior to summer, but he had another chance because Feng was having visa issues. He did not attend our boot camp in South Korea, and that was our decision to not bring him along. We wanted to try out Papa Chau and Feng at the time, and Feng ended up being the starter when we came back.
Going into summer, we were planning on having Adrian on the Academy Team or trading him to another team. The potential trades didn’t pan out, and Feng had visa issues early on in the split, so Adrian had another chance to play in the LCS.
The Altec and Fenix moves happened while I was on my way out of Echo Fox. The entire coaching staff suggested giving Damonte playtime, and we planned way ahead of time to use Rift Rivals as an experiment.
Afterwards, Damonte was made the starter. He took over the spot based on our suggestion to upper management, and I think Fenix was kind of wanting a break from everything as well with the way he was speaking about things. It happened in spring split as well, so it was understandable.
As I was making my way out of Echo Fox, the Smoothie acquisition gave us a good opportunity to try out Lost. He had always been someone on our radar for the future. I was not the primary decision maker, but I was definitely on board with giving him a shot.
Lost was kind of my passion project on Echo Fox. I had scouted him from OPL. I brought him over from our bootcamp and I definitely had a lot of faith that he could succeed.
Do you still keep in touch with Lost or any of the other Echo Fox players?
Oh yeah, I still keep up with the guys there. I don’t keep as frequently in touch with the guys who’ve exited Echo Fox. I speak with Altec a bit, and I talk to Feng every now and then, but I still talk to the current players all the time. I have a good friendship with all of them, so I try to hang out with them when I can.
Can you tell us a bit about your departure from Echo Fox?
I had a better opportunity to pursue. I got to explore a lot of what I’ve been actually wanting to do. I’ve been very vocal about the fact that, with my negative experiences outside of the LCS, I wanted to be a part of improving esports as a whole. I really want to win the LCS, but a lot more of my focus right now is towards fixing how everything in esports is run.
I feel that there are a lot of deficiencies, and it was really depressing for me and impacted my ability to work. When I saw the opportunity to be able to leave and improve the whole process for everyone involved, it was something I couldn’t turn down. I couldn’t just keep coaching and watch things continue as is, so I wanted to depart.
Echo Fox was on board and understood where I was coming from. Thankfully, they were happy I could take the opportunity, and they let me go. I’ve been focusing on trying to find solutions to the problems I see in LCS — and by extension, all of esports — from an outside angle.
What are some of the problems that you’re looking to solve? What needs to be improved?
There’s a lot of problems with the way that situations are handled in regards to communication between players and their teams. That’s something I want to speak to orgs about clearing up, or at least make them aware of the problems and what they can lead to so they can fix it for themselves.
For the most part, the expectations of coaches in NA are more akin to that of a day-to-day manager than it is an actual coach. I know this doesn't extend to every single team, but the fact that it's an experience I know some are used to is really troubling.
Some teams are going to have their own desires coming from staff, but I think it's extremely important that coaches are coaching and organizations are allowing that part of the industry to grow and improve instead of undermining it. If coaches are just there to corral everyone and keep the team together more than they are directing how practice is ran, then our practice environments are doomed to stagnate.
For a while, there have been complaints about the practice environment in NA LCS. I haven’t particularly enjoyed the scrim culture here, and on our team, we weren’t exactly contributing to improving it either. But that’s something that I want to make aware that we can fix, so I’ve been focusing on issues within that realm behind the scenes. There’s a lot of different stuff, but those are the big things.
After stepping down from Echo Fox, you were working with Golden Guardians as a consultant. Did you get any new perspective on the issues that you are trying to fix?
Yeah, I was consulting with two teams at the time, which gave me a pretty good opportunity to look inside other teams and see if they were experiencing similar problems that I had heard about or personally experienced.
Golden Guardians were pretty open about the problems they were experiencing, and when working with Order, I was able to see different inefficiencies that they could improve on. I was happy to be able to take those opportunities because it allowed me to gain perspective directly instead of just trusting what other people are saying.
I came in and essentially did the job of a coach on both teams to facilitate practice. In the short amount of time I had with each team, I strived to create the environment that I would deem appropriate for practice. That way, each player could take those positives and know what to expect from coaches, management, support staff etc in the future.
In addition, I told management of both organizations the problems that the players had, as well as things I saw as red flags in my experience. There were certain things that weren’t as efficient as it could be as far as finding resolutions when speaking with players.
Overall, on both ends, things can be improved. The players can look to improve themselves and know what they expect out of practice and a good support staff. The management needs to know what to expect from coaches, and also be able to set them up to successfully do their job.
None of this is to say I’m some “Super Coach.” I’ve been very open about the fact that I don’t think I’m some amazing A1 coach or anything like that. But I do have a very specific approach to coaching that I believe is correct, or at least follows a certain set of guidelines and expectations that I set. I think every coach should be doing that in some way, and if you’re not, it’s very hard for people to learn from you and grow under your leadership.
Echo Fox fell short in the gauntlet and did not qualify for worlds. What do you think they needed to be a top 3 team in NA?
I was very hopeful that the team would make it. I knew when the roster changes happened that there was always a possibility that they wouldn’t due to bringing in two brand new players. In addition, when one of those players is a mid laner, that shifts your entire game plan because of the importance of mid/jungle synergy.
Dardoch and Fenix worked together extremely well, so forming new synergy between Dardoch and Damonte was something that would take time to gel. We weren’t sure if it would ever gel, but that was something the organization was willing to experiment with and something we agreed to take the time to try and work on as a team. We all committed to that decision, and whether it ended up in Worlds or not, we were hopeful it would work.
However, I think even if the two guys you bring in perform great, the team still has to understand how to play the game out later as a unit. Experience is very important during summer, and teams with a lot of experience tend to rise to the top and perform better in those best of five situations.
I think the team ended up lacking there, and it’s not necessarily something that’s bad. It’s very good that Damonte and Lost got playoff experience this earlier into their respective careers. It’s not very common for rookies to just smash the LCS and chill at the top. Being able to play in those high leverage situations with veterans will be something they’ll be able to carry this forward into their respective careers.
Still, bringing in two rookies to replace veterans as a ⅗ roster overhaul will cause some shake-ups and result in some inconsistencies. I don’t think it was a matter of the team being bad, they were basically just a new team starting a bit later than everybody else.
How do you think the three teams from NA who DID qualify will fare at Worlds this year?
I think it’s definitely possible that Team Liquid can get out of their group as 2nd seed, depending on who ends up in the group with them from Play-Ins. It would be nice for an NA team to make it out of groups. I’ve been very critical of how TL plays, but you can’t deny their consistency in North America, especially when preparing for best of fives.
100 Thieves is in a group with Fnatic and Invictus Gaming. I’m expecting Fnatic to come out first in that group. I suppose IG could possibly get first, but I’m thinking they will most likely be second. I don’t have the highest hopes for 100 Thieves to make it through, but if they do, I think it will be as the 2nd seed.
Still, it’s very doubtful. I don’t even know what they’re currently doing with their bot lane and whether Cody Sun or Rikara is playing. The way that seemed to play out at the end of the split was a little odd, so that hints to me that there are things going on internally that none of us are able to see. Based on that, I can’t say I’m too hopeful they’ll make a big splash at Worlds.
Cloud9 is essentially doomed to Group B. So they’re definitely going to learn a lot. They’ll be at Worlds to learn, and unfortunately, probably lose. The group is so stacked, but I would like to see them against Vitality. I think that will be a really cool match, and I hope that NA wins that at least so we can get back ahead in the “NA vs. EU” rivalry. We had to bite the bullet based on the Rift Rivals results this year.
TL are definitely the ones I have the most faith in. I think their group is manageable, and I fully expect them to get out.
You mentioned being critical of Team Liquid’s playstyle in the past, but here, you’re putting a lot of faith in them getting to Quarterfinals. What do you think they need to adjust and improve on before worlds?
My perspective is coming from working with Echo Fox. We were extremely aggressive and always tried to harbor that aggression as our strength. TL has an insanely good bot lane — they are without a doubt the best in NA — but they did have a weakness in playing through the top side of the map. With the way our team played, we tried to look to abuse that whenever possible.
It always felt like the same kind of “NA Syndrome” that’s been spoken about in the past: the top teams will draft scaling comps and abuse the fact that they are a better team than their opponents. They won’t try to beat them early, they’ll just win later off of pure skill and/or experience. That works for the regular season, but it doesn’t really prepare you for much in terms of international competition.
Of course, Team Liquid looked very clean in the summer playoffs, so maybe they’ve just been working on something and cared more about hiding it instead of testing it against teams in regular season.
That’s something I disagreed with. I liked to test things against teams I thought were below Echo Fox when we were playing them because I tried to have us go into every team having as much respect for them as possible in order to learn as much as you can out of every victory. It felt like Team Liquid didn’t take the full amount from that aspect of the regular season, but that could just be a difference in approach to coaching and directing a team.
Through the laning phase, their top and mid have been fairly weak. If the meta has options for less carry-centric champions in top and mid, they’ll be just fine and won’t have any issues at all. But if it doesn't, they'll probably run into issues.
NA is known for strong week 1 performances at Worlds followed by epic week 2 collapses. If you were coaching at Worlds, how would you approach this problem?
I don’t really know what leads to that problem because I’ve never volunteered to help out a team at Worlds, so I don’t know what things look like internally around that time. A meta develops during worlds every year, and the most likely problem is NA’s tendency to adapt slowly.
It could be a problem with how NA teams approach practice in general. We’re very much set in our ways, and our practice is very much set in the fact that we’re not looking to change or improve things. It’s kind of sad to say, but feels very true from what I’ve watched the past two years.
Overall, I’m not too sure what causes the problem because I’ve never had the experience myself, but I hope NA teams can avoid it this year. I think that Team Liquid is a team that can prevent a Week 2 disaster from happening. They weren’t super successful with the Mage Bot Lane adaptation, so I hope nothing like that happens because then they could definitely struggle.
What’s next for you? Will we be seeing you in the NA LCS in 2019? It seems like you have a ton of goals, but how are you looking to accomplish them?
I’ve danced around whether I’m going to stay in esports or not. Tainted Minds; DreamTeam — my experience in esports has been very stressful overall. Since leaving Echo Fox, I’ve lost about 15 lbs just from being away from the stress of it.
However, if you see me back in the LCS, it’s because I’ve found a team with amazing management. It will be because they have a vision that lines up with how I think things should be run.
It’s very much a possibility that I don’t show up in esports again, and I may just be providing my input wherever possible from the outside to Riot. I’m not sure if I’ll stay in or if I’ll stay on the outside and try to help teams. Right now, I’m just kind of in a limbo state.
Nick Geracie is a freelance esports journalist currently located in Los Angeles. You can follow him on Twitter here.