Matthew "Akaadian" Higginbottham's stock could not have been lower. The North American jungler had finished a largely forgettable campaign at the bottom of the NA LCS standings with OpTic Gaming. With all LCS rosters filling their jungle spots, Akaadian signed with TSM Academy in an effort to improve himself.
However, when Jonathan "Grig" Armao's wrist issues continued to linger, Akaadian was called on by TSM to start as the LCS jungler. 12 games into the 2019 LCS Spring Split, TSM currently sits at 7-5 in 3rd place. Akaadian was presented an opportunity to prove himself far sooner than expected, and under very unusual circumstances, but he has played the best League of Legends of his career and has continued to start despite Grig's wrist fully healing.
After TSM defeated Echo Fox in Week 6, Day 1 of the LCS spring split, Akaadian sat down with Nick Geracie to discuss his new approach to jungling, TSM's team culture, and of course, swift wrath.
We're here with TSM's Jungler Akaadian. A few weeks back, you said TSM's wrath would be swift, and you haven't lost a game since. Did you know when making that tweet that something had clicked for the team?
I think our scrims were just okay for a long time. I wouldn't say we were extremely dominant or anything, and when we played games on stage, we had a lot of big issues to iron out in regards to how we wanted to play certain phases of the game. It's really troll to say that you learn from losses, because that's a cliche everyone says, but there are at least three games I can point to in this split where we changed a fundmaental way we thought about the game after a loss.
Each time, we implemented what we learned from each loss into our practice, and our games started going better. The game started feeling better for me to play, and it's really easy for me to be confident when I have teammates who are of the quality that my teammates are. We're playing well together.
I probably tweeted that after a good day or week of scrims when things were going super well. I felt like we were really good and I was pissed off that people were saying we were bad, because I knew we weren't bad. We had really boosted performances in our first five or six times. Now we've finally showed some good performances as of late.
You have good teammates this split, but you've had good performances yourself. Has playing on TSM given you the opportunity to improve in new ways?
Absolutely. No flame to my previous coaching staffs, but I think my improvement a testament to how good our coaching staff and team culture is on TSM. Peter Zhang, the TSM Academy Head Coach, helped me set up an entire system for the way I see the early game. I have a certain way to think about things now, so that I can always point to exactly where my mistake was in a game. It's helped me recognize patterns I have in game and how to fix them for the next situation.
When I was on OpTic Gaming last year, what I was doing was a lot more random. I would play based off of feel, and sometimes it would work out and sometimes it wouldn't, so I was pretty inconsistent. Our Head Coach Tony "Zikz" Gray has helped me a lot with that, but it's not even just him, it's also playing on a team with these insane storied players like Bjergsen, Zven, and Smoothie. Broken Blade has played a lot in the TCL, too, so they are all really good players in their own right.
Every day, I sit down for scrims, play scrims with my team, and then we sit down for VoD review. I think we have the longest reviews of any team in the LCS. We sit and talk about the game, then we go back to playing. It's just sitting and playing and talking about the game all day, and I think that helped me learn a lot. The way we think about things as a team is pretty aligned amongst our players.
Zikz also helped me realize that you have to be really, really accountable for your own play and own the early game as the jungler. You have to own your pathing and be a master of your craft. He had a talk with me in December when Grig's wrist was still messed up, and he said, 'You're probably going to play if nothing changes, and these are the things you need to work on to get better.'
Our coaching staff is really good. I've been working really hard, but it's not hard to work hard when everyone around you is extremely good and motivated. It's been fun.
How does the grind-focused atmosphere of TSM compare to other competitive environments in your career? Was it an adjustment for you to get used to this environment?
Other teams that I've been on liked to be humans more. They'll go out and do other stuff and have their own separate lives. On TSM, we all just kind of hang out with each other every day no matter what. We play League of Legends, say goodnight, wake up, and do it again the next day. That's the culture of our team. I'm not too familiar with the culture of other teams, but for us, it wasn't something that was forced.
When I first joined TSM Academy, I was happy because it was a solid team in the North American Academy League. Then, all of a sudden, I was playing scrims with TSM's LCS roster and I was like, "What?"
It sounds like this wasn't exactly what you expected out of 2019.
No, I thought Grig was going to start for TSM. I thought Grig was better than me, and on my stream, I said something along the lines of, 'I think Grig is really good. You guys shouldn't be flaming him. It's troll to say that I'm more deserving to play than Grig after my performance on OpTic Gaming last year.'
Anyway, they told me I was going to play scrims, and I instantly realized that I had to get a lot better than I was at that point, no matter what. I had to get a lot better because everyone on the team was way better than me at the time. There was a lot of expectation, but I knew I had a real shot of doing well. My teammates are insanely good, so if I failed on this team, I didn't think I could be a serviceable jungler anywhere.
Past iterations of TSM have played the early game passively, but you've been owning the early game in an aggressive fashion. Is that a change you made to the team, or is that a team-wide adjustment made from last year's TSM?
It's definitely a team-wide focus. I talk to my teammates about the way I think in the early game and how far I can push my leads for us to do something. I wouldn't say I orchestrate everything, but in the early game for our team, it's almost 100% me talking. I'll just keep asking people for relevant information like, "Hey, can you get a ward here soon? It will help me see where their jungler is in one minute, and if we see him, we can make a play elsewhere."
For the most part, I know every path that's used, so as soon as I see a jungler's CS, I know what camps he did most of the time. I run the early game based off of this, and the systems Peter and Zikz have helped me set up on the team have helped us have a pretty solid early game most of the time. Sometimes, I get surprised, but I think our early game is pretty good overall. Everyone is a good laner, and I kind of have an idea of what I'm doing in the jungle now.
In your contribution to The Players' Lobby, you talked about feelings of imposter syndrome throughout your career. Were those feelings affecting you when you first joined the main roster on TSM?
Hell yeah, that was definitely a thing that happened. I don't mind sharing this, but our sports psychologist has talked to me a lot about those feelings. He said that those feelings are essentially a form of anxiety. A lot of the time, I overthink what is happening and what I'm going to do, and then I start feeling like I'm not good enough. Sometimes after one bad solo queue game or one bad scrim, I feel like I'm not cut out for this and that I can't do it.
It's something I struggle with and I have to overcome it so I don't get in these random ruts where I'm feeling really bad. I need to keep level-headed.
As someone with multiple Anxiety disorders, I can't tell you how much it means to me to watch you continue to progress in spite of the struggles you mentioned. Thank you for sharing this with us. Have you changed anything about your pre-game routine to better optimize your in-game performance and perspective?
In other years, I would worry about things a lot *laughs* the only other time in my career I was doing well was when I made my debut in the 2017 NA LCS Spring Split. I genuinely thought I didn't belong with other people in the league when I was on Echo Fox, and I thought I was going to get destroyed. Because of this, I had a really "YOLO" mindset and just did whatever based on feel.
After a while, I started worrying about failing and doing badly, and that would make me more nervous and mess up my game play. I'm not trying to say it is an excuse, because you are always responsible for your gameplay, but it's definitely something I struggled with in my career.
After the game today, I told my teammates that I've never been more comfortable playing LCS games than on this team. I feel really comfortable when we get into the game, which is a complete turn-around from the first few weeks.
Was adding a Sports Pyschologist a big factor in TSM's turnaround?
I don't think it was necessarily a huge factor for all of the players. We definitely learned a lot as a team, but mostly, I think it helped me be more comfortable in the games we play. When we were 2-4, it was crappy. I started getting hate messages and DMs saying that I should bench myself, and that Grig is better than me, or that I shouldn't waste any more of TSM's games.
I think this was shown on TSM: Legends, but we were going to dinner and Zven told me, "It doesn't matter if we're 2-4. We can easily make playoffs and go to Worlds this year." He told me that Origen had much worse starts, and he told me not to worry about it. The mindset hasn't changed; we're just going to keep working as hard as we can and stay steady with our improvement, and we know if we do that we should get wins eventually. Recently, that's been the case.
Grig's wrist is healed, but you are still starting for TSM and performing well. Do you feel any pressure to keep your spot?
Me and Grig are friends. We talk about the game a lot, and I don't think there's any bad blood between us at all. If I was the same player that I was in December, I would not still be starting. But I've improved, and the team has had a lot of time to grow with me.
We were first playing together because Grig's wrist was injured, but now we've gotten to a point where they're just more comfortable playing with me. We hit our stride as a roster and we all understand how each person wants to play.
I feel bad for Grig, because I think he's a pretty good Jungler and he had a pretty good shot at doing well this spring. He could beat most of these Junglers in the LCS. I don't think NA junglers are particularly insane, at least, I'm not really scared of anyone. I think Grig is the same way, and he's still a really good player. It sucks.
Grig used to be your substitute on Echo Fox. Not only that, Grig got this spot on TSM in unusual fashion as well. Grig originally subbed in for MikeYeung, and then ended up starting the rest of the year.
I don't think it was similar, though. I think when MikeYeung was signed to TSM, a lot of people were like, "What? Are you serious?" At least, that's what a lot of junglers thought. It's a little BM, but MikeYeung had only really played well on two champs, and he was a one-trick before that. I'm pretty sure Grig saw that, and knew that he would eventually get a chance to play on the main roster for TSM.
That being said, I did not see my situation in that way at all. I thought I was going to be playing for TSM Academy, and that Grig was going to be playing all of the LCS games because he was good. I liked Peter Zhang as a coach when I had worked with him in the past, so I thought TSM Academy was my best option available in terms of the teammates I could play with.
I really crapped the bed on OpTic and didn't play very well, and I think my brand value was pretty low. Last off-season, I don't think people thought I was very good. I joined TSM Academy for personal improvement, and then all this happened. So I don't think there's any bad blood or animosity between us.
It certainly happened by strange circumstances, but now TSM is in 3rd place and performance-wise, look like arguably the best team in the LCS.
I mean, our game today wasn't so good *laughs* I guess we controlled the game even though we got behind, just like we did against FlyQuest. I think we were able to do that because we have a good understanding of the mid game, so we played the mid game well. Maybe that's why we won.
Do you think TSM is the best performing team in the LCS?
No, we have a lot of work to do. I think Cloud9 and Team Liquid can both challenge us on any day. They're both very good teams in their own right, and I think our three teams stand out as having a more distinct style from the rest. I think we have the potential to be the best team, and I think we can make it to the LCS Spring Finals and potentially win it with this team.
That's how I feel right now, which is really weird, because my previous teams usually finish in 9th place or something. I feel like we could win the whole thing. I don't know; we'll see.
TSM, C9, and TL are pulling away from the pack. Are there any teams outside of the top 3 that can close the gap?
FlyQuest understands each other pretty well as a team, and that's how they've gotten a lot of wins. They have pretty decent players, too, so they could maybe challenge us. Golden Guardians looks really good sometimes, and I think they have the potential to be a pretty good playoff team. It's weird to say this after today, but Clutch Gaming is not a bad team. Based on our practice, they certainly aren't as bad as they look.
Still, I don't think there's a team right now that can challenge our level, but teams can start working a lot harder and in a few weeks, maybe there's a dark horse and like, OpTic Gaming is insane. There are some teams in the LCS that are almost not worth practicing against because they just can't play the game, I guess. Based on my current experience and perspective, that's how I feel, though that could change in the future.
Thank you so much for the interview Akaadian. I have one more question for you regarding your insights in The Players' Lobby's "The Imposter": You talked about something called 'The Monkey Zone.' Have you conquered it?
The Monkey Zone...holy moly.
I just think that term and the fact that we even had that conversation was just sad. My previous coach Thomas "Zaboutine" Si-Hassen was just trying to stop me from dying really stupidly, but no, it's not really a thing now. I have a really good grasp on how to play the macro game now, so I'm not usually messing it up.
I guess it's not really a thing anymore *laughs* but I honestly feel bad for my teammates on OpTic last summer. I really wasn't playing well in some of those weeks, and that's unfortunate.
But looking forward, this is the best split of your career, so congratulations on that. Is there anything you'd like to say to your fans or the TSM faithful?
To all the fans in general — thank you for being fans of the LCS, and I hope TSM will keep getting more wins.