Dignitas had a rough ending to their Spring Split, starting off in first place to begin the 2020 Season, but falling just out of playoff contention in the last week after losing a tiebreaker match against Golden Guardians. Over the off-season, the team made a lot of changes, beginning with the release of star Top Laner, Heo "Huni" Seung-hoon, and continuing down multiple other positions on the roster.
In the end, they had constructed a strong list of 10 players, pretty much any of which could be considered "LCS ready" and able to start on the main roster. We spoke with Dignitas coach, Gabriel "Invert" Zoltan-Johan about the team's structure and plan for the Summer, specifically given their roster potential and replacement of Huni.
We conducted two different interviews with Invert, one at the beginning of Summer, questioning the off-season changes and inquiring of the team's plans, and later in the Split, once we started seeing the roster make changes. The second interview is denoted part way through the piece.
So I wanted to talk about all the moves around Dignitas, there were a ton of changes over the off-season leading up to Summer, then a bunch since then. First, however, I want to start with what happened in Spring. You started off amazing but had a really tough back half of the split. So what was the general consensus at the end of the split that led into the changes you made, how were those in response to your Spring performance?
I think the Split was kind of like a reverse normal distribution I suppose, in terms of performance. We started off really well, then towards the middle of the season, we dipped immensely. But then towards the end of the split, I thought we were playing pretty well as well. We were stomping TSM, in the tiebreakers, we played really well against Immortals, and I thought we were going to win that game against Golden Guardians to get into Playoffs as well. It was a really close, well played game on both sides, but we had the advantage and we threw it away.
Obviously, our goal was Playoffs and we just fell short of that, so there was a lot of self-reflection from the org's side. There were a lot of factors that came into play when it came to the performance dip. One was, we failed to identify our need to switch players earlier, given the weaknesses we showed when we were playing with our original five. We noticed the trends a bit too late for our liking. The second was our read of the meta was pretty poor midway through the split. We started playing pretty badly as soon as Sett came out, and instead of being a team that could add Sett to our repertoire and be really confident in it, we played counters into it and didn't diversify our draft accordingly. Those were some of our issues, plus other stuff going on.
And when quarantine came, I thought that was a really good period to reset, especially since we had the extra week of practice to settle into our new identity with how we wanted to play with Matthew "Akaadian" Higginbotham after we swapped him in. So I thought that helped a lot and contributed to our performance afterwards.
So then this off-season, you had not only a bunch of roster changes and position swaps, but also you held tryouts for each role. What was the reasoning for that?
There were kind of multiple reasons. So let me just start off by saying the main reason is all ten of our players are incredibly talented, and between the roles, those players are good enough to kind of compete against each other. We don't think there is any particular person who - talent wise - stands out above their peer in their role.
So as a result, that leads us into the second reason, which is we think establishing healthy competition for the starting spot raises the skill floor for all the players. When you're in constant competition for your spot - healthy competition, let me be clear - you should be able to see growth in players a lot faster as long as you manage that competition properly. This happens all the time in pretty much every other team sport where people have people under them that they can learn from, work with, and use as motivation to continue improving themselves.
And the third is that the departure of Huni led us to rethink how we can get the most out of our roster, and we found this to be an efficient way of getting the most potential out of our roster as long as the coaching staff and management could work with players to do it properly.
You say healthy competition, which I think is important, because I immediately thought back to Akaadian and Jonathan "Grig" Armao on TSM last year. But I also know this Spring, Akaadian told Nick Geracie that it felt much different here for Dignitas even though they were in a similar position. But with all the competition, how are you going to ensure the players are comfortable and confident in the system?
Let me start off by saying, we have a lot of players on our roster who have been in platoon positions before. Sure we have Akaadian, Samson "Lourlo" Jackson was on Echo Fox, Omran "V1per" Shoura was with Colin "Solo" Earnest on FlyQuest, and others too. So we had a lot of feedback from players as to how other orgs dealt with the idea of people competing for their spot. And the two most frustrating aspects of it when people did so previously was either a lack of transparency or a lack of camaraderie between the players competing.
So with that in mind, we worked with the players, talked with each in 1 on 1s and frequent meetings to determine a way to establish both of those things in a really healthy, good way. So the first example I can think of is for our morning meetings, we do them as 10 people, we aren't dividing the teams up to say that there are two teams in the org. No, this org is competing as one unit, one team, where everyone is working together and talking about things together. So establishing that initially is super important and I think we've done a good job of it.
We've gotten positive feedback from players about it. Of course, it's not perfect, we've also gotten feedback on how to adjust to make it better, but that's the general idea that I think is very important - establishing camaraderie, making sure people are able to work together, and then making sure people understand we're all part of the same organization. So even if they're competing against someone, they're all doing it under the pretense of success for Dignitas. And if you're a player who wants to win, you understand that and you work with that.
And then there's a transparency aspect, which may be the most important. Players want to know why decisions are being made or what leads to certain things happening. And being very up front with players is never a bad thing. So we're frequently up front with players as far as what our goals and needs are for the team, and we're up front with the decisions we make as a staff. So I think that helps a lot in establishing trust between us and the players.
I'm glad you have such a strong answer for that, I'll admit I was pretty worried for the players when I first heard about your potential system.
Yeah I mean, I'm glad teams in the past have done this, because we've learned a lot from their failures. Not that the orgs themselves were failures, but that we got to learn from their experiments.
Even with Jung "Impact" Eon-yeong and Jeon "Ray" Ji-won, which seemed so successful on the outside, when they both left, they basically said they'd never do that again because it was terrible.
Yeah C9 was kind of the original success story with it, and it was a motivation thing, right? And they were really transparent about it with the public, and with their players at the time. Even if the players were frustrated that they didn't get to play, part of that was because there was no precedent for it.
And this also seems much more up front and open from the very beginning, rather than the second it happens. So my other question is how do these changes make you go from 7th to making Worlds? Essentially, the same organization last year went from 9th to Worlds, so I know you believe you can do it. But why is this the best thing rather than over the off-season, just deciding on a starting five and just pouring all of your time, effort, and resources into them?
I think part of the answer is COVID. You do not have the ability between Spring and Summer to make the sweeping changes that you think you should because of the state of the world. I respect Huni a lot, I think he's a great player, and I think he's a world class player, despite whatever public perception of him is, but we didn't have access to him. So we had to find another way to be successful.
And we also think this is good for NA talent development. These people, despite what you think about some of these players, these are players who have not reached their ceiling yet for various reasons. Whether it's because they didn't have this type of competition yet, or maybe they haven't had the right style of coaching. So we're trying to provide both of those and secure a really good floor and foundation to work with. And at that point, it's just up to us and the work we do to make that Worlds run, make the roster work, and make the system work.
End of pre-split interview
Beginning of mid-season interview, conducted after Week 4
Do you have any update on how the roster is functioning as a ten man unit right now? How has it been?
It's been good for the players. We're sticking to keeping everyone involved, both in socials, morning meetings, talking through games together, going over each other's VODs, stuff like that. So, for me, I've seen some good things come out of it. Beyond that, we're still trying to experiment and get some feedback from players on what's working and not working. We're still doing what I mentioned before. We have discord channels dedicated to LCS VODs and Academy VODs and we're going over both of them. We still have 10-man meetings and we're still soliciting feedback from the players, which I think regardless of the team and their setup is still a good thing.
How much are you experimenting with different rosters and what led to your decision in your first swap this season, starting Lourlo over V1per?
The decision to start Sam [Lourlo] was a combination of trying to find stability in the top lane along with rewarding and understanding that Sam has been playing really well. His presence and communication and leadership on the Academy side, along with his overall quality of gameplay was a really good fit what the LCS team needed, so it was pretty natural for us to make that swap and have Omran [V1per] work on his weaknesses regarding stability in the top lane and making sure he's always comfortable in his matchups to just play it out instead of having to make the hero play.
You've had multiple rosters, have they all had much time getting experience with the different members? When doing the 10-man, are you switching it around often?
Yeah like I mentioned before, we were swapping the rosters every single day in the first week or so of pre-season. So every single different combination was tried out that week, and since that was both LCS and Academy side, we got to see two different combinations per day. So yeah, these rosters are ones we've seen previously. And we're always reevaluating what is going on on the player side and the management side.
I know one thing from a bit ago is I wasn't working as much on the LCS side, but we eventually got to transition someone into Academy which freed me up to participate nearly 100% on the LCS side, so I think that will be a great help in distributing the work load and giving more individual feedback to players. I now have more specific things to coach them on and provide more resources. So it's nice to be back more in the LCS to help turn the ship around.
And honestly, the expanded Playoff bracket expands our hopes a bit, and again to be honest, looking at the silver lining of this, our goal is to just get better in time for Playoffs, and we're only one win out of Playoffs. So looking at the fact that we're just that one win away from being a Playoff team gives us a lot of hope and helps keep us on track, taking those baby steps every single week for the next few weeks when we get into that Playoff territory.
Okay, so lets say you make Playoffs, which as you mention really isn't that far-fetched. Would your hope be to know so much about the team to be able to take in all 10 and have some crazy plans for each series? Or to know so much that you know exactly which set of guys to take?
Well unfortunately we can only take a group of seven players to my understanding, unless they've changed things. But we will very closely identify what the best potential substitutions may be. Not just for quality of the team, but also for creating iterations for various playstyles that teams have to adapt to and prepare and adjust for that I think could be an asset for us going into a Playoff series.
Nobody is giving up, players have a lot of really good, high energy and a lot of motivation. We have a lot of good people who want to work hard, and everyone wants to win. Nobody is happy with our situation at all. We're quite frankly disappointed. Nobody wants to be the team out of Playoffs, so we're trying our god damned hardest to make it happen.
Last question what happened at the end of the game against Team Liquid? What was your immediate thought, especially given the criticism around the play?
Despite the casters having their moment of criticism on it, it was just a fairly difficult situation to play out map wise. If you think of how the map is set up, you have Elder and Baron spawning at the same time. You're triple inhib down and you're being pressured on your final Nexus Tower by Jayce and TF. If you were to give Baron and Elder, you pretty much have a minute where six Baroned up super minions are crashing into that one Nexus Turret. So I'd say the game was in a pretty difficult situation and the players were just trying to find the 1% play to get past that.
But to be honest, that game was already scuffed from much earlier on, so to focus on how it ended I think does a disservice to what went wrong that game and what people can take away from that game if they watch it, in terms of the team's weaknesses and what they can do better.
Images by Riot Games
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