Jatt: Beating the Team in Front of You

September 27 2020
“The preconceived notions of what you’ve accomplished before Worlds - like - sure they matter… But they really don’t.” Jatt’s voice rises, “What matters is that you beat the team in front of you on the day.”

Jatt’s former casting days tend to come out after the interview’s rolled on for a bit: “I need to check my stats but I’m pretty sure only three teams have ever gone 6-0 in a Worlds Group stage since 2014. Like, variability is really high in these things. So if we make it into Groups it’s anyone’s game, it doesn’t matter what group we’re in.”

The impromptu Jatt stat is correct. Samsung White in 2014, SKT in 2015, and Longzhu in 2017, in case you’re curious. Jatt’s broader point here is that competition is inherently volatile, Worlds is even moreso, and the best-of-one Play-ins and Groups stages are so volatile that it’s reasonable to expect an upset somewhere.

When you’re an NA team, you are preparing to be that upset. Like a bagger in professional Mario Kart, you are working to take full advantage of your backwards momentum and blue shell the hell out of the unlucky soul that pulled ahead too early.

Or, in Jatt’s more mature words:

In many ways, positioning is what the coaching staff does for a team. In football or basketball, this is true in a very literal sense - X’s and O’s. In League of Legends, it’s true in a more metaphorical sense — keeping the team focused and efficient across the loss and win, establishing the lanes and base game state through pick and ban, shaping and reshaping what the team build towards, determining the direction.

“That is the biggest difficulty, keeping everyone on the same page and keeping us moving in the same direction. Especially when we lose, because there're a million things that can be diagnosed for why you lost and a lot of them can be true.”

When Jatt calls “keeping direction” the biggest difficulty, he’s ranking it amongst a line of difficult items in a difficult career path.

“Even just coaching has been way higher stress than casting. Casting is very low stakes and very entertainment-based,” Jatt tells me.

In particular, it’s the pressure that becomes difficult to manage. Jatt explains: “The biggest difference being close to it is just the amount of pressure because I wanna succeed. I want these players to succeed, I want myself to succeed, I want the org to be able to go deeper, and I just want all the work we’ve put in to result in something positive.”

That pressure rises as success becomes a result of endless interpersonal task management.

But within all that, direction is the tallest order to fill because in a team of five talented, opinionated individuals everyone has a different idea.

Cain, the team’s strategic coach and the coach most responsible for pick, bans, and review, lays it out just so in a SQUAD video: “Everyone has five different LOL[s]. It’s the same game but they understand a different way to play the game. Broxah wants to level up against the enemy jungle, he wants more farm… And then Jensen needs more ganks.”

It only makes more sense given the deep histories four of five players have. Even Tactical, the lone rookie, has been playing semi-professionally for longer than you might think (since December 2016). At a certain point, League moves past being a talent game and becomes a philosophy discussion, measuring approaches against one another and determining the right one.

Losses make this process all the more fragile.

“We did a lot of building, which felt really good,” Jatt says of the regular season. “Because we came up short at the end of the year, natural questions come in about like, were we building the right way? Were we learning the right things? Were we playing the right way? And that’s what we really have to dig [into], to try and make the right decisions before Worlds.”

And this process is fragile to begin with. The external factors of competition are immense and often overlooked. For Team Liquid, this is even more the case than for many NA teams. And NA teams start off in a rough spot.

Atop that, Team Liquid has to reckon with a wasted split. Between Broxah’s visa issues and Doublelift giving the least motivated performance of his entire career, the spring split felt vacant. If these words seem harsh, know that — compared to player sentiment — I’m being kind.

Broxah called it “a massive failure.” Stating that the team never really found their footing, to the point of being the first team he had been on that missed playoffs. He said: “I never even thought of it as a possibility for me to miss playoffs.”

Jensen presents it all the more bare.

“It just felt like a complete waste of time,” He told me in our interview for Monster Gaming. “We didn’t really learn much as a team and I didn’t really feel like I learned anything on an individual level either. It just genuinely felt like I wasted half my year playing an LCS split.”

In the same SQUAD video above, Cain cites it as the team losing trust and things falling apart from multiple ends. Competition is incredibly fragile, to the point where it is the nature of the game.

Jatt talks about the fragility inherent in a team when I bring up a comparison I make a lot (sometimes in writing) between small market basketball and NA League of Legends. He brings up the Raptors, who smartly managed their team until they got a huge break in acquiring superstar Kawhi Leonard.

“And then,” he adds, “you know they also had a huge break of Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson getting injured but like — that was part of the game! Right? That’s just how it works.”

It’s not only how it works in a contact sport like basketball but also in the endurance sport that professional League of Legends has become. Invictus Gaming entered the 2018 Spring Split of the LPL with the best record in the history of that league. Right before playoffs, TheShy’s latent wrist and arm injury became too great and he couldn’t play. Without him, IG came in 4th place.

The same goes with competitive mentality. In basketball, there’s the famous Kobe and Shaq rivalry, which drove Shaq off the Lakers and broke one of the most high powered teams in NBA history. Similarly, the Qiao Gu Reapers isn’t a name many remember, despite the team having DoinB and Uzi on its roster and doing very well in the regular season. DoinB left the team due to internal conflict right before the playoffs.

The problem is, there’s no relying on other teams losing their direction. Even if this is what regularly gives the underdog the chance to win, the underdog still has to beat the teams in front of them on their own merit. They still need to find — and fully pursue — a direction of their own.

That’s the true lesson of Toronto’s first championship in 25 years as a team. They built on two very clear principles: Depth and Kawhi Leonard. The team had an incredible bench and very few weak, easily abused links. They also had a top five player in the NBA who they could route both their offense and defense through for 40 minutes each game.

If Team Liquid wants even the chance at getting lucky, they need a direction and they need it to be strong enough after just one split to hold up under heavy losses.

This is an observation Jatt makes from the lower points in Team Liquid’s own season. He continues: “And you need to look at what the other team is doing too, instead of just looking at what you’re doing and see what you can learn.”

You can find evidence to Jatt’s point in 2014 in form of Samsung White, who became a literally game-changing team through losing two best-of-5s to Samsung Blue. The first time they lost, they gained Blue’s ability to abuse stacking dragon gold. The second time they lost, they learned the changes they gained parts of Blue’s champion pools and honed their vision game.

What’s even more incredible about the adaptation is that Blue’s style was a foil to White’s. Blue played such great front-to-back late game teamfights that they could sack their early game and still win. White played a relentless early game but regularly overextended and lost in late game fights. Instead of abandoning their style for the one that beat them, they doubled down and played the early game so well that, for one entire tournament, they only saw a remotely even late game in one match — their game 3 loss to Royal in the Grand Finals.

Simple as honing a style sounds, it isn’t easy, especially in the pressure cooker that is Worlds. “The intensity is up,” Jatt says, “so just turn everything up and that’s kinda what Worlds feels like.”

As he paints it, teams have much more energy, but it’s harder to direct it. “People bring a lot higher energy to reviews. People care a lot more about little things and wanting to make sure things are fixed and make sure things are okay, which is good because you have a high level focus and you have everyone caring. You know longer have to worry about a lack of focus.”

The dial hits 11 after it’s already been cranked to 10 for a few weeks as well. There may be no gauntlet this year but this Worlds does not come with a break. Fresh from two game 5 losses that Jatt best describes as “a gut punch,” the team has to get the wind back in their chest and get up to an even faster pace than before.

And they need to do it now because Play-ins might be the toughest they’ve ever been. “The teams in play-ins aren’t bad anymore.,” Jensen notes. “Like a few years ago, play-ins would just be free for any major region but it’s not like that anymore. It’s definitely something we need to take serious as well.”

If anything, Jatt thinks they’ve always needed to be taken seriously.

“Half the viewers just turn [Worlds] on once Groups starts and they just don’t even see what happens in Play-ins. But for the half that do watch Play-ins, they know how close those games are. They know that Splyce went 5 games against UoL and then made it to quarterfinals. Then the year before that they know that C9 went to five games with Gambit and they made it to Semifinals.”

This last point is where Jatt, Jensen, Broxah, and CoreJJ all agree in their interviews. “If you actually go back and look at the teams that have been in Play-in, it is very often a vaulting off point to get to Quarterfinals.”

The Play-in buff is not some kind of ubiquitous, mystical piece of sports superstition either. It’s just a demonstration of the value of a stage game.

“I’d say like for every 10 scrim games, you’ll definitely learn more in just one stage game. If not more,” Jensen says.

When I delivered Jensen’s quote to CoreJJ, he particularly agreed with the “if not more” part. “It’s like, even [if] I won LCS, I’d want to play in Play-in stage to get higher and higher,” CoreJJ adds. “If you had a choice to play in Play-in stage, you have to pick Play-in stage. That’s my perception of Play-in stage.”

Such is the nature of Worlds. Every single bit of practice matters. Every chance to get destroyed or destroy another is valuable. Every staredown with elimination is a chance to refine the ore of style into armor-piercing iron.

But every ounce of that competition - that pressure - that direction - won’t mean a thing if you don’t beat the team in front of you. This is the true existential difficulty not just of Worlds but of the big stage and the big moment in competition. It’s the reason why strong and cohesive teams turn to dust, why the davids beat the goliaths, why entire careers begin and end. It is, simultaneously, the reason why Team Liquid has a chance and why Team Liquid has everything to fear.

It’s a big reason why Jatt is here. Why Jatt opted out of the sidelines and into the stress.

Jatt is inspired by coaching greats, like Phil Jackon, who devised entire systems for championship teams, but he’s thoroughly grounded. “I needed to have a lot of respect for the things they’ve [the staff and players] accomplished.”

So Jatt places his primary role as a mediator and guide. He says: “I think the things that I’ve tasked myself with the most are making sure that we stay on track, making sure that we can stay focused, making sure that we’re preparing well. I definitely end up mediating a lot of discussions and keeping us on point and not spiraling down low efficiency conversations.”

Take every word at face value and Jatt’s responsibilities seem simple enough. Take them in the full context of Worlds, of League, of sport, and the simple words bely a deep complexity and difficulty. Like any good coach, Jatt keeps the team and staff communicating and unified in direction. Like an award-winning coaching staff, he, Cain, and Dodo ready the team for what’s in front of them.

Writer // Austin Ryan
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