They are some of the most underrated members of any team, always in the shadows behind each play, and arguably treading uncharted grounds in their day to day work. Support staff, in esports particularly, are often the less known factor on a team. While some have risen to quite prominence within a scene (Tony “Zikzlol” Gray and Jakob “YamatoCannon” Mebdi come to mind), their work is largely unexplored. I got the chance to sit down with the up and coming YIKES! Overwatch Support Staff, Head coach Jeremy “Jerkkit” Wong, Player Development Analyst Zachary “Sovereign” Bent, and Strategist Pirin “Kitta” Singapan.
For those unfamiliar with YIKES!, they are the same team that once represented Denial eSports. While under that brand, fans may have seen them with strong showings at Overwatch Monthly Melees and Rivalcades. As YIKES!, they’ve managed to one-up their Denial eSports performance and take first at the most recent Overwatch Monthly Melee. While the roster may have flown under some fans’ radars, that can’t be the case any longer, as they are poised to be a strong up and coming NA roster. While currently unsigned, YIKES! have shown impressive growth as a squad and are a team to keep an eye on.
Your past experiences in esports
As I said above, coaching and support staff in esports are still relatively young in the scene. We’re not talking about traditional sports coaching, where there exist literal handbooks and strategies. I asked the team about their past experiences and how they informed their current positions. For Jerkkit, it wasn’t anything officially esports related that’s helped him become the coach he is today. Rather, it was his past experience with business that molded his coaching. “I was able to manage a lot of people development programs that we created within our company as head of directing for our HR department… helping them to develop skill sets to become more effective individual for themselves. I guess you could say ‘life coaching’ would be more exact.”
For Sovereign, his experience in the scene dates back to CSGO. Sovereign, however, eventually moved on from the CSGO scene, finding the amateur scene’s focus too heavily centered around the mechanical side of the game, rather than the bigger picture. “I moved onto MOBAs, I started playing DOTA, the Warcraft 3 MOD, the glory days. It was interesting because a lot of people had a lot more outlook into the game, they didn’t just focus on the mechanical side of everything, and the community fostered a better esports environment than I’d say CSGO at the time.” Eventually Sovereign found himself focusing on League of Legends, citing the ever important reason that, “I settled on League because the majority of the time it was my friends saying, ‘let’s play League.'”
From there, Sovereign found himself increasingly invested in the scene. Eventually, around Season 3 or 4, he was doing VOD reviews of games, trying to bring a professional, objective view. At this time, League of Legends, like many esports, was still fully figuring itself out and how to best utilize non-player support staff. Sovereign submitted his VOD reviews to a few teams, citing the GMs of both Liquid and Enemy as ones he remembered, eventually hearing back from Enemy to help them in their Spring Split in the Challenger Series.
How did Sovereign’s first gig work out? “We got into the Challenger Series, we bombed completely, [laughter] it was an awesome experience. But it was an experience.” With a foot in the door and a taste for esports, his focus also changed. “I wanted to be a coach at that point, I was like, ‘ok an analyst is cool and all, but I feel like I have more of a personal outlook on how to go about things.’ So a coach kind of fits that description.” Dipping back into CSGO, Sovereign found some mild success with one on one coaching, but was never able to crack into the scene fully because he didn’t have the connections. With Overwatch on the horizon, Sovereign shifted again to enter the burgeoning esports scene there.
It’s worked out well so far for himself and the team, with Jerkkit breaking in saying, “Thank God for the lack of your connections in CSGO. Worked out for myself, the guys, and Kitta too I’m sure [laughter].”
Kitta, like Jerkkit, comes from a slightly less esports-sided background. While always a gamer at heart, starting off in Star Wars Galaxies (the failed MMORPG based in the Star Wars universe), and eventually moving into the juggernaut of all MMOs, World of Warcraft, her experience was informed more by non-esports related things. For Kitta, the focus was always on PvP in MMOs, as, “one thing that I found fascinating with them was the PvP, we actually had to think like two steps ahead.” Strategy and planning were the name of the game. As many familiar with PvP in MMOs know, it’s not just your mechanics but also understanding what to do against certain opponents in certain situations.
Like many, when Overwatch was announced, excitement about the new esports scene attracted many to the game, and Kitta was no different in that regard. Kitta started out as a player, moving to a more IGL role and eventually, due to time restraints, taking a step back and focusing more on coaching. She started off by coaching a tier two team, while also working a lot on the analytical side of things. For what drew her to the coaching and support staff life, she cited, “I have a strong military background, I’ve been in the Marine Corps for several years, and so I have this burning desire to lead people and help people and coach people.” While her previous team eventually disbanded, Kitta found herself quickly on the YIKES! team as the Strategic Planning Analyst.
Past relationship with Denial eSports
Those who have followed the scene, particularly in North America, know that rosters being dropped and picked up by organizations has been a hot topic lately. Fans of YIKES! may remember the squad when they were under Denial eSports, and I took the time to ask the trio what exactly went down between the two parties there.
Jerkkit recalls how Brice “Gingerpop” Breakey approached him about joining the team, after having worked together as IGL (Gingerpop) and head coach of another project. They had been playing under Denial, and Jerkkit was on board. Jerkkit recalls how, when he first joined the team, the squad presented quite the interesting challenge. Those familiar with the likes of Félix “xQc” Lengyel won’t be surprised to learn that the larger than life personalities of the players was an interesting team dynamic, while it also felt that the players were largely on a very subjective mindset. They focused on how they viewed the game to be played. Quite different from the team that managed to take first place at the most recent Overwatch Monthly Melee.
The main reason for the mutual separation of Denial and the current YIKES! team? Each party’s goals and hopes didn’t align. With Overwatch League looming over the entire scene, the YIKES! team felt they had it in them to make it into the League, and while they felt Denial were a good step for them as a team, the two couldn’t see that being a possibility together. While the severance left no bad blood between Denial and YIKES!, a point Jerkkit stressed, they all felt they needed the chance to make it into the Overwatch League. “Going forward, we have all the pieces in place now. Everything from the players and coaching structure.”
For the next organization that YIKES! hope to represent, for the support staff, it’s about showing off their particular style and approach to coaching. “We really want to be able to exemplify our style of coaching and how we want to develop the players into becoming the best in North America if not the world.” While the roster has definitely shown up as of late, most notably with a first place showing at the most recent Overwatch Monthly Melee (note: interview was conducted prior to the finals, and thus any reference in quotations to the OMM is referring to the results of April’s OMM and not the most recent one).
Denial eSports, while not the permanent home for the roster, gave the squad one of its strongest assets: longevity of the roster. “With Denial eSports that’s what really helped set us in position for where we are today. If we did not go through the transition of Denial and the players being signed under that specific org, we wouldn’t have had one of our team’s biggest strengths: which is a roster that has been able to keep the majority of the roster together for 5-8 months.” The ability to have trust in your fellow players, alongside knowing them and building strong connections with them, is an invaluable aspect of YIKES! roster overall.
Something that’s plagued the roster that other teams at their level have had is the ability to practice together under one roof. Scheduling scrims late at night, to accommodate players’ schedules and jobs, has its toll on the team, and the support staff is hampered by the distance. A long day of streaming for Félix “xQc” Lengye can lead to sub-optimal scrims, while Derek “Pizza” Johnson cutting back hours at his full time job to get an extra scrim block in, are among some of the difficulties the roster has had.
Overall though, Jerkkit felt that their experience under Denial was only a boon for the team. It allowed them to, “build character for our roster, for ourselves as coaches too, it really tested our mental fortitude.” As the team pushes forward to higher heights, they set their sights on growing and learning from their time with Denial and hope to find an organization that can give them the assets they need to take their next big step forward in the professional scene.
Hopes for YIKES! going forward?
Every team dreams of making it in the “big leagues,” and while that term isn’t quite accurate for many esports, it still holds true; every team reaches a point where they’re good enough to make it, and just want the chance to prove it fully. I asked the trio their hopes and aspirations for the squad. Not much of a surprise, given that the Overwatch League is materializing more, the unsigned roster hope to find an organization that can back them. “You’d love to have the financial support, the infrastructure, the equipment, the tools, when you need them you can get em.”
Any support staff dreams of having access to the tools and equipment to improve their roster, particularly if that equipment isn’t something they have to stress about. Jerkkit noted the increasing complexity and difficulty of tracking Overwatch. With its ever changing meta and chaotic gameplay, it can be difficult for the team to get the kind of data they’d like. Noting his team’s struggles with the Tank meta, and their prowess in the more dive comp meta, “With those types of changes that shift so fast in Overwatch, it’s not like CSGO where there’s a set meta and set way or foundation to play the game. It’s not really going to change in a 180 degrees when a patch releases. That’s not the case for Overwatch.”
Sovereign’s hopes for the roster were a little more pointed. “I hope to build athletes. That’s my end goal. I want to facilitate the proper system of building an athlete that can play any game, not just Overwatch. I want to see them grow into humans [laughter] that are functioning.” Noting that in many esports scenes, early pro players had a tendency to fade into the background once they retired, not bringing away much from their esports career except having perfected their skill in a game.
Without structure to their lives, or aid from their teams in growing them outside of their game, many players drift after their careers without any real help from their previous teams. “I want to change that. I want to build, I want to structure the bridge and making/filling in between obviously playing the game but also living a life. It’s something I want to bring together. So once they’re finished playing their games, once they begin wanting to coach, analyst, shot caller, caster, or whatever, they can do that. They wont fall apart once they’re not a player. I want to build a human that functions.”
Orgs needing to be flexible
On the topic of their future, the trio noted the need for organizations to be flexible and have strong backing for the future of esports, particularly with Overwatch. “When we need something done we need something done and it needs to be done now. The org needs to be able to support that.” Fans of the scene are aware of the increasing involvement of Venture Capitalist and traditional sport teams backing esports. With this in mind, many of the endemic teams may fall to the sideline unless they can secure financial backing as well.
On the note of endemic organizations, Jerkkit signaled a slightly counter voice to the prevalent opinion on certain endemic teams dropping their rosters in light of Overwatch League. Rather than laying the blame at the feet of Blizzard or the structure of the Overwatch League, he highlighted that, “while they did build esports to where it is right now, a lot of them [endemic organizations] aren’t evolving to the next step.” Without evolving, increasing their own funding and stepping up what they can offer their players, Jerkkit thinks they may fall behind bigger competitors. “You see a lot of orgs just pulling out entirely, they don’t have the funding, or the initial man power at the moment to facilitate their teams, so it’s hard to say where they’ll be in five years if they don’t start getting with the program.”
While it may sound like doom and gloom from the Old Man of the group, Jerkkit feels it isn’t a negative aspect of the way the scene is going. “I don’t want to make it sound like it’s a post-apocalyptic thing, this is how business works at the end of the day, and you’re going to start seeing a lot of it faze out.” While it’s yet to be seen whether these endemic teams are down and out, it doesn’t necessarily spell the end of the Overwatch esports scene like some have thought. For YIKES! though, it’s about focusing on the here and now, and progressing steadily on their own gameplay.
For Kitta in particular, it’s about having access to the basics and fundamentals that an organization needs to provide, things, “like proper places where we can all train together. Because without having those utilities, it’s quite a challenge to get everyone that are scattered all over NA to come together, but we still do it.” A common concern from the trio was this aspect of having to strain not only themselves, but their players, due to the lack of funding and ability to come together under one roof to practice. It’s no surprise then that the hope from a new organization is that they provide those basic assets.
While Kitta was a later addition to the support staff, she notes that coming from her tier two team to YIKES! was a massive change of scene. “Everyone has developed this like really strong relationship, where they become more of like a family. So coming onto this team, that really attracted me, and their eagerness to learn to thirst to win, not to mention their professionalism as well. Each player has a specific characteristic that makes the roster what it is.”
Flexibility of players’ abilities
Flexibility in organizations and support staff isn’t the only thing that Overwatch requires of its pros to be flexible in. Players, too, can’t find themselves too complacent on one or two heroes, or even on their particular role. While some players have heroes that are like pocket picks, heroes the opposing team might not expect them to be on, it’s more so that players need to be flexible in their hero classes overall. It’s one of the few games where a player’s role, Flex, is literally to be the hero the team needs in certain situations and certain comps. But for the YIKES! crew, it’s not just about one player, but all their players, needing to have that flexibility or depth to their hero pool.
While a player may be the off tank role for their team, they should be comfortable enough on other heroes to help their team in a pinch. For Jerkkit, it’s about being good enough so your team can have trust in you. “That’s the key factor, that trust level of being able to count on one another. ‘Ohh, he’s on this hero now, even though that’s my main, but I play this other hero we need right now.'” For an example, he highlighted how the roster can rely on Pizza, normally known for his Pharah play, to fill the role of D.Va or Roadhog for the squad. Tactically, however, he may value Indy “Space” Halpern’s D.Va, or prefer that hero on Pizza for the higher game sense he shows. It’s about flexibility with strats, but also knowing that you can trust the players beside you to do their role for the team on whatever hero is required.
This is the first in a three part series highlighting the behind the scenes forces helping YIKES! to their explosion onto the NA scene. The next part will detail more of each support staff’s particular profile, while our last part will get their opinions on the esport scene in general for Overwatch. Check back soon for Part 2 and Part 3!