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 lesser known factor on a team. While some have risen to quite a 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’ radar, 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! has shown impressive growth as a squad and are a team to keep an eye on.
This is Part 2 of a 3 part interview series. Part 1 can be found here.
On Being a Coach
Esports coaching is still very much in its infancy, and because of that coaches are still figuring out what exactly they can bring to their teams. For Jerkkit, it’s his life experiences. Being the self-proclaimed Old Fart of the group (don’t worry Jerkkit, I won’t let them know just how old you really are…), Jerkkit brings a certain life wisdom to the squad that many of the players, being young, don’t have access to.
“It’s the life experience, the professional experience that I’ve endured and went through throughout my life. Having that privilege to go through all of those transformative experiences, I can now bring this to the esports coaching field,” he says.
Coaching such young players means that, unlike in traditional sports, there is always a certain life coaching aspect to the day to day, a point that both Jerkkit and Sovereign highlight again and again. With his maturity, Jerkkit contributes not only an objective mindset, but “tying in the objective mindset comes to the competitive drive. The consistency and the determination. [The] thirst and hunger. The last thing I want to be doing where I allow myself to become complacent.” Not letting himself, the support staff, or the team become complacent, and stop growing, is a key aspect to his coaching objectives.
“You hear it all the time from very successful or very competitive individuals that make a name for themselves even in sports. At the end of the day it comes down to all those factors, and you have to consistently and religiously get better all the time.” For Jerkkit, getting the players into this mindset is their main goal. “Being able to come in, really hammer that type of mindset and persona home in that environment, it’s very beneficial for an esports team.”
Being true to the Old Man Father Figure, Jerkkit highlighted his time playing hockey as a kid, saying, “I played as a shutdown defensemen on our hockey team. When I messed up, my linemate would tell me. He’d give me an earful. You think people are ‘toxic’ right now in this generation in esports when these guys play together, yea perhaps in a memey way, but the profanity and the words you can’t take back after it’s said and done when you’re playing sports, you never have to take them back.” While being toxic to your teammates in competitive isn’t being endorsed here, Jerkkit highlights this kind of attitude being a positive when done right. Filtering out the words said in frustration, and focusing on what their critique is aimed at, will help players improve. In short, it’s focusing on the critique that focuses on, “where you really get critiqued on results, objective results, nothing else.”
“Jerkkit: It’s really tough, I think being able to come with that mindset, it really provides a very thriving environment naturally for everyone. Myself and Kitta, we’re the eldest in the group…
Kitta: I’m not quite there yet, just kidding [laughter]
Jerkkit: I’m the old fart, we’ll just put it at that. Her professional experience really helps support that type of mindset and the type of environment that I want for coaching. Even Zach, Zach’s just as old as the players, even though he sounds like he’s eons ahead of his actual age.
Zach (Sovereign): The hell!?
Jerkitt: Wisdom wise! Please!”
The coaching staff also brings another advantage to a team in not quite being their peers. Peer to peer critique can be helpful, but often times breaks down into, ‘well, what would YOU know, you don’t even play Tank?’ The trio prevents that by taking an outside, objective standpoint on things. Keeping the team level headed through rough times is another important aspect of the support staff.
In a key game to their OMM qualifiers (all mentions of OMM are referring not to May but April, as this interview was conducted prior to the results of May’s OMM), Jerkkit recalled how an opponent’s Sombra pick gave their team comp a huge problem.
“On the fly, right away, it made me really stumped. The coaching staff, ourselves, we were just stumped,” he explained.
Due to being forced to watch the streams, delayed 45 seconds, and the distance between everyone physically, the support staff were scratching their heads on how to tell the team to counter the pick, what to change. But, the team themselves figured out a way to deal with it, coming up with the solution and ultimately taking the map to reverse sweep their opponents. Jerkkit accredits it to not only the team’s skill, but to the support staff’s work on keeping the team level headed.
For Jerkkit, that’s what he brings as a coach in these uncertain times of esports coaching. Life experience, having done corporate jobs as well as owning his own business, and keeping a level head in the face of adversary. “That’s the huge advantage I can give, not only to myself but this team, and especially the coaching staff as well. I think that’s what I really do bring in terms of coaching towards the team and this infancy stage of where esports coaching is right now.”
What Makes a Coach?
I asked Jerkkit about his objectives as a coach. Aside from the obvious points like seeing their roster do well and be a productive part of that, he highlighted a few of his tribulations in his earlier days. “Well, when I first started coaching I wasn’t sure I was approaching it with the right mindset or the right structure that I did envision in my mind. I think I really had doubts until the last OMM.” The addition of Kitta and Sovereign, with their shared princples and mindset, helped.
Being surrounded by like minded members, Jerkkit pointed to the fact that Overwatch is a bit of a beast to tame in terms of coaching. “As I mentioned before it’s very dynamic in the way it shifts and changes in terms of the meta and how the game is supposed to be played. The players need to be very adaptable. You need to be fluid with these changes and not resistant at all and thoroughly be coach-able as a player all the way through.” With the ever shifting nature of the game, from the three tank meta into dive comps, Overwatch demands a lot from not only its players, but its support staff. Players need not only be good, but be flexible in their positions and hero pools. It’s not just about being a good tank player, but knowing how to shift your focus into new win conditions. For support staff everywhere, molding talented players into these flexible players is a main task.
So how does one go about doing this task? For Jerkkit and the support staff, it’s about making a system. “When you look at a sports team, there’s a structure in place on how to develop players, how to develop coaches, how to develop a team, how to organize a team, and how to really establish what you want as a team. As an organization.” Given the dynamic flow of Overwatch, Jerkkit believes firmly it’s about building up strong players, rather than building up strong role players. For this to work, there needs to be a strong system, some way to #TrustTheProcess.
Because of this, Jerkkit describes himself as a ‘pseudoscience’ kind of coach “where I’m the one coming up with these really rambunctious, crazy out of this world dumbass ideas. But at the end of the day, that’s where Zach and Kitta really get to ground me and say whether it does or not [work], or if I’m just crazy.”
Rather than focus on what’s vogue now, or what heroes are insta-locks for most games, Jerkkit says head coaches need to look ahead; for players, too, it’s not just about being the best at one thing. “Fantastic players aren’t about being the only DPS carry, it’s you can DPS like Pizza on Pharah and frag out and hang with Mangachu and Talespin, some of the world’s greatest Pharah players, but yet you’re able to dominate on the ground with a strong Tank game, or a strong Solider 76 play.“
Staying Ahead of the Curve: Watch the Koreans
To stay ahead of the curve for how to play the game, Jerkkit looks towards the powerhouse in esports, South Korea. Namely the OGN teams in the Apex league. “We all understand that the Koreans are heavy adopters of creating the new meta always. I think that this particularly has to go to credit to the support staff of these teams.” Whenever the gap between Korea and everyone else comes up, it’s always about how to close it. How come the Koreans are so much better at the esports they set their minds to? What is it about the West that just falls behind?
For Jerkkit, it’s not just the skill of the players or the acceptance of esports in Korea that sets it apart, “It’s not just because the Koreans put a lot more time, it’s not just because the Koreans are so much more dedicated, that’s just one aspect.” The main aspect that he really hammered home for me is: “The players respect their coaches. The players are coach-able. They’re not trying to be coached, they’re not filtering out what you’re saying and what they think applies to them and doesn’t apply to them.” While Jerkkit has faced some of these issues with the YIKES! crew, not naming names of course, he says he can’t much blame them. The distance, and having never met in person, really put a damper on not only the confidence the players may have in their support staff, but also in the support staff’s own abilities.
“I can tell you this much: If you were in person, how much more of an effective role I would have for the team. I think myself and even the two analyst coaches as well, not being present in person, I think it takes away 80% of the effectiveness we can have towards our team. I’m running at max 20-30% capacity in what I could potentially provide to a team if we were all together, training together.”
The disadvantages of not being together in one concrete place abound. Not being able to discuss VODs together in a room, where everyone is honed in on the task at hand, makes reviewing gameplay harder. Time zone differences can make scheduling hard. Even the simple fact of knowing the people around you face to face, outside of the time spent together in game or on TeamSpeak discussing things, can be vital to improving a team.
Getting the right mindset for improvement is another vital aspect that is considerably harder when you’re not there next to the players. “There’s going to be a lot of things as, you as a player, to have those resistances that Zach talked about before where they would say, ‘I’m a player, what, do you know more about the game than I do?’ That’s the thing. That’s where players really hinder themselves with that type of mindset. Not being able to accept criticism, objective insight about their gameplay that someone else sees.”
The importance of a third party, someone other than the player(s) themselves, looking over their VODs is vital to Jerkkit. It’s one thing to review VODs of yourself, but it’s another to have an unbiased opinion on where you went wrong in that VOD. Jerkkit himself said, “I’m going to look for the good stuff more than the bad stuff, that’s just being human, that’s just how life works. Even the greatest players, I can guarantee you, most of the greats of sports players will tell you the same thing. Michael Jordan had a coach. Tiger Woods has a coach. Why do all these great players in the world have coaches, when they’re the great players?” Without someone on the outside with a critical eye on where you could have played better, you’re hampered in your growth.
For the trio that’s the main focus, outside of just pure results. Establishing the coaching structure and infrastructure to see Overwatch produce the greatest players it can. It’s not just a goal for itself, the trio sees it as an almost ethical duty to the scene. “But at the end of the day as a coach I know my underlying responsibility, not to just myself or my team or the two other coaches and analysts I work together with. I think… you have a responsibility to really set a foundation, a new standard when there isn’t one set. And if you’re not making that prerogative or your main goals, then why are you coaching in the first place?”
On Being a Strategist
Every support staff needs someone looking out for the next big strategy, or how to shore up weaknesses in game, and Kitta fills that role as Strategist for the group. The role of strategist in any esports is still being refined, but for Overwatch, it’s a particularly unrefined aspect. “The role itself is really unrefined because Overwatch is really in its infancy stages. And the design of the game incorporates a variety of different game genres.” Overwatch combines time sensitive objectives, class based heroes and an assortment of other features that give strategists a lot to work with. “There’s a lot to look for as an Analyst, and it’s really easy to get overwhelmed and side tracked.”
Kitta gave some insight into the overall system as well, saying that, “As the support staff, we’ve pretty much created a system, where we all have a pretty good understanding of all areas of the game. Each one of us has coaching experience, each one of us knows how the game works and knows how to deal with people and talk with people.” The emphasis on flexibility in role extends to support staff, it would seem, as well as players in the YIKES! group, and to good effect. Highlighting the three core areas for support staff, Headcoach/Strategist/Player Development, allows the trio to focus on their own areas while building up a strong system for a team’s success.
“So, although we have experience in all areas of coaching, I think it’s really important to establish roles of concentration in areas of a support staff so that we create an environment where we’re a jack of all trades and still a master at one.”
What drew Kitta to the role of strategist, having felt comfortable in multiple aspects of support staff? “It’s the most fun and the most challenging. With every aspect of the game, I think strategy is one of the most important factors that if you do not have in any competitive game, it’s going to be highly unlikely that you’re going to be competitive.” With the multi-layered gameplay of Overwatch and the ever-shifting marker for identifying the win condition of a winning comp, the strategist has a lot set out for themselves as a role.
With that in mind, Kitta’s main objective is to always have the winning answer for the roster. “My objective as a Strategic analyst is to make sure that we always have the upper hand throughout each game through tactics.” To develop these strats, it’s important to consider all the variables that go into an Overwatch game. Not just the complexities of the game play itself, but also, “Basic stuff like basic team foundations, things like coordination, synergy, attitude, all the way through to like player psychology.”
Kitta’s approach to strategy development? You could call it the Keep It Simple, Stupid method. “The other part of its success is to also simplify the strategy as much as possible. The same thing with motor-work, the less moving parts involved the smoother the operation’s going to be.“ With the intensity and craziness of Overwatch’s team fights, one can see why this practice would be more important than ever. Keeping the strats easy but effective is key. “My objective for the team is to just pretty much create a good template to where we always have the advantage in every single situation.”
On Being a Player Development Analyst
Sovereign, as the Player Development Analyst, is also at the cutting edge of support staff discussions. Occupying a position that is somewhat between his fellow support staff and the players, as a kind of bridge, he operates as the arbiter between the two.
In a lot of ways, Sovereign is limited due to the situation that the team is in, namely, not being together in one location. It’s been a hampering aspect for the team, who even through it have put up impressive results against top tier teams. But for Sovereign, in particular, he’s not able to do nearly as much as he would like to. For the moment, he joins in with the group, ”I think we all kind of take the same role at the moment, we want to help facilitate the best possible practice and results going forward in our matches, just in every facet of how we look at the game.“
But given that, what are Sovereign’s objectives in the long term? “My goals as a player development analyst, I generally want to build a system where players trust me to help them go about explaining their feelings, not just their thought process and how they go about explaining it.” It’s become an increasing trend within esports to have serious discussions about players’ mental health and well being, as burnout and tilt are more and more apart of players’ day to day lives.
Sovereign says, in particular, “You know when you see a lot of players in teams where they just can’t really cope with a lot of the issues of being in a team, where they don’t really properly express themselves or their feelings at the moment. That kind of causes a lot of build up of tension and sometimes players just aren’t compatible at all, and that causes a lot of issues going forward when you want to practice in an effective way.” Of course, keeping the trade secrets under lock meant that Sovereign couldn’t go into full detail on how he goes about preventing these issues. (That, and Jerkkit silently saying ‘Trade secrets’ disapprovingly when Sovereign or Kitta would say ‘too much’).
Outside of trying to create not just esports players, but functioning humans, Sovereign also highlights a key point of his job: working to find the border between the support staff and the players, and bridging that gap. “You know, we have this border between the support staff and the players, and I kind of help bridge that gap between, where I’m trying my best to get the players to the point where they understand what we’re trying to achieve and helping the support staff where they’re maybe overbearing or overstepping.”
Sovereign believes that not properly identifying this border causes a lot of the breakdown between support staff and players. “For most teams, you see a lot of players where they don’t really like their support staff, because of how they go about trying to build a strategy or to build a system. They really just don’t know where the line meets.” Without properly understanding the relationship, and more importantly having someone dedicated to understanding that border and gap, internal frictions can lead to poor results. “I’m here to bridge that gap, and also facilitate a proper system of how to go about it.”
What exactly does a Player Development Analyst do?
It’s a theme almost anyone in the scene highlights, but nobody really has quite an idea of what they’re fully doing yet. Esports is a young industry, not just in the age of its players and people involved, but also in best practices. “It’s something you can’t just get a degree for and you kind of already know the boundaries on how everything works. Esports is a really unique thing, these are a lot of undeveloped kids and teams where they don’t really know what they’re thinking.”
Focusing on how to go about this is difficult. “Trying to facilitate a better environment for those players is something that is unchartered territory, where a lot of the coaches who do this they can see the benefit, but outside of that it’s hard to tell organizations or like a team that hasn’t gotten the benefits of it how it works.” Unlike in support staff positions, like Strategist or Head Coach, the results are not as immediate or as quantifiable. Results are not guaranteed right away, and the focus is on developing a better working relationship that will lead to results, rather than the reverse. “It’s that bridge in between, where you don’t see the benefit pay off immediately, it’s something that you have to constantly work on.”
For Sovereign, the main task isn’t to make better players per say, but better people, and the player part will follow. He is working closely with the players and the support staff, too. “Where the player is a better person rather than being a better player, and that facilitates everything afterward. They’re a better teammate, they’re a better person outside of the game, and when it comes to the game they start thinking a lot better about how to go about things.” It’s an ongoing process, and not one that reaps immediate benefits. While the results are difficult to quantify, helping players develop into people and better teammates sounds like a pretty good venture for any team.
But it’s not all about results for Sovereign. Sure, everyone wants to see a team play well, and none more than the support staff, but these are still young players making their ways in the world. Furthermore, being that bridge between support staff and players is vital, “I still think it’s one of the most important roles going forward in esports, because like I said you have a lot of undeveloped people who are coming into esports who don’t really have that one person to talk to outside of their coach.” Being the bridge and that third party that will listen to the players’ needs is the position Sovereign hopes to fill. “I’m that bridge, I’m just there to help, that’s it.”
This is the second in a three-part series highlighting the behind the scenes forces helping YIKES! to their explosion onto the NA scene. The next part will get their opinions on the esport scene in general for Overwatch. Check back soon for Part 3!