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From pro gamer to esports coach: Meet Team Dignitas’ secret weapon

The role of a coach in professional gaming is an underappreciated one. Successful professional players, much like traditional athletes, rely on their personal talent and dedication to stay at the top of their game. But while the players’ personal skill is certainly necessary for a successful team, it isn’t the only ingredient required for sustained success.

Professional gaming or electronic sports (esports) has surged in popularity since 2010. What started with amateur FIFA tournaments has grown into a series of international events where pro players compete in games that include League of Legends, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Dota 2, Hearthstone and StarCraft II.

According to a report by research firm Newzoo, the esports market was already worth $194 million per year in 2014 with over 80 million regular spectators. It’s predicted to soar to $465 million by 2017 with gamers playing to audiences of 145 million.

Gaming is big business

As the scene has developed, it has become increasingly important to have a dedicated coaching staff to focus on teams’ strategy and chemistry. These coaches wear many hats, fulfilling traditional roles such as devising their teams’ in-game tactics, coordinating practice, and analyzing their opponents.

But they also need to act as a sounding board and friend to players. These are usually young and rely on the coach to act as a mentor and older sibling. As the role of the coach has evolved inside and outside the game, so too have the people filling it.

For example, in the professional scene for League of Legends, Riot Games’ multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) game, the position has shifted quickly. In the West, team managers used to fill the coaching role, taking it on in addition to their administrative duties. But in 2013, Korean teams with dedicated coaches, such SK Telecom T1, began to dominate international competitions.

As preparation became key to winning contests before they even started, teams began to invest in full-time coaches. Some teams filled this role with analysts, leading to a play style that is much more methodical and less reliant on the raw talent of their players.

Another trend is for teams to pick former players in coaching roles, who can use their intimate knowledge of the game, and the professional scene, to the team’s advantage.

Ram “Brokenshard” Djemal
Ram “Brokenshard” Djemal

Ram “Brokenshard” Djemal was one of the first players to make the switch, coaching two teams in 2014. After a brief return as a player on Team Dignitas’s European squad, Djemal retired and took a coaching role on the team.

“As a coach, you need to understand what your team needs from you and how you need to act”

For Djemal, a coach’s main job is communicating with his team. “I feel like the ultimate job is to facilitate information to the team to allow them to play at the best of their ability,” he says. While he helps the team with their practice sessions, he relies on analyst and assistant coach Devin “Froskurinn” Ryanne Mohr to handle collecting information on opponents. It’s up to Djemal to figure out how to get that info to the team and to decide what to do with it. “She focuses on the macro, I on the micro,” Djemal adds.

This is where being a former player gives Djemal the advantage. Because he’s been in a player’s position before, he knows what players need and what they want to hear from their coach. He says the biggest mistake a coach can make is screwing up when talking to their team. If a coach is too strict or aloof, they can create resentment in the team. But a coach who puts too much weight on being their players’ friend can’t effectively do their job.

Another advantage that former players have over analysts is understanding the internal politics and workings of a team. Some of the best squads in various esports games have broken down due to infighting. A former player might see the warning signs of these dangerous situations before they erupt, while an outsider might ignore or even contribute to a poisonous environment.

“I feel like this does help me understand what kind of team dynamics work and what kinds can be potentially toxic,” Djemal says.

Avoiding internal conflict maintains the team’s morale and prevents roster turnover, preserving the team’s rapport. This is vitally important when decisions in-game require all five players and can take less than five seconds.

Picking an inside candidate like Djemal to be a team coach can maintain that rapport even when replacing a player. When he stepped down as a starter from the Team Dignitas EU roster, Djemal felt he could have a greater impact on the team as a coach rather than start the hard process of looking for another.

As coach, he had a direct hand helping his successor, Dennis “Obvious” Sørensen, mesh with the team. When stability is the difference between a salary and being semi-pro, having someone that’s able to maintain it is key.

For organisations, the trend that sees players becoming coaches is not going to be a passing fad. In traditional athletics, former players often go into coaching after hanging up their cleats. The same reason applies to League of Legends, Counter-Strike, or StarCraft – the person that players will respect the most is usually another player.

For Djemal, coaching Team Dignitas EU is just the next step in what has been an extraordinary career. He doesn’t know whether he’ll make the switch back to playing. “I can’t really say,” he says. “I’ve made the swap back to a player before, I don’t know what the future holds.”

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