Unlike other sports, where roles are so thoroughly defined by generations of predecessors and established norms, esports coaching is still a blank slate.
Neil Hammad had to pause midway through his answer because the crowd was so loud.
He peered out over sold-out Madison Square Garden, bathed in red accent lighting as two League of Legends teams battled it out in the World Championship semifinals earlier this month. The crowd was bloodthirsty. They roared—louder than for a Rangers goal or Knicks dunk—as the ROX Tigers surrounded an SKT player and moved in for the kill. But it was not to be. The SKT player narrowly escaped for just a bit longer, and the decibels cranked up again.
In a sport where players rarely make it past their mid-20s and nearly everyone involved is under 30 years old, Hammad, at 27, is something of an elder statesman. More commonly known by his gamer tag Pr0lly, he is now the coach of the Berlin-based League of Legends team H2K, which would play in the other semifinal 24 hours later. For Hammad, in only his second season of coaching, it would be the biggest game of his life.
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Being an esports coach is unlike any other coaching position in sports. The amount of influence coaches have on individual games is fairly limited. They come out with the players before each match, stand with them during the pregame process of picking and banning champions, but then, in a quasi-ceremonial process, they must leave the stage and their players before the battle. They can meet with their players to help strategize between matches and provide critical feedback—games are decided by best-of-five series—but they cannot communicate with their charges during actual gameplay.
"I remember the first month of watching my team was the worst stress, the most stress I've ever had in my life," he says. "Because, yeah, I just sit there and nervously tap my hands. I just have to watch them play. I can't do anything."
While the in-game role may be regimented, the overall job description is amorphous. Unlike other sports, where roles are so thoroughly defined by generations of predecessors and established norms, esports is still a blank slate. Its coaches can be whatever they want to be, as long as the players buy in.
And that, Hammad says, is the hardest part: "to keep the respect of your players and to keep them respecting each other" in the weeks and months of preparation leading up to major tournaments like the one in the Garden.
In most sports, coaches get hired and instantly command authority on their team. Those athletes have had coaches their entire lives, from Pop Warner or Little League on up; respecting the coach is their default mode. But esports athletes at the highest level have, almost by definition, spent most of their lives playing a video game with little or no supervision in that world. Hammad is the first coach many of his players have had, and he's not even a decade older than the youngest team members. They're also often better gamers than he was, so why should they listen to him?
And because esports is relatively new, there isn't the established "playbook" of sorts that young coaches in other sports can rely on. "It hasn't been around long enough that you know this is good and this is wrong," Hammad explained. "You have kind of a feeling and a theory to it. So I kind of try and be like the big brain, come up with a theory, and come up with realistic applications of it, and then give them chances to see it in the game, see the patterns that I give them, and then apply it in game."
If it all sounds a bit abstract, that's because, well, it is. It's hard to find coaching idols outside of esports because of the unique social dynamics, but he does relate to Phil Jackson, who has a history of dealing with big personalities and trying to get them to work within a system—a problem he deals with all the time. Top League of Legends teams all live together like one big family, which goes about as well as you'd expect.
As a player on the League Championship Series, Hammad already had a coach's mindset, and was naturally drawn to directing and coordinating his teammates—or at least he tried. ("I kind of had to do this half-assed version of a coach, where some people just didn't want to listen," he says.) When he got the offer to coach a team two years ago, he figured he'd give it a shot; if it didn't work out, he could always go back to playing. After a few weeks, though, Hammad realized that not only was he decent at coaching—his players were also really talented.
"The teams I had been on [as a player] have never been as good as these players I was coaching," he says. "So I kind of wanted to show everyone they were that good because it was kind of an [injustice] that no one knew who these guys were."
Leading H2K to the semifinals definitely accomplished that, since 15,000 people watched in person and millions more streamed the tournament at home. Unfortunately for Hammad, it wasn't exactly a showcase of their skill. H2K got swept by Samsung Galaxy 3-0.
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Correction: a previous version of this article stated that Team H2K is based on London. The company H2K is London-based, but the team lives and works in Berlin.