Communicating The Game

May 22 2020

“Obviously, no one likes to lose and Team Liquid has a history of winning and a history of success but,” Jatt pauses, then adds emphasis, “sometimes losing is the best thing that can happen to a team.”

He lets the sentiment hang in the air for a moment.

Knowing Jatt’s fanatical interest in sports, and not knowing what comes next, he could as well be talking about the 1989 Chicago Bulls. In our interview, Jatt blends the seams of several very different worlds together - Guild Wars - Basketball - Football - League - interconnected by a tissue of communication and competition. By the connective tissue that turned Joshua Leesman into Jatt.

“And I’m hoping that finishing 9th is the best thing that could have happened to Team Liquid because that’s the type of shock that can break you out of old patterns.”

Of course, Jatt is talking about Team Liquid, but he’s also talking about NA and the League world at large.

The Michael Jordan that you know, the one that won six championships and dominated the NBA for the majority of the 90’s, came out of the crucible of basketball competition. In the late 80s, Jordan couldn’t make the Finals, let alone win a ring. The Pistons - famous in that era for their rough, physical defense - tore the Bulls to shreds in 87 and 88 by suffocating Jordan with double and triple team defenses.

By 1989, the losses created change, one of them being the arrival of Phil Jackson as head coach. That year, the Bulls lost 4-3 to the Pistons. The next, they won in a clean, four game sweep, went on to the finals, and created an era defined by Jordan, but made in equal parts by Phil Jackson, Scottie Pippen, and Dennis Rodman. By a triangle offense that allowed the team’s talent to fluidly play through one another, with little interference from the sideline.

It was such a dynamic, intense era of basketball that it’s never left the conversation. Every NBA era thereafter had to be compared to the 90’s. In half the world over, Jordan is as much a cultural icon as a player.

Like almost every player and every fan in NA, Jatt just wants to see NA enter the conversation.

“I’m sure Cloud9 liked winning, right? I’m sure they liked going 17-1. But if we’re talking about what’s going to make Cloud9 the best at the end of the year, it’s having a team that can truly challenge them. Likewise, Team Liquid will be the best if they are truly challenged by Cloud 9. So the best way we can make progress towards being international is: let’s find a way to be the best domestically first.”

For Jatt, it’s not just entering the conversation for Worlds and for esports. It’s entering a wider cultural discussion.

“A lot can still be gained culturally from Team Liquid being really, really good. So like, aspirations are still there to do well internationally. [...] Making it out of groups, beating an EU team, those things can perhaps have a bigger impact on how esports and gaming are perceived in North America than anything I would’ve said on a cast.”

It might seem that Jatt is aggrandizing, but results really can rocket a sport into the national spotlight. There’s a reason that the PC Bangs of Korea fill up and the players in China have fan clubs at every game. It’s the same reason why many European schools have great soccer programs, American schools have great basketball programs, and Chinese schools have great ping pong programs.

In that way, the battle for the Summoner’s Cup isn’t that far from the battle for coverage on ESPN.

“Honestly one of my big motivations in becoming a caster was to try and move competitive gaming or even gaming in general into something that can be considered cool, or that isn’t frowned upon by parents, or that isn’t made fun of by athletes.”

In that way, coaching is another way to build up the esport as a whole. He said, “If things go well then this can actually still be very good for the League overall. If we can improve our overall standings internationally.”

“Not saying that I can do that,” Jatt quickly adds, “that’s what I want to do, though.”

Despite being one of the most successful analysts and steadiest voices in League, Jatt goes out of his way to be humble. If one side of Jatt is locked in on the narrative that’s building, another side is locked in on the roots and realities behind it. Given Jatt’s background, it makes a lot of sense.

Guild Wars and Sports

Jatt has been shockingly well-spoken for about as long as his words have carried weight. So, all the way back to 2008 when he had his own Guild Warriors podcast and was one of the best players in that entire esport. He’s done really well even in the traditional atmosphere that trips up a lot of pros and analysts in esports.

Some of it, Jatt thinks, comes from his dad’s vocabulary and storytelling.

“I also just watched so much sports,” Jatt adds. “Sunday, I couldn’t wait to watch the Sunday pregame shows to actually 12 hours of football. [...] And then I watched almost every Lakers game I could from almost 8 on, so I’ve just consumed a ton of sports commentary. So maybe it just seeped in and then I’m able to do it myself!”

Jatt wears that love on his sleeve. He’s cited Bill Simmon’s Ewing Theory in his podcast and he’s the only person I’ve ever interviewed to get audibly hyped up by a Tim Duncan reference.

Jatt has a genuine excitement about the analytical aspect of games and sports in general. He enjoys even the minutiae behind the meta.

“I think I really like taking something that is almost working and then either figuring out what beats or what can be improved on.”

The desire to piece competition apart, to consider all the moving parts of the team, and to put it all together was the same that led Jatt to esports. Jatt got started with Guild Wars, a game where reading the meta was a big part of winning the game. And Jatt won big at Guild Wars.

Jatt was a part of Rebel Rising - or rawr - the winningest Guild in the history of the game. Rebel Rising won 10 gold trims, which are rewards for large monthly tournaments. Rebel Rising had three more trims than the next highest guild, and was the first guild to win three trims - not quite a three-peat, but close!

The odd world of older esports doesn’t always translate well and a gold trims is roughly equivalent to an S-Tier tournament win in Smash or large tournament win CS:GO. Guild Wars had stopped running a world championship format by the time Rebel Rising hit its stride. Truthfully, in the mid 2000’s esports was not what it was now and Guild Wars was no League. It wasn’t quite MLG like Halo was either.

However, the game was popular and genuinely competitive. ESL was involved on and off and many tournaments had prizes like high-end graphics cards, large amounts of in-game currency (or actual money) on the line. On top of real competition, Guild Wars had a shockingly well-built and in-depth competitive, 8v8 format.

“They had 10 different classes and each class had like a 100 different skills and you could make a character that had a primary and a secondary class. But you could only take into game eight skills! So you had to be super selective and do a ton of theorycrafting to figure out what the most efficient and best things were to bring into the game.”

To this day, the first Guild Wars gets praise as one of the most competitively well-balanced RPGs out there. Its character creation and skill system are still held as a high watermark in the genre. Its depth of skill selection and 16 player battlefields made it an intense and somewhat hard to follow competitive experience.

That’s where Jatt got his chance to be like the voices he’d listened to and the competitors he’d watched growing up. That’s where he cut his teeth.

“I, over time, became the main shotcaller for the team, towards the end. I definitely learned a lot of like, in-game shotcalling skills and communication skills and teamwork and all these other things.”

Jatt was one of the more successful players in the latter half of competitive Guild Wars - Guild Wars 2 even had a character named after him - but he’s cautious not to take credit where it isn’t due.

“They actually won their first championship without me! So that was a team where they kind of had their vibe going and I joined later. After I joined we did find the majority of our success so I do feel like I was still a large part of it.”

Even more importantly for Jatt, Guild Wars would lead to League.

“I only knew communication”

If you’re an old hand in League, you might remember Guardsman Bob - the guy who played Udyr in the Ionia vs. Noxus showmatch in the nascent days of the games. Before he was Guardsman Bob, he was Chop Chop the Panda, the initial shot caller for Rebel Rising. Guardsman Bob mentored Jatt in Guild Wars and eventually convinced Jatt to try League.

“As soon as I played League it started to click, I’m not completely sure why. [...] I think, honestly, it was the social aspect as well as the - kinda the six skills in League if you count the four you get on the champion’s kit and the two summoner spells, and then the pregame theorycrafting you could do in terms of rune and mastery pages.”

Like most people that fall in love with a sport or esport, Jatt found joy not just in the analysis but in sharing it.

“I don’t think I would’ve made the transition if I would’ve just like played the game alone. Because I ask a lot of questions, I’m extremely social in terms of comparing what’s good and what’s bad and.”

Jatt picks up a level of excitement as he goes, “We could all just learn so much faster!”

He’s eager to go back through the history of League and the days of the beta and share how he and his old friends from Guild Wars abused the early meta. Not even level 30 (back when level 30 was a thing), Jatt and his friends were beating high ranked players through the theorycrafting skills they learned in Guild Wars.

That same mentality extended to when Jatt got good enough to go competitive. When Jatt jungled for Rock Solid and Dignitas, he was the team’s main voice in comms and in interviews. Even that far back, it was obvious Jatt had a knack Jatt had for communicating the game.

“Let’s just have one person do it,” Jatt said of shotcalling in the early League days, “and then even if it’s bad, it’s gonna be better than 5 people coming to their own different conclusions. And when I did that with Rock Solid we immediately got better. Because Scarra and Voyboy at the time were like, in my opinion the two best laners in NA. [...] So what I did is I knew I had winning lanes and I just had to macro.”

When Jatt says macro, he’s not talking about the complex wave control and vision battles built up over 9 seasons and nearly 11 years of metas. He’s talking about the basics. No triangle offense and spacing out the floor yet, just passes and screens.

“I set up dragon before teams were setting up dragon. We did a lot of stuff that is super simple now but was revolutionary at the time. That’s kinda how I got my start in League, it’s because I had those teamwork concepts before other people did because all those people grew up on solo queue whereas I grew up in 8v8 PVP.”

Competitive League was the logical extension of Guild Wars but Guild Wars - and even esports - was the logical extension of a total immersion in the world of team sports. Stewing in front of the NFL broadcast for 8 hours, absorbing Phil Jackson and Kobe’s successive title runs, Jatt learned that competitive communication undergirded sports long before most people do.

Or, as he tells it, “I only knew communication. I only knew voice chat.”

Communicating the game

Given the analytical mindset, the subconscious understanding of sports broadcast, and the love for communicating the game, it only made sense that Jatt truly made his mark as a commentator and analyst.

Make no mistake: in the early days of League Jatt made a mark. He and Dignitas had beaten top players and teams of the time as well as over names relevant right now - like Saintvicious, Dyrus, Pobelter, Doublelift, and LiQuiD112. It’d be disingenuous to say he was a Faker or TheShy, but he was a strong player for his time.

When he made the switch to casting, he was still a strong player, but even then it was clear he could be an even stronger commentator - and Jatt understood just how important a strong commentator could be.

Many of us fall in love with the obvious spectacle and skill of a sport, but many more of us fall in love with the ever-building narrative - the constant interweaving storylines. An excellent commentator can bring both the narrative and the skill to life.

Jatt quickly became a crowd favorite commentator. His predictions were often honest, analytical and spot-on. He came in with a constant goal to teach the game and he showed the intelligence behind the highest order of play often without dumbing any of it down. If you need a testament to his commentary chops, he might’ve been the only voice in League that could get you to buy into the complexity and art of Heimerdinger.

Jatt did so well at commentary that it’s weird to see him step away - whether it was for game design and balance earlier or for coaching now. A lot of people talk about leaving while on top, but few actually do it. For Jatt, it’s just the next step in the path he’s walking and the path he absorbed for years over sports broadcasts.

“Doc Rivers was a commentator. Actually, Pat Riley was a Lakers color commentator before he was a Lakers coach,” Jatt tells me while answering why he and other commentators like Deficio and Papasmithy move into the game.

“The way that you often become a color commentator instead of a play-by-play commentator is because you have more interest and more aptitude for the finer points of League. [...] Finding the right competitive outlet I think is really intriguing for a lot of these guys who have still thought about the game at a really high level as their job for years.”

Coaching makes sense for color commentators because both roles come down to communicating the game. Where casting is communicating the game to the average player and analytical content is communicating the game for the invested player, coaching is communicating different visions of the game to the people who live it.

In a strange way, it’s the highest and the final step in the conversation. At this level, it isn’t about pinpointing the moment when one team gave up the lead, or explaining the nuance that created an opportunity. It’s about deciphering complex tradeoffs.

“Let’s foresee a conflict between a laner and a jungler. Does the jungler have to be here to help me push this wave in or does the jungler need to cover his own camp so he doesn’t fall behind? I’m not gonna explain that to the players in the same way I’d explain that to the public. I’m gonna try and make sure the two aren’t talking past each other because both are gonna see the game from their own perspective.”

He continues:

“Hopefully, because I’ve been around the game and thought about it for so long I can see both perspectives and see where the break in communication is. Both of them are gonna have a point, they’re both gonna lose something if the other doesn’t help them, it’s just about figuring out who loses more. And that’s where I think I can help.”

In the realm of communication, casting experience has its obvious and not-so-obvious pluses.

“Casting requires a strong level of communication, especially being able to actively listen to what your co-caster is saying [...]. And then also behind the scenes, working as a caster and coordinating with stats people and having relationships with pro players and coaches.... Relationship building and communication skills and being able to take in information from one source and then explain it to another - are all loosely transferable to coaching.”

As a fan and a viewer, it’s always bittersweet and slightly strange to see a great commentator turn coach or manager. However, for the commentators and the coaches, the flow is often a logical conclusion that comes from years of communicating the game.

“This coaching thing now,” Jatt expands, “I feel like it is just such a big opportunity to experience esports from a different angle and possibly combine all the experiences that I’ve had in really like my whole life, to a use.”

(A long way until) The Triangle Offense

However, for the fans, the analysts, and even the players, the question isn’t, “Why?” The question is, “What happens next?”

Unlike commentating, coaching is not public facing. Nor is it neatly defined. Where commentating separates into two archetypes - play-by-play and color - coaching fans out into hundreds of different approaches. Facilitators, grand planners, locker-room coaches, X’s and O’s coaches, even within these archetypes the variation is both huge and hard to spot.

Even in sports where the coaches are more forward facing and more present, it’s still a battle to fully understand what they do. At the end of a disastrous season, it’s still a debate over how much the coach even mattered.

This is all the more true in League, where the line between player and coach decision often gets blurred. And even when that line is clear, League coaches have the unique challenge of detaching the moment the game starts.

“There is literally no in-game communication [in League].” Jatt’s talking about one of the biggest and most unique challenges in League. Naturally, to talk about it, he draws comparison to football and basketball.

“I think football is extremely coached, in which case you can actually have an offensive coordinator 200 feet above the field directly communicating in the quarterback's ears. And then only in some unique circumstances do you have a quarterback talented enough to make his own reads on the field - like a Peyton Manning.

“And then basketball is like, I think Phil Jackson with the Triangle Offense was a little bit more of a hands off coach that has players making dynamic decisions on the floor. But at the time in basketball, and you still see coaches do this, they’re calling a play as their point guard is running up the floor, and they’re running sets. Those are live coaching experiences.”

On the other hand:

“League of Legends has no live coaching whatsoever, which is a really unique challenge. My theory is that a league of legends coach basically needs to try and create Peyton Mannings or you need to find the Triangle Offense in League. You need the players to be able to make the reads in game without any outside intervention.”

Jatt sees this as one of the big hurdles to climb when it comes to League of Legends. He couldn’t be the team mastermind even if he wanted to. The players have to step up and either call the field like Peyton Manning, or execute on a plan that functions fluidly on the floor - like the Triangle Offense.

These examples may be torn from sports but they can fit onto many of League’s historic teams. Invictus Gaming’s trio of Ning, Rookie, and TheShy ran a constant three-point pressure scheme in 2018 Worlds. They were recreating a strategy SKT T1 had executed to win three Worlds.

On the Peyton Manning end, you have players like Samsung White’s Mata, Cloud9’s Hai, and Azubu Blaze’s Reapered. Each of these players have moved into new roles now but in their heyday, they could audible every position on the map and rumor has it that they even managed their teammates’ micro while controlling the macro game.

It’s unclear if Team Liquid’s own roster can fit either mold. It’s equally as unclear if Jatt can create a Triangle Offense. While Jatt does tell me he admires the way Phil Jackson’s sense of calm and understanding of his players, the truth is that all this idealism is in the far back of his mind.

“For people reading this, I’ve been on the job for three and a half days.” We both laugh at that. This is in the first five minutes of the interview, well before any talk of basketball or Guild Wars.

There’s always a sense of excitement for a new coach. That excitement doubles when the coach is one of the spokesmen of the esport. The excitement triples when you add that coach to a star-studded roster that just had it’s most disappointing finish in four splits. The narrative in the making is so immense that you can feel it.

But behind every narrative, there’s the reality. Jatt has a lot of work to do in a team that very much had its own vibe going and won without him. And he recognizes that.

“In the short term, it is really just about learning as much as possible from the players and staff who have been on the Liquid team to win 4 of the past 5 splits and then try and take the next steps.”

While Team Liquid may have placed 9th, Jatt doesn’t see himself as a savior sent to lead the team back to glory. He sees himself as the person who can help fit the pieces back together.

“I think my strengths can be in understanding where the other players and coaches feel like we should go and then building the process together. I do have my own ideas in terms of how I think shotcalling can work - I have like, loose ideas. And I have a decent concept of how to understand when a champion’s OP but actually implementing those things I think is where the strength is gonna be. And kinda picking everyone’s brain, because there’s a lot of really smart people here.”

He sees himself as a facilitator, but also as an expert that can filter, communicate, and implement team-wide ideas until the team finds the goal and identity needed to win.

“I think aligning the team around the specific goal will just help a lot. Everyone is really good and I think - in this split specifically - really motivated because no one likes finishing ninth. So you harness that motivation around getting buy-in to play a specific way.”

There’s not a lot of ego to finding the way to play, either. “We’ll settle on that specific way later but it’s about getting buy-in to play together first.”

But at this point, none of this should come as a surprise. It’s all a natural extension of Jatt’s personality and history. As a player in the Guild Wars days, he felt his guild’s culture out and stepped into the lead with time. As an avid sports fan, he looks up to Phil Jackson for the bonds he forged and the understanding he had of his teams. He loves the narrative of sport but he understands the patient, steady, and well-communicated reality that shapes it.

He wants to bring the heat to C9 and energize NA. He does look up to Phil Jackson and plenty of coaching greats. Who wouldn’t? But he knows it’s a long way until the Triangle Offense in League and the journey has only just begun. For Jatt, as it is for any coach in any sport or esport, it’s one step at a time. Starting now.

Writer // Austin Ryan

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