The Rise of the Resilience Meta
Fifteen minutes before anyone else arrives, CLG’s sole active Melee player Zac “SFAT” Cordoni flips on a CRT. The screen’s matte black opens, smearing into an array of purple and yellow menus. His ritual is always the same: Versus, Character Select, Battlefield.
As spectators, grand moments of tension and explosive bursts of success stick out the most. From these footholds, many professionals find a playstyle, a rank, a role in the community.
Despite this, a foothold is just a foothold. The difficulty is making sure it doesn’t slip away.
There is no shortage of stories of up-and-coming stars falling off suddenly due to injury, burnout, or educational pursuit. For someone to truly be considered one of the greats, they must prove themselves, generation after generation, against the top talents. Each prospective professional must play for thousands of hours while avoiding injury, managing burnout, and balancing their life and career. What allows some people to succeed under these conditions, drawing from what appears to be an unending energy for competition?
Sometimes, it’s people like Coach Bobby and Coach Chang Ko. They’re both coaches brought on by esports orgs in an effort to turn those footholds into something more. Only, they’re at work in radically different capacities: Coach Chang works for many of Liquid’s athletes, spreading professional advice across a wide landscape of esports. Coach Bobby, on the other hand, works closely with one athlete–his dear friend and a Melee all-time great: SFAT.
SFAT might not quite be one of Melee’s Gods - but if SFAT is anything, he’s consistent. With over a decade of top 8 placings at majors under his belt, he is no stranger to high-stress competition. He has been ranked top 15 in the Melee world rankings every year since 2014. Not only that, he continues to improve: in 2021, he beat six of the ten highest-ranked Melee players (some, multiple times in a row).
TOP 8— CLG SFAT (@SFAT) November 14, 2021
HATERS WILL SAY HE EATS MEAT
If SFAT is anything else, he’s ritualistic. Each aspect of his tournament day is planned meticulously to improve his performance stability. Food is carefully chosen to give him energy for those career-defining moments, without causing a crash. Practice is a must: both pre-game and post-game routines are determined in advance to ramp up his focus without burning him out before the tournament ends.
Now, more than ever, esports organizations are looking to follow the “SFAT” approach– one that may promise longevity of players, greater return on investment, and veteran performance.
It’s the job of coaches like Coach Bobby and Coach Chang to deliver on that promise, to create veterans in an industry riddled with burnout. Ultimately, to give rise to the Resilience Meta.
The resilience meta
The Resilience Meta is uncharted territory for esports. Unknown risk, unknown reward. In this way, the structural leap-of-faith involved may seem dangerous to prospective orgs considering the switch. For these coaches, however, an abundance of data exists already–the world of traditional sports.
The need for structural stress-management has been around longer than esports has. In 1984, the World Chess Championship had to be called off due to hazardous weight loss. Under stress and continued focus, defending champion Anatoly Karpov had burned 22 pounds worth of calories, and it was deemed a health risk to continue playing. To combat this phenomenon, many modern grandmasters have adopted health-conscious structures of their own. Magnus Carlsen goes skiing each day. Viswanathan Anand does two hours of cardio each night. Fabiano Caruana gave up alcohol and sugar, along with practicing high-intensity sports.
Although esports and chess differ in many ways, professionals in both face the same grueling endurance test of prolonged competition. The average Melee major lasts an uninterrupted three days while, in the world of Dota 2, The International 2021 lasted a mostly consecutive ten days. During that stretch, players will likely be going for up to ten hours a day or beyond. The increasing importance of energy management becomes apparent when looking at event schedules– often, a player’s most important sets are pushed to the end of the day (when they may be exhausted from their previous matches). Now, as many organizations are beginning to develop their methods for improving player health and endurance, a variety of models from both sports psychologists and performance directors are taking root in the esports community.
The 4 pillars
One well-known crossover model comes from Taylor Johnson, formerly an assistant strength and conditioning coach for the San Francisco 49ers, currently an esports performance coach and consultant. In a 2017 interview with Red Bull’s Cass Marshall, he outlines a four-pillared perspective on performance:
From these baseline pillars, you could draw clear parallels to SFAT’s consistency routines and rituals. His physicality is addressed in sport and diet; his psychological fortitude is addressed in intricate warm-up and cool-down practices. I was curious how much this four-pillar model ran through esports training. In conversation with them both, Coach Bobby and Coach Chang didn’t say they started from the four pillars, but they did reach similar conclusions.
[To Coach Bobby] So, there’s a health consultant named Taylor Johnson. He’s worked with the San Francisco 49ers in the past and now he basically consults for esports organizations looking to help improve their players’ wellness. He says that there are four pillars of performance to address: nutrition, recovery, psychological, and physical. [...] I’d like to learn more about the concrete ways players can address each of these four pillars. The first is nutrition. In what ways do you use nutrition to boost performance in yourself and in your competitors?
Well, you need a certain amount of EPA’s, which are essential fatty acids. For an adult male, you need about a thousand milligrams per day to help with any mood disorders and to regulate neurochemicals and dopamine. You can get that from fish oil, or algae oil.
Dopamine is one of the most important aspects of being an esports athlete, because it’s your reward molecule. When it comes to game day and how you eat on game day, it’s important that you balance your fats, your proteins, and your carbohydrates. Fats are longer-lasting energy, things like nuts and avocado. Those are gonna stay in your system and provide energy for longer periods of time. It’s important that you balance the long-term energy of fats with the shorter-term energy of carbohydrates and proteins, so that you have energy that’s releasing at different times during the day.
[To Coach Bobby] I heard that dark chocolate also helps with mental functioning.
That was actually recommended to us at CLG. What we found was that it has to be above 86% cacao, otherwise you won’t get an efficacious dose.
[To Coach Bobby] The second pillar is recovery. What does recovery mean to you, in the context of your coaching, and how would you help a student with their recovery?
There’s a saying we have at CLG, and it’s “you don’t want to have to recover from your recovery.” So, if when you had a very long tournament weekend, and you have a little bit of time between this and another tournament, what you don’t want to do is grind League of Legends for 8 hours a day and not take care of yourself.
What is very important is when you have focus time, you also need unfocused time. Time where you’re allowing yourself to be, taking care of your needs, what have you. You’re doing something that is antagonistic to that high-focus time - like going on bike rides, or for a walk. Gaining a lot of lateral eye movement and kinda unwinding from that tournament experience. Burnout is one of the biggest issues in esports. Everyone is always saying you just need to work harder, but that isn’t really true. People always talk about the Korean esports work ethic, but they have support staff helping them with their recovery. They don’t have to worry about what they’ll have to eat, or well-balanced meals. If you are a Melee player and looking to recover, you need to take time away from Melee.
[To Coach Bobby] The third pillar is psychological. This is the main one people think about when it comes to esports, reducing tilt and increasing fortitude. What are some ways that you or other coaches have helped with the mental game in particular?
From a very high level down, everyone talks about flowstate. We’ve all experienced it, right? That unconscious state where everything seems to be going right for us. And there is something to that, that we should try to avoid letting our conscious mind interfere with our unconscious. But I don’t believe that just achieving flow is the only answer that you should be looking for.
Flow is a lot of different scientific components that we have studied that affect performance. The objective measures we’ve found that affect performance are mental arousal, or how much cognitive anxiety we’re feeling. It’s a bell curve, too much and you’re not able to think clearly, too little and you’re bored.
The next is somatic anxiety, or physical arousal. A lot of players don’t understand that our body and brain are connected, and when we feel too much arousal in our systems, sometimes that can be translated into physical anxiety, or physical arousal, which is the the increase in tension across our muscles.
I hold a lot of physical tension when I compete, so I’m a very active competitor, and I think Hungrybox is also a very active competitor. I think that’s why he stands up and moves around during sets. It’s his way of reducing this physical arousal.
We also have heart rate. It’s a very clear indicator of not just arousal, but also cardiovascular conditioning. You can’t stay at a peak heart rate forever. If your heart rate is too high for too long, then your body begins to become exhausted. You can take a heart monitor, and it will give you live feedback for how your heart rate peaked during a set. Later on, you can plot your heart rate against the set.
A funny thing we noticed with Zac [SFAT] is that the higher his heart rate went, the faster his reaction time was, the faster he was able to play. The issue is when he’s entering a set and his heart rate is already past 180 BPM. This is an indicator to me that his physical arousal is too high. We have a target heart rate we want to enter a set with, a target heart rate we want to peak around. It’s very easy to plot how your heart rate is affecting you.
A way of building a proper psychological approach is to build a set routine. Wayne Gretzky, he would eat two hot dogs and a diet coke before every single game. Some people see that as superstitious, but I see that as a performance routine.
For Melee, we have a unique way to establish a performance routine. In a best of five set, we have plenty of opportunities to take a breather. What Zac and I do is a body scan and a mental scan, and we’ll talk about fears of the future we have, and anxiety of the past we have, and we will allow ourselves to release that through breathing and meditation. This allows us to control our physical arousal and peak at a later point during the set.
Kevin [PewPewU] was a master of having a plan between matches for himself. If you watch any set that Kevin has played where a camera was on him, he won’t press the start button. He will lean back in his chair, and he will look up. He’ll avert his eyes from the ground and the crowd, he’ll tap his toes, take a large breath, and give himself a head nod as an affirmation. Because of this, he could come into each match with a refreshed energy.
My suggestion is to have a pregame routine and a during-game routine. Eventually, it becomes automatic, and you can do it without thinking about it. It will improve your results.
Last, expect adversity. What you don’t want to do is visualize everything going right, and then go into a match and get grabbed by Marth and killed. Then, all your visualizations of what went right are now becoming false, and you’re tricking your brain into thinking everything will go right for some reason. Instead, you want to visualize what could possibly go wrong, or a tilting moment. Michael Phelps did this at the Beijing Olympics. He visualized what would happen if his goggles came off underwater, and when they did, he was still able to set the Olympic gold in that butterfly.
[To Coach Chang] What were the players’ gaming routines before you joined, and has implementing these new performance strategies changed their habits?
The routines part is still a work in progress, and we have some new players joining this year as well. But there are almost always two things you try to attack with routines:
One, there is an overall routine, meaning what are you doing on a daily basis, what are some of the good habits you are building in. The holistic routine is being more mindful about what you eat, from a dietary perspective, what type of movement you’re getting. It doesn’t have to be excessive exercise, but simply how much are you moving versus being stationary.
Two, there’s also the mental aspect of it, where I really encourage all of our athletes within their daily routine to fit in moments of quiet, to allow the mind to have a calming space. When they’re in game, there is a lot of noise and thinking that’s going on. Even when they are on social media, there is a lot going on. So finding some quiet space is part of a daily routine.
We’ll often see players go from one game to the next game without any separation. Because we start to blend the first game into the last game, we’ll start to forget things if we aren’t being very deliberate about it. So the in-game routines are about finding ways to create a start and a stop between each game so that the next one is fresher coming in. In esports it’s really hard because the review time you do is also in front of a PC, and the game is in front of a PC, so it’s hard to create that separation and often the work involves finding creative strategies to provide a change of scenery.
[To Coach Chang] What do [your player] check-ins normally look like?
If it’s one-on-one it will vary from athlete to athlete. Then it might be progress checks, and reinforcements kind of on a weekly basis. So for example, if there’s a specific mental skill area we’re working on - whether it’s setting better routines, or working on managing energy throughout the day, working on sleep, working on nutrition, etc.
For me it’s typically 4-6 sessions in a row, either on a weekly or biweekly basis, whatever their schedule allows. If there’s no specific thing I’m working on, I like to keep tabs on the athletes, and just check in on a weekly basis, to see how was practice, how are things at home, making sure everything is good, to be as proactive as possible.
[To Coach Bobby] Our fourth pillar is physical. What type of physical activity do you think is most important for esports competitors?
Cardio, without a doubt, cardio. But, I think it’s important for players who play on a controller to take care of their grip strength, and to strengthen the muscles that surround their wrists and fingers to help with hand problems. Stretching will improve the strength of the joints and the supporting muscles. For performance, cardio all the way.
Also, yoga and stretching. Many players are hunched and leaned forward while they play, and this gives them posture issues. It will affect circulation in your body, and how your body is able to function. 180 minutes of Zone 2 cardio a week have shown the best neurological benefits. Also, when it comes to motivation, it’s important to take care of your mood by getting adequate sunlight. Your dopamine circuit and your reward system, which makes you want to play in the first place, have a lot to do with addressing your body’s physical needs.
A fifth pillar
When it comes to the 4 pillars, Coach Bobby is generally in line with them. Except, for esports, there's something he sees as missing.
"I think it's leaving out the gameplay element," the CLG coach remarks. "I would say from the respect of a nutritionist or a health expert, yeah that’s what you need to worry about. However, as a gameplay coach, you have a whole new set of pillars based specifically on the game you’re coaching."
In talking with both coaches I found that in esports there's a 5th pillar: The game itself. Each game dictates the coaching for a given player - even down to how the other 4 pillars will work. Going even deeper than that, for as much as esports coaching resembles traditional coaching, esports also presents a chance to diverge from the intense focus on trophies, to offer a bit more slack, and a support system that many players need.
[To Coach Bobby] How has your coaching methodology changed from helping SFAT at Press Start in 2015 to joining CLG in 2017 to now?
When I first started in 2015, I was Zac’s support and confidant more than anything. I understood him and his background, and I was able to be proactive about his needs. I was there as a support system. I think what a lot of people don’t recognize about esports is that there is little difference between traditional sports coaching and esports coaching. It’s still about skill mastery, putting in the time, periodization of goals, creating schedules for your players.
Once 2017 hit, I learned to become a proper, science-based coach. Coaching has been around for centuries, it’s a well-studied field. Melee, not so much. I think that the best esports coaches begin with an understanding of the game, and then they break into traditional coaching.
[To Coach Chang] I saw that you worked as a resilience trainer in the US Army several years ago, prior to working with Team Liquid. You were also a training and development lead at SAIC. Have those experiences influenced your approach to working as the Director of Performance?
When I first went into my field, I had more of a vision of working in true athletics, especially baseball. But the military was one of the biggest hirers of sports psychologists, and through the army, I got the opportunity to participate in the larger army initiative, which is a performance and resilience program.
This is where my background differs from other sports psych practitioners, in that I have experience in curriculum design and implementation of programs on a large scale. Team Liquid is a pretty big organization, we’re pretty spread out, so we have two other sports psychs on our team and we try to approach it from a multidisciplinary approach, which allows us to be more consistent across the board.
[To Coach Chang] In doing such a broad approach, how do you tailor your approach to different games?
You have to understand the fundamentals within mental performance and the broader holistic performance, from nutrition, to physical movement, to exercise. Once you have all of the fundamentals, this is where we really approach it from a human-first approach - meaning behind every game, behind every player, we have to remember there is a person.
Now the tailoring comes into play because every game is a little bit different, the languages are a bit different, the game styles are different. Some games are fast-paced, some games are slow-paced, some games are more reliant on decision making in the long game, and some games are more intuitive, and focused on being rapid. So that’s where some skills will be more important than others, and that’s where the specifics of the game are really important.
My background in gaming is still pretty young, so there are certain games that are much easier to follow than other games. It’s great practice though, because I’m always trying to be more of a collaborative provider. When I’m working with an athlete, I want them to be able to teach me some things too. When they’re teaching me about a game that they know very well, and I’m teaching them about the performance side of things - something I know very well - there’s a nice “marinade” in that conversation, and together, we’re finding the perfect fit for the player in this performance training.
[To Coach Chang] For a new player starting to grind a competitive game and attempting to “go pro,” what advice would you give them to optimize their performance? How would your teaching strategy change for a player who is already a professional?
For new players, or ones who are still grinding away and building up their expertise, be really specific about the goals you’re working on and trust that process. It’s easy to get caught up in the moment - when you first start out, you’re making drastic improvements, and you notice that. That can be really addicting because you enjoy getting better really quickly, and what happens is you reach a plateau, or an artificial ceiling.
It’s in those moments where, when you need to break through this hurdle, that you have to have the patience and the faith that your abilities are still getting better. The path to expertise is not a straight line up; there might be some regression or flat points in order to move forward.
Keep your goals reasonable: the number one mistake I see a lot of people make is that they set a really lofty goal, and that’s fine, but you don’t check in on it frequently. You lose sight of what your goal initially was, and you start to have doubts, worries, and lowered confidence.
The second part of it is that you need to continue to have that belief and faith and connect it to why you want to get better at the game, and find something that’s joyful within the game to make it as fun as possible.
It sounds cliche, but even for the professionals, I’m constantly reminding them, “Hey, do you still enjoy the game, do you still have fun?” And wholeheartedly a lot of them are like, “Yeah, I still really love the game!” It’s not always pretty but they can always go back to why they love the game, and it provides that unique motivation when things aren’t going as well.
Future in longevity
For esports organizations looking to boost the longevity and the health of their players, both the large-scale management of performance directors such as Coach Chang and the individual mentorship of sports psychologists and mentors such as Coach Bobby are quickly becoming valuable assets. It’s clear that investing in players’ health is more than worth the returns in team stability, organization desirability, and the individual potential in placings.
It’s also just fun. No longer will players be retiring at 25 from injury, stress, and burnout. Their favorite competitors to watch will be able to continuously compete for years, far beyond what was possible before. Who knows, maybe SFAT will play until he’s 60. Maybe Mang0 and Hungrybox will be fighting it out all the way to the retirement home.
An undiscovered esports meta is beginning to emerge - equal-parts legacy and novelty, equal-parts history and excitement.
[To Coach Bobby] Where do you think the future of health in esports will go?
I think that esports athletes have become more health-conscious than they were when they first came in. We’ve seen a lot of League players lose their careers because they grinded without any care for their health. I think the industry as a whole has become way more aware of how to keep their players in good health. For every hour of sleep you miss, your cognitive function goes down by like 12 percent. Investment in players’ health is investment in their career longevity.
[To Coach Chang] Where do you see the future of health in esports going in terms of philosophy? Do you think there will be any more major perspective shifts in how we approach gaming performance?
I hope so. In Team Liquid, we have our two CEOs who are big believers on finding new ways to improve performance, so it gives me a lot of space to kinda put new culture in place about training. I hope it moves in the direction where we look more at mental health, which is a really critical space, and I think we’re starting to get a lot more awareness on that front from the esports perspective.
But I also want general health aspects, where we are truly taking care of the lifestyles and life habits of these players, so when they do retire or find new avenues outside of gaming, that they are in the healthiest aspects of their lives. My personal mission is that when an athlete joins Team Liquid, they are gonna become the best version of themselves, and if they do leave Team Liquid, they are leaving as better versions of themselves.
But ultimately, the benefit to that is that we’re going to start seeing more seasoned veterans in the league. We’re reducing injuries, we’re creating work-life balance. That seems like it’s an impossibility right now, but that’s definitely sustainable if we look at it from the big picture.
We’ll see more veterans, and it won’t just be a young person sport anymore.