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League of Legends

Stephen "Snoopeh" Ellis on preparing the Evil Geniuses League of Legends team for LCS Season 3

Snoopeh, center, with other members of the Evil Geniuses eSports team

The Evil Geniuses League of Legends squad is currently ranked second in the European division of the LCS, close behind Fnatic following their victory over EG last Saturday. They are easily one of the top teams in the LCS’ European or American divisions, and next week they’ll be tested against many of the world’s best at the IEM World Championship in Hanover. We recently had a chance to talk to EG’s team captain, Stephen “Snoopeh” Ellis about the team’s plans for improving this year, why it’s become so much stronger since the Season 2 playoffs, and the tension between being a successful competitive team and being a successful business.

Ellis is a student of the game and team leadership, capable of holding himself to high professional standards while still being realistic about what else a successful LoL team needs to do beyond winning matches. He’s also completely devoted to his squad and what they’ve achieved together. Without that solidarity, he said, a team falls apart.

“The most important thing picking a team is you try and eliminate egos,” he told me. “For example, in StarCraft, it doesn’t matter how big your ego is. That’s not a team game. If it’s a team game, it’s important that there’s no one who can clash. That may work in the short-term. Saintvicious on CLG had a big ego that clashed with the Hotshots or Chausters of CLG, and it ended up falling apart. If you want to maintain a stable roster, egos don’t work.”

It can take a while for a team to discover its identity, and whether the personalities really mesh. But the EG squad, back when they were a part of CLG.EU, quickly subjected themselves to one of the hardest tests a relationship can endure: after playing together for only six months, they went to Korea to live and train together.

“During our months in Korea, even though there were ups and downs and arguments, overall we actually became friends. And I think that’s the biggest testament to our team and our stability: we actually became friends as opposed to just teammates. When we have a loss, we know how to handle that loss, and we know how to bounce back, and we know if we lose a tournament it’s not the end of the world. The next one is coming along,” Ellis said.

Fighting to improve

What the team needs is simple, according to Ellis: “The biggest thing we learned about our team in the last six months is we don’t practice enough. That’s pretty much it.”

But for a team in EG’s position, the solution is more complicated. The kind of practice they need, closed team practices and private scrimmages, isn’t something that can be streamed, and as we discussed in an earlier interview with Ellis and Evil Geniuses CEO Alex Garfield, streaming is a major part of a team’s obligations. It brings in a lot of revenue, and it helps build the team’s identity and fanbase.

But that doesn’t mean streaming doesn’t come at a cost to a team’s ability to focus on its skills and gameplans. It’s one reason that a lot of Asian players, particularly Korean eSports pros, have historically resisted streaming. When Korean StarCraft legend Jaedong joined EG last year, one of the major sticking points in their negotiations were his obligation to stream. Time spent streaming is seen as time spent away from real practice, because you can’t refine special strategies in public.

Still, Ellis knows it can’t be ignored. It’s too lucrative, too fundamental a part of the eSports business. The trick is managing it responsibly: “For example, last year Ocelote [Carlos Rodriguez Santiago, Mid-laner for SK Gaming] recognized that he spent more time paying attention to streaming than he did to team practice, and consequently his performance dropped. Coming into this season, he’s not streaming nearly as much and is focused more on practicing. It’s happening a lot throughout the scene. But you still can’t ignore the fact that it’s still lucrative. Even TPA members, Toyz, Mistake, they have started streaming as well.”

The EG team keeps a fairly intensive schedule to meet all its obligations. Players are free until around 1 PM, although a lot of them hit the gym in the morning to prepare for the eleven hours of work that starts in the afternoon. Then at 1PM they fire up their streams and start practicing with champions, polishing their core mechanics and working at learning new characters. It’s basic stuff that’s crucial to skilled LoL play, but won’t give away any game competitive strategies.

Starting at around 6 or 7 in the evening, the team switches to off-stream practice to train with different compositions and strategies. This is the heart of LoL at the professional level. Individual prowess is for naught if the team doesn’t have the right compositions and game plans to go with them.

League made new

That was an area Ellis felt was suffering a bit toward the end of last season and into this year. As the CLG.EU team, they had maintained a grueling schedule of tournament appearances, spending at least half of 2012 traveling. Making matters even worse, the nature of a tournament-driven schedule was sapping at the team’s energy and creativity.

“If I’m playing in IPL in 5 weeks time, it’s this big tournament I’m building up to,” Ellis said. “So every week I’m building up to this big tournament. I don’t really get motivated about a tournament until two weeks, or just a week before the tournament itself. So it’s three unproductive weeks.”

And oftentimes, when the team was going from tournament to tournament, they were out of gas by the time competition began. Ellis is convinced they hurt their tournament performances last year by overbooking, and stumbled a bit on the biggest stage imaginable.

“That’s not a healthy environment to practice in,” he said. “Although it gives us a lot of exposure, a couple podium finishes could have been first. Even going into the world playoffs, we went to China seven day before the finals. And came back. That’s a one million dollar tournament! That should never happen.”

The League of Legends Championship Series has given Evil Geniuses a respite from those pressures. More importantly, the nature of a weekly tournament has fired their creativity once again, and Ellis feels like he’s more engaged and excited about competitive LoL than he has been in months.

“If I’m playing in a weekly basis ...week on week, I’m constantly thinking of the next game,” he said “I have to constantly be on my toes, practicing, researching. Innovating new strategies. I like that about the format we have. Week on week we’re constantly having to do new things and surprise teams. Because we know they’re always researching us.”

He also cites the single-game tournament format as a factor in making sure this season of League of Legends stays competitive. Tournament formats overwhelmingly favor teams with strong core mechanics, a few really well-developed compositions and strategies, and tons of experience. There’s not a whole lot of room for experimentation or creativity when you might play six bracket rounds of best-of-threes.

But in the weekly format, all it takes is one clever team composition and game plan for a less-experienced and renowned team to derail a powerhouse.

“It’s a best of one and you know your opponent and you know which side of the map you’re going to be on every single week. That gives you so much preparation, so much study material as well, I don’t feel that it’s only going to be the top teams staying at the top,” Ellis said. “Because if you prepare, for example, a team like Dragonborn, analyzing our games for a week, could easily take a game from us in a best of one. A best of three? Maybe not. But a best of one is very much anyone’s game.”

We’ve already had a taste of the unpredictability of the single-game format. Just in the last week the struggling American Vulcun team went on a tear and beat both Complexity and CLG. This week, Team MRN stunned TSM and CLG.  As the season goes on, we will surely see many more upsets.

Eye of the storm

Ellis sounds like a happy man, like someone who is more confident of his team than ever and is enjoying a renaissance with League. The Season 3 updates made his jungler role much more dynamic, and he’s happy to have the variety and choices.

“What you’d see last year is your jungler would buy Heart of Gold and a Philosopher’s Stone and then some health. And that would really be it for the rest of the game. And because they had that innate tankiness, they would just provide crowd control. But with season 3, there’s a lot more variety because of items like Hunter’s Machete. With Hunter’s Machete, it’s opened up so any jungler can jungle something. So a carry jungle has become much more prevalent. Your Nocturne’s, your Xin Zhao’s, your Kayles. They’re viable now, and you can look to carry out of the jungle.”

Ellis also talks about how much nicer the new itemization is, and how the middle-portion of the game doesn’t devolve into a gold-farming standoff as the two teams race to build their endgame items. Now there are a number of new build paths that keep the action moving through the end of the laning phase and into the endgame.

But perhaps the most important thing for Ellis is how stable the roster has been since the team formed. He looks at teams like Fnatic, who had to give up one of their star players for Season 3 (the under-age Rekkles) and integrate a new player into their lineup, and shudders at the thought of being forced to do something similar. He’s not sure they could. Team chemistry, for Ellis, is something precious, easily lost and earned only through months of shared experience and trust. That’s where Evil Geniuses game hinges.

“League is all about synergy,” he said. “Making decisions on the fly. Knowing how far you can pull in a teamfight. Allowing your teammates to come in right behind you. I know when my team is going to win. I know when they need to fall back. It’s not a matter of saying, ‘I’m slacking a bit in the jungle.’ It’s not as easy as that.”

With five games this week, starting with a game against Copenhagen Wolves at 8 AM Eastern / 1 PM UK, EG have a very good chance to regain ground against Fnatic. But EG’s real test will play out over the course of this entire LCS season, as they seek to prove that not only do they remain one of the best teams in the game, but that they can be the best in the world.

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