Due to understandable ignorance and the inherent restrictions of platforms like Reddit and Twitter, media observers and members of the community tend to talk about players in a very reductive sense, as generally good or bad.
When we say a player is bad, we can interpret it two different ways that are not mutually exclusive:
1. The player is inherently bad at the game
This is to say that there is something intrinsic to them as a person that makes them bad [at the game]. This is usually what we mean when we call people bad in solo queue, and implore them to never play the game again. One might dispute the extent to which the speaker means “bad” in the natural/inherent sense in a given context, but it’s undeniable that it carries this connotation. This connotation is what I seek to attack.
2. The player’s play is bad.
The second interpretation is perhaps the literal definition of “bad player”, someone who plays bad, but it disconnects bad play from the person. This doesn’t absolve responsibility for bad play--in fact it strengthens it. So called “naturally bad players” can’t really be faulted for being so, while players that can improve have some duty to do so.
My point in this piece is that coaches (and general managers in charge of rosters) cannot view players in the deterministic way suggested by #1 above. There are no bad players, just bad play, and it’s ultimately a coaching staff’s responsibility to fix bad play.
When a player is underperforming midseason, teams are faced with a tough decision: ride out the storm and help their player improve, or find a replacement. In favor of the latter solution is often a rabid community decrying the player for their being bad, which certainly adds to the pressure for teams to act decisively. It is crucial that coaches resist such characterizations, and galvanize the entire team to empower underperforming players to improve. A coach’s first instinct should never be to replace a player, as such an impulse ignores the conditions that led to the player underperforming, and solely looks to treat the symptom--in other words, a band-aid solution. Particularly, coaches may be unwilling to confront the possibility that their inadequate coaching was part of the problem.
I certainly don’t mean to say here that teams should never replace underperforming players, and I strongly believe expanded rosters provide a great solution in this regard (though western leagues are far from adapting their general mentalities to be accepting of this). But only after charitably weighing prospects for a player’s improvement versus accessible alternatives, keeping in mind what results are truly important to the organization (most pertinently, avoiding relegation), and all other options have been exhausted, should a player be replaced. And when a player gives their best effort and still underperforms, we should not see it as a reflection on the player’s “bad” nature, but as a misfortune that the team (especially the coaching staff) could not improve the situation, and hopefully a call for that staff to examine what led to the situation arising in the first place.
As an aside: I believe my points here do apply to the LCS, but much less so to the Challenger Series. In my mind, CS teams have much more leeway to make more sudden roster changes given the ridiculously short timespan and results-oriented nature of a CS split that present a serious obstacle to team and player improvement.
One might agree with my main point in a weak sense that coaches and managers shouldn’t see their own players as inherently good or bad, but still think they should be free to judge other players as they wish. I claim that this is inconsistent and unproductive. One cynical reason for this is you never know who you’ll end up coaching. As the industry is today, staff don’t have much choice as to what jobs they take when limited by the justifiable desire for acceptable salary and a solid environment in which to improve and exhibit their abilities. So be careful who you tweet about! More seriously, it’s inconsistent to be selectively charitable when judging your own players compared to other players. When we see a player as inherently good or bad, we preclude analyses and evidence to the contrary, which can cloud judgment in a crucial draft decision, leading to over or underestimating a player for example.
A coach’s job is certainly also to get results, but there is also a balance of working for short term and long term results that needs to be made. I’ve admitted that roster changes will sometimes need to be made to achieve short term results, but what are the implications of a philosophy of player replacement in the long run? What will happen when your new player gets into a slump? How will you achieve consistency as an organization when you rely on the unreliable free agent market to solve your problems? Will top class players want to bring passion to a team culture that gives up on players, or one that works tirelessly to make them the best they can be?
On a higher level, this mentality is most harmful because it holds back the scene. A player-based analysis of team problems can obscure bigger problems, such as lack of teamplay and in-game direction, features that I take to be in the purview of the coaching staff. Lack of player talent is constantly (and perhaps accurately) decried, but the coaching shortage (something I plan to write about soon) is rarely discussed. I see lack of player talent as a lack of experienced coaches cultivating it, and in turn coaches need to be cultivated, and cultivate themselves as well. And coaches aren’t going to improve by dodging difficult and seemingly unworkable situations, but by embracing the challenge these situations present.
As a final aside, I acknowledge that this piece has ignored personality/attitude/mentality issues that can be just as prevalent as gameplay problems for teams. In general though, my approach here follows the same logic: I don’t think there’s anything static about a player’s mentality that make them necessarily toxic or unreceptive that can’t be improved. Certainly some cases are harder than others, but aren’t the hardest cases often the ones most worth cracking? Given how Doublelift was known to be as a teammate on CLG, and then having worked with him through the most successful split of his career, I have no doubt of the possibility of such change. Players can always change for the better, and we as coaches need to constantly improve to learn how to help player’s help themselves.
This is the first in what will hopefully be a series of observations on League of Legends coaching. Thanks to @InvertLoL for editing and advice.