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RotterdaM and Team Dignitas on success in eSports

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This past weekend was the IEM 2012 world championships in Hannover, Germany [SPOILER ALERT!]. It was an all around success for both the championship teams and esports in general. As a Starcraft 2 fan I got to see some of my favorite match ups. We had a redux of MMA vs Feast. And as an ex-resident of Chile I cheered heavily for KiLLeR and was happy to see him supported and competing on the international stage.

Aside from the matches there were many interesting interviews and even some special content produced by ESL, Intel, and Razer. Today I want to talk about two of my favorite moments. The first was RotterdaM’s explanation of what makes eSports dynamic, and the second is Razer’s “The story so far” video featuring Team Dignitas, where the manager Odee defines success for his team as consistent performance.

Live versus online competition

After SK-gaming’s MC was crowned world champion, RotterdaM gave a post IEM wrap-up interview with fantastic discussion about the playoffs. At one point he was asked about PuMa‘s decision-making process in the third and fifth game of the finals, and responded with a brilliant expose on the difference between online play versus live competition:

I just think his mind wasn’t clear. I mean it happens, that’s what makes eSports. If — I think the best games are often played in custom mode, or in custom games, where nobody is watching. It’s really hard to bring it to the big stage. Like how often did we see guys like MMA, PuMa, being supply blocked this tournament quite badly for twenty-five, thirty seconds. Well, I can promise you that if those guys are sitting in their own house they’re not going to be supply blocked at fifty-six or you know like seventy-four supply all the time, it’s not going to happen.

Let me describe a hypothetical situation to you. HuskyStarcraft is practicing Starcraft 2. Every day he practices launching a blink-stalker timing attack. He practices in his house all afternoon for a week, and then he enters into a showmatch versus EG InControl where the winner takes $10,000. He starts the game in front of a live audience, and arrives at the point when he is about to launch his attack. He notices that his hands are sweating and he is very nervous, so he takes a moment and says to himself, “Just relax Husky.” However, it doesn’t work! Surprisingly just commanding oneself to relax does not automatically mean the body will obey. Despite that, he attacks, and promptly loses to a mothership rush.

Practice is different from competition; it is true in all sports but especially true in esports. Esports has many mental skills, like relaxation, that are powerful for competition but not necessary during practice time. When I use the word “skills” to describe relaxation and such, it implies that they can be improved by training or practice. The issue is that most people do not realize that mental skills like motivation, focus, and determination are not innate, but are able to be improved by training. Everybody recognizes that the ability to remain focused is great for competition, but not many know how to work on it outside of a tournament. Many people just expect that by competing they will get better at these ‘competition skills,’ and that is one of the reasons that experienced athletes often out-perform novice athletes. If one wants to get started with mental skills training, a good, simple place to start is pre-preparation, since it does not involve learning new skills but rather paving the way for the skills one is already strong in to carry them to success.

The skill to pwn all skills

The articles I write are targeted at a mixture of competitive skills and practice skills, and some that are useful for both (like goal setting). However, there is a fundamental skill found in almost all championship athletes that I have not mentioned yet. This magical ‘meta’ skill is not actually a basic mental skill that improves performance. Rather, it is a universal life skill that people use to learn and train. Most athletic careers follow a typical trend where this meta skill, called reflective ability or introspection, starts off low and increases throughout time and practice.

There is a big difference between winning, but not knowing how one did it, and winning with a clear understanding of the processes contributing to that mental state. The second situation is repeatable, and allows for consistent performance. One finds high reflective ability in most self-coached and individual athletes because it is a necessary component of self-training.

Mental toughness, consistency and reflection

In the Razer series “The story so far,” Team Dignitas manager Odee talks about how they define success for their athletes. They want consistency at big competitions. They look for somebody who is competing to win. There are many words that the media and sports casters use to describe this combination of consistent success and competitive desire. Have you ever heard “mental toughness,” “mental strength,” “fortitude,” “unshakeable will,” “consistency,” or “championship mindset?” These are all terms to describe somebody who has high reflective ability combined with strong mental skills.

The opposite of a champion is a ‘lucky’ athlete. Somebody who wins sometimes, but not others, and is unable to explain why. They put it down to various external factors. Consistent athletes, however, are mentally tough, and thus they can easily recreate their ideal competition zone internally. They often have coping mechanisms, developed from experience, for things like missing sleep, cold hands, upset stomach, nerves, and losing momentum in a match. Everybody has an individual “cocktail” of emotions, energy levels, and internal mindset where they perform best, their “zone.” The ability to get “in the zone” takes reflection on the experience and losing.

The ultimate goal of reflection is to move towards mental toughness and an unyielding belief in your own ability to achieve your goals. Self-awareness gives one the capability to learn from their mistakes and from their success, and as Sir Francis Bacon put it, “Ipsa Scientia Potestas Est (knowledge is power).” Odee put it like this, “If you don’t know how to lose, you’re never going to win.” I believe he is referring to the constant growth attained by analysing the weakness that appear during losses, a very introspective process. D4rker mentioned the same thing at IEM Kiev.

The training journal

Many sport athletes improve self-awareness by doing a training journal. Writing is an inherently reflexive process and a powerful way to build up knowledge of oneself. Kenneth Ravizza included some guidelines for sports journals in his chapter of Applied sport psychology, and I will summarize them here for those interested.

Keep in mind that the sport journal is for ones own development, and if you choose to share it feel free to erase any parts you feel are too personal. Journaling after practice offers reflection that helps develop mental skills and progress as an athlete. Journaling after competition or using a performance feedback form can help bring closure, which is very useful in eSports tournament settings when there are many games back to back. I am sure Team Solo Mid could have benefitted from the use of performance feedback forms during their group stage matches at IEM Hannover 2012.

If you decide to try a journal, keep this list of prompts either at hand or in the back of the journal for easy access when you are at a loss for where to start. Eventually one develops a personal style of self-exploration and refers to the prompts less.

Peak performance What does it feel like when you play or practice at your best? Describe an enjoyable situation.  What have you learned from the moments of being completely in-the-zone?
Stressors Write down your thoughts about various events outside eSport that are potentially distracting — boyfriends, school friends, work, money, parental expectations, etc. Do the same thing for distractions in the arena or if practicing at home, the environment —  temperature, spectators, location, importance of the match, etc.
Teammates What do you want from your teammates? What can you give them? How do you relate and work with them? What do you think you give them? Where do you fall short, where do they fall short? Write about your relationships with other teammates. Any unfinished business?
Confidence At this time how confident are you towards achieving your goals? Do you respect yourself and your goals? What or how much can you ask of yourself? of your team? of your teammates?
Manifestations of your stress How do you experience high levels of anxiety in competition? Asses your thoughts
Awareness and concentration What changes do you observe in your performance when you play more ‘aware?’ What concentration methods are you experimenting with?
Relaxation
How are your relaxation skills developing? Are there any parts of your body that are more difficult to relax? What method is best for you? How are you able to relate this to your play? How quickly can you relax?
Thought control How is your self-talk affecting your performance? Write out some of your negative self-talk and make it positive.
Centering or focus What are you doing to focus concentrate before and during the contest? What has been successful? Describe your preperformance routine.
Arousal control What are you doing to control your arousal level? What are ou doing to increase arousal and intensity? What are you doing to reduce arousal level? What is working and not working?
Pressure situations How are you handling pressure situations? What are you doing differently? What are you doing to learn more coping mechanisms?
Quality practice time What do you do to mentally prepare for practice? How do you keep your personal difficulties from affecting your play? What are you doing to take charge? What works for you and what hasn’t worked?

References
Ravizza, K. (2006). Increasing awareness for sport performance. In Williams, J. (5th ed), Applied sport psychology: Personal growth to peak performance (228-239). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.