Origen’s coach opens up

By Riot Whiski

Those seeking a tidy explanation for how the EU LCS' Origen rocketed out from beneath the shadow of fellow European squad Fnatic to become the sturdiest-looking European hope in the 2015 World Championship race might be tempted to point the finger at Tadayoshi “Hermit” Littleton. After all, his ascension from Origen's analyst into the role of head coach took place right as the team was diving into its Korean bootcamp and completing their final surge of preparation for Worlds.

Origen’s remarkable start in Groups seemed to beg a special explanation. They looked strong going into Worlds, but there was always the implicit ‘for a European team’ caveat in people’s minds. Analysts expected them to grab a handful of wins, perhaps, before gathering up their consolation-prize Worlds track jackets and boarding the plane back to Berlin. One League caster took to Twitter ahead of the tournament to make a cheeky $100 wager that Origen would fail to make it out of Groups. Others described the team’s mid-laner Enrique “xPeke” Cedeño Martínez as a liability, all washed up. As the Group Stage action got underway, however, xPeke proved that he washes up real good, securing a clutch quadrakill in the team’s unlikely triumph over China’s LGD on Day 2 of the tournament.

With each successive victory, you could feel the Paris crowd piling aboard the Origen fan-wagon. The whole tone of the conversation switched. These guys were a legitimate contender. What changed? What variable had been tweaked that might explain the team’s fighting form? Was Origen’s new coach Hermit key to the team’s headline-grabbing success in Groups?

“I’ve heard some people suggest that, but I wouldn’t claim any of that credit,” says Hermit, deflecting the plaudits. “I think it’s a matter of everybody putting in the work. If I were to say, this is why we’re doing well right now, it’s because I think we really made good use of our boot camp. I think that our communication improved. I think that our team fighting improved. I think that our champion pools have improved. And those are three very good things to have improved going right into Worlds.”

Flying Coach

When news surfaced in early September that Origen’s head coach Titus “LeDuck” Hafner (pictured below) would be stepping down, my mind immediately drifted back to Stockholm. Walking from the player hotel toward a nearby pub shortly after Origen had lost to Fnatic in the EU LCS Summer Finals, I’d asked LeDuck how he was holding up. The candor of his reply took me off guard. Making no effort to mask his frustration, he lamented how close the team had been to getting a much-needed break, yet now having to go straight back into prep for the gauntlet with another two best-of-fives standing between them and a ticket to the 2015 World Championship. He sounded exhausted. In retrospect, it should’ve been clear that LeDuck was already plotting his exit.

Into that coaching vacuum stepped Hermit, an American analyst who’d been working closely with the team since February of 2015 during the team’s Challenger Series quest for an LCS spot. His focus had been primarily on warding strategies, jungle pathing and opposition scouting, but as the team entered the Summer Playoffs and Finals, he and LeDuck had already undergone a tectonically gradual lane-swap in their roles and responsibilities.

“I was taking much more of a coaching role while [LeDuck] was taking much more of an analysis role,” he says. “I don’t know how to say this politically but I’m more of a people person than he is so it was the way that we made things effective was for me to handle discussions and the more coaching-style thing. He was taking a backseat in terms of being the coach and focusing instead on analysis and giving vod review.”

On paper, the prospect of undergoing a change in leadership in the weeks leading up to the most important tournament of the year seems calamitous, almost equivalent to having the Worlds patch hit League’s live server 24 hours before the competition gets underway. Right when you’re trying to minimize the number of variables in play and ensure that Origen is on the most stable footing possible, surely a coaching shake-up puts the team at a disadvantage.

“It looks weird from the outside, but from the inside there wasn’t a huge change because there had already been that transitional period. Then going to Korea I was able to kind of refine my role. I still figure out on a day-to-day basis what is needed from me... I’m a loyal person and I feel like when this opportunity presented itself, it was the best thing I could do to give the organization a chance, to give the guys a chance. There was no sense of, I want this position, it was more like, I’m here, I’m willing to do the work.”

When LeDuck decided that he wanted to step down, he met with xPeke and Hermit to discuss the handover and how things might work going forward. Hermit made it clear that he was happy to join the team as the coach onstage. He would continue to honour his responsibilities as the team’s analyst until he could recruit his own team of analysts to assist him in that role. The varied brain trust he eventually brought together would include data specialists, up-and-coming League aficionados, and even a clutch of reformed Elo boosters. The most important thing for Hermit is that he has a group that exists outside of the team bubble itself where he can check his assumptions against the “soapbox opinion” (his words) of people whose opinion he values.

“The brain trust has particular tasks that I assign them that allow me to spend a lot more time focusing on the team itself, the team dynamics, solving conflicts and then have time for myself,” says Hermit. “Because that’s one big struggle for me is because I give everything, I can’t see myself coaching if I can’t give 16 hours a day or 14 hours a day. And to find that time where then I can also have an hour to myself, they help me with that.”

Voices Carry

One of the facets of Origen’s play that Hermit has worked hardest to improve is team communication, and you can see it in game-changing calls such as the team’s decisive Baron rush against LGD and the Paul “SoaZ” Boyer backdoor later in the same showdown. While growing up in North Carolina, Hermit attended a Quaker middle school, which obligated him to attend weekly religious meetings. He credits the rigid structure of those meetings for informing his personal coaching method.

“In the Quaker tradition you have meetings every week. There’s a moderator and you have an agenda,” he explains. “Once a topic is brought up, you go through the topic and then the moderator kind of summarises everything and everyone either agrees or says ‘well no, this’ and then we reach another agreement and the moderator summarises and then ok, we move on to the next topic. I try and apply a lot of that to team discussions in terms of making sure that we’re all on the same page after we talk about a particular play or a particular champion, or even pick-ban.”

Hermit stresses that such meetings follow a democratic system in which the players have a great deal of power. For the team’s lineup of games for Week 1 of the Group Stages, the team would spend an hour the night before each day of competition and another hour the day of, talking through their picks and strategies. They talk about what they’re going to play and what they intend to do in a variety of situations. Hermit pivots into a facilitating role. Instead of being heavy-handed and telling the team what’s going to happen, he relies on probing questions that force his players to unpretzel their own conundrums.

“The Socratic method is how I came into thinking about coaching myself,” he says. “I’m not there to be right, I’m there to ask questions. Did you think of this? I might point out, ‘this is what they have left in their pool, they can go this, is that necessarily a good pick there? If they counter with this champion, maybe we should pick mid lane instead of top lane here?’ Basically trying to keep everything polished and maybe show them holes in what’s happening and make sure everyone’s understanding what’s going on.”

Hermit admits that communication within Origen hasn’t always hit the ideal balance. At times in the EU LCS Spring Split, there would be a complete lack of communication, at other times there would be too much. In the former scenario, a crucial piece of information would get left out due to poor communication, which in turn caused the wider communication structure to fall apart. Players would re-enter the fray and not know what to do or which point of focus to attack next.

He’s especially proud of how the team’s shotcalling has improved and credits that improvement for the team’s recent success. Origen’s jungler Maurice “Amazing” Stückenschneider will call the early game with some input from support Alfonso “Mithy” Rodriguez. As the game transitions into the mid- to late game, Mithy takes over the majority of the shotcalling. Hermit also credits SoaZ as “an important third voice when we’re oiled up and [communication’s] really working.”

Perhaps most surprisingly, Hermit describes Jesper “Niels” Svenningsen, the Rookie MVP of the EU LCS Summer Split who comes off extremely terse in post-game interviews, as an eager participant in team interactions.

“I think part of the reason why Niels has had such a phenomenal season is, he’s a communicator,” says Hermit. “He wants to talk about the game and so he learns a lot from a group setting, from being there with four veterans, he’s constantly soaking information, but then also in-game I remember during Challenger Series, Mithy said, ‘Yo, dude, you’ve got to talk more’ and he’s like ‘what the fuck do I say?’ And Mithy’s like, ‘anything, literally anything!’ So now [Niels] is a very strong voice as well. In Korea we improved the balance of all of these voices.”

Family Business

With such a diverse range of nationalities represented within Origen’s team roster -- Spanish, German, Danish, French -- it shouldn’t come as any surprise that the team’s American coach has his own right-hand Spaniard to add balance. Former pro player Araneae serves as a valuable right-hand support to Hermit. Origen’s coach feels comfortable leaning on him because he knows the players extremely well, having coached Peke and SoaZ during the previous year’s World Championship.

“[Araneae] kind of plays the fire to my ice right now. I’m always trying to focus the discussion, but he’s able to talk to Mithy and Peke in their native language. It’s kind of alienating for me, on the one hand, but I think it’s actually helpful. I just have to get over that. He’s also very passionate, helping the team, getting the wins, I think all coaching staff should have this local onsite coach-analyst dynamic. I think it’s the most effective. If we’re coaching a team and the team gets pissed off at you, [the other leadership figure] can work with the team for the next 4-6 hours until they cool down.”

Does Hermit characterize himself as the element ‘ice’ because of a chilly directness in his leadership style? “No, I think I just try and keep it level and focused. Maybe for example during scrims Araneae after a good play would be like, ‘yes YESSS!’ It’s just a scrim, but he’s still trying to fire them up. If a dispute or disagreement happens, I’m like, ‘ok guys, this is not a fucking useful thing to be saying right now, and if somebody tries to go over the top, Araneae is there to be the watchdog and say, ‘what the fuck?’ The name of the position means nothing to me, I just care about the work that needs to be done and wins for the team.”

Any parents reading will easily recognise this dynamic, which feels akin to the tag-team approach parents must often take in dealing with the mood swings of children. Hermit chuckles at the analogy, acknowledging that as a 26-year-old coach working with mostly younger players, the role can often feel like being a parent. “Living in a gaming house is like living in a dorm,” he says with a laugh. “It’s very much like, ok, alright kids, time for dinner. This is what we’re doing today!”

At least on this family road trip to Paris, Hermit’s kids are making him damn proud. Who knows, now that they’ve officially locked in a Quarterfinals spot by placing 2nd in Group D behind KT Rolster, they can all pile into a station wagon and drive to Euro Disney to celebrate together before heading on to London.

It’s a swell Worlds, after all.

4 years ago

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