Jack "KBBQ" Chen remains the most respected specialist in regards to Chinese Dota and so we couldn't pass on the opportunity to talk with him at the PGL Major. Jack discusses the lessons he learned as team director of VGJ.Storm, the struggles the CN teams are experiencing and where do they stem from, and also announces a cool new project to come from the org.
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You're still a team director of VGJ.Storm. You have a new team now, but we'd like to have a little look back at the old roster and reflect. What did you learn particularly about this new role as a team director? You've been part of tournament organizations, you've been serving as a diplomat and translator for teams, now you're on camera. But this team director role looks like a step up, something new. What have you learned so far about it?
The main thing to learn about and from is of course the players. One of the fundamental differences with the western scene from the Chinese scene is that the things are a lot more player-driven as opposed to team and org-driven. That means that players have to put even more faith and trust in one another, with greater consequences. The extreme stress and emotions can lead to some very tough decisions. Let's never forget how difficult it is to compete in anything at the highest level, particularly this game with such complexity and dependence on one another.
Dota is such a stressful game for players, they are under so much pressure to perform, some of them have only a limited time window in which to make things happen as pros. They place so much trust and energy in each other and it's all very fragile at times, too. Sometimes, people can be doing the right things from an org's perspective but it's easy for players to lose trust in each other. That's what leads to it being so volatile and unstable at times. It's really hard, things like maintaining confidence, composure, faith in progress — these are all very difficult for players.
VGJ want to be a trend-setter when it comes to player management.
And it's also how hard players work and how much toil and struggle they have to go through to compete. We've learned a lot about that and continue to in trying to maximize performance, and also about what we can do to help players out. VGJ want to be a trend-setter when it comes to player management. We are in a unique position to use some of what we learned from our Chinese partners and [their] model [and] incorporate some of that. Not all of it is going to be culturally accepted the same way, but that's the main challenge — how can we help guys deal with pressure, communication and the difficulties they face.
Having said that, was this pressure and emotional toll playing this stressful game some of the reasons why the previous version of VGJ.S roster did not work, or was there something else that we haven't touched upon yet?
Yeah, without going too much into specifics — and to protect players' privacy — when you win, it covers everything up and everything's great. But when you lose, every little crack gets exposed or brought to the surface. If you're in a situation where you're living with your coworkers, things can get even more stressful, there's always pros and cons. You can really start to wonder. And when some doubt creeps in, it's very hard to overcome. That's probably a big reason why people that have achieved success, have big names and reputations can have an easier time making teams and keeping people together. There's something to have continued faith and belief in when things are rocky.
Among the main challenges of Dota is that it's so hard to tell what's right and what's wrong, to objectively evaluate ideas and stances of the game. Even now, pros can sometimes tell you a million things about the same situation. Even though they're on the cutting edge of finding every little advantage, playing lane matchups and hero interactions to the finest of detail, their opinions can still often be radically different. In a large sense, keeping a team together comes down to personal gravitas and charisma of your captain and leaders, because you then have faith in that even if the results and success aren't immediately there. I've heard how team partnerships are compared to relationships. We've seen how bad pub games can go but when you're playing a pro game, and everything, your career, depends on it, it's really tough.
In view of all that and as a team director of VGJ.S, what can you do to serve as a diplomat to these player when it sometimes gets a little heated? How do you dispel some of these issues?
I think that's the part where not just me but the other support staff we have [come in] — there's a lot of focus on communication. It's almost like marriage counseling. Hopefully, you want to help things not get bottled up too long as they can become damaging later.
At the same time, one thing I always stress to my players is that for this relationship to work, you don't always have to be best friends, you don't have to like the people you work with. You just need to be able to make it work. In fact, I tell them frequently how the Chinese teams that won TI were all at one point on the verge of disbanding. You have to make it work as a professional relationship first, rather than something that's just friendship or feels great, or is like kind of "kumbaya!" all the time. We also more and more try to incorporate some military values and structures into building our team culture.
We're looking for ways to sign and help support up and coming players, people who want to be professionals. We want to be that gateway, that lottery ticket, to allow them to see what it takes to be a pro, what are the rigors you have to go through.
Did the players trust you in that regard, to lead them emotionally and as a specialist in the Chinese scene to tell them how some of the more successful teams worked?
To varying degrees, it obviously differs from person to person. I don't try to tell them how to play Dota, obviously, but in terms of sharing experiences from the teams I've been around — when I visit China I can see and be up to date on how people are training, how they do things, and pick a lot of brains — it's something that players are curious about.
Other things that have been good were, for instance, when kpii [stood in] for us at MDL Macau and he was able to share a lot of experience with our guys and help them. I was able to visit VGJ's base, rOtK came in Macau and gave us a lot of guidance after watching some of our scrimmages and totally changed the mood of the team in just an hour.
So, you involve some of the other VGJ guys?
Yeah, when the opportunity allows. We have some arrangements with them to help us out, but they are obviously quite busy themselves and getting busier by the moment as they pick up momentum and compete more and more.
Looking forward to the new VGJ.Storm, you brought back Sneyking. Did he just come back, or did something stand out for him that you said, "I really want him to be part of this brand as it goes forward"?
Sneyking, I've said it before even when he left, [that] I really liked how he is as a competitor, that's something very hard to teach or instill in people. It can be a double-edged sword at times and that's the edge we're trying to sharpen. He had a lot of tough situations and pressure before as a leader and captain of the team, he was in a position that he probably hadn't had that much experience with. Nothing's perfect but I generally like the way he handled himself.
With every competitor, it's always a work in progress. There can be rough edges to people that grind others both ways. But I thought he had some great qualities that were necessary in competitive players. And he's a very skilled player in his position as well, no one really doubts that. For our current team, though SVG is our captain, Sney's still going to be that strong voice that challenges and keeps people from being complacent.
We know the NA scene is a bit volatile in terms of talent that's available. How do you go about scouting and finding talent that you think will be a good mesh?
It's great that you brought it up, because we can pretty much announce through you that we're working on building an academy system. It will be announced fairly soon, but we're looking for ways to sign and help support up and coming players, people who want to be professionals. We want to be that gateway, that lottery ticket, to allow them to see what it takes to be a pro, what are the rigors you have to go through. We want to give players the opportunity to learn from our experience and connections, potentially be able to scrim and practice with us, possibly even stand-in or sub.
We want to provide support to up and coming players who meet our standards and our goals: in the process we can help ourselves, but we can also change how young players have a pipeline to becoming pros. Even if they don't end up playing for us, we think that's something that'll have helped the Dota community.
In a large sense, keeping a team together comes down to personal gravitas and charisma of your captain and leaders, because you then have faith in that even if the results and success aren't immediately there.
That's a great idea. What spurred it? Was it a long time coming, or something you thought and ran away with?
We had thought about it for a while, but just from prior experience, seeing how the Chinese teams do things and how the big organizations try to build pipelines for talent, get the values instilled early on, build some measure of loyalty... Evaluating players is very hard from an outside perspective, because not everyone behaves consistently, you have to see them in different environments to get a feel of their strengths and weaknesses.
VGJ Thunder has had success this year with a different composition and starting point, different from the seasoned all-star lineup they put together last year, and a lot of these guys came through the Vici system, a guy like Yang who had been considered top tier for while but who came from from VGP [VG Potential — Ed.], Fade, Ayo before as well... The ecosystem and structure in China is different, but we think there are lessons that can apply to us and we can take advantage of.
I know you have a lot of respect for China and people really look up to you to talk about it. Seeing how we're in the middle of the tournament, day 2, how do you feel about VGJ.Thunder's performance so far?
I think they've found a winning formula since DDC arrived. They have this front-line, teamfight-oriented position 3, unlike some teams that choose an initiator. They have not the biggest, but a solid pool of heroes they play and understand, they can execute their strategy pretty consistently. They take team fights well, their compositions are fundamentally pretty sound and balanced, they group and fight together well. The players obviously trust ROTK's experience and views and as a drafter who can take the burdens and criticism of that position, he's a really good coach for them.
All these things, plus the acquisition of DDC, who is obviously a world class support player and has been for a long time, really solidified this roster.
I hear you refer a lot to DDC and rOtk, and you have a lot of insights into them as people and professionals. Is there any player that's currently on these Tier 1 Chinese teams that you really respect or find has a lot of integrity?
It's tough, there are too many. Kpii is definitely a player I have a lot of respect for, and it's easy to bring him up because we've gotten a chance to work with him firsthand. We got to play with him at Macau, so I saw how under control and calm he is, his level of composure, how he communicates. He is playing in an environment that can often very easily be hostile to him — he is seen by many Chinese as an outsider, so it's easy for him to receive lots of blame, to really get attacked — but he's dealt very well with that. There's his versatility as a player, and we've seen him do very well around the world wherever he's gone. In many ways, he was like a mentor, a big brother to our guys in Macau. When we asked for honest feedback, he brought lots of insight and didn't hold back. A great player and a class act and he deserves the success he's been having.
On the flip side, what are some of the Chinese struggles that come up a lot with some of these teams? They are still performing quite well, but in view of some of these teams like Team Liquid, Virtus.pro, what do you think China needs to overcome?
Partly because of pressure and the frequency with which they play with other teams, what ends up happening is they spend most of their time and energy dealing with other Chinese teams. In general, they don't have as much energy to look into what other teams around the world are doing, prepare specifically for what they are doing, or find different kinds of variations and changes. Wings' looked brilliant when it seemed like they would pick anything at any time, but there were consistent principles behind that, and the inconsistency of some of these lineups and hero pools meant there were long stretches where they struggled or it seemed they could lose to anyone at any time. People tend to stick with what they know, have practiced, and works. Top Chinese teams know how much of a struggle it is to stay there in China, and the depth and strength of the region means they also have reason to believe their heroes and playstyles are battle-tested enough.
This has been an issue for a while, no?
Yeah, I would say so. It doesn't affect every team, and can easily become a cop-out, but the fact is that they are in a very competitive region. They have to spend energy knowing these rivals inside-out or some of them are not even going to get a chance to play these international tournaments. You have to be able to swim in your own pond first.
So that might affect them a little bit when it comes to preparing specifically for foreign teams, but I think it's also true that they are maybe not as quick to try things that don't seem solid and consistent. The differences in pub environment has something to do with it too. Staying ahead of the region takes a bulk of their energy.
Might be a bit early, but which team do you think could be the TI winner, if the pattern [of alternating champions] stays true? I know it's a bit early, but we can maybe come to this after TI and be like, "I called it, I knew it." [laughs]
Right now, just by the moment, I have to believe that VGJ.Thunder might shape themselves into a contender, but at the start of the year, a team I talked about on formation and was really high on was Vici Gaming. In terms of pure talent on the core positions, they might be as good as it gets. They have enough experience and consistency and the two supports both provide enough leadership and direction. If they can figure things out — they have been playing a little bit slow on this patch, I think, and it has hurt them — they will probably have the most upside out of the Chinese teams.
One last question: you talked about CN teams being a bit slow to experiment. I don't know if you have the insight on that, but Dark Willow, Pangolier — have the pros or even the CN community spoken about them? We talked to some guys, Lil from NaVi straight up said Dark Willow was OP...
Well, you saw Vici run it against Thunder in the group stage. I think it's a very strong hero, she has oversized impact from her support position in terms of damage, CC, escape. It's a pretty rare package and has flexibility too, she's also a good lane bully with extremely fast attack and scaling potential. The hero's versatility and very unusual kit for such a hero with AoE disable and damage and escape — it feels like just throwing your spells in the general direction of the enemy is already pretty good, but once people coordinate and figure out combos, she will become even stronger. She feels like a hero that, similar to something like a KOTL, would sometimes have to be focused down or controlled early in teamfights. She does enough damage to 'trade up' several positions, she can currently just obliterate much more farmed cores with Bedlam.
She's a hero — that many of us have said for some time since release — that probably needs a couple more tweaks. But then there are limitations to her and some teams won't necessarily just run her yet til they've tinkered and experimented more.
And Pango, do you feel similar about it?
Yeah, I can see why it's not in CM yet. Again, every hero is situational, but this hero with all the buffs does a lot of different things very well in terms of survivability, initiation, control, lane presence, and even damage. These are all highly valued in every hero, but I think this hero will need some changes before CM.