An interview with Sami Harbi, manager of the Fnatic League of Legends team

Fnatic in action at the League of Legends World Finals, where they finished in the top 4
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We chat with the manager of a leading eSports team about training routines and the future of eSport.

Whether society at large likes it or not, eSports are a fast-growing and increasingly accepted global phenomenon. But many of us trivialise eSports, and don’t really know what they entail other than people spending a lot of time playing a single video game. Do the training schedules match the intensity of pre-fight boxing camps? Are gamers’ wrists as injury-prone as footballers’ hamstrings? Do sneaky backdoor player transfers exist?

I spoke with Sami Harbi, manager of Fnatic, one of the world’s most decorated and popular eSports teams. He speaks with me from Cologne, which I’m informed is the home of the Fnatic League of Legends team during the gaming season.

So Fnatic’s whole LoL team lives together in Cologne. Is that the team training camp?
You could say that. During the gaming season we live here full-time, and only go home for vacations. As it happens, it’s the vacation season right now so it’s just me here!

What’s the daily team training routine in the house?
Usually we start training in the afternoon, around 1pm or 2pm. At this point, we’ll have a scheduled practice against another team for 4-6 hours.

That’s a pretty late start for a professional team.
In the morning we wake up, breakfast, solo practice. We send our players to the gym as well. We believe it’s important for our players to be in good physical shape. Like in any sport, the player’s health is paramount. Things like this will be reflected in their performance, and every major team should try and impose that.

Sounds like you guys train longer than professional footballers. Do you get to chill in the evenings?
No, evenings are usually streaming time, which is where fans can see the players in action, allowing us to build up a following while practising. How long this takes depends on the player’s stamina. Most of them usually train until about one in the morning, some a little earlier. But the key thing is that everyone is up for afternoon practice.

So it’s a late start and a late finish in eSports training.
The main broadcast media for eSports is streaming, and the audience tends to watch most streams in the evenings. We have to adapt to that.fnatic lol team

Fnatic show the kind of camaraderie needed to be a successful team

Are player injuries a worry in eSports?
Shoulder and wrist inflammations are the most common injuries. In Korea a player had to go to surgery because of the injuries he sustained. Here at Fnatic we’ve managed to avoid that thankfully, but we get tips from a physiotherapist about how to keep these injuries to a minimum.

Do the players still enjoy playing games casually, or do they enjoy their breaks from gaming, which has basically become their job?
It’s a mixture. Some just want to get away from it, but of course most of them continue to enjoy gaming. Just like a footballer will continue to play at least a little bit most of the year round. Many of the players will also casually take on a different role in the game (off-rolling) when they’re not training, so for instance they might do a bit of jungling in League of Legends if they don’t usually do that. As with any sport, you have to love it to be a pro at it.

As the manager, do you advise the players on strategies or play styles?
There’s not too much someone like me can teach the team, who are some of the best players in the world! When Fnatic face European teams, they don’t need too many pointers, but when they come to facing Korean, Chinese, or Taiwanese teams, then we dedicate a lot of time to study these teams and report back on their different play styles.

So there is no coach, as such?
There’s not so much coaching in our team, but more analysis. We’ll point out mistakes, we’ll make sure players don’t get too cocky. When we study the opponent, we try to figure out weaknesses in their styles of play, and we can prepare our team for their strategies. It’s important that our team doesn’t get caught off-guard.

Raw focus on the face of Cyanide, a member of Fnatic's LoL team
Raw focus on the face of Cyanide, a member of Fnatic’s LoL team

You mentioned that different team nationalities have different play styles. Can you go into these a bit more?
China, for example, are always on the offensive. Crazy team fights all over the place, and a very aggressive style with which they never stop attacking you. Korean teams are very organised, and focused around objectives. European teams revolve around team fights mostly. America’s tactics are varied, but many of their teams study Korean teams for tactical inspiration.

Do Fnatic adhere to any kind of food diet?
We try, but we don’t have the same eSports economy as Korea so can’t afford an in-house system like they have. We discourage junk food and encourage our players to do their own cooking and avoid too many takeaways. The diet of a player is important, but we’re not established enough yet to impose it too strictly.

Do football-style player transfers exist in pro gaming?
They do, but they’re not yet clearly defined. In Starcraft, for example, if a player is contracted, then you have to contact the team he’s in. Kind of like football, but without the transfer windows. In League of Legends, there is an actual policy forbidding teams to talk to contracted players, so you have to wait for the contract to run out.

So have there been any lucrative transfer fees paid for Starcraft players yet?
Not yet, but I think it will start happening. It’s not quite a player transfer, but Samsung bought Team MVP, a League of Legends team, for $500,000, so you can see how seriously eSports are being treated.

Ironsquid eSport tournament, France: The once-niche eSports craze is swiftly gaining popularity
Ironsquid eSport tournament, France: The once-niche eSports craze is swiftly gaining popularity

What happens when an eSport sponsored game starts losing popularity? Is it easy for players to switch over to another game after years of training in one game?
YellOwStaR, one of our players, was a top Warcraft 3 player in France, but then when that game faded, he jumped over to League of Legends. Same with MarineKing, one of the world’s most famous Starcraft 2 players who switched to League of Legends this month. Some players are better at making this switch than others.

What will happen to the team if League of Legends loses popularity, like Warcraft 3 eventually did?
The best players in the world in Warcraft 3 made the transition to Starcraft 2. However, they’re very different games, so when a new game arrives, new stars arise with it. I think that eSports are becoming better at keeping their games up-to-date. LoL developers Riot make drastic changes to the game every year to make sure it stays in fashion. If LoL folded, then of course it’d be tough because the players get so attached to one game, but it’s up to every player on the eSports scene to ensure that these things don’t happen.

Is this a long-term career, or do players move on after a time?
It’s quite a young sport, so it’s hard to say. There are some people who have been doing it for 10 years and are still going strong. Many players who retire become coaches, analysts, commentators, or go on to work for videogame companies as consultants. There are plenty of opportunities.

Do you think there’s a limit to the expanding popularity of eSports? Surely it won’t match the big global sports for popularity, but how much further do you think it can go?
League of Legends is tuned into by 10 million people all over the world. It’s widely distributed on Korean, Chinese and Taiwanese TV. When you consider that video gaming is now the most popular entertainment industry in the world, it’s easy to see that it can still grow.

In Korea, eSports have been going for 10 years, and have had time to become hugely popular. This year for the first time, eSports players have been granted official athletes’ visas in America, which is a very exciting development. The more popular gaming becomes, the more visible eSports will become, and the more people will want to take a shot at going pro at it!




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