At the time, Leesman, 32, was unsure how Team Liquid would move forward.
“What my general feeling is, though, is that this team is in trouble right now,” Leesman said toward the episode’s end. “I think they did take winning for granted. … I don’t know what this team does. Will they change coaches? Will they change styles? How do they come back from this massive disappointment?”
Now, answering those questions is no longer a theoretical exercise for Leesman. On Monday, Team Liquid announced that Leesman himself had signed a three-year deal to become their new head coach. He replaces Jang “Cain” Nu-ri, who will remain with the team as an assistant coach. The financial terms of Leesman’s deal were not disclosed.
Leesman’s journey to Team Liquid was years in the making, beginning as a series of loose conversations with Co-CEO and Owner Steve Arhancet in the fall of 2017. Back then, as now, Liquid finished both spring and summer splits in ninth place, forcing the team to fight for their NA LCS spot in two promotion tournaments. Arhancet had grown concerned with what he perceived as the team’s “deficiencies in the coaching structure,” particularly in leadership, charisma, communication and organization among the coaching staff. While he entertained Leesman’s exploratory coaching inquiries, Arhancet ultimately promoted from within, taping Dennis “InternetHulk” Hawelka to succeed Jang as head coach.
As head coach for Team Liquid’s short-lived Overwatch team, Hawelka possessed all the qualities Arhancet felt the League of Legends team required, plus previous high-level experience with the game in 2014. But when Hawelka died that November of an enlarged heart, Jang was re-enlisted as head coach for the 2018 season. From there, four consecutive LCS titles helped paper over any lingering coaching concerns, until the team’s poor showing this spring.
“It was a reminder that we are still missing some of these things,” Arhancet said of the recent poor showings, noting a need for someone with strong communication and leadership skills. “And so we decided, we need to identify someone that embodies these types of characteristics and meshes well with the current strengths of the team that we do have.”
In early April, Arhancet’s new search brought him back to Leesman, reigniting their old coaching discussions. By that point, Leesman was one of the most prominent figures in League of Legends, having earned a reputation for compelling, stats-driven analysis during his eight-year shoutcasting career. Arhancet was impressed by Leesman’s “Socratic” approach to coaching, articulating an argument for certain in-game choices and champion selection by asking systematic questions of his experienced roster.
“It’s less dictating and more creating the right type of methodology for the right kind of information to bubble to the top through a good process,” Arhancet said. “Jatt’s got a good style in that regard. … Jatt is also extremely articulate and thoughtful in what he says. And I think that will allow for good postgame conversations and discussions on strategy and how we want to play.”
Leesman accepted the position after interviewing with management from Team Liquid and aXiomatic, Team Liquid’s ownership group. Like Arhancet, Leesman noted that improving team communication was paramount and an area where he could add value immediately. Yiliang “Doublelift” Peng’s recent departure from Liquid to sign with rival Team SoloMid amid allegations of a strained relationship with the coaching staff, underscored that need.
“I think one of the things Steve identified that Team Liquid would need to improve on is just their overall communication between the coaching staff and the players … who can bring that positive energy every day to try and drive the team toward specific goals and benchmarks, either short term, medium term or long term,” Leesman said. “Because I think that was a little bit lacking in the Spring Split. And that’s what Steve thought as well.” Leesman declined to comment on Doublelift’s relationship with the Liquid coaching staff.
Leesman hopes that in coaching Team Liquid, he can translate formative life experiences across esports and traditional sports into competitive success. Growing up in Cranbrook, British Columbia, Leesman was (and still is) an avid NBA and NFL fan, spending four years in high school quarterbacking the local under-18 Rocky Mountain Rams football team and then staying on for a year as their offensive coordinator. He idolizes Phil Jackson, especially the way Jackson would often refuse to call timeouts when his teams were struggling, preferring to let them learn how to execute and escape adversity in the moment. With no timeouts during a League of Legends game, Leesman believes proper preparation is essential to impactful coaching.
“There's going to be a lot of work on communication structures,” Leesman said. “On figuring out who needs to be the leader in this situation, figuring out how that works with each player's individual personalities, whether or not they need to be vocal, whether or not they're strong at being vocal, how you work on those things.”
Leesman was always a vocal player, whether it was sharing the build optimizations he discovered through hours of experimentation or shot-calling plays on Summoner’s Rift. Years of competitive Guild Wars honed his teamplay instincts, allowing him to quickly turn pro in League of Legends months after the game’s official release in 2009. As a jungler for Team Dignitas, Leesman won the 2011 IGN ProLeague Season 3 in Atlantic City, beating Arhancet’s Team Curse in the process. Weeks later, Leesman retired from professional play to join Riot as a game analyst.
Arhancet isn’t bitter about the tournament loss; on the contrary, part of the reason he’s bullish on Leesman is because of their shared experiences competing during the esport’s infancy.
“I think for Jatt, and also myself, there's a bit about starting all this before esports was a big thing,” Arhancet said. “When your heart starts in a place of passion like that, it's kind of always there. And so that piece I think, for both Jatt and myself, has never changed. There's love for competition, there's love for League of Legends, love for teamplay.”
If Team Liquid can improve their teamplay over the long term, Leesman isn’t worried about short-term growing pains. While the spring split was a disaster, it won’t influence Liquid’s odds of qualifying for the World Championship, which is still scheduled to be held in China this fall. Eight out of the 10 LCS teams will make the summer playoffs (and therefore have a chance to make Worlds), giving Leesman some leeway as the team attempts to rebound.
Although losing Doublelift is a blow to their ranks, the cupboard isn’t exactly bare. Team Liquid still boasts two World Champions (Jung “Impact” Eon-yeong, Jo “CoreJJ” Yong-in), two domestic champions (Mads “Broxah” Brock-Pedersen, Nicolaj “Jensen” Jensen), and a promising local talent who’s spent the last six months near the top of NA’s ranked ladder (Edward “Tactical” Ra). After an embarrassing spring, Leesman is certain this group will be highly motivated come summer to challenge Cloud9 and retake their throne.
“Sometimes success can breed complacency,” Leesman said. “And when you have such an experienced roster that have all accomplished so many things, sometimes it’s hard to find that challenge to motivate you to get to the next step. I’m hoping that this is the right set of circumstances to really help get the best out of everyone.”
On the JLXP Podcast, Leesman speculated that a change in Liquid’s playstyle during spring split contributed to their downfall. By adding Broxah to replace Jake “Xmithie” Puchero, Liquid changed more than just their jungler, entering a full-blown identity crisis with no clear solution. It’s the latest League of Legends challenge for a man who’s spent the last 10 years addressing them as a player, commentator, balancer, analyst and podcaster. Now, Leesman can add head coach to that list.
“I don’t want to miss out on amazing opportunities,” Leesman said. “This specific moment in time, at this point in my life, with where Team Liquid is set up and wanting to have a part in a team success within North America and then hopefully a team success on the international stage … that is something that has definitely grinded at me for the past eight years of casting, not being able to have an impact on how we do as a region. So, now I have that, and it’s really exciting.”