The LA Gladiators finished the inaugural season in fourth place overall, earning a spot in the seatson playoffs before losing in the first round to the London Spitfire. Gladiators Head Coach David “Dpei” Pei sat down with us here at Overwatchscore to talk about their first season. Part one of the extensive interview focuses on the Gladiators’ intense regular season, and Dpei’s growth as a coach. Check back in tomorrow for part two of the interview, where we discuss the playoffs and plans for Season 2!
OverwatchScore: Stage 1 could be described as a bit of a bumpy start. It’s clear that the players were still finding their footing in the team. What was it like behind the scenes during these first few weeks? How did you approach the start of the season and your support system?
Dpei: Stage one was kind of a bumpy start, sure, but I think our coaching staff really tried to make a more formal structure that allowed for player growth. That was something that Tim, Blake, and Kez [Kevin Jeon, Team Manager] worked on a lot. I don’t think you get to see the effectiveness of that structure until you get a long-term perspective, though. While we saw in Season 1 how helpful structure can be, going into Season 2 I think structure will be even more important.
So yeah, I think stage one was bumpy – we were a new team, we were finding our footing. I was finding my footing as a coach as well, as I’m sure many people were. So I think it was it was a good thing we were stared out really fundamentally at all levels – both in teaching our players and from a structural point of view.
OWS: You mentioned in a previous Overwatchscore interview that you assembled the Gladiators based not on mechanical skill alone, but on “smart” players who know where to be and know their roles in a given game. Additionally, you were looking for players who bought in to the LA Gladiators culture. How did this Gladiator mindset present itself in and out of games during Stage 1?
Dpei: I think it was important that our players bought into the philosophy that we were looking for as Gladiators. None of the requirements were based on mechanical skill. Obviously, it’s very important that you’re individually skilled, but the main thing was that you were a hard worker, you listened to your coaches, and that you’re a good teammate. And I think having that kind of mindset coming in– if coaches the other players are telling you about this kind of philosophy, you kind of learn to buy in. And I think it kind of affects the players’ mentality as the season goes on.
Again, it kind of feels like the first question where the structural and philosophical things take time to really settle in. I think that that mindset is really good for the players. So that they know its more about the progress, it’s not about the immediate result. Right? Stage one was 4 and 6, the result wasn’t that good, but I think the process was necessary. We started out really fundamentally. We built the groundwork for it as coaches, as players. I think they understood that too. The season’s not over, we’re still looking to improve no matter what.
OWS: Was your goal to bring people on who had that mindset to begin with, or people who were willing to grow into it?
Dpei: A lot of column A, a little column B – it’s dependent on each person. Basically, if we felt they could fit into these things within a reasonable amount of time that’s someone we would want to pick up. Obviously, individual skill was a very important thing. We can’t just grab anyone who has a really good mentality. We have to grab people who are also initially very good. So it was something that we considered, but there are trade-offs to consider as well, right? If someone’s really really gifted, you might have to give some things up, but I think with all our players, our first seven players, they all really did exude these qualities that we wanted from a Gladiator.
OWS: When talking about the rise of the Gladiators, from Stage 2 through the end of the season, the focus is often on Fissure and his impact on the team. What else changed, on either a coaches’ or players’ level, that made this a turning point for your team?
Dpei: In kind of the same vein as question one and two, I think that you couldn’t really see the progress that we were making, but a lot of our strategy got a lot better. I think in Stage 1, I was a bit too stubborn with strategy. In Stage 2, we realized that we needed more adaptability. We just needed to have our players think a lot more about the situation, rather than me crafting every single game plan, every single counter pick. So that was something that our team got a lot better on.
The arrival of Fissure obviously helped us with a lot of decisiveness in a dive heavy meta. His Winston is one of the best in the league, and that undoubtedly helped. I don’t view it so much as a drastic turning point, though – at least internally. It was something that we were able to do all along – we were just getting used to showing it in Stage 2. Ten games isn’t really a lot of time to build a team. In Stage 2, though, we got our footing a little bit and got a little confidence going too – which is very important.
OWS: With the whole season behind you now, do you think you found the right balance of you and the coaching staff providing some strategy while the players make in-game picks or decisions?
Dpei: I think it’s an ever moving needle, just because the meta is always changing. Levels of flexibility are really important. In stages one and two, I’d argue that the meta was way less flexible. It was just really dive-heavy, and there weren’t a lot of changes. Whereas once Brigitte was introduced by stage four there was a lot of room for flexibility. So for us coaches, we were able to talk about more general things, but let our players really decide. If we ever felt really strongly, we would be like, “You guys need to switch off to this, then we’ll have the better team comp, and then we’ll win.”
I think a lot of Stage 4 was strategic coaching. Tim and I really crafted out how we thought the meta should be played. It really helped our players. Our players noted it was the clearest the meta has ever been, and we had the better team comp a lot of the time. That felt really good as a coach, just because we really put in the time – we literally made flow charts and talked for hours about how the Stage 4 meta should be. Because, you know, it was crunch time. It was possible to get into playoffs at the time – it wasn’t in clear sight, but it was possible. So we put in a lot of effort and I feel like that really panned out. But the players also giving us a lot of input is very important too.
It’s kind of like a back and forth. But as far as like finding the right balance, it really just depends sometimes on the meta, your players, what they like, what they don’t like. So it’s gonna change season to season, even stage to stage, but we’re really trying to find the right balance at every single point.
OWS: The Gladiators went undefeated on Blizzard World when it was introduced in Stage 3. How did your team prepare for the new map, and how did they maintain that win streak?
Dpei: So Blizzard World was actually very strange to us, in terms of how we were 5-0 in that stage. We felt like we didn’t really understand the map. We understood it at a very basic level by Stage 3. I think in Stage 4 we actually understood it, but I think we went 4-1 or something. I felt like it was more of a flaw on other teams not being able to play correctly. Our understanding was very rudimentary, but other people’s understanding was just straight wrong some of the time. If people don’t know how a map should be played or how a meta should be played, it gets better toward the end of a stage because everyone starts copying each other.
Stage 4, I think, is a good example of this. I think we had the best understanding [of the meta] from weeks two to four. Week one, less so. Week one I think everyone was a little lost, and everyone had very little scrim time. But weeks two to four everyone kinda got to like try their own thing and by week five, people were just copying whoever the best teams were.
And I think Stage 3 with Blizzard World was kind of the same. We were just ahead of the curve, but I don’t think we were good at Blizzard World at a pure level. Our Stage 3 wasn’t better than our Stage 4 by any means. It’s just that everyone else’s was relatively weaker.
We kind of just prepared for the map by… Tim and I really like to argue a lot, basically. We play devil’s advocate, and we try to see where the map looks similar to other maps. “Why is this any different than X?” is what we always ask ourselves. That was a lot of the discussion between us. And a lot of it is just figuring it out on the fly, too. Just saying “I think this could work” in scrims, and then we try it, and then it works. So I think it was more other teams being underprepared on that map, I would argue, and us just being lucky with a good read.
Stage 4 ended with the Gladiators in first place, having defeated everyone but the Valiant. Now months into the Overwatch League, how did you see yourself evolving as a coach?
Dpei: I think by Stage 4 I really found my footing within the team. From my point of view, there are three categories that you need to excel in to be a good coach. There’s player management, which is how you talk to players. How you’re able to manage players includes their mentality, and just being able to talk to and teach them. There’s staff management, which is how you’re able to delegate and work within your own coaching staff. How effectively can you coordinate your staff as the head coach? And then there’s the actual knowledge of the game. So in all of these regards, I felt like I got significantly better.
I think the ones that were newer to me, since the Overwatch League isn’t remote, was player and staff management. I had never worked with a comprehensive staff before, and we went through a lot of conflict. But I think that’s good, because it just means we’re all really passionate. We care about what happens to the team. That wasn’t easy, but it was something that we as a team kind of figured out, and it was really good by the end of Stage 4, where we were all more in sync.
From a player management point of view, I tried a lot of different styles with the players just based on what I thought was working, or what I didn’t think was working. I think in Stage 1 and a little bit of Stage 2, I was definitely too strict with my players. By stages three and four, I was much looser, but they had that precedent of me being strict at that point.
So I think I really grew in a lot of these regards, but I definitely know that with time you can only—you have to improve on these things. And they’re really important things to improve on. Even in playoffs, that was a new experience for me, and for the team. I feel like I grew a lot from that in all three regards. [I grew] strategically, and in high-pressure situations versus the regular season matches, which are filled with pressure, though the playoffs had a little bit more. On player and staff management, we did a good job on preparing and making sure our players were ready for the playoffs.
Check back in tomorrow for part two of our interview with Dpei, where we talk about the Gladiators’ playoff run and their plans for Season 2! Thanks for reading!