It takes more than just a talented squad of players to become a champion. The team's dedicated analyst since the Curse days, Mark "MarkZ" Zimmerman has been with the team through thick and thin. Whether they were #KEEPINGKEITH or #PICKINGPIGLET, it was Mark who prepped the team's strategies for the week's matches and helped keep them on point throughout the season. In the end, they broke the curse and managed to claim their highest placing in team history. As they head off to Hawaii for a much-deserved break, I got a chance to chat with Mark about his journey with Liquid this split and hear about his role in their success, and what the team will be aiming for going forward.
First of all, can you do a self introduction: how long you've been with the team, what you do with the organization?
Yeah. I'm Mark Zimmerman, the head analyst for Team Liquid's League of Legends team. I joined the team when they were still Curse before Season 4 started. They were relegated at the time, so I was a volunteer analyst. I helped them requalify back into the LCS, and once they were back in they brought me on full time and I've been with them for the season and a half since then.
How did you get started doing analysis work with League of Legends teams?
Honestly, I didn't have any connections, I didn't know anyone in the scene, I didn't go to events...I had like zero. But I wrote up a couple reports, and it was kinda just for myself to have done some work: so I could be like “Here is something I've done, do you like this?” After season 3 ended and Curse was relegated, they sent out a thing saying they were doing open tryouts for every position. I sent an email to Steve (Arancet) asking if they were doing open tryouts for analysts as well, he said yep. I got brought on on some pet projects, just some things to see if I was good, and he liked me and it went from there.
At the time, you were doing all that remotely and as a volunteer?
Yeah, so I graduated from college and I was doing some work on my own portfolio, and it was around that time that I sent that email to Steve to see where it was going. I was living at home with my parents.
When did being the analyst for Curse become more than a volunteer thing?
Like I said, once they qualified back into the LCS and they knew for sure they were gonna be “in the money,” and I helped get them there, they brought me on to continue to be a part of the team. But it was full time, so I drove across the country, moved into the Curse house, and lived with them for a year.
So you don't currently live with the team?
Right. The Team Liquid apartment is actually pretty small: it just houses the five players, Peter when he's there, and the manager Joka. I have my own place now, it's a couple miles away and it's pretty easy to get to, and we use an office too so I don't even need to be at the house for scrims. I only go to the house for team meetings and important things like that. So I wake up, drive to work, and come home: which is pretty nice. I still work from home a lot.
In the day-to-day during the LCS season, what is your workload like?
The scrims start at 12, and usually we tell our players to get there around 11:30 to buy food and make sure they've got their computer set up and logged in. I usually get there a little before them, like at 11:15, and turn all the computers on and do any prep work for the day that I need to. Sometimes it's thinking about what bans we want to practice: stuff like that. Then we go through a scrim block, three hours, usually a break (3-4): get food again, or just do a solo queue game, relax, do whatever you want to do. Then we have a 4-7 block, sometimes it's a 5-8 block, and then from there most of the time the players just go home and I go home and I close everything down and lock up. When I get home there's some stats work I usually do on the scrims, I have other analysts underneath me I'm talking with, I'm talking with Steve and Peter about player morale, how the team's doing in scrims, anything that needs to be talked about, and then usually I'll watch some games from LPL, LCK, that kind of stuff.
A lot of people are a little unclear on the breakup of work between the coach, the analyst, and the manager. How would you say that your job, aside from being on stage, differs from Peter's job or Joka's job?
I think in the ideal setup, which we currently don't have, there's pretty clear distinctions. The manager handles all out of game things, logistical issues, making sure everyone's feeling good, that they don't have any stressors outside that he can control: you like your gear, it's not broken, you have sponsorship stuff you need to do. All of that is manager. The coach is in charge of running the practice. He would say “This is our general strategy. This is how we're going to 2v1. These are the team comps we like.” He'll be in charge of picks/bans, obviously there's a back and forth between the players and the coach in terms of what you actually end up playing but it should side ultimately with the coach. The analyst should be talking to players about specific stuff: “Is this build right?” “How do you play this matchup?” I do a lot with stats, and I think most analysts do a lot with stats. We say “Which matchups are we clearly winning?” So we think this guy has a good Maokai, but if you look at the stats you see we don't actually play that well with it. You can have a lot of scrim stats you're going over.
That's how it's ideally broken up. And the coach would obviously handle a lot of player-personality conflicts as well. But because Peter was in San Francisco for us this split Monday-Wednesday he wasn't around, and those days I would handle a lot of basic coaching stuff. He'd be remote sometimes, skype in and be able to do Picks/Bans, but player attitude and talking to them about how the team is functioning is a role that I did a lot of this season.
Different coaching styles have really come to the forefront over the past couple weeks with CLG letting go of Scarra: Doublelift made some comments that he felt that Scarra as a coach didn't have a very firm hand, and that he would make suggestions but they didn't feel absolute and the players could do what they wanted in picks and bans. How firm of a hand do you and Peter take when you're instructing the players?
So I was the coach for Season 4, technically, because I was brought on as the analyst and there was another guy who was supposed to be the coach but he didn't work out so I ended up being the coach. I am very player-feedback-focused, so I'll ask a lot of questions and I'll even tell them “I really think this is the way to go,” but when I was the coach, and especially since I wasn't on stage because there was no one on stage at that time, I didn't have much control over picks and bans. “This is the comp we like, this is what we like running with,” the whole team knows that, but ultimately if a player is like “No, I don't wanna play that,” I didn't have any control over it then.
Nowadays, ideally, people just listen to Peter, and Peter obviously would be like “What about this champion or this champion?” and the player says “I like this one,” and Peter says “Alright, let's go with that one” or “I actually think this one's better,” but there are times where players had too much say or Peter would say “Oh, we NEED to play this” and it wasn't right. There's always some friction between players and management about how to exactly pick.
For instance, a lot of people were confused about the repeated attempts at the Vayne pick. Was that something Piglet had tried to push through, or was that something you guys had thought about as being an effective strategy?
Like I said, you trust your players. And if you look at the games, it's not like Piglet lost lane hard and he's on these later game scaling champions. I was personally against them, and Peter was alright with them, and Piglet was pretty adamant he wanted them, and I think he performed alright on them. I just don't think they're super strong picks. I think the Twitch one was actually pretty smart because they had no engage on that team, but the Vayne ones were kinda hard. Because Piglet's such a dominant laner, I personally like putting him on something that's a winning matchup and watching him snowball. Because he will. And so that's why I think games 4 and 5, you put him on something easier like a Sivir or a Lucian and he can really show that he's gonna carry you.
Through the lenses that we've gotten into the Team Liquid life like the Rebirth series, we've seen that bringing in Piglet made you have to change up the old Curse strategy that you guys would play to accommodate this new player. How did you as analyst tackle the problem of having to work with these old players who were used to playing one way, and this new player who wanted to play a different way?
There was always a lot of talks about how our team should play. When we first got Piglet in the offseason, it was like “Quas is gonna carry, and Piglet's gonna carry.” We had a “raise the puppy” mentality, and we called it “raise the pig” as a joke. It was the same kind of idea, where you devote a lot of resources bottom and try to get him ahead to carry. If Piglet can't get a winning matchup then we'll get one for Quas and put more resources on Quas. That was always the kind of playstyle we wanted. But other than Quas, I think our lanes are pretty aggressive. Mid's pretty aggressive, bot's pretty aggressive, Quas can pressure really hard and he wins a lot of matchups on his own, but Dom also has really good synergy with him so I think in the middle of the season there was a weird “We want to do a raise the Piglet strategy,” but he obviously wasn't playing great then. I think there was a lot of outside factors weighing on him, like he doesn't speak the language, he felt kind of ostracized a little bit. So I think there were a lot of reasons why it wasn't really working well in the middle of the season, and then I think we just started gelling and knowing exactly how we wanted to play games out.
And so for me to help out with it, it was me trying to talk with people and get them on the same page: Dom thinks in this situation it was okay to go top, Piglet wants him bottom, and trying to figure out what's the right thing.
Was it difficult for you to do analysis having to keep in mind the two different strategies having Piglet and having Keith in the middle of the season, knowing you could be playing with either player on a given week?
For me personally it wasn't hard, because I'd know who we were gonna use that week usually at the start of the week. I would have an idea of what we were gonna do. Their champ pools were just different: Keith played a lot of Corki, and played a lot of Jinx, and Piglet likes Vayne and Lucian. Team comp wise it wasn't too different. One of the things that was a big difference was we would counterpick support more with Keith, which is something we started trying to do more later in the season with Piglet. Usually we were giving Piglet counterpick, where actually support dictates a lot more in the lane. So we stopped doing that, gave it back to Xpecial, and there were a lot of small things we were messing around with at the end that we got nailed down.
Throughout all that, with everything else going on, the meta changed a huge amount across the season. In the beginning we had the crazy fighter jungler meta with Lee Sin, Jarvan, and now we have this Smite/TP top, tank jungler meta. LCS is played on a patch behind the solo queue patch usually. How does adjusting for the new patch while having to play on a previous one, and the overall pace of LCS work for you guys?
I think it's something every pro has to deal with. Solo queue isn't always the most productive thing because you can be a patch off or whatever. If you're a good team, meta doesn't horribly affect you. For us, I think we transitioned pretty well: Dom's an aggressive player so you put him on scrappy junglers and he's down to scrap. Then you put him on a more farm oriented, objective control, big teamfight one he's fine on that too. I think one of the strengths of our team is every player can play every style. Quas can carry, Quas can play tank, Quas can play a supporty Lulu thing. Mid lane...I think maybe mid not so great on the really farm oriented champions, keep him on something more aggressive, but even then I think Fenix is a really really good player, and same with Xpecial...yeah, everyone can play whatever.
People were spreading rumors before that Fenix was the best player NA in scrims: is that true, or is that just hype?
No, that's actually true! He was ridiculous for the first quarter of the season, and I have the stats to back it up. I was doing the scrim stats, and his KDA and his wins and losses compared to the other team's mid laner was insane. In losses he was like a 3 KDA which is really high. In losses the other guy was like a 1.4. So he was dumpstering people. I think a lot of it was the season: people just picked up how he plays, because he's a really aggressive player and you can see in the C9 and TiP serieses that everyone just likes to target him. They think he's an easy gank, and it's definitely one of the areas we need to improve with him. Because he's very lane dominant in how he tries to play.
Going forward, it's a little early to say, but are you confident that the Liquid infrastructure that you have right now, the support staff, the players, is probably going to be the same going into the summer split?
I can't say 100% for sure. We haven't sat down and asked “Is this exactly what we want to try and go to Worlds?” and I think Team Liquid's the kinda team that isn't gonna just sit by and assume that “This worked kinda well this split, is this what we wanna do again?” We're not the kinda team who'll just be “Oh, Top 3, why not?” So I don't know yet. There's a lot of conversations that are gonna happen over the course of the next week or two. But I think we're pretty happy with how everything's going.
In the meantime, since unfortunately you don't get to go to MSI, I know you guys are gonna take a bit of a break and some of you guys are gonna go to Hawaii. But once you do get back to practice, what are the areas you feel like you need to shore up the most before Summer starts?
I think there's some individual player things, like I was mentioning Fenix could work on playing safer sometimes, or how he actually had the lowest wards killed in the regular season of a mid-laner so we need to get him to use his trinket more and worry less about pressuring someone under the turret and a little more about vision control: because he wants to dominate the guys he lanes against. There's some areas like that to improve, and most of the players have a couple things like that. In terms of team strengths, I actually thought we were a pretty solid team in terms of our teamplay. We didn't have crazy split push game or extremely coordinated shot calling where we were pulling like split pushy moves the way C9 does, but we were really clean in turning off Barons, turning off Dragons, our teamfight engages were usually really clean. I felt that the only thing we really need to work on is to stop being late for Dragon. We gave up so many dragons: we'd be recalling 10 seconds before Dragon spawns. That's something we need to fix and we've been harping on that for a while. But it actually needs to get fixed.
Just to finish things off, the Team Liquid fans, the Curse fans, have been unbelievably supportive even throughout the whole #KEEPKEITH/#PICKPIGLET debacle. The teamliquid fanbase has been insane. How does that feel for you, and do you have any words for those fans?
I'd just like to say thanks for supporting us. I know what we did was very unconventional. Most of the time people just bench a player. I don't think they've ever been “flopping.” I think what we did was smart in the long run and I think it shows that it paid off. Everyone who supported us the whole way through, thanks for having faith that we know what we're doing (kind of).