Photo: Robert Paul for Blizzard Entertainment
I got to interview Kirby of the Philadelphia Fusion. In season 1 of Overwatch League he acted as the head coach of Philadelphia Fusion and has now been promoted to Director of OW Operations. I talked to him about OWL Season 1, the construction of the roster, his coaching staff, his new role as director of Overwatch Operations, the OWL Season 1 Finals, and Season 2 OWL.
Hi, thanks for taking the time to talk with me. For my first question, I wanted to recap a bit about the first season of Overwatch League. Philadelphia Fusion were one of the most successful teams in the League and one of the most surprising elements of that was the construction of the squad. At the outset was there a specific vision or strategy as to how you guys wanted to make the roster?
So to start off, we were pretty much the last time to get going last year because we were the last team to secure a spot in the Overwatch League. That meant that we were behind the curve when it came to acquiring talent. So when I had my first conversation with the CEO, he was anxious to get going. I think I managed to convince him that we needed to do our due process and go through extensive files. So as soon as I join that’s what we did. We got some other coaches on board. We got trials in all three Major regions: Europe, North America, and Korea.
Because of the amount of teams that were based in North America, we felt like that was a scene where the best talent of the region had already been signed. So we thought the best value was in in Europe and Korea. That’s where we picked up most of our talent. After that, we were one of the few teams that had 12 players on that roster right away. That was by design. That’s something that I wanted because I believed in the potential of having two squads playing against each other. Obviously that adds some complexities to how you operate as a team when you have that many people. At that time when we were building that roster in September 2017, we didn’t have the best visibility into what was going to be the contenders scene. That only came after. So I wanted to add twelve players to be able to have the full two squads that could play against one another, since we weren’t sure if we were going to go contenders or not. So at that time that we needed to have those twelve players. So a lot of different elements came into this and despite being the last team, we still took our time to do those tryouts and get the best possible talent. In the end with the delays we were the only team that missed out on the pre-season.
So I’m wanted to ask you a bit about the structure of your team because last season, you were the head coach. You also had two other coaches n NamedHwi and Hayes. I wanted to ask if you had a structure for your coaching squad or if you had an idea of how you wanted to build up a system for the franchise.
So I think title last year was head coach. As you mentioned we had Elliot Hayes and NamedHwi as our assistant coaches. But that wasn’t the limit of what my roles were because I was heavily involved in the creation of the roster for both Fusion and Fusion university. So I think my new title now is more accurately represents all the different things that I’ve been doing for our organizations. It makes sense just to have me focus more on all the operations that we’re doing with Overwatch. We have two very, very talented guys in Elliot Hayes and NamedHwi, who were both very happy to be put in a role where they can both work together. They’ve already done that last year. You know we’re very happy with how they performed and how they worked together.
So obviously it’s very unconventional to have co-head coaches but we think that not only are they able to do it, we saw that last year, we think it’s going to be really good. I also want to add that’s not the extent of our coaching staff this year, but that’s to be announced.
So I wanted to delve more into what you what other responsibilities you were doing in the first season. It sounds like you were in charge of GMing, roster construction and was it general coaching? Like you were creating the strategies of the team or were you giving the general direction of the team. Like, given the players we have, we should play around Carpe or something like that?
Coaches and leaders throughout esports history have had different strengths or specialties. Whether that’s solving emotional issues, creating strategies, or leading by example. Looking back as your career as coach, what kind of coach do you think you were? Where do you think your strengths were as a coach?
Do you mean for the first season specifically?
I have a background in amateur sports coaching when I was still back in my home country of France. So I was the person that had the most experience in managing the whole staff and managing the team overall. When it comes to the OWL Season, there’s the game Overwatch and there’s a lot of things going on: how you schedule, what kind of practice schedule you enforce on your players, and what’s what’s best for them. There’s lots of decisions that need to be made as staff.
So really coordinating between what the daily lives of these players are and how to best use your staff, all of that was the big chunk of my responsibilities. When it comes to the games, as I mentioned Hayes and NamedHwi are are very smart guys about the game. I was there to oversee the kind of decisions that we made as a staff. When it comes to the more nitty gritty and strategy that’s where they did a lot of the work. That’s why we really value their input.
As far as I can tell, you did a lot of Overwatch coaching before the league and in season one. So looking back on your career as a coach do you think there was a specific factor or specific thing about you that made you a great coach. How would you describe your your strengths as a coach?
I think it’s it’s very different if you look at the before OWL period because it was not the same kind of expectations. It wasn’t on the same stage, it wasn’t a big staff that you had to manage. It was very very different going from amatuer kind-of-contenders scene back in 2017 where you only have six players. You don’t usually have more than that at the time. So you don’t manage roster changes or substitutions or any of that. You don’t really have much staff, especially in the region where I’m from Europe.
Everything was very… like you’re the one guy. You handle all of scrim scheduling. You handle all the conversation between the players and decide strategy. So it’s a very multitasking role whereas you go into the scene we have now in Overwatch League, you can afford to have people in more specialized positions
Alright, so let’s go back more towards the present. As you said, you were promoted to director of OW operations and as you said it was more representative of what you were doing anyway. So I wanted you to expand on that. You had a heavy hand in decisions like what players to get, the structure of the team. Are there any other roles you’re taking on as director of OW operations? Like in terms of building the franchise in terms of financially, PR, or something else?
The way I would say this is we’ve had a lot of praise overall about how we’ve have our business and how we’ve treated our players. There’s a lot of things that we did right, but there’s also a lot of things that were just struggles because it was the first season for everyone. Everyone in the league, every single team. So we’re really just trying to learn from this first season and try to put everyone in the best possible situation to keep getting better and keep making sure that we can be competitive or potentially one of the best teams in the league. So it’s not just that I am doing more of the same because here I don’t have as much responsibilities when it comes to the day-to-day about the coaching.
Which is why we’re promoting both Elliot’s and NamedHwi to the position that they’re in now so that they can really focus purely on the game stuff and not necessarily pulled left and right on multiple different goals. So I think it’s a reshaping of what everyone’s responsibilities is and here at Fusion we’re very ambitious, so we’re looking at lots of different directions for potential projects and potential opportunities. But I can’t go into too many specifics.
I wanted to ask you about Overwatch in general. You’ve been coach for the scene for a long period of time, so I wanted to ask whether you had a core philosophy about competing in the game like. Whether it’s a teamplay based game, more about individual skill, or strategy. For instance, I once asked 7ckngMad what his ultimate answer to Dota 2 was and he basically said it was instinct. So I was wondering if you have some kind of ultimate answer for overwatch or if overwatch even has one? Is it still too early to say?
It’s definitely a team game. It’s definitely a very complex game that has a lot of interactions between different characters. It’s fairly hard to be able to know how all that goes together at any given time which is the beauty of the game. You have this mix and match of tons of different abilities at the same time and the players have to on the spot, figure stuff out sometimes. I’d say OWL has condensed talent so much, you need to be at the top at your position to have a chance of competing.
Because of that, you can have teams who at the level underneath who are decent teams, who function well together, who have great team play. If you put them at the level above, they’re just not going to make it. They’re not going to have the raw skill to be able to compete. So I think one of the approaches that we had when we created the team was ‘We need some heavy hitters’. So that is something that we went after. Now for myself, before that as a coach whether it was coaching amateur sports or coaching the amateur or semi-pro teams I was coaching before OWL, that wasn’t my M.O. That wasn’t what I was known for.
I’d say most of the teams that I had worked on in the past were somewhat overachievers. Through good communication and good teamwork, we were able to get some nice results. Here, I think it was very clear on our end that the bar was set very high. That we needed to just have some brute force and some really really good players. You saw the result of that. We have a player in Carpe who is quite exceptional, we have a bunch of other guys in our roster that we think are absolutely amazing talents.
It took us some time during the first season to mix all if these parts together, but I think eventually we proved with our results that we were able to get some pretty good cohesion down.
So I wanted to talk a bit about the transition from season one to season two. As you said, it was everyone’s first season and everyone made mistakes. Can you go into what mistakes you think you guys did in Season 1 and how you’re going to fix them coming into Season 2?
Do you mean as teams?
As teams, players, or individuals.
Last year had some challenges because of how the season was scheduled. This year it’s somewhat of a different schedule as we have expansion teams coming in. So that’s going to have some different challenges for us. I think the league has been pretty good about listening to to the team’s feedback about scheduling, about how many matches we have to play, that kind of stuff. So this year we have a different set of parameters to start with. I think there we some teams who at the start probably did not put enough time into properly trialing for the right talent. So throughout the season, they had to sign more players and had to adapt their rosters on the fly. So we’re just starting this season trying to apply what we’ve learned and see if we can go all the way this time.
OK so let me ask you this. Every team game I’ve heard of has a specific culture within the team that’s a driving philosophy or ethos of what makes the team come together as one. How would you describe the culture of Philadelphia fusion.
We’re such a diverse and mixed roster that there’s not necessarily something that speaks to uniformly to all of them in the same way. So we’ve had an approach that’s very individualized, we understand that these players might require different things, different things.So we tried the best we can to accommodate these various individuals.
Overall they’re really just a bunch of cool cats, who won’t be moved by some big speech right before the game or anything like that. We put in the time and practice. We know what’s going to happen in this game, we get out there, do you best,and communicate well. That’s what we were talking about most of the time. Focus on the game and once they were in game we could kind of showcase their abilities.
I wanted to touch on a little bit on the finals. You guys were second place in the season. so I wanted to get your take on what you thought of the finals. What were your thoughts going into it, during it, and what you think was the difference between you guys and the London Spitfire from winning the title?
I think that the grand finals in New York were a very interesting experience. We’re very sad that we didn’t win or even show. We didn’t do our bust during those two games. The travel to New York was very very challenging. After a whole season spent pretty much in Burbank, there was a routine there. This was a big break from that. So there’s lots of things that you need to adapt. All of a sudden you’re taking a plane, going back east. It’s two different times zones and you have to adapt a bit to it.
You get there. The setup to practice is different. OK. A lot of the teams were already in their offseason so they weren’t practicing any much. So there were many of these circumstances that affected how you practice. I can only assume London was like a bit better at adapting to that. So that’s kind of unfortunate on our end. London was another team that was very talented last year, but throughout the season we witnessed that they weren’t super consistent. That h would somewhat describe what people thought of us.
They really hit their stride during the playoffs. Their backs were against the wall against the Gladiators in the quarterfinals. They found a way to make it all the way back, then they took out Valiant, and they were just on a hot streak. They’re obviously world class level players, there’s no doubt about that. That day there were there were pretty much unstoppable.
So let’s talk a bit about Season 2. As one of the higher ranked teams, what are your expectations going into this season? Are you guys just gunning for first this time?
Winning it all is always going to be the goal and I think that should apply to every team. There’s no point in being this extremely competitive league if it’s to aim for mid table. The only way to make that happen based on the format is first you qualify for playoffs and then you have to hit your stride. For us, that’s what we want to do. We know that we have a lot of talented players and we’re very confident in our ability to do that. But we’re not paying too much attention to all these opinions that are being put out there.
Even the new teams, even if they don’t have experience, some of them are signing some very good talent as well, so we’re not going to look down on anyone. We’re just going to try to bring our A-game to every game we compete in.
So looking through a OWL season 2, are there any specific teams you think are threats to win the title outside of yourselves? Are there any teams you’re watching out for?
We’ve built a few rivalries with some teams. The first game against London is one that we’re very excited about just because it’s a rematch of the finals. Our games against New York have always been electric, I don’t see that changing at all. Boston is another team that last year we had some very interesting matches against, but they’re they’re reshaping their roster in a different way. So any team really could end up being a huge threat or not. It’s really hard for for us say anything right now.
Are there any players on other teams you look at and think, ‘This guy is on another level’?
We have Carpe so…[laughs].
I know you guys have Carpe and he is clearly on another level. What I mean is do you think there are players that can rival Carpe?
There are many really talented players throughout the league. Korea is always going to be big. Some kid comes out of nowhere and is like the next Carpe or next Striker or guys like that. I’m just really excited for the season to get going so that we can kind of discover those big names
For my final question, I wanted to ask you about the changing meta. What are your thoughts on the changing meta, do you think it’s good for the game and the league? How do you guys deal with that as a team?
No matter what in esports, the game will constantly changed and constantly be patched. There’s no way around, that game developers are always going to want to update their game to make sure it’s relevant for the casual player base. For us as a competitive team, we really want to make sure we have players that are able to play pretty much everything. So we’ve targeted players that we think are pretty flexible. I don’t think the structure when it comes to tanks and supports is going to change too much.
So that’s not where you ask for the most flexibility. If you look at what the meta has been for the past few months, it’s been very tank and support heavy. So what does that mean? Well it means that your DPS players have to be able to play some of those characters. That’s where we’ve tried to find players that we think are very flexible. That’s in my opinion, how you solve this.
Do you have any final words or shoutouts you wanted to say?
I wanted to shout out everyone who has been supporting us. All the fans in Philly or from other cities or countries. We’re very happy to have brought the third consecutive title in contenders with Fusion university. That’s really great. At this point, we’re excited about the season that’s now only a month away.
*This interview was done through a voice call over discord and was later transcribed. It was also edited for clarity.