For a team that ended the Overwatch League's inaugural season as Pacific Division champions, a near last place standing this season is an especially dramatic fall. The Los Angeles Valiant are barreling into the Stage 2 break without a single win on the board, but the problems truly go back to Stage 4 last year. The team's last win in the Overwatch League was on June 17 against the New York Excelsior in the Stage 4 playoffs. A month later in July, the Valiant lost two series to the London Spitfire in the inaugural season playoffs.
It might not seem like a big deal to lose in the playoffs against last season's champions, but Valiant general manager Mike Schwartz told ESPN it's indicative of an adaptability problem. Though the Valiant roster has changed from 2018 to 2019 -- four players were released and one, Kim "KuKi" Kae-kuk, was added -- the structural problems remained.
"You have to look a bit farther back to last season," Schwartz said. "It's been eight months since we've actually won a game. It was the first time we saw when the meta had shifted that our team failed to adapt to it. Going into GOATS, we've seen that again."
The end of last year's season saw a dramatic meta shift, from dive composition to a double sniper meta, that left even NYXL struggling. A support/tank-heavy GOATS meta shift before the Overwatch League's first season began was much less sudden, but the Valiant's inability to adjust to the new lineup has led them to an 0-7 start to the season.
The team needed to make a change. On March 11, just a couple days after ending their winless first stage with a hard loss against the Houston Outlaws, the Immortals-owned organization fired their head coach, Moon "Moon" Byung-chul. Coach Moon joined the Valiant in February 2018, but coached remotely until midway through the inaugural season. Interpreter and assistant team manager Andrew Kim also left the organization on March 11.
"There's been two metas over a longer span of time," Schwartz said. "You do have to look to the coaching and strategic direction of the team to implement those changes that are necessary."
Schwartz said it still wasn't an easy decision to make. The Valiant's wins picked up when Moon moved to Los Angeles in the middle of the season last year, and they finished strong by defeating the Excelsior in the Stage 4 playoffs and qualified for the inaugural season semifinals. "But after we lost to Houston," Schwartz said, "it became pretty clear that the team needs to have a new voice, a new direction."
In the interim, assistant coach Mike "Packing10" Szklanny will take over the team, with Warsi "Stoop" Waris and Dong-soo "Dongsu" Shin continuing in their roles as assistant coaches.
Moon's coaching style was "more hands-off," Schwartz said, but the young team needed a leader with a more involved coaching style. "It's a valid approach, because there are a lot of good players on the team," he added. "Our team needed to be given a little more of that hands-on guidance."
There isn't only one correct coaching style. Finding a coach that can nurture the differing needs of eight to 12 players is no easy feat --especially in a game like Overwatch, which has only existed since 2016. Sports coaches have history and legacy to draw from; teams in the Overwatch League are still figuring that out.
"Coaching is very important in the Overwatch League," Overwatch League caster Robert "Hexagrams" Kirkbride said. "It's about knowing your team and having a coach that fits. At the end of the day, it's all about the team game. Individual mechanics don't matter as much as just playing as a team. If we look at Houston -- not a super talented squad -- but they win games. They all play together. They all like each other. They play as a team."
Kirkbride said he isn't sure what the correct direction for the Valiant is with regards to a new coach. (Schwartz said the Valiant will go through a "process" to find someone who fits, and brings a "fresh, needed perspective into the room.") But it's clear that Valiant will need someone who'll be able to pull them up from the 0-7 hole they're in -- improving the team not only structurally, but mentally, too.
"It's hard to break out [of a losing streak,]" Kirkbride said. "Who's going to pull you out of it? Who's going to lead you from the darkness? Right now, Valiant doesn't have that guy."
Many consider 25-year-old captain Scott "Custa" Kennedy to be a leader on the Valiant, so fans were surprised when he was benched in favor of KuKi, who switched from tank to support to play Lúcio during the 2019 season. In an Inside Valiant video posted to YouTube, Moon discussed the decision to bench Custa, saying that the team "didn't have the level of understanding" to use Custa's plays. "Custa's play style was something that better suited a team that had an overall higher understanding of the meta," he said. In a tweet, Moon apologized for the comment, but said the edited part was "misleading enough."
"[As the head coach,] Moon was able to make these strategic decisions," Schwartz said. "And one of those was having KuKi play over Custa for a couple of reasons."
Moon could not be reached for comment.
But Schwartz said that the decision to bench Custa isn't the reason the team was unsuccessful in Stage 1. "He got signed to be a tank, but he was asked to do something that he had never played before," Schwartz said. "He handled it professionally, as best as anyone in that position."
Kirkbride agreed: "I don't blame KuKi," he said. "He's not awful. People think playing Lúcio is just knowing when to speed in and out. But that's not just it in the Overwatch League. [Lúcio's] got to be dominating. Doing damage."
Schwartz didn't say whether KuKi will return to his original role if Custa comes off the bench -- the team is just a few days out from the end of their Stage 1 run and the dismissal of Moon. "The guys have been together through a very tough past few months," Schwartz said.
Moving into Stage 2, which begins in early April, the Valiant will restructure their process to ensure that communication and goals are aligned "on exactly what the roles and responsibilities are going to be, not only for the players, but the coaching and administrative staff as well," Schwartz said. He declined to say whether further roster changes would be incoming.
"I'm never going to say that we would never make changes," Schwartz added. "But I want to clarify that we're always exploring options to put forth the best roster to get into finals."
On April 5, the Valiant will face the Shock, who are currently in sixth place. It'll be a challenge to face a top-10 team on their first match back, but the team is hoping to put Stage 1 behind them. When they return in April, the team intends to look different -- but whether that means a roster swap remains to be seen.
The Valiant's got to identify the core of their roster and create some structure around that, a way to bind the team together regardless of how well they fit the meta. Even with a roster of great players, a team can't work without a certain level of confidence in communication and structure.
"The most controversial thing I will say is that I don't think the Valiant you see today is the Valiant they play with in Stage 2," Kirkbride said. "Something's got to give."