In eSports, there is an often-understated role in the maintenance of a professional team. While the athletes are usually in the spotlight due to their gaming skill, it takes major behind-the-scenes work to get there: practices need to be scheduled, house bills need to be paid and sponsors need to be courted. Try as they might, few players can carry that burden of logistics themselves.
Enter the manager.
When compiling a list of successful examples of managers in League of Legends, it’s hard to ignore Erica “TPA Erika” Tseng. Her former team, the Taipei Assassins, won Riot Games’ Season Two World Championships, taking home a prize of $1 million and shocking the game’s community in the process. Erika’s presence was felt at the tournament, where she worked with fans, press and the Assassins themselves to make sure that they performed at top level. They arrived back in Taiwan to much fanfare, bringing heavy pocketbooks and a huge, heavy trophy with them.
Months later, though, the Assassins traveled to Las Vegas, Nevada, for the IGN ProLeague 5 tournament without Tseng on the roster. As the community watched with bated breath, some certainly wondered if the team could replicate the same success without her.
Tseng, 23, was born in Taiwan, and after moving with her family to Japan and Vancouver, Canada, she traveled back to go to an American school. She described the marked change in demographics when she eventually made her way to North America; in the time she spent in Asia, Vancouver had become “Asian-i-fied.” She moved across the country to Ontario for post-secondary studies, where she graduated from the University of Toronto’s commerce program.
Her travels and education have worked in her favor in business: she is professional, direct and aware of how she carries herself in a conversation. Her interest in gaming inspired her career goals, which eventually pointed her towards League of Legends. She had played the game during her time in Toronto, which had the awkward effect of ending a long-distance relationship:
“I played League so much, I totally neglected [my boyfriend], and that’s why we broke up,” she says, with a laugh. “I was trying to get to level 30 and we were in a long-distance thing. I really loved League, he didn’t understand that – I think he played once or twice – so he was like ‘Why would you be so into this game?’”
Her choice had been made.
“I had to reach level 30!”
Becoming an Assassin
Tseng held a desire to work in gaming for a long time, but upon realizing that she was unlikely to break into the industry through Canada, she looked back to her native country.
“When I moved back [to Taiwan], League of Legends was just opening up - Garena was the game publisher that was hoping to open League of Legends there. I joined in as a community coordinator. My timeline was like this: June, I graduated, July, I moved, August, I applied and September, I went in.”
It was that same September that the team that would eventually be known as the Taipei Assassins formed under the banner of For The Win. For The Win would win Garena’s G1 eSports competition in October 2011, and would eventually be re-christened the Taipei Assassins in March 2012. Team members Bebeisadog and Toyz would join soon after, completing the roster we know today.
“My boss negotiated with me – he was discussing how I was a good fit for the team. Obviously I was bilingual, and also I knew about eSports and had an interest in eSports,” Tseng told me. “I actually knew the Fnatic manager at that time and he thought it would be awesome if I took that job and lead the team.”
“[My boss] didn’t really give me any directions though. I was with the team unofficially, actually, because I kind of knew them. All the way until April 2012 when we signed them as the Taipei Assassins.”
As TPA’s manager, Tseng was in charge of many parts of the team’s day-to-day operation. This included their social media efforts and interviews, where her bilingualism became an advantage. By offering updates in multiple languages, TPA was able to gain fans in multiple markets, not just those in Asia.
“When I started, I didn’t know how hard it was to actually manage a sports team, to lead them somewhere. I just assumed that people would just schedule their [players'] daily needs and get them water; I didn’t think about the aspect of marketing and branding.”
Motherhood in a Gaming House
Something interesting I noticed about Tseng’s relationship with the Assassins originated from her Twitter stream. In a few updates, usually accompanying messages or photos about the team’s daily activities, she would attach the hashtag “#proudparent.”
This summarized a lot of what drew me to Tseng’s story; she described her managerial style as a balance between a mediator, therapist, friend and authority figure. Especially with a nonstandard working environment like a gaming house, players’ personal issues may boil over, affecting their team’s overall performance. It’s a manager’s job to balance all the personalities and make sure everyone is working efficiently.
“Gradually it was more like a friendship, but it developed kind of a maternal thing, because ‘your mom is your best friend’ – that kind of situation. They come to you when they’re depressed, when they’re lost,” Tseng says. “Sometimes they don’t, so they’re like your kids in that they don’t really talk to you about it [but] you realize something is wrong because you’re always together.”
“So you have to jump in, and to me, you find the problem before it surfaces. Not to nitpick, but to realize that there’s something wrong, whether it’s in the game or real life. I want to make it comfortable for them.”
Comfort plays a big part in the success of a League of Legends pro, as by all definitions their “job” is a bit strange. Not only are they playing a video game for a living, but they’re thrown into an international spotlight with immense pressure to succeed. With regional teams, like the Taipei Assassins, there is also the matter of representing their locale or country, which may contribute to player stress.
There are also other parts of the job that may not be readily apparent: for instance, a player who streams will need to keep a regular schedule and interact with his or her fans. A player who wishes to court a large following through Facebook or Twitter will need to keep those profiles updated, organize giveaways and make sure that any actions and words don’t negatively impact the team.
“You have to teach players how to manage themselves. You would be surprised at the amount of dumb questions, or the amount of dumb things they want to do that I stop, right in time,” Tseng says, with a little bit of a laugh.
In addition to regular practice schedule, personal appearances and sponsorship responsibilities, this amounts to a large burden to bear. While managers can help with these things, they can’t do everything; there’s commitment needed from both parties.
“In Asian cultures I find that kids are a bit more sheltered than North American[s], so they’re more reliant on family and parents – you can’t go the hard way, because they’re not used to it. Some of them also, when they were first signed, didn’t know if it was a ‘job-job’ or just a ‘play video games’ job,” Tseng says.
“I always tell them that the reason we have this team, and that we’re salarizing [sic] everyone is that we’re promoting the company, we’re promoting eSports and League of Legends. If they don’t believe it’s a job, no one else is going to believe them.”
Tseng’s duties as a manager requires interaction with her counterparts on a number of other teams. Professional squads without practice rarely improve, so scrimmages are necessary to keep skills sharp and to try new strategies.
While teams have their rivalries and are ultimately in competition with one another, the networks of League of Legends managers works a little differently. For instance, TPA housed Counter Logic Gaming’s European squad when they visited Southeast Asia, and Tseng considers many other pro players personal friends. As fans can see through social media, there is a degree of camaraderie outside of the game during downtime at tournaments, and it’s no different here.
“I’m actually really good friends with most of the teams out there,” Tseng says. “For teams like CLG.NA, we met in World Cyber Games in 2011 when I took For The Win; we met and remained in contact, and they were really nice.”
“Teams like Team Solo Mid – Chaox is an amazing guy. For CLG.NA especially they would help us with scrims, practices. A lot of other teams, as I got to know them better, they were really nice about helping out and practicing.”
Even as the Assassins played at the Season Two finals for the $1 million prize, Tseng described a conflicting feeling of being happy for her players, but sad because she knew the pain of a loss. After working with Azubu Frost in scrimmages and practice, facing them in the finals was bittersweet.
“Everybody who was sitting next to me in the VIP room knew I was screaming every time [TPA] killed someone,” she says. “I felt really bad because I’m actually really good friends with Azubu; I’d be screaming when we killed somebody, but I’d be like ‘Oh, I feel so bad!’”
The Championship itself was a stressful time due to the nature of the competition and the high pressure environment. While players often do interviews with League of Legends press, this tournament was all business: Tseng’s role was to keep her players focused on the task at hand.
“I would say I wasn’t as stressed as my players were. Obviously they were really, really stressed, and I could see that,” she says. “My role at that time was to help them get through interviews fast, and to make sure that they had their heads in the game and nothing else.”
“Before we came out I asked them, ‘If today we came out to Season Two and we lost, would any of you feel bad or regret ever coming here?’ I told them if any of them said yes, it meant that they didn’t work hard enough.”
“It’s like going into a test; if you take a test and you studied really hard and you failed, you would be like ‘I tried my best.’ If you went into the test playing or partying the night before, and you failed, that would be completely different. Especially if that test is a life-changing thing for you.”
Though the Assassins got to skip the group stage due to winning the Taipei Qualifier, they faced some heavy resistance from the teams that were favoured to win the tournament.
They faced Korean powerhouses NaJin Sword in the quarterfinals before progressing to the semis, where they met European juggernauts in Moscow Five. In both situations, TPA played the underdog, perhaps due to lack of North American exposure. However, they shocked the League of Legends community both times, eliminating a team that was undefeated in the group stages and one of Europe’s strongest, respectively. Despite facing the daunting Azubu Frost in the final, it seemed like the Championship could go either way.
“That’s what people were asking when we lost the first game against M5: ‘How did you turn around from that?’ We also lost the first game against Azubu,” Tseng says. “A year ago, TPA would have been totally depressed, they would’ve played badly the second game. But they knew that at the same time it was like, ‘We win this, or we never will.’”
After the World Championship, Tseng announced that she would be leaving the Taipei Assassins. The community was puzzled, especially after the team had experienced so much success. However, the root of the problem wasn’t due to the organization or League of Legends community, but because of her health.
“It became kind of a longtime thing. I was generally sick all the time because I wasn’t used to the [Taiwan] weather – I don’t know if it was the weather or if it was the dust, but I knew it was a Taiwan problem because I’ve never had these kinds of allergies before,” she says.
“I always wanted to take my team to Season Two, so I basically just half-suffered with it, went to the doctor, took medicine and all those things, but I never told everybody about it. After Season Two, TPA did well, so I knew I was leaving Garena with a good team. I don’t like to do anything halfway. I don’t like screwing up anything and just leaving.”
“In the end I just wanted to take some time off to get healthy. My team knew about it and they were really supportive of me because they knew about my health situation the entire year.”
Professionalism, Passion, and Being a Lady in League
Throughout our conversation, reputation, perception and professionalism became a running theme. Especially as Riot Games prepares to invest money into players’ lives for them to play in Season Three, pros are being held to a higher standard as individuals and athletes. Earlier in December, Dignitas player Christian “IWillDominate” Rivera was banned from competitive play for a year due to repeated behavioral problems, leaving his team a man down.
The responsibility to remain professional extends to Tseng as well, who, despite being a manager, is arguably one of the most visible females in professional League of Legends. Tseng appears in many photos with the team, and acts as their translator on occasion – in some circles, TPA Erika is just as synonymous with the Taipei Assassins as Lilballz or Toyz.
Tseng’s passion for the game stands as evidence of the growing female demographic enjoying League of Legends. As League and eSports in general become more mainstream, many male gamers who became comfortable with the gender balance skewing in their favor may be in for a harsh awakening.
As we’ve seen in 2012, the gaming community still has a long way to go before it can boast a safe and inclusive environment. For now, Tseng combats a negative female stereotype with tact and game plan: “As a girl, I find it’s even more important to be more professional, because you might come off the wrong way.”
To Tseng, the main repellent to drama seems to be professionalism and vigilance; she says that she tends to avoid it altogether mainly due to having a “girl body but a guy mindset.”
“Gaming tends to be a male-dominated industry, and I can’t stress how much you have to watch what you say and then watch your actions, as well, because people might take it the wrong way, just because there’s a stereotype….I’m hoping, obviously, in the future that nobody’s going to be like that, but for me it wasn’t that hard, because I knew where I was going with myself and I knew where I was going with the team. For me, I was focused on work.”
Leading By Example
Tseng notes that managing is an extremely taxing job, and one that shouldn’t be taken lightly; it is not a free ride to tournaments and an excuse to hang out with professional players. Doing research into how other teams work is essential, as well as maintaining a passion for what you’re doing, day in and day out. It’s also important to set an example for your players to follow, in order to establish a respect for the position. For example, Tseng follows the schedule she puts forth for the team, waking up when they do and working the same hours.
“I would obviously have a good reputation for myself, because they could follow me. At the same time, I would be organized, because I want them to be organized.”
A team’s overall goal is to practice efficiently so that they can play to the best of their ability. However, getting to that state can require a bit of juggling and mind reading, as well.
“You have to find the problem before it surfaces, because that’s the only reason you’re there. You do that for yourself as well; I always looked at myself and said, ‘How do I schedule this better?’ How do I make this easier for my players? What’s the quickest way for them to feel appreciated? What’s the best way for them to not feel tired during a four-hour practice? To still feel motivated enough to want to practice more?’”
“It’s one of those things that I would think about 24/7, and I thought about this job, always. I’m always in job mode, right here.”
However, a lot of the experience of working with a professional team also came from networking with other managers and adapting their methods to suit your own needs. Tseng cites the particular influence of Harry “hxd” Wiggett, who currently manages Fnatic.RaidCall in Europe.
“Before I started eSports, I e-mailed all the managers, and got in contact with them because I wanted to talk more about [it]. Harry was the one who responded to me, and that’s when we started talking – he gave me a lot of insights.”
For now, Tseng is doing some travelling to catch up with friends and decompress after her time in Taiwan. While she wouldn’t mention any specifics, she’s currently weighing some employment options, and noted that there isn’t a shortage of offers. She also has friends outside League of Legends who are proud of her accomplishments, but may not understand their significance.
“A lot of people don’t understand what’s happening; they think it’s just a video game,” she says.
“It’s a lot of people’s life, and it makes life a lot more interesting.”
Images courtesy of Erica Tseng. “World Champions” header image taken by Matt Demers.