xiao8, TI10, and the mental side of coaching

Anthony Hodgson
11 min readSep 27, 2022

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Let me start by saying that xiao8 is obviously and undisputably an absolute legend of the game. What he has achieved in his career is tremendous and his ability as a player and strategist is extremely well established. Inasmuch as I do criticise him in this article, I focus solely on his mental fortitude, and how he manages the pressure of the situation. We have understood for some time now that this aspect is crucial in competitive Dota, and this is especially so when the stakes are at their highest. However, we rarely see conversations about what this sort of mental side of the game actually constitutes or how it plays out. My hope is that in writing this I might encourage more nuanced discussion of some of the psychology involved in Dota.

Background

A fairly common sentiment around the time of TI10 grand finals was that LGD’s drafts in the first two games were below their normal level — and indeed uncharacteristic of their ordinary tempo or playstyle. Similar comments were made about some of their drafts in the Arlington Major grand finals. I am simply not qualified to do a technical evaluation of the drafts themselves (and this would in any case probably be difficult for actual experts at this point, with the game progressing one year past the relevant patch by now) so I’m not going to even attempt it here. I’ve started with this information just because it provides some very broad context which suggests that maybe something strange is going on for LGD in these grand finals.

Atmosphere

True Sight offers a unique opportunity to peer inside the behaviour of TI finalists. We get behind the scenes footage including significant chunks of communication between players and coaches before, during and after games. One moment that has already been the subject of many memes is the exchange between xiao8 and XinQ about his yawning, with the repeated suggestion to wash his face. While not a huge deal, this detail did stand out to me as a reflection of xiao8’s nerves.

After LGD lose the game we see a short exchange between xiao8 and XinQ where the coach is asking his player to go wash his face and the player appears to be frustrated at the suggestion and puts up considerable resistance before finally giving in. Now, from my perspective, it’s pretty likely XinQ has been yawning because he is anxious — this is a thing! To make a fuss about your player looking tired to me feels like something that could break them down when what makes sense in this kind of situation is to build them up. My sense is that xiao8 focuses on this point because it bothered him during the game, and it bothered him because he is feeling the pressure of the occasion (and this is some random example of something he can’t control, and that is stressful).

That said, this is still somewhat speculative analysis and I don’t want to dwell too long on this point because it’s perfectly possible I’m not appreciating this situation properly because of some cultural difference in how people talk about these things. I do think it’s not a huge claim to make though, considering xiao8 specifically tells XinQ that his yawning “made him feel uneasy”. In any event, from my perspective this incident is one of several examples of glimpses of xiao8’s nerves in True Sight. Even so, if all I had was a suspicion that LGD’s drafts got a bit weird and some kind of read that xiao8 looked nervous it would not have been enough to justify writing this article.

The Magnoceros in the room

Fundamentally, I think that the way LGD handle (or don’t handle) the Mag pick in game 5’s draft is strong evidence of the coach failing in a certain key responsibility, and in turn a reflection of the pressure getting the better of him. I want to stress here that I do not subcribe to the lowest common denominator analysis that says giving Spirit Mag in the last game is the only reason LGD didn’t win TI. Fundamentally, I think most games are decided by a range of factors, and it is completely plausible that improving any number of aspects might have changed the outcome of this game. (It’s also clearly true that Spirit earned their win through their own excellent drafting, execution and mental strength.)

On the nature of drafting

What stands out to me about LGD’s approach to Mag during the draft is the process, rather than the outcome. In order to explain this I need to discuss some background theory first. Drafting is insanely complicated. There are dozens of key considerations to take into account for any given decision point. Realistically, nobody ever thinks through all of them. In the modern game, reactive drafting is very emphasized. This allows drafters to narrow in their focus somewhat with questions like “what is good against what they’ve just picked” and so on. Obviously, there are still other considerations in the background regarding which picks could be added later, how picks might fit with existing ones, how opponents might react, which picks suit your players and so on. However, the sheer complexity of the game creates a fairly strong incentive to bias your decision-making towards what is right in front of you, and what just happened. Therefore, there is significant skill involved in keeping key concepts and principles present in your mind while judging the circumstances directly in front of you.

Let me be clear, this is an incredibly stressful process. There are not a lot of pro players who want to be drafters. It is assumed, I think, that this is because not a lot of pro players enjoy strategising. I don’t think that’s true. I think that chiefly the reason people don’t want to draft is because of the sheer degree of responsibility involved. It’s very easy to make a mistake in a draft and it’s also often easier for drafts to be emphasized after losses than execution elements (because “the draft” is one step removed from the players, so there is less emotional vulnerability involved for an average player if the problem was “the draft” rather than some decisions or actions they took).

Consequently, one of the main advantages in hiring a draft coach is that you outsource the mental strain of taking on the responsibility. This is true even for teams who “draft together” because that feeling of responsibility will still always be felt most acutely by whoever is pressing the button to make the actual selections. A lot of the mental challenge for a player is inside the game, to avoid hesitation, choking and the like. But a draft coach occupies a special position which is crucially responsible for steadying the ship, and keeping true to key ideas and observations within a draft.

Finally, the actual argument

This is what I think xiao8 was unable to do very well in TI10 grand finals. Getting to the point, we see xiao8 making one key observation between games 4 and 5:

People talk about bo5s having their own meta and this moment very much feels like xiao8 concluding that Mag will be the key pick to decide the series. In fact he’s so confident in Mag that even though they had started their comeback in the series by choosing second pick in game 3, he thinks the correct move here is to choose first pick, just to get the Mag. We see in True Sight that Spirit also felt that LGD being second pick was very important in game 3, and indeed Spirit choose second pick in game 4 as a result. You might therefore think going into the final game that both teams have “agreed” that second pick is going to be a big advantage. Nevertheless in xiao8’s mind it’s clear before game 5 that first pick is what matters because that will get them the Mag.

So the game arrives, they have first pick, and the plan is to pick Mag. But wait, TORONTOTOKYO is busy making some godlike play, persistently pushing his team to in fact let Tiny through the draft, to force a difficult decision for LGD. This comes as a surprise. xiao8’s initial reaction is to reiterate the plan, “we first pick Magnus, right?” But y’ responds with his own question, “what about Tiny?”

LGD look confused. They try to figure out why Spirit have let through Tiny. What could they be thinking? What should we do? To be clear this is a very complicated situation. Yes, LGD entered the game with a very strong commitment to first picking Mag. But while making that plan they were under the impression Tiny would obviously be banned. This is new information, and Tiny is their strongest hero. At the same time, the current circumstances involve incredible time pressure. In comparison, the Mag idea has been generated through the course of the whole series, with the benefit of ample opportunity to reflect and absorb various relevant considerations. These are the sorts of moments where it is absolutely vital for a coach to provide that stable reminder that “this is what we usually think, when not under enormous pressure facing brand new information”. And initially, xiao8 actually does a good job of re-centering Mag in the conversation here.

xiao8 remembers that in game 3 LGD have beaten Mag in no small part due to XinQ’s Rubick performance shutting down Collapse’s gameplay. He finds a kind of compromise — OK, we should believe in our Tiny, but we still need to think about the Mag, right? Worth noting here is that xiao8 again phrases this very clearly as a question, and in fact re-asserts that question when nobody responds. This may be a signal as to his level of confidence in the moment (and indeed the level of confidence of his players too). Silent’s language on the other side offers a stark contrast shortly after.

I do not have good enough Dota knowledge to judge whether picking Mag or picking Tiny and planning to pick Rubick to counter Mag was a better plan. In the end it doesn’t matter though. Spirit pick Mag, and then while they are deciding their next pick LGD quickly begin to think about Lycan. If Tiny was LGD’s best pick of the tournament, Lycan + Tiny was their best duo. In a vacuum it’s a sensible thought, but one has to wonder whether it’s not also a response to the pressure of the moment to clutch desperately at your comfort picks, in spite of your own analysis having strongly suggested you prioritise (at least!) dealing with Mag in this series.

Faith_bian briefly slows down the discussion as calls for the Lycan pick ramp up, and asks about what the alternative would be. The team identifies that it’s Rubick. But notably nobody stops to make the case for Rubick. Nobody stops to talk about the importance of Mag in the series. Instead, xiao8 himself quickly feels drawn into the Lycan pick, stating that it will allow them to pick Snap later, another hero they have been very effective with. Again, I am not qualified to tell you if Lycan was as good a pick as Rubick here. Maybe it was. But it is telling that by this point Mag has moved entirely to the periphery of LGD’s planning. It has become an afterthought.

And again, drafts are super complicated. The pressure of the occasion, and the time pressure, are immense. It’s not crazy that someone in that situation would feel tempted by a simpler solution, and it’s especially unsurprising for players to do this since there is a different person whose job it is to manage the responsibility. But this, for me, is the key moment where xiao8 has lost the mental battle with the occasion. In the second ban phase, Spirit remove both Rubick and Snap, undermining both LGD’s best pick to counter Mag and their best pick to go all-in on their comfort strategy. This leads to LGD’s last three picks feeling heavily improvised, and their final draft is neither an optimal Lycan Tiny draft, nor solidly prepared to manage the threat of Mag (I expect someone smarter than me could go deeper on this point probably).

Interestingly, although the stakes are much lower and the circumstances less dramatic, there is a somewhat similar moment in game 1, where xiao8 and his players agree that if Spirit pick ET and Tide, they should pick Ember Spirit.

Spirit proceed to do exactly that, but then xiao8 hesitates, and again asks if Ember is the pick (as opposed to confidently reiterating that it is the pick). LGD end up picking Ursa instead. I don’t know which pick was better but I do know that the moment feels strange — and unlike in the game 5 Tiny situation, there is not even new information here. It’s just having a plan, nothing changing, and then sort of drifting off somewhere else. Faith_bian would later state that it was very unusual for LGD to pick IO alongside a carry in the first phase of a draft, as they would usually want the accompanying pick to guarantee their mid-game power spike.

To be clear I am not saying adaptation and improvisation is bad in drafts. On the contrary, it is vital. Where it looks strange is where you are adjusting an idea you have already developed without even interrogating why you want to do that, based on just a few seconds of thought under extremely high pressure. I believe that a key responsibility of this sort of coach is to take on that burden of being the one who has to feel all the pressure but still hold steady. I believe that xiao8 was not able to consistently do this throughout this series.

And maybe, on some level, he knows that too.

Disclaimer: much of the argumentation in this article depends on evidence drawn from True Sight, whose footage is intentionally edited for narrative value. Therefore, my argumentation is likely to be biased in whatever way the editing may be biased and similarly if the presented footage is misleading my argumentation is equally likely to be misleading.

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Anthony Hodgson

Philosophy, Dota, Public Health