Alexander “Sword” Szymkiewicz is one of the most experienced coaches to enter the Australian Overwatch scene.
He’s coached Overwatch League talent like Aaron “Bischu” Kim and Dusttin “Dogman” Bowerman, and worked with talented organisations like TSM. He’s worked alongside experienced coaches like David “Dpei” Pei, Justin “Jayne” Conroy, Aaron “Aero” Atkins and Hyeong-soek “WizardHyeong” Kim.
His latest endeavour has a distinctly Australian flavour though, joining on with Blank Esports for Contenders Australia Season 1 2019. While the team failed to find success on their return home from Pacific in Season 3, they currently stand undefeated in Season 1 2019 with a 4-0 record. Building a new roster featuring Korean main tank Kim “Modern” Su-hoon, Blank are starting to look like the dominant team they once were in Pacific.
I sat down with Sword to talk about his initial impression of Australian Overwatch, his coaching methodology and integrating foreign players into domestic rosters.
Sword, thanks for sitting down and having a chat. Are you in NZ with Blank now or still home in Canada?
I’m not actually in New Zealand for the entire regular season because I’m at home finishing up my college diploma.
Yeah, it’s nice, but it’s very taxing. I am very tired a lot of the time because I’m on the east coast so scrim timing usually sucks.
Well, that would be a 16 hour time difference yeah?
Yeah, and Nox as well, he’s currently in high school and there’s five hours between him and the boys in NZ, so we have to do later times to accommodate for him which is worse for me in a sense.
I wake up at 2-3am my time and stay up to 8 o’clock with these guys for scrims before heading off to school. I finish school as late as 8pm sometimes, and it’s hard to find a balance because you are always losing sleep. It’s the life I chose though.
So, what do you think of the Australian Overwatch scene?
“Partly why I came to Australia is more than just because ‘I wanted to,’ but I wanted to help grow and legitimise the scene and bring some NA swag over.”
There’s a lot going on behind-the-scenes of Australian Overwatch that’s a bit funny, but honestly with no offense to the players or staff, in all the scenes I’ve worked in [Australia] seems to be the most unprofessional because it’s one of the smallest scenes.
I’d love to get to know the scene more though. I want to create a storyline for the scene – there’s a lot of talent in Australia and they could make it far in some of the international events this year in Contenders. If Australia goes well, it boosts the entire scene skillswise and popularity-wise. I want to show that if you put the resources in, you can develop Australia to be one of the best regions in Overwatch and a scouting ground for more OWL talent.
Well, you’ve got the experience with LNL, Team Canada and TSM, so how has your past endeavours helped you with Blank?
Overall, I feel like there’s other experiences that isn’t necessarily openly known that I have also had the chance to draw on. I was with NRG just before they were picked up in OWL (NRG own San Francisco Shock’s slot in the Overwatch League and now act as their academy team in Contenders NA West) as well as Envision and Grizzlys.
Throughout those years, I’ve had the chance to work under some great coaches like Dpei (Los Angeles Gladiators), Aero, Jayne (both Dallas Fuel) – all these very experienced guys that if you have a look at where they are now, they are all very well established in the scene. I took all that experience I had the pleasure of learning from those guys and tried to apply it to everything I’ve done with Blank.
It helped me understand structures; it helped me understand concepts; it even helped me understand the smaller things like “how do I communicate this to my players?” or “how do I make an efficient practice schedule for the day?” In general though, it helped me learn from my faults and weaknesses.
For example, on Grizzlys – I’d call that one of my greatest disappointments – we had a lot of resources, we were all together, but what ended up happening was I cracked under pressure. I was that 18-year-old that was naive and thought “hey, I’ve got all these resources, I got to build my roster – I can do anything.”
I got there though and I got thrown a lot of things like managerial duties. I had to coach people in person which felt way different than just interacting with them online. It was my first time away from home and all these factors added up and I just ended up choking. But you know what? I learnt a lot, and I’ve been trying to take something from each experience and apply it to new teams as well as my yearly goal.
What is your goal for this year then?
I think every coach will say that OWL is their goal every year – and that’s mine too – but I try my best to apply yearly goals in trying to make myself a better coach. For example, in Year 1 of Overwatch right when it came out, my goal was to understand the game better, to understand the heroes, the comms, the whole game-side of things.
Year 2 was learning about working in a team environment. Learning the ins and outs, learning the structure, learning what my role actually meant to the team and every other role around it – what does an analyst do, or a head coach, or strategic coach?
Then Year 3 – last year after Grizzlys – I needed to understand my philosophy as a coach, what makes me niche and what I can do to make myself one of the best coaches in the scene. I can’t teach people if I don’t understand myself and I need to understand how I teach people in order to make myself the best coach for my players.
This year with Blank though, I want to work really hard on being a better communicator. That doesn’t mean just simply communicating better with other people, but it’s being able to create phrasing that everyone can understand the stuff I’m trying to get them to grasp.
I find a lot of coaches struggle with how they communicate concepts to their players. It’s one of the biggest struggles coaches face and I really do feel that I am a victim of sometimes and I need to work on it to hone my skills and hopefully make it into OWL.
Well, Blank have off strong with three wins at the start of this season which is a good turnaround. They were always touted as the team that could have – they have such a history in Australian Overwatch and flopped last season. What’s been the biggest improvement you’ve seen in them in the last couple of weeks?
Overall, as a team, something that the boys have done a really good job of doing is taking feedback and criticism – and not just the feedback I give them, but they also do it between themselves. They are some of the hardest working players I’ve ever seen within a team, and when you are a part of a weaker region – and I noticed that when I spoke to Team Australia at BlizzCon and Team Austria in the group stages – one of the big things is having the capacity and the drive to be better yourself.
It doesn’t just come down to your coaches and staff, or even your teammates, but it comes down to yourself at the end of the day to be better individually and having the hunger to say “I want to get better and I want to win.” They all have that and I see that every day when I talk with them after scrims and theory crafting and hearing from the players that “yeah, I’ve looked at my VOD and thought of this new idea” or “hey, we discussed trying out this new strategy, what do you think?”
Hearing those breakouts of trying to understand themselves is amazing and it’s one of the most important things as a player. You can’t just rely on scrims and practicing aimlessly in solo queue – you have to strive to improve your knowledge. They do this every day and that’s why they are looking on the up. They aren’t just playing the game 24/7, they are trying to improve themselves and their knowledge from looking back and reviewing.
Speaking about communicating with players, how has it been trying to integrate Modern into the team? His English is decent, but there’s always going to be that barrier between him and a native speaker.
Modern’s English is very good. Obviously there’s some problems in regards to his communication because he isn’t extremely fluent like Ark (from New York Excelsior) for example, but Modern is still able to communicate to a high degree. He’s able to plan, he’s able to help with ult tracking and he’s able to lead this team with his experience in APEX and Korean Contenders.
The biggest issue in regard to Modern was opening up the space and allowing him to find his place and lead the team in some aspects and that’s the biggest thing with any new teams – trying to decide the leader, giving people space to communicate effectively etc. When you are integrating a foreign player, you have to keep in mind that: your phrasing is simple, use words as repetitively as possible, use single syllable words and make sure they understand what the word actually means.
“In multiple teams where I’ve trialled Korean players in the past, it was very much making the communication as simple as possible to ensure the communication flow was steady between domestic players and foreign players.”
Another important point is giving them the time to communicate what they want to do – because it’ll take them a bit longer to communicate what they want to do in the right words. Though Modern isn’t terrible – his English is good – but he will need those few extra seconds in the moment to communicate exactly what he wants to say. We had to trim back the excess noise in the communication flow to deal with that, but now that it’s working it’s given us great success.
The one thing a lot of fans like about Blank – including myself – is that you’ve always seemed to stray away from GOATS. You are one of the more innovative teams in the history of the region, and does this fall to you or have the players been coming up with some of the wacky stuff too?
The guys know really well that I’m not a GOATS fan – but I believe that GOATS is an important composition that shows teamwork over mechanical skill. I don’t want to say I’m a surprising coach, but I’m a unique coach who doesn’t follow what the meta tells me. I want to show off interesting strategies that can work if you aren’t a meta slave.
As long as you are willing to try new and different things, they can work. While a lot of the comps have been me theorycrafting, they have all been perfected by the team. At the end of the day, it’s a two way system: I might bring up a comp and we will try it out, but we will always talk about it as a team afterwards.
I don’t force anything onto them, it’s a democratic process where I show them how the comp works, where they should position and their win conditions and ask them whether they want to try it out. The answer is usually yes, let’s give it a crack – and we try and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but that’s what it’s like being innovators.
Who do you see as your biggest threat in Contenders?
Obviously the coach in me would say that everyone is a threat this season. It’s a new year for everyone – Blank had a bunch of roster and staff changes and we have a lot to prove, especially given the amount of resources given to us. We need to show people that we will utilise the house, the help, and if we do, it’ll benefit all of Australia.
You look at Sydney Drop Bears, who have similar resources, and they are proof that if you use your resources as effectively as possible, you can produce a talented roster. If resources like that succeed, that’ll bring more resources and stability to the scene, and you’ll see more player and team development and allow these guys to take it as a real professional job.
If I had to give special shoutouts, Sydney Drop Bears and Order would have to be the toughest opponents we will face this season. Everyone is an opponent because we have a lot to prove – but this season of Contenders is no joke. Everyone is serious, everyone is good, and if we slacked off in our preparation, we would lose.
We have dropped maps against Ground Zero, Mindfreak, Mavericks, and that shows the quality of the league, but SDB and Order have been leaps and bounds above the rest. They are the guys we need to watch out for and we need to show up and stick it to them.
Blank only played SDB once last season and never got to play Order in an official, but I’m sure that we are of the same quality and that we will be contenders alongside them, so don’t count us out.
Blank Esports will take on three-time Contenders champions Sydney Drop Bears next Wednesday at 11am AEDT on the Overwatch Contenders Twitch channel.