It’s no easy task rebuilding a dynasty, and Dignitas has certainly experienced those struggles over the last year. After winning back-to-back Rocket League Championship Series (RLCS) championships (the first under Gale Force Esports), the roster collapsed in the Season 6 grand finals as Cloud9 shocked them with back-to-back 4-1 drubbings.
Dignitas striker Alexandre “Kaydop” Courant left soon after, with Dignitas pulling in FlipSid3 Tactics’ Maurice “Yukeo” Weihs in his place. With that tweaked roster, Dignitas failed to find its form in Season 7 and missed out on the World Championship. Three-time RLCS champ Pierre “Turbopolsa” Silfver was the next to go, and this time around, captain Jos “ViolentPanda” van Meurs recruited the talented-but-unproven Maello “Aztral” Ernst to fill the gap.
Season 8 went slightly better for Dignitas during the regular season, but after going down 0-3 to FC Barcelona in the regional championship, it looked like Dig might miss out on another LAN. Instead, they bounced back to reverse-sweep Barca and then take down Mousesports to secure their trip to Madrid.
As we learned afterwards, that shocking turnaround came immediately after a rousing speech from coach John “Virge” Willis, who both admonished his team for their lack of energy while also building them up in the process. It worked, and now they’re days away from competing for the RLCS World Championship.
Before he left for Madrid, we caught up with Virge to talk about his motivational words and staying positive in stressful moments, helping Dignitas find its spark again, why he thinks they have a real shot of adding another RLCS title to the organization’s list of accomplishments.
Rocketeers: Can you talk a bit about your team’s performance this season and into the regional championship?
Virge: Yeah, so not a lot of people know—I don’t think it was ever talked about—but I was working with them right before [Beyond the Summit], and that’s when I was in my trial period. They were kind of trying me out as a coach, seeing if they liked my style, seeing if the work I did was helpful. Going into BTS, the way they performed, I was really confident for the start of the season.
And then the season started, and I think it was just a combination of pressure and inexperience, being that they were pretty much a completely new roster… just because of some things that happened with the roster beforehand. When Yukeo was picked up, he didn’t quite feel like he fit the team that season, and then so switching out another player, it was kind of like we had to have a whole new three people start off.
Starting out, it was a little bit rough. We were performing well in scrims, and we were doing really well to handle everything that we needed to in scrims. But when that pressure set in for league play and it was matches the day of, for some reason it was a different mentality. It was tough for us starting out. Once we got used to that pressure as a team and started realizing that there’s nothing to be nervous about, and there’s no reason to stress about anything—that we are a good team, and we can compete with these guys easily—then it started to finally click and we clutched out the end of the season.
Going into playoffs, I was again confident. We had a really crappy position that we had to win two series in a row without losing, because we finished 5th. I was hopeful, but at the same time a little skeptical about whether we would make it or not, just because of our inconsistency with performing on the day. The day started, and man, it was rough. It was really hard to hear the level of energy that was there once we started going down.
For me, when I’m coaching in matches, I have to watch the stream. It’s like 15 seconds behind, and so for the most part, I’m sitting there with my eyes closed trying to listen to them and picture the game live while they’re in it—rather than catching it on the stream 15 seconds late, and trying to remember what they said when it happened. I would watch the stream back when somebody would score, but for the most part, I’m sitting there listening the whole time. I can’t really see stuff as it happens, so it was tough. I had to assume a lot of stuff that was happening before I got to see it, when I was trying to keep their energy high and keep them positive.
It just didn’t seem like it was working, and we fell down 3-0, as everybody knows. And in that moment—I’m not typically the type of person who will delegate. I don’t really say: “This is what you should do, do it now.” I’m more of the person who’s like, “Hey, I think this is what should happen, let me hear your thoughts on it, let’s collaborate, and let’s work together on improving that part.” But there was something in me that was like: Well, I can’t do that today, because right now nothing is working. So I was like: I’m just gonna tell them how it is. I’m gonna tell them straight-up how I see it, and hopefully it will kind of click for them.
I was like, “Guys, we gave up. You guys seem like we’re just waiting for the next game to end so we can go home.” I’d like to think it helped their mentality and helped them realize: Oh yeah, we kind of aren’t trying our best. And then they really put all the effort in and the result shows.
How do you stay optimistic in that moment when your team is down 0-3, and it doesn’t seem like their head is in the game and they’re not giving 100%?
I come from Allegiance, a losing team, where all we did was lose. I’m used to it at this point. Losing is not that big of a deal to me anymore. I’ve lost a million times—I don’t care about that feeling. I was more concerned about: Man, I want to know what it feels like to win. I really want to know what it feels like, and I know these guys do too, so it was a mentality of: I’m sick of losing.
Sure, it looks like we’re about to lose, but I’m sick of it. I’ll just keep positive because it’s not impossible. And if it’s a possibility, it can happen. And if it can happen, then why are we sitting here acting like it can’t?
You talked about this roster feeling like it was three new players. How did you try to make them all fit together?
It really just depends on the player’s play style. As far as trying to get them to fit together… when I came on originally, there was more a mentality of: This is what has worked in previous seasons, so let’s just try to mold to this and fit it. And that was the mindset of the team: They were like: This is a play style that works, let’s work with it, and then try to get it to work with us as these players.
But when I came on, my main focus was: I get the idea behind it, this play style is very strong and it’s a good play style to have, and it’s efficient. But the problem is, we’re trying to force players to do things that is outside of their comfort zone completely. It’s not that players can’t change and adapt, but you can’t change the way somebody plays just because you want to fit a certain play style.
My main focus was coming in and making a point that everybody realized that these players are all different, and they can’t all fit what one person wants or whatever one person thinks might be the best solution. It has to be a collaborative effort of all three of our play styles as a team, and everybody is here for a different reason.
Panda, he’s extremely smart. He’s really, really gifted in his decision-making and understanding of the game. He’s made it as far as he has off of that. And then you’ve got Aztral, who’s extremely mechanical, and he’s made it as far as he has off of that. And then you’ve got Yukeo, who’s also another mechanical beast who’s made it as far as he has off of that.
Everybody is where they are from different skills, so we can’t just play this style and hope that these guys who have skills elsewhere can fit it. We’ve got to play a style that works for everybody and find that middle ground that is our play style as these three new players, and not anything that has necessarily worked in the past.
— Rocket League Esports (@RLEsports) November 17, 2019
What does it mean for you personally to have a chance to coach at the RLCS World Championship?
Oh, I live for this. It means everything to me. I never really thought that I would become a professional player when I picked this game up. Of course, the drive to maybe one day go pro if I got good enough was there, but it was never really the end goal. I love this game.
It was so much fun when I picked it up, and when I saw what was possible from the SARP veterans coming into the scene and playing the game at such a different level, I was like: There’s such a high skill ceiling. I want go get really good at it, and I want to be able to do whatever I want with my car so I can do cool stuff with the ball and be creative on the field. It kind of transitioned into a mindset of: I’m always going to improve. I don’t care about winning, I don’t care about where I end up. I just want to be able to get on Rocket League and do whatever I want, whenever I want.
Once that happened, I started finding myself fighting to find players who were better than me and just put myself around them to learn from them. From there, I ended up meeting TyNotTyler, who’s now one of my closest friends, and him and his team ended up qualifying. When they brought me on as a manager, that’s when I went full-time Rocket League and just focused all my effort on it. I ended up developing some problems with my hands, where now my thumbs lock up and they get stiff, and I’ve got some problems with them that doesn’t allow me to put as much play time into the game.
That’s when I realized that coaching was it. If I’m going to make it in this scene, it’s going to be coaching. If I’m going to continue improving, it has to be somewhere that I can put time into. And I can’t continue putting in eight hours a day into the game with my thumbs the way they are, so I’ll put eight hours a day into coaching and help other people get better. It was something that I enjoyed really quickly, so now to get to do this at the World Championship on the biggest stage in this game, it’s surreal. It’s a moment that I thought I would never have.
What sort of preparation have you been doing as a team in advance of going to Madrid?
A lot of it is mental. I’m really focused on making sure these guys are in the mindset of: We’re going there to win. We’re not just going there to play and see how we do. We’re going there because we’re one of the best teams in the world. We’re fighting for that title of the best team in the world, and there’s no other reason that we’re there.
Of course, we’re going to be happy with wherever we place, so long as we do our best. But we’re not gonna show up and go, “Ah, we’re probably not going to win it, so if we lose it’s not a big deal.” We’re there to win. We’re there to get first place, so it’s really important to me that they understand that, and I’ve been drilling it into their heads the past couple weeks. We’re going [there] to beat every team that’s there, and so we’re gonna prepare like we’re going to beat every team that’s there.
GG WP. #RLCS8
— Rocket League Esports (@RLEsports) November 17, 2019
Do you feel like your role changes in person at the LAN setting as opposed to working with your players online?
Not necessarily. I did only get to work with them in person at DreamHack, and that was very shortly after we started working together. I’ve gotten a lot closer to these guys since then, and I’m a lot more comfortable with being able to voice myself as their coach.
It is a little bit intimidating, never having been a professional player, coaching an ex-World Champion, somebody who’s won the World Championship before—and players like Yukeo who have made it to LAN before, and someone like Aztral who is so gifted mechanically. It’s hard to be confident enough to say: I know better than them in this situation on something.
Over time, I’ve gotten more confident with it, so I wouldn’t say that being in person changes anything from online, but I’d say that this time at Worlds onstage is going to be different than DreamHack. I hope that I’ll be more involved then I was then.
Ultimately, what do you think can give Dignitas the winning edge in Madrid?
I think the biggest thing is going to be that mentality, that positivity of coming in with confidence. When you’re on that stage, everything changes. It’s so much more difficult to do anything that you’re gonna do, because you’re second-guessing everything you do with the thought in the back of your head, “If I mess this up, it’s not just that I give up a goal, it’s I give up a goal and hundreds of thousands of people watch me mess up and give it up.”
It’s that mentality of: We’re the best team here. We’re gonna walk out and we’re gonna give off the feeling that we are the best team because we’ll believe it. We’ll be confident coming in. If you’re confident and you play your best and we lose still, then we can all go home happy knowing that we got beat by a team that just played better than us. We didn’t give it up. We were just outclassed.
And so if we go in there and have that mentality of: We’re here to win, we’re gonna outclass everybody, and we play our absolute best… whatever the standing is, I think that we’re gonna be able to succeed.
Lead photo courtesy of DreamHack, credit: Stephanie “Vexanie” Lindgren