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SEN Kaplan has been through a lot on his way to the top

"Madrid was an eye opener for me, of starting to feel burnout before the tournament was over"

Photo by Colin Young-Wolff/Riot Games; Illustrated elements by Sonny Ross

Hi! I’m Mikhail Klimentov. You may recognize me from my past video game coverage at The Washington Post, like my investigation into the “culture of fear” at TSM. In previous editions of ReaderGrev, I’ve written about video game journalism as Just A Job and the Sweet Baby Inc. controversy.

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Patreon supporters can listen to a subscriber-exclusive audio recording of this week’s interview. Plus, earlier this week I put together an (e)sportswashing reading list for patrons.

On Friday morning, I interviewed Adam "kaplan" Kaplan, the coach of the Sentinels Valorant team. Late last month, his team won first place at Masters Madrid — almost three years after it last won a Valorant trophy, and with only one of the same players from that original winning roster. But the road back to the top has not been uniformly pleasant for the players, nor fun to watch for fans, something Kaplan and I discussed.

I’m going to keep this preamble short, because the interview itself is really long! Chatting with Kaplan was delightful, and I hope that comes across in this transcript. We spoke at length about burnout, leadership, crying over movies, and more.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.1 The full audio of this conversation is available to paid subscribers on Patreon.

ReaderGrev: I'm going to start off on a loosey goosey note. I watched the finals live, and after you guys won I saw that you were tearing up and crying. Since then, I’ve meant to ask: Are you a crier? Do you cry a lot?

Kaplan: I cry incredibly easy at movies. And I love movies. Like, small moments that probably aren't even intended to make people cry sometimes will get me a little choked up. And definitely after a big win, I'll have the impulse to cry, especially if it's coming off a lot of hard work and exhaustion.

I'm not a great, like, come home, I'm sad or upset, cry it out type of person. I wish I was because that post-cry high when you get your sad tears out is the most insane endorphin high ever. But I can find that maybe less than [once] a year at this point. I’ve been indoctrinated by the gender standards of America to not feel sadness and emotions anymore.

One of the last times I remember crying — and this is kind of embarrassing, going back to the gender standards thing you were just talking about — I was watching the Beyoncé tour movie with my girlfriend, and there was just a moment where the visuals and the audio were so overwhelming and I was so taken by the moment, I fully teared up. So when I saw you on stage, I was like: That's me! I also do that! If you don't mind me asking: do you remember the last time you cried before that win?

Kaplan: I watched a movie called A Thousand and One and it was incredible and I definitely cried at that movie.

What’s A Thousand and One?

Kaplan: It's an indie movie about a single woman raising her kid in late ‘90s New York City.

That sounds like a tear jerker.

Kaplan: I definitely recommend it, it was incredible.

I don't actually have any idea what you do on a day to day basis as a coach. Can you walk me through a typical day?

Kaplan: [The average day involves] booking scrims, planning out a day, planning out the week. What maps do we need to focus on? What are we trying to do with our map pool? Do we have anything we need to address as a team? I'll come in a couple of hours before the team to cook up the stuff I want to go over for the day.

Then the team will get together. I'll usually have some words out of game — especially if we’re mid-tournament, or if it's the start of the week — [about] where we’re at, what's the plan for the week. Maybe people haven’t been working hard enough and I gotta complain about the work ethic for a bit, stuff like that. And then we'll jump into talking about a map. We'll watch some VOD rounds or go over some strategies. Then we'll scrim. Then we take a little break. Then we'll usually hit a map that doesn't need as much love; maybe it's more like touching up, icing on the cake.

My evening is usually a mix of thinking about the next day [and it’s also] when a lot of the one-on-one stuff happens, like pretty impromptu, not really scheduled. Maybe a player really didn't take care of themself that week and we're on Wednesday and they need to clean it up, or maybe somebody got really frustrated or something's going on. So usually I'm talking to people face to face, or having a few direct messages going all at once with different players to make sure everyone's getting everything out and to make sure I know what's going on and whether a larger team conversation has to happen soon.

Does that sort of thing happen very often, where you have to have big meetings or pull someone aside?

Kaplan: Very regular. I would say a pretty high percentage of my hours spent working as a coach in the last three years have been lots of late nights talking to different players one on one — just building a relationship, getting their ideas about the game, getting their ideas about their teammates, about what's going on in their life. There's definitely days where things run smoothly. But if it's been more than a few days where something big hasn't happened, or I haven't had a night of talking to a few people at once, it's less often that that means everything's running smoothly, and more often that means I need to get whatever's going on out before we hit a boiling point and my job gets way harder.

When you're talking to a teammate, how often are these things fixable issues inside the game versus something difficult going on in their life that you can't necessarily fix?

Kaplan: More often than not, these types of things are about, ‘Hey, I feel like my teammate isn't focusing enough in practice,’ or ‘It annoyed me how they responded to my feedback’ or X, Y, and Z more out-of-game, sort of intangible stuff. With in-game stuff, players will still vent about things, but they're very good at just saying straight to each other what in-game stuff they think needs to be done better. I have to do a lot less of that with this team than I ever have before.

We have to spend between 40 to 60 hours a week together. And we all have a very intimate relationship with each other. And sometimes a player just needs to air stuff out at the end of the day, and there's no real solution in mind. It's just, get some stuff out so you can go to bed feeling like you emptied the bottle and can wake up feeling good for practice.

I was reading an interview with your teammate johnqt, and he said that you're good at dealing with people and personalities. I wonder if you can tell me a bit about where that comes from.

Kaplan: I've always been a pretty emotional and sensitive guy. I was born that way and didn't have a family or an environment that pushed me not to be that way. My dad's side [of the family] is mostly psychologists, therapists. So I’ve always been around the idea of letting your emotions out and working them out through conversation. So as a kid, being able to be exposed to therapy, to have a therapist, to realize the value in talking things out, I think I had a really nice childhood in terms of setting myself up to be good at those things.

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You’ve spoken before about previously taking a break from esports. I'm curious if you can say why you stepped away and what brought you back.

Kaplan: As much as I love esports, it comes at a cost to be online all the time, to be at your computer all the time, to be addicted to what you're doing — which I think is particularly true for players, especially before they go pro. It started with, I think, an addiction and maybe an escape for a lot of people, myself included. I had my own PC by like age 10 or 11 and just played way too many video games my entire adolescence. And it really took me away from life.

Also growing up at a time before iPhones and iPads and the internet being a huge thing, and growing up in a more rural place, I had some perspective on different ways life can be paced. I just, to be honest, had a lot of resentment toward parts of life I felt like I'd missed out on because I'd spent so much time online and on video games. So when I was around 18 or 19, I took a couple of years off playing video games, just trying to balance my life experience out a bit.

How were those couple of years? Did you feel like you found what you were looking for by stepping away from games?

Kaplan: They were some of the best years of my life. And having that gained perspective sometimes makes my work — at the most stressful and burnt out moments — [it] makes me contemplate how I spend my time, and makes it very bittersweet, but also inspires me to try to bring more balance into it than there currently is, both for myself and for the team.

Do you find that you have that balance now or not?

Kaplan: Not at all, no. [laughs] And truthfully, I don't think that it is possible with the amount of time you need to put in to be competitively successful. I probably put in a good ten hours a day, sometimes more during a tournament. And then I guess if you counted time spent messaging players one on one, it's probably another hour or so. So probably 12 hours, 10 to 12 hours a day.

But, at least striving toward that balance keeps me from completely falling down the well.

You mentioned the word addiction earlier. Do you think this is a manifestation of that, or is it just you being a professional or you really loving your job? What do you think motivates the fact that you're spending all of these hours thinking about Valorant?

Kaplan: I definitely don't love putting that much time in. But I do love to win and improve and be the best team we could be and I hate the opposite. Probably more than even losing, I hate the idea of playing Valorant at a level worse than we’re capable of and wasting our potential. That's what keeps me chasing the carrot, on the treadmill.

And that's part of leadership too, right? There's a lot of pressure to stay working hard, because everyone else is going to mirror what you do as a leader. But at the same time, I recognize — Madrid was an eye opener for me, of starting to feel burnout before the tournament was over, and feeling like I was doing less than the best work I was capable of at moments because of it — that this is a long road. We're only a third into the season or so. We all need to be healthier and maintain our lives better to avoid burnout and to improve. I'm definitely learning that it's a marathon, not a sprint, and that a lot of good leading is delegating.

I'm not super proud of the hours I've shared to you of how much I work. I think those hours should be less. And I don't say that in terms of, oh, I'd enjoy having some extra time to sleep or watch TV. I'm at times embarrassed that if I'm putting in that many hours, it either means we're understaffed — which I don't believe to be the case — or that I'm not delegating and leaning on people enough as a leader. Something for me to work on.

Do you think about winning a lot? Sometimes — and this is not a 1:1 comparison — when I'm writing an article the thing that motivates me as I'm writing is I imagine it coming out. I can visualize that moment. I'm curious if you think about winning in a similar way, like: ‘I want to be up on the stage when we win the finals.’ Or do you have a completely different approach?

Kaplan: I have a completely different approach. I don't think about winning a lot at all. I almost never think about it. [laughs] I think a lot about improving, about our potential, about how shitty it would feel to not reach our potential, or to not improve or to not show the improvement that we've made. I think a great deal about wasting hard work. I don't want to waste time when we scrim. I want to be productive. And I definitely don't want to waste hard work in the sense of putting all that work in and then going to a match and not showing it and not applying it.

For a long time, especially as a player, I thought there was something wrong with me, or that I wasn't cut out for playing and competing in the same way other people were because I didn't play sports, I didn't grow up competing, and I didn't envision holding up trophies and whatnot. And I thought: that must mean I don't want it as much. I've come to realize as a coach that's not true. I envision being the best team in the world a lot. I envision showing the best Valorant that's ever been seen from a pro team. I envision showing consistency and health and a tight knit bond between the team that no one's ever seen. I daydream about those things a lot. I don't daydream necessarily about holding up the trophy and having been better than the other 7 or 11 teams in the tournament.

Although, I will say that by the time we were in the Masters Grand Finals, then I wanted to win and I wanted the trophy. At points I was screaming at the team: Forget the growth mindset, forget our process. The trophy’s right there. Do we want it or not?

You’ve spoken before about the gas tank running out in Madrid. Can you tell me a bit about why that was the case?

Kaplan: You have to anti-strat opponents a lot, and you have to do it in really short turnaround times. That takes a serious toll on the amount of time you get to sleep, and then that cascades and adds up over time.

There's a difference between collaborating and fully going: ‘Hey, I'm gonna look at these maps and work on the game plan’ and ‘Hey, [assistant coach] Drew and [in-game leader] John, go look at Lotus and just, like, figure it out. John, you got it with the game plan. Drew, you can help him out with what you've been seeing. Have fun.’ And then when we get to Lotus in the match, people are like: Kap, what's the game plan? And I'm like: ‘Don't look at me, I have no clue. I'm about to find out.’ That level of delegation was necessary, and at first I wasn't doing that and it was really burning me out.

If I were in a healthier place in terms of my diet, in terms of my physical health, I would have had a bit more mental stamina and probably handled the jet lag and travel better, as well as slept better. But when you don't take care of yourself, you just run out of battery quicker and you recharge a lot worse, and that was definitely occurring for me.

Are you teasing the shredded Kaplan arc?

Kaplan: We had a team meeting after Madrid to discuss taking better care of ourselves and recognizing it's a marathon, not a sprint. And we're all convinced that if we're all shredded, there's no possible losing. My number one goal is to fix my posture. Think about how intimidating map vetos could be if I don’t have the posture of Bernie Sanders.

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I've been in work situations and partnerships and whatnot where the group of people I was working with didn't gel, and things happened that were out of my control. I have not always dealt with that admirably. I'm curious about how you dealt with Sentinels’ tough 2023 season behind the scenes.2

Kaplan: It was really difficult and frustrating. I don't think the team that was built ended up having the right pieces and clicking in the right fundamental and sometimes intangible way. I'll be honest, there were, to me, problems that could not be fixed, and a clear limit on our capabilities — of how well we could do — because of that. And there were times where that was a really demotivating thing, and very frustrating to think about.

But also, I have a job to do, and I’m paid to do it, and I'd like to keep that job, and I'd like to show that I deserve the job for the future as much as possible. There's obviously a lot of pressure on me there, especially last year when I was kind of an unknown coach, so I had to recognize: Okay, there's always room for improvement. You always hope you’re on a team where you feel like the sky's the limit, but even if you don't think that or you don't feel like you have the right pieces, we could still be a lot better than we are. And some of these things aren't fixable. You can't turn a player into somebody they're not. But there's still room for personal growth, and you have to try to get what you can out of everybody. And that was kind of a unique challenge — not something I’d dealt with before — and [something] I don't think I did a great job with even during the season.

But yeah, I just tried to make the best of it. There were days where I realized — especially after they released Don, and after dephh left [ed. note: Sentinels’ first coach and in-game leader in 2023, respectively] — part of leading is you're asked to do it because you're the next person in line to do it. There were times where I recognized that if I don't find the motivation and if I don't lift my head up, we're doomed, because people are looking for somebody to look to.

The big success story of the year so far (knock on wood) has been Tyson “TenZ” Ngo. I imagine he felt overwhelmed by the amount of attention on his level of play in 2023. Now he’s a Masters winner again. I'm curious about what role you played in rebuilding his confidence.

Kaplan: Honestly, I'll give pretty much all the credit to him. I just had a lot of conversations with him about understanding his strengths and weaknesses as a player, and why the role he's on makes sense. And once you kind of understand that your strengths and weaknesses fit a role, then even if it's a bumpy start, it's easier to buy into, ‘I am on the right path and I'm doing the right thing’ and be a bit less affected by the short term results. And also, you know, I reminded him: These are really hard circumstances and this team isn't flowing how a team should be, so you can put a lot on yourself or feel like you're uncomfy in a new role, but you have to understand that the team has a lot of problems that are going to affect your play.

I relate to him lot. I think he's a player where he will do really well if he loves the people he's around and he's happy. And in terms of team chemistry and spending time outside of the game together — those were really weak points for us last year. I just tried to do my best to remind him what's in his control and what isn't, and make it a little easier for him to look at how he's doing and how we're doing, and not just knee jerk [react] to the results. And I think that can make him feel more in control and more patient. Again, kudos to him.

At what point do you think your players started to trust you when you were saying things like that? Because I've been in situations where someone from higher up on the org chart will parachute in and say: This isn't your fault, you shouldn't feel bad. And you can only kind of half believe them.

Kaplan: Probably somewhere in the off season and this year, to be honest. [laughs] I think you're right. I think sometimes it is half believing. I don't blame them for it. They are going to lean on [whoever] is reaching out to them, and I was trying really hard to be that person and I think they appreciated that and at least respected that I was trying. But I do think it was hard to fully believe anyone or anything in the circumstances of last year — especially me not being there for a long time and them not seeing me be successful, not seeing our team be successful. And losing just sucks. No matter what somebody is telling you to [help] deal with it, none of us like to do it.

In some ways — and I don't blame them — I don't think they fully trusted me until… I really had to earn it.

You mentioned earlier that there were problems in 2023 that couldn't be fixed. Can you say a bit more about what those problems were?

Kaplan: I think we had a lack of leadership toward the end of the season. After, Don was released, I think it was hard for dephh to show who he could be as a leader, because he was really frustrated by the situation and tired and had just lost his coach who he had a connection to. So when I was picking up the pieces, I felt like I was at the helm of a ship headed toward an iceberg and didn't really have the crew to steer it away. You can only do so much as a leader without captains and leaders behind you ready to say, ‘Hey, yeah, guys, let's follow that guy.’ I felt like sometimes, with that team, I’d say: ‘Alright, let's cross the street guys,’ and I’d turn around and they're all still standing on the other side.

I just think we were really missing some leadership personalities, as well as you need some more quiet people, you need some more humorous people, you need some more loud people who will get people talking. You need the personalities to add up in the right way. And it didn't really add up in a balanced way. And it was hard to see because everyone wanted to win on that team last year, and it was nobody's fault, but because we were in a situation where the team didn't add up and we were missing some key pieces, everyone felt, in some ways, like ‘There's something wrong,’ or ‘I'm failing.’ But it was just unfair to expect anyone to step up. We were just missing some really key personalities. I think that's kind of the bottom line. Not to say there weren't problems with roles or even the lack of an IGL or anything, but really it was just about the personality makeup of the seven people in the room. I think we never really got to feel like a real team because of it.

2023 was really hard. The problems were things that are really hard for anyone to be aware of and to see from the outside looking in. And at the end of the day, I think it took a great deal of patience and a leap of faith from fans, from Sentinels as an organization, even from my players — and vice versa, from me to them — for us to go into this year and get a second chance with the pieces coming from 2023, me included. I'm very grateful to the org and to fans for really staying patient and taking that leap of faith with us. I’m glad it paid off.

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  1. For transparency’s sake, this means I’ve cleaned up the “ums,” “likes” and “ahs,” whittled down my questions to let you get to the answers faster, and cut certain parts of the answers (or entire exchanges) here and there that are redundant or irrelevant or which make sense over audio but not over text. Some of the questions and answers have also been reordered slightly to make more sense in sequence. You can listen to the full recording of the conversation on Patreon!

  2. Sentinels had a bad 2023 season, and also suffered dramatic turnover and personnel issues.