Lateral Teamwork, The Esports Method


What crews of gamers can teach us about management


Five athletes take the stage in preparation for combat. The lights are blinding, the energy of the crowd is intoxicating, their roar deafening. These combatants aren’t phased, they have trained relentlessly for this moment, the moment to prove they are the best at their craft and cannot be defeated as long as they work as the cohesive team they have become. These aren’t physical athletes, these are professional gamer’s and they have mastered teamwork.

I know what you’re thinking, what could a bunch of gamer’s teach me about how to run a team? My question is why haven’t we developed their type of teamwork already.

For anyone unfamiliar with Esports, it’s a competitive scene primarily composed of teams of 5 individuals, and is fast approaching the billion dollar industry mark. These individuals train for 12+ hours a day, together with their teammates, in an effort to master their skills and prepare them for the global scene as professional competitors. Teams have developed an almost organic form of teamwork, while not perfect, is something every team should study and evaluate. Let’s break it down.

Though some teams do have captains, the structure is more akin to a school of fish then a pride of lions. Everyone has their roles but it is more about following the flow then taking commands. Gamer’s don’t exactly mesh with archaic leadership styles (probably why I get along with them so well). Before we look at how this style can apply to our teams, let’s talk about the roles they have.

Shot Caller. Though not necessarily the captain, the shot caller is a vocal and decisive individual who understands his teammates, and the strategy and is able to make quick decisions to drive the team towards victory. This is less about commanding and more about identifying opportunities (or pitfalls) and communicating/delegating actions to the team.

Playmaker. These individuals are often the master’s of mechanical skill and micro-level actions to avoid danger and capitalize on opportunities. They set up the team for game changing plays and absolutely punish their enemies for making mistakes.

Flex/Support. I use this term generically since it varies between teams and games, but the flex/support players are just what you would envision, team members who can often play multiple roles and fill in wherever the team needs them. They set the playmaker up for epic plays, they ensure they are exactly where the shot caller wants them to be, and they provide cohesion to push the team towards victory.

What’s so fascinating to me about these teams is that they are so drastically different from how we perceive teams should work. In most organizations you have a team leader, and that’s where most people think the decisions should be made. Esports teams don’t have time for that nonsense, they simply figure out where everyone fits, what they need to achieve victory, and develop their team to achieve it. There’s no archaic titles and authoritarian leadership. You either mesh with the team and fulfill a role or you’re gone. They don’t waste time with people who aren’t contributing their best towards victory, regardless of their skills or ‘leadership’.

I’ve always taken this approach to leadership though I only recently realized how similar it is to Esports teams. When I’m leading a team, it’s not about telling them what to do, it’s about giving them the tools to succeed and bringing my A game every day so that they will bring theirs. I always tell my teams I’m replaceable, that’s why I get up every morning and work harder and smarter than any of them, because I hope that they are doing the same with the intent of taking my job someday.

In this form of teamwork I consider myself a shot caller because I’m good at directing, but by no means do I consider my word as law. I expect my teams to inform me when I miss something, challenge me when when I’m wrong, and boot me when I stop performing. So if you are on a team in need of a kickstart or suffering from poor leadership and morale, think seriously about adopting a lateral structure. Everyone will be more engaged, perform better, and strive for victory. If you think you are not valued, prove to your team otherwise, and if you think you are indispensable, I rue the day your team decides otherwise.

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