A Life Devoted To His Overwatch Team - An Interview With Coach ChrisTFer
Christopher “ChrisTFer” Graham has been around in the Overwatch esports scene since the early days. As a player, he participated twice for the UK in the Overwatch World Cup and played among the most promising talent in Europe. After not being picked up as a player for the first season of the Overwatch League, and with the assistance of his now head coach Dong-gun "KDG" Kim, ChrisTFer realised he had to change. Several transformations later, he has grown into a voice of reason within the scene, and is a valued assistant coach in one of the best teams in the world - the Philadelphia Fusion.
In this interview, he talks about his path to where he is now, the challenges and sacrifices he had to make, and what the future may hold, sharing nuggets of wisdom he has picked up along the way.
Throughout us two knowing each other, you were always very open with sharing your ideas and philosophies in a field that usually is about competitive advantages, privacy, as well as not making the next two weeks, based on what you said was ‘a living hell’ for your team. How did you decide that you wanted to be so open with your ideas?
Across my coaching career, I read various autobiographies and one thing that I take into my coaching that I learned over a few years of being in this job is, I guess, authenticity is pretty important. No matter what you say - if it’s right or wrong or stupid or clever - if people know it’s genuine, it’s what you actually believe and what you stand for people can often get behind it.
I felt like in my life before esports I wasn’t necessarily being true to who I was. There was something about esports when I was hanging around with gamers all the time or because I’m in American away from home… You know sometimes when you go on holiday, there is an aura of freedom to do whatever you want because it’s not my home. No one is going to remember if I’m stupid. I kind of ended up just being me and almost every time I just did something genuine which I thought was the right thing to do, it was almost always met with by positive feedback or something good happened. Whenever I came onto your podcast, it was something similar. I kind of just as open as I could do without revealing everything [about the Fusion] and almost always the feedback was overwhelmingly good. As far I know, it hasn’t got me into any trouble. Nobody has said anything bad. I try and live my life the same sort of way where I just, I try to be as real as possible, as cliche that sounds.
What did it take you to get to your position?
Honestly, it’s a huge amount of luck. I think that there are very few people who can say that they got to a position where I am or somewhere near the Overwatch League and especially near the top without a portion of luck. I mean obviously I had to dedicate a lot of time, I had to make sacrifices in terms of university or even when I was enrolled I wasn’t exactly going very often. By default, when you play for a team before I was even coaching, if you are dedicating yourself to three scrim blocks a day six days a week, almost all attempts at social activity or whatever you wanna do has to go out the window. So there’s obviously sacrifices.
I was probably not qualified to get into the league when I did, to be honest with you. I’ve only been for three or four weeks. [Elliott "Hayes" Hayes], who was someone I was close to, either saw something in me or whatever it was… He was able to give me a chance. So I think ultimately what helped me was my personal relationships with people and I guess once I got that opportunity, I kind of realised that I loved coaching more than I loved playing and I kind of went from strength to strength.
You’ve been a professional now for three years in different capacities. I think the first one would’ve been Hollywood Hammers. The premise of this organisation was always interesting. Was a celebrity in Hollywood ever a fan of yours?
No, it was interesting. The org itself, it obviously had ambitions to be in the [Overwatch] league. It actually had pretty significant backing from what I know. There’s a big Chinese theatre on Hollywood Boulevard which I think is actually the spawn doors on Hollywood [the Overwatch map] is based on this exact theatre.
The owners of that, it’s called TCL or something, invested heavily into Hammers with the goal of becoming Hollywood Hammers or whatever we would have to rebrand to within the league. I guess me being a naive little boy that I was, I thought “This is it. This is my shot. I’m going to get into the league with this org!” Like many others who went down similar paths to me.
We moved out to California for a while. I mean, it wasn’t good, there was a lot of problems that we had. Most of all, I think that almost by the time they did find a way to fly us out they kind of realised that Blizzard stopped replying to calls and it wasn’t going to happen. So they were kind of in this really awkward position where they would be investing money into a house and salaries for us but they kind of knew that the end goal was never feasible. But we did actually have an office in the theatre itself, so we did literally have to walk Hollywood boulevard to go to work every day for a few months. We did a party with one of the owner’s houses in the Hollywood hills or somewhere, so it wasn’t all bad.
But yeah my first test of being paid to do esports and I guess it really only lasted two months until they sent us home. Lessons learned, I suppose.
I got quite a few Overwatch League trials in season 1, maybe even as four of five but it was only looking back that I realised that I was really bad back then
Did it feel at that point that the dream was over?
No, I don’t think so. I was pretty motivated. One of the problems we had on the Hollywood Hammers was that especially once you fly a team over to America, roster changes become extremely difficult. So internally we were talking about a few players that we wanted to potentially replace but it wasn’t possible. So we were in this position on the team where we felt like that most of our pieces were competitive and could be good but at the same time, we were capped by management. We had this crazy idea, that I think we were going to merge with the team Movistar Riders with like [Alberto "neptuNo" González], [Johan "CWoosH" Klingestedt], [Andreas "Logix" Berghmans] - we were going to form half Hammers, half Movistar Riders. We were going to make that godsquad which I was very excited for. But I think [Jonas "Shaz" Suovaara] got contacted by Gigantti and obviously because he’s not an idiot he took that position and the dream kind of fell through. At least to me the post-Hammers… I felt like we’re going to merge teams, we were going to become close to a European super team, and I was pretty excited. But that didn’t happen.
I did a brief stint in EnVision for like a week, which was like a real highlight in my career in a lot of ways. And then obviously World Cup was in-between. And then the Mosaic travesty happened after that.
Do you think you’d be here without that World Cup performance?
No, I think… Well, maybe actually. I think what’s interesting that when I was most highly rated as a player was after the World Cup performance and after we beat Rogue on envision. Because I went into EnVision for one week, we snapped Rogue’s winning streak and I left. And then everyone was like: “This guy is crazy good!”
I got quite a few Overwatch League trials in season 1, maybe even as four of five but it was only looking back that I realised that I was really bad back then. There is a certain irony across season 1 my reputation got smashed because I was on teams that lost and lost and lost... But it actually felt like at the end of season 1 I was a much better player than I was the year before, but my reputation internally had gone the other way: I got trials because people thought I was good [in season 1] but I was getting no trials because people thought I was bad. I think in season 2 I actually got zero trials. If you ask me, I was a much better player back then, I guess there is some sort of irony there.
I assume you have been playing video games with an incentive to become a professional for a long time beforehand. What’s it like to make that decision: I’m going to step back from playing and become a coach?
I felt in a lot of ways it was almost me being finished. I wasn’t naive enough to believe “Okay, I’m going to coach and I’m going to make it into the league immediately.” Ironically when I played I told everyone that I was never going to become one of these people that retire and goes coach because it’s an easier way to get a paycheck and I can somehow pretend to live the dream for longer than I can [as a player]. I often said, “if I’m done playing and I think my time is over I’m just going back to school and I’m going to live a normal life.”
A few people that spoke to me said that my personality type makes sense [for coaching]. As a player, I was always the captain of the teams that I played in and I was always the leader in every single team I played for. Obviously coaching involves a significant amount of leadership. I remember the day I decided to retire was the day after the Paris Groupstage World Cup, because [before] that was the exact moment I felt like I was playing my best Overwatch. I felt like that World Cup, that was going to be my time to prove to everybody. And then I choked super hard, I played terribly across the weekend. We still qualified, but we got smashed [by France]. The other players on my team were so good that it was almost impossible not to qualify because I actually think that team UK is pretty stacked.
So I decided to retire and what I did was I actually at the airport I messaged [Ysabel "Noukky" Müller] and I knew that they had a position for British Hurricane for a coach, so I rang her up and I said like “You think there’s a chance that I can get a trial?” and she said “Yeah!”. We did a little interview, and then she gave me a trial. Things went ridiculously well almost immediately. It was almost within a week of coaching Hurricane that I realised “Okay, there is actually something here for me.”
To be honest with you, the big turning in my career came when I met KDG on Mosaic and 6nakes
One and a half years after you became a full-time esports professional you then switched on October 3, and you officially became a coach. What’s that mindset change like? In the beginning, did it feel like “Oh my god, I wish I could sit down at this PC and do it myself”?
No, not necessarily. I always knew that I was extremely limited as a player because I think mechanically I was about the worst maintank that has ever existed in Overwatch. So I always knew, especially when I would watch the Overwatch League and I saw these guys juggling Pharahs in the sky I was like “I can never get there. These guys are far better than I can ever be.”
I just thought that it was possible through communication and leadership that maybe on one of the Western teams there was a space for me within the league. Maybe we can see what happens. Maybe it becomes a Reinhardt meta and maybe I can prove myself.
One thing that I still believe to this day, and that I always believed. is that I fell more in love with competing and being on a team more than I did necessarily playing Overwatch. There’s a huge dream that I’ve realised being in a team house with players and being able to compete with other people who are also in a team house who are also competing in. Both parties only have one thing on their mind for a full 12 months and that’s to be the best. Even growing up as a kid, I never thought I could be in video games but I always wanted to be a football player and that was always a huge dream of mine - to be able to live my life just within a team and our only goal is to compete and there’s nothing else… literally nothing else matters in life. That was always something that appealed to me more than any other professional.
I think after a while I realised that as a coach that you can still compete just as hard as being a player even if sometimes once the match starts you lose control of what’s happening and it’s a much more daunting experience than to play a lot of the time… But it was pretty quick that I realised that the itch for competing still exists as a coach just as much as a player.
I want to change the over-arching topic, and want to go a little bit into change and learning, and also growing within this scene. Have you noticed any changes in you since you’ve become an esports professional?
I think since I joined Fusion two years ago I’ve grown more in two years than I did in the previous 22. I mean there is a lot of things that it teaches you when you actually have a full-time job. Even when you’re playing at home, even if I was being played by Hammers, it was almost different than it is now. I’m in a company, there are a lot of people who count on me on the team that aren’t just the players playing. We have marketing and management and all these other people, whose careers rest on our performance just as much as ours do.
One thing that I had to do when I came here was that Philly made us as coaches find our own accommodations. That was some sort of attempt to make us learn independence. So all of a sudden I go from being 22 years old, lived at home except for a few years when I lived in uni accommodations but that was still in the same city where I was half an hour away from home, so I was never too far away from the nest.
Then it says: “Okay, Chris. You gotta book yourself a plane ticket over to America. You have to immediately find a place to stay. You have to set up bank accounts, phone numbers. Then you find a place to live near where the player house is and you have like one week before it begins.” So almost immediately I’m throwing into real-life really fast and obviously I have to either adapt or it’s going to be extremely anxiety-inducing, incredibly stressful. But I managed and it was fine. I guess I just grew to do more and more things.
I then decided to lose a lot of weight because I was too fat. If you’ve ever talked to anyone who lost weight I think you realise a lot about life once you realise the importance of discipline and sticking to something over time. What’s really interesting is that there is always something addicted about weighing yourself again each week and seeing that you lost something. Okay, I’m going to do that again, I’m going to do that again. To then get into that habit and get into that routine of like chasing a goal every single week, you realise that that is almost a premise how life is in general. It’s not about winning stuff overnight, it’s about a long term effort. It’s about the discipline, it’s about doing the hard stuff every single day instead of giving in to temptations of eating of not running or whatever it is. Once you realise: “Oh, no matter what I want to improve on, if it’s about losing weight or coaching or whatever skill, this is the formula of how life works!” Once I learned that through losing weight that kind of opened my eyes to how almost everything in life works.
They don’t see the arguments and the stress and how everything kind of comes to a head during the week. They just see a team, and they almost always assume “Ohh, this team is just like...lazy or like have bad coaching” and they don’t see that we’re trying our absolute best but there are just significant problems in our way. People really have no idea I think.
I’ve also found that one thing that had changed about you is the calculatedness or the… I suppose, the ability to just sit back and let the first take on an issue simmer and then reevaluate. I found a tweet from November 4, 2016…
Ah, I don’t like this….
It goes “Actually don’t know anyone can be happy with Overwatch League.” and the second tweet pretty much 30 minutes after is “After looking more into it, it’s not terrible. If they include region locks, it’s actually horrible though” Two questions: How do you evaluate that take now, and do you think you’ve gotten better at evening your temper?
I actually don’t even know what I was complaining about. But for sure before Fusion I was like, I was so arrogant and naive as a person… If you ever watched me on LAN, I was so cocky, I was like Dogman 2.0 while also being a feeder. I was like simultaneous the worst player on the server but the most cocky. I guess it was a problem, it explains why I was so bad… I was definitely someone who after season 1, I didn’t realise I was bad. Philly specifically I could not believe that they would pick up this Korean main tank who had to serve this big boosting ban that had never played in a team… I couldn’t BELIEVE they picked him ahead of me, and I was actually so mad. I was like “Kirby and Hayez, the coaches and I know all the players… and they didn’t pick me?!” I didn’t take it well… At no point did I take a step back and think “I need to be better!”, I honestly felt I had been robbed. I had this super arrogant super egotistical way of viewing the world in which I am an insane player and these guys just don’t know what they’re talking about. I remember thinking “Philly is going to epic fail! What are they doing? Terrible decisions!”
To be honest with you, the big turning in my career came when I met KDG on Mosaic and 6nakes. He kind of taught me how to play and it was only once I learned how to play I realised that I didn’t know how to play before. That in itself became a really important lesson for me: People when they are bad, and they’re arrogant and egotistical don’t know it. That becomes part of the problem. One thing that I’m good at now is one of the most important skills and in my self-improvement is becoming self-aware and learning to look at myself from an outside perspective. If I saw this fat ugly UK kid fist-pounding after he was just feeding a map on stage, what would I think? I hate that guy! But when it’s me, I don’t realise it.
It’s only after a while that I learned that I had to be more self-aware and that most of my improvements as a person and as a player came in.
I had this theory for a while that the best coaches have the ability to break a player, in a sense where the ego now takes a step back, possibly not unlike something people would go through in military basic training. Do you think that makes sense?
Yeah, absolutely. Another thing I read in the books and one theme that was consistent no matter the coach of the book that I read - one message came through: If the player believes deep down that you have their best interests at heart, you can say anything to them, and they’ll take it well. The only problem you have as a coach is when the player thinks you are only doing it for your own ego or to get one over on them. I think there are coaches in the league who suffer with these player relations. You can say anything to a player but as long as they deep down believe that “this coach wants what’s best for me”, it’s going to get through. Even if it’s rejected initially, that night when they’re going to lie in bed they’re going to think about what you said and then maybe it sinks in across a few weeks. That’s definitely something that I learned from reading and I think that it’s definitely true from my personal experience.
Is there a way to communicate that to a player, or do you have to put that message of a sense of care into any communication with them?
It doesn’t work if I say “by the way, I only care about you, so this is what you need to do!” That doesn’t work. They have to believe it, and they can only do that over time from working with you and knowing you and seeing how you react to various things. It’s hard to explain, to be honest with you, I can’t even tell you if my players think that or if they don’t think that. It’s hard for me to know but obviously I do care about them all a lot and I hope that they know that. Even now I would never tell them explicitly “This is why you need to listen to me!” because that almost defeats the purpose of it. It’s starting to feel like I’m trying to manipulate them by saying this. It comes back to the authenticity, they have to genuinely believe that what I’m saying is what I’m feeling and that my motivation for saying these things is right.
What do you believe your underlying incentives are? Are you doing it for them? Are you doing it for yourself? Are you doing it for both of those groups at the same time?
I think more than anything I do it for the team, I do it for the Fusion. If something is not in a players interest but something is better for the team then I’m going to advocate for it, or I’m going to do it. Almost all of my loyalty has to go to the badge, but at the same time, I’m not going to be ruthless because I appreciate that these players and coaches are human beings. Once you go through a season of Overwatch League you share so many ups and down with them, your bond as friends and teammates becomes incredibly strong. It’s impossible not to care a lot about how they land after life on the Fusion. You care a lot for the players.
But everyone has to understand that the team comes first. It’s easy to make sacrifices if you buy into that.
Have you got personally defined goals and goals for the team?
No, no I don’t think so. One thing about being an assistant coach is that I don’t necessarily have a huge amount of importance in terms of setting in and making sure that long terms goals are met. I obviously talk to players if I think there’s something that he needs to fix on a personal level or if it’s work ethic related. But I’m never the one that says “Our goal for this season is this. You have to do this!” That’s people above me and my job is to kind of nudge players in the right direction.
Do you sometimes have to swallow emotion in that line of work, in that position?
Yes, sometimes. I think it’s something that I’ve got better at. Season 2 was a huge learning experience for me because to be completely honest Fusion itself was relatively dysfunctional when I came into it. The success of season 1 hadn’t set the team up for any success in season 2.
One essential problem I had was coming from an average-to-bad contenders player to becoming a coach of the Overwatch League. It’s very hard for the players to respect you. As much as they try with the right ideas, it’s difficult for them to just come in and just give you your undying respect. You almost have to earn it in a way. So there were a lot of times that I was telling players “Okay, your attitude is bad, this is bad…” and it wouldn’t go down and it would just lead to arguments and I would end up getting stress and angry and it wasn’t a good situation. Over time, I learned how to not let players see that side of your emotions and at the same time hopefully I’ve gained their respect in some way, so that those conversations when they get too heated happen less often or not at all, as it probably has been the case this season.
If I asked you to create a pie chart of the emotions you go through the week, how much of it is joy, satisfaction, frustration etc.?
I mean the joy almost always comes at the end of the week if you get the win. I think the vast majority of the week building up to the game is often… I mean, sometimes you’re confident, sometimes if have an opponent you know you’re going to beat and the scrims are going well especially this season… there’s been at least some weeks when I wasn’t worried going into it. Whereas last year that wasn’t the case. Every single game no matter who is against us, I wasn’t sure if it’s going to be a win or loss and it became incredibly stressful. For me I guess… it’s weird to say… I get less stressed about the result but the impact of a bad week of practice. This year, it’s really hard for me to draw into many negatives but I think last year there were often weeks when it was such a bad week of practice and I knew in my head “If this trend forms into a bad result, then next week is going to be actual hell.” There’s are going to be kick-offs...whatever it’s going to be… which happened a lot.
To me the most stressful thing was if this attitude and week of scrims turns into a bad result, then next week is going to get even worse. Then the week after that, maybe it gets even worse. Sometimes when you look at the fixture list and you see like New York, then Shock, then New York again you realise that these are going to be an incredibly long three weeks in a lot of ways.
You practice [six] days with pretty hardcore hours and then you got a game on Saturday where you gotta put it all in. Do you think there’s something underlying in your work that fans can appreciate in terms of what it takes to be this good? Is Overwatch a good communicator of that effort?
I don’t think people can see it. I don’t think they have almost no idea what happens during a week within a team. They see none of the stress, none of the arguments, none of the nights where you have to stay up thinking “if we run this strategy are we going to get rolled? Is this the way to go especially in hero pools?” That was obviously a conversation we had to have a lot of. Sometimes they see a team that comes out, performs poorly and loses, and then they just s#*t on you and they don’t really see how much… how hard that week of losing scrims to lose that game in a tournament has been. They don’t see the arguments and the stress and how everything kind of comes to a head during the week. They just see a team, and they almost always assume “Ohh, this team is just like...lazy or like have bad coaching” and they don’t see that we’re trying our absolute best but there are just significant problems in our way. People really have no idea I think.
Should there be a system to highlight that more? For instance, a video camera team following your practice and giving an authentic insight?
I mean… Maybe. From a purely content I think it’s something that would be really interesting to see. Of course, it’s not necessarily in a teams interest. I think the ultimate thing is that this is what we signed up for in a lot of ways. If we thought this is a regular job where people come in we come in, we check-in, we check out, there are no arguments. We play a game at the weekend and when we win we are slightly happy and when we lose we’re slightly sad, then we wouldn’t do what we do, you know? The emotions on one end of the spectrum in terms of how happy you are when you win - the only way to get this far up the spectrum is also to go the other way and have like the lowest of lows and that’s what’s good about our job. The average job maybe the spectrum is here *gestures with both hands close to each other*
In our job, it widens in both ways. On this end of the spectrum, we’ve obviously been here this season while last season it’s been hell when you’re on this other end of the spectrum.
But that truly is part of the job. For me, I take these sleepless where we’re having team meetings and where we’re thinking about everything… I’d take them over a regular job all day every day. I think not many people get to experience even if in the moment it feels pretty negative.
Is this your dream goal job? Have you arrived or do you want to go up the ladder? Maybe going to an adjacent role, let’s say General Manager, down the line?
No, I always, always, always want to be involved in game theory. I never want to be in this situation where I’m above talking about what we play, how we play, all this. I am extremely happy in my current position. I don’t think I’m necessarily someone that sees head coach and this end goal. To me, being part of a good team is far more important than being a bigger piece in a worse team. One thing I can say about life at the Fusion, everything you’d want as a coach is met in terms of like… there’s an ambition at Fusion which I think not a lot of teams in the league don’t have, which obviously allows us to be the most competitive we want to be. You can’t put enough value on having an ownership which is truly ambitious to win it all.
There’s a lot of coaches and players on other teams that have either like, less of a budget, or less ambition over all that they are more interested in making money or whatever it ends up being. That’s why I love being at the Fusion. I think I’m pretty close to my dream job. I think maybe one day if Manchester United and come in and ask “Do you want to be a coach in this team?” maybe I’d jump ship. But I think apart from that there’s nothing that would make me stop from doing what I do now.
Is there ever any future angst about the development of your career, because esports changes seemingly rapidly, and it feels in order to remain a coach, you have to stay flexible in terms of understanding new games, and we don’t know where this game is going. We might as well move to virtual reality. Is this something that you, down the line in 10 or 20 years, weighs on your mind?
Which isn’t a job which I expect to be doing in 10 years. Maybe I’m underselling the growth of esports and how it might be possible to transition into other games or in other positions within esports and it might be something that I could make a genuine career out of but I absolutely am just living life in the now. The upside to all the sacrifices we make in esports is that I probably earn a lot of money compared to the people who are my age that went to my school do. It means whenever this thing runs out, even if I don’t have qualifications I at least have enough savings to do something with my life where at least it makes the rest of my life easier and I can say that I went out and that I lived my dream and I never have to live with the guilt of not taking this opportunity. Maybe in five years, my life becomes more difficult because my only qualification is that I coached gamers how to click heads for five years and maybe regular employers look at that with any merit but I think life is sometimes about the chances you do take more than taking the easy road out.
Images via Blizzard Entertainment