Turning The Corner: What Went Into Rebuilding The Boston Uprising?
As he was about many things, Confucius was right about perseverance. “It does not matter how slowly you go so long as you do not stop.” This wise proverb rings true throughout the Boston Uprising’s 2021 offseason bid because nothing could have prepared them for what they had to endure just a year prior.
It sounds strange to say, but 2020 was the year the Overwatch League was set to take flight and establish itself as a leader in esports. Hindsight views that dream slightly differently, but that was the hope at the time. Similar to the Boston Uprising, who debuted their brand new roster at a live event in New York City. Unfortunately, that’s where the pleasantries end.
By March, only two months into the Overwatch League’s third season, the Uprising saw the departure of two players.
April brought three more losses, now from both players—and the coaching staff.
And by the time May reared its head, the team was already trying to triage its sixth loss while also trying to find their way through a global pandemic.
Like a fireball of metal wreckage, spewing car parts from all conceivable positions before coming to a screeching halt only midway through the track, the Boston Uprising was in shambles by the spring of 2020.
It’s true, nothing could have prepared the Uprising for the crucible of 2020, but that tumultuous period gave them the blueprint for their 2021 bid.
This is the story of when a team meets their redline, the crossroads of departure and defiance.
This is what it took to rebuild the 2021 Boston Uprising.
In The Thick Of It
Reflection on such a test seemed hard at first for the former head coach and current assistant general manager for the Boston Uprising, Vytis "Mineral" Lasaitis. Whether it was deep contemplation, struggling with going back to such a tough time, or a cocktail of both, it felt as though he began by rolling up his emotional sleeves and tackling this metaphorical elephant head-on. The first memory that cut in was a concept that orbited the roster as a whole. One major lesson Mineral felt that was reinforced was the importance of culture when it comes to building a mixed roster.
“To have a super successful mixed roster, you need to have a strong Korean head coach at the helm,” he explained. “I think it’s something that you see across the league.” As an example, Mineral cited the success that the 2020 Paris Eternal had while having Yun "RUSH" Hee-won as head coach.
“I think, for a western [and] Korean mixed roster to work, you not only have to have really good players but you have to have a team culture where everyone is working relentlessly.”
“You almost can’t take any time off.”
“Winning comes first above everything else,” he said.
“I think in the west and in Korean culture, if you compare the two, the definition of “hard work” is completely different. I’ve worked with a lot of Korean players now, so I’ve seen it. It’s extremely difficult—but it’s your life.”
“Every second of your [time] is committed to being excellent. And I think, in the west, it’s about putting in the time and making sure you’re rested. It’s a bit of a different definition.”
Simplifying the two polar opposite definitions down, Mineral agreed both cultures could be summarised as balance versus sacrifice. “In the Korean culture, everyone is a lot more willing to sacrifice everything for that moment in the limelight,” he explained. “To be great, to win, no matter what. Your health? It does not matter. Your social life? It does not matter. Everything is worth it as long as you [succeed] in the end and you win.”
“Whereas in the west, what is all of it if you’re not happy in the end?”
“Everything I’ve seen over the years has just reinforced that concept.”
As a competitor, saying that I’m proud of last year, as a whole, would be ridiculous—quite frankly.
- Vytis "Mineral" Lasaitis
Wading deeper into more introspective memories, Mineral recounted some of the more bleak moments that happened in the 2020 Overwatch League season. “Well, obviously, our results were terrible, and I felt like, heading into last year, I was the best equipped to handle the job than I’ve ever been,” Mineral said. Even though he changed his coaching style, even after drawing up plans and having a strong vision for the team, nothing catalysed in the Uprising seeing a turn around in results.
“I think the responsibility ultimately falls on my shoulders,” he said.
Mineral explained that while there were a lot of difficulties, he thought it common to look back and consider all the options. While he is in a management position now, at the time, he was constantly battling through scenario building and the what-ifs. Could he find similarities with other situations and compare how he dealt with them versus how another team managed them? What would need to be done differently? How could he improve? It all felt natural because of his near five-year career in Overwatch. It was what he knew, and you could only help but sympathise with him.
“Ultimately, it was my responsibility even though there were certain things that were out of my control,” Mineral said. “There were a lot of unfortunate events that took place. We started losing people left, right, and centre and we were limited in how we could replace them due to COVID and how hard it was to get visas mid-season. So it wasn’t the case that ‘Oh, we just lost someone. Let’s take a look around and see how we can replace them.’”
“It was just, you lose someone, and you’re just one man short. [Did] you lose someone else? You’re just [another] man short. Obviously with some key players, but also losing [Ilias T. "iLka" Kaskanetas] who was a lead assistant. At that point, he was one of the guys with the most responsibility at the time. That was difficult as well.”
In an interview with GGRecon last year, Mineral left a touching keepsake that he wanted to reflect on the 2020 season and remember how much adversity the Boston Uprising overcame and be proud of that. Unfortunately, after a pregnant pause, pride was the last thing on the former coach’s docket.
“The competitor in me can’t, with an honest mind, say that I’m proud of last year because there were just so many failures, and when a team fails, you always have to take responsibility at the top. As a competitor, saying that I’m proud of last year, as a whole, would be ridiculous—quite frankly.”
Blow after blow; Mineral recounted all the times he and the team felt as though they were just about to turn the corner, right before having another gasket blow and careening into the same ditch. However, he was adamant in praising those who stuck it out. He was proud of the players who stood up, dusted themselves off and equipped a never-say-die attitude.
The Boston Uprising finished their 2020 regular season with a record of 2-19. Their only victories came by way of besting the Houston Outlaws in a legendary match spanning seven maps in week one and a week 15 win over the Los Angeles Gladiators. Mineral reminisced on their slight uptick to end the season. It wasn’t pride that came through, but a sense of peace that through it all, there was still some silver lining that beamed through such a dark cloud.
“As we finished the season, we kept losing and losing and losing, [but] we ended up finishing the season on a slightly more positive note,” he said. “Not finishing last, winning a round of playoffs, giving Atlanta a good run for their money in the second round. Not making a Washington-style Cinderella run but that not being out of the complete realm of possibility and considering the mental state of the group, it showed a lot of character from all of our guys.”
“I am proud of that.”
“Looking back, I’m happy I managed through it because it was hard for everyone, and if I would have packed it up, it would have been even harder. So I’m at least happy, no matter how hard it was, I was able to go through it with all of them.”
And from that point forward, change was not only the team’s north star but Mineral’s as well.
“At the end of the year, I felt like I didn’t really have the passion for coaching,” Mineral spoke candidly. “To that point, I had failed for three seasons. I think if you fail for such an extended period of time, you have to look yourself in the mirror and say, “Ok, there obviously a reason why I’m still here, but I’ve not had any success, so I should probably try something else.’”
After a season as tumultuous as theirs, there were wounds that needed to heal. Time needed to ebb and flow before any decisions could be made—and ultimately, Mineral decided that a management position would be his best fit both for his skill set and he was interested in.
“Over the years, I’ve just kind of naturally entered a different stage in my career where it felt like my skills would be better used in another position. [Chris "HuK" Loranger] felt similarly, so we talked about that; he obviously still had faith in me in terms of what I can bring to the table in certain departments. It wasn’t like we had to have a tough discussion about me not being a head coach or anything.”
When it came to the new-look Boston Uprising and his former position, there was not an ounce of a second thought; the team needed a strong South Korean head coach.
“In terms of what would have to change, obviously, the head coach would have to change. That’s the number one priority. You try to find a head coach first and then start recruiting the players because you want to coach to be comfortable with the roster that he has at his disposal. If there are players, he believes in and wants to bring into the team that fit his coaching style; you always want to adhere to that. It is more difficult when you just have a roster and slot in a head coach, and they are like, ‘Woah, I have all these toys, but I didn’t really buy them, or I didn’t really get them. They are all just here. So I guess I’ll play with them?’”
“We were in sync that we needed a strong head coach and, to win, there is such a huge talent pool in Korea, and with everything, I've learned, and that [HuK] has seen, it was just important to have a strong Korean head coach at the helm. That was the first box we had to tick.”
Enter former World Star Gaming Phoenix coach Kim "Lori" Seung-hyun.
We want to be there at the end of the year and we hope the meta breaks right for us and we can do a lot of damage in the playoffs—and hopefully go all the way.
- Vytis "Mineral" Lasaitis
“We had our eyes on Lori for a while. He ticked a lot of boxes for us, and I guess we ticked a lot of boxes for him as well in terms of what we could offer him, the platform he would have, and the amount of influence he would have.”
When it came to the Uprising’s new coach, the word “mastermind” kept being the proverbial mulberry bush, but the picture was clear; Lori was able to download the game, in real-time, and decipher more information than Mineral had ever seen. Strategy and game knowledge seemed to be a recurring strong suit, but the micro breakdowns seemed to catch Mineral’s eye.
“I feel like he’s super detailed oriented, and he always stresses what everyone kind of knows in Overwatch; every little detail matters. Making a rotation a second too late based on a queue you missed can cost you the game.”
“He puts in an exceptional amount of time in the game to teach it to the players. He sees things a lot of people don’t, almost like—” Mineral paused in thought.
“You know the .gif of Zach Galifianakis when he’s counting cards in The Hangover? A little bit like that, honestly, in real-time.”
“It’s really fascinating,” he said.
With a new engine under the hood, it was time to flesh out the rest of the skeleton. Overwatch is not a game that can be run with a lean and mean coaching staff; that’s where Valentin "Ascoft" Wulfman and Dennis "Barroi" Matz step onto the track.
While Ascoft started a little rough around the edges last year, Mineral seemed pleased with the former player’s growth as a motivator and emotional centre for the team. Past that point, he was tapped as someone who was willing to do what needed to be done to see his team succeed, no matter the atmosphere. Even though 2020, Mineral explained that Ascoft would not give up and would give 100% each outing.
As one of the latest additions, Mineral seemed fond of Barroi’s experience in and around Overwatch. As someone who has been with the game since its start in 2016 and also boasts two years of Overwatch League experience, Barrio’s credentials are hard to beat. On top of that, Mineral cited his statistical background and experience working with mixed rosters as well as a majority South Korean roster as a strong attribute as well.
With the coaching staff in place, it was time to start building out the roster.
“For us, it [was] more we need to plug a lot of holes and what’s the best way to distribute the budget? What positions do we need? Do we need more depth? All those things, we make all those decisions as a team,” he said. “We [had] a lot of staff meetings in the offseason. We tried to figure out what makes the most sense, bring up concerns, who we like, who we don’t like, sometimes you like a player, and you can’t get him because there is too much interest in them.”
"I think that for any team that has a bad season, it can be harder to recruit players simply because you haven't had great immediate short term results,” Mineral said. “You're not as sexy of a name or have to plug a lot of roster holes, and the more holes you have to plug, the harder it is to hit a home run. Despite this, I feel like we did a good job plugging those holes with guys we believe in."
We, as a community, often have fantasies about how rosters are built, that budgets are friends with the boogeyman, and culture is just a phrase we wield to keep children up at night. In reality, there are real restrictions and thoughtful visions put into each roster built. As bleak as that all sounds, Mineral assured us that most of the players they really liked, they managed to sign.
"It's easy from the outside looking in to forget and imagine that every team in the league operates under the same budget, can hand out blank checks and has no restrictions across the board in terms of signings,” Mineral explained. “That would certainly be a lucrative scenario, but the reality is that most teams operate within varying parameters and budgets. And at the end of the year, the numbers have to check out if you're a financially responsible organisation."
“We’re ultimately happy with where we are.”
With a roster that put respect on the moniker they’ve worn for nearly four years, the 2021 Boston Uprising is only going up from here. This is the proverbial phoenix rising from the ashes, and that rebirth has been fueled by a passionate team that, through the darkest of times, clung to their determination and grit.
This is how Boston truly rises up.
Approaching The Corner
When asked if this was the year that Boston could finally turn the corner, a subtle sense of measure optimism skated across Mineral’s voice. “We obviously tried to really turn it around. I always default to this answer, but as long as you make the playoffs, you always have a shot,” he explained. “The playoff meta is always going to decide whether you make it or not. We’ve seen this every year. So in Overwatch League, I think that’s been proven. As long as you're in the playoff race, as long as you make it, as long as you continuously build that culture and you work really hard throughout the season, your in with a shot.”
“We want to be there at the end of the year, and we hope the meta breaks right for us, and we can do a lot of damage in the playoffs—and hopefully go all the way,” Mineral said. “I think there are a lot of really tough opponents, a lot of teams that are stacked, but there were a lot of teams that were stacked last year, and the 2020 Justice still made that run, right? So we’re obviously very hopeful that we can have a great year.” And as he continued onto the roster, he and the coaching staff built, how could you not be optimistic?
“As a collective, what’s impressed me about this group of guys is how hungry they are and how committed they are to winning,” Mineral said. “We have a ten-minute break, and they spend it watching and talking among themselves, gathering around a computer and discussing how they could have played better.”
He explained that in between scrim blocks, they’re practising. While waiting for their food to arrive, they’re reviewing. And if there is a little bit of a break? It’s the same thing. At all points of the day, they are watching and trying to improve—and while it seemed generic, Mineral warned against selling initiative short.
“You’re always going to study when you’re having VOD reviews with the team when you’re having coaching sessions, but when players take the time outside of that to grind and to look through footage and do the things that weren’t formally asked of them, but they do it willing themselves because they want to be great? That’s always very encouraging.”
With such a storied career in Overwatch, Mineral has seen both sides of that fence. Those who have the initiative to redefine over time and those who do their job for the day and move on to different things.
“To do the right things, even when people aren’t watching or necessarily explicitly expected to do the right things, that shows how badly these guys want to win, and that shows how badly they want to be champions and be successful together.”
The team seemed separated from the usual excuses. There was no finger-pointing, no frustrations poorly managed, no “Oh, we just had a bad block”, Mineral praised the team for how quickly discussions moved into a productive tone.
When it came to the new pilots for the Uprising, the new talent they’ve recruited for the 2021 Overwatch League season, the glowing reviews began to pour in.
DPS player, Hong "im37" Jin-ui, was said to be a huge help to the Uprising. As someone who knows both the western and South Korean cultures well, im37 was cited as the bridge that connects the roster together both in-game and out of the game.
Mineral chuckled at the thought of Kim "Faith" Hong-gyu and how the community saw him as being incredibly wholesome—and he agreed. Faith was said to be an incredibly friendly, supportive, and a reliable member of the Boston Uprising. And while he’s obsessed with Overwatch, Mineral assured me that Faith did not have a single nasty bone in his body.
The newly recruited main tank, Seo "Stand1" Ji-won, brought a different pedigree from his time with the 2020 Shanghai Dragons. With that came an intensity and drive to become great, but it was all measured. Mineral applauded Stand1 for being patient with the rookies and being a strong veteran presence in the team atmosphere.
While he was a late addition to the team, DPS veteran Terence "SoOn" Tarlier was welcomed into the fold with open arms. Mineral explained that last season they felt as though the Uprising lacked depth in certain areas and that this season that solving that issue was a big emphasis—and SoOn fit the bill perfectly. On top of that, having such a seasoned veteran and the fact that SoOn was successful in a similar roster composition made the decision easy for Mineral and the team.
And last, but certainly not least, there was Kim "Valentine" Byeong-ju. While not much was said, that should speak to just how impressive Valentine is. Mineral tapped the young South Korean DPS ace as a superstar that had only scratched the surface of his potential. Some of which was on display during the SteelSeries Invitational, an exhibition-style tournament held prior to the start of the 2021 Overwatch League season.
Out of four teams, the Uprising took second and stayed competitive with the aforementioned Los Angeles Gladiators in the finals. When asked, Mineral shrugged off any weight or added confidence due to the Boston Uprising’s performance at the event.
“Everyone was already excited for the year. Most of these players played against each other in the trials, so they kind of saw each other in action, so they know how good everyone is individually. So it’s just about putting the team together. I don’t think the tournament had any kind of barring on our expectations on the season as a whole for the guys. Everyone understands it’s going to be a process and that it is going to take time to build that synergy.”
In retrospect of it all, Mineral metaphorically took both years in each hand and explored the vast distance, the changes made, and the growth the Boston Uprising experienced that took them from the cavernous void of 2020 to today, something that promised a much brighter future.
“It’s difficult to even compare the two years because of how different this year is on all fronts,” he said. “Even though we have some returning faces, the mentality and everything else is completely different.”
“I am happy to be where I am. I am happy that the Uprising is where it is right now. Obviously, when you have a more successful offseason, expectations rise a little bit; I’m really hoping we can meet them. I see how hard these guys work on a daily basis, and they deserve all the success, but deserving success does not grant you immunity against failure. So I hope we can put all of these guys into positions to succeed and make sure that all of them win and are happy and make sure their hard work is not in vain.”
As for goals, Mineral was as selfless as ever. Whatever hat needed to be worn, he’d wear it. Logistics? He’s already taken care of it. Ultimately, he wanted to be an amorphous assistant to the team wherever he could. He just wanted to be there for them so they could focus on having a good and productive year.
“Ultimately, the team being successful is the most important thing to me, and being a part— whether it’s a small or a big part—of a successful team is what makes me happy. To see the people, I work with every day really [grind] and, at the end of the day, win. That’s the most fulfilling thing for me.”
“Whatever I can do to assist that or push that in the right direction - that’s what I want to do.”
Images via Blizzard Entertainment