Nouns Esports made a significant step towards their Dota 2 team in the early summer of 2023 when they announced they would partner with Mind Body Esports to help its Counter-Strike and, most notably, Dota 2 team for the remainder of the Dota Pro Circuit. Unlike past collaborations in which orgs would hire a sports psychologist to assist a given team for major tournaments, for Mind Body Esports, it focuses on a more holistic approach, per its namesake, emphasizing and building on both the mind and the body to pave the way for better performance.
While MBE has spent the better part of a decade working in numerous titles such as League of Legends and CSGO, their partnership with nouns marked their first time working in Dota 2. Nevertheless, with the help of MBE the entire way, nouns managed to finish Top 8 in TI 12 against expectations when most believed they would place far below that. It’s a testament to the effect MBE has for their teams and it’s one that amplifies the benefit teams receive when they focus on building their overall wellbeing on top of refining their competitive skill.
Following nouns’ participation in TI 12, BLIX talked to Edward Cleland, the head practitioner for MBE, about his experience with the team for the event and how it compares with his past work.
Joining nouns for TI 12
Pedro Romero, BLIX: You generated some news around the Bali Major by joining nouns and it really got my curiosity as to how that thing came together. How did that project come together and what were the initial discussions like?
Edward Cleland: We were reached out to by Semphis [Kory Friesen], who is the Counter Strike coach at nouns, and he had suggested that they were looking for performance support for Counter Strike and perhaps Dota as well. We had some discussions, he met with my team and I and we found it to be a good fit. And they actually brought us on board before we even had met Dota so we were a part of nouns and then they introduced us to the Dota team.
BLIX: Obviously you're familiar with esports by working in various games. How familiar were you, if any, with Dota given its relative similarity in the MOBA genre to League of Legends?
Cleland: So, I was not very familiar. I knew what Dota was, I knew of the game and knew it was a Valve game and understood TI and some of the inner workings of the organism that is the industry, but no, it was kind of new for us. I've been in League of Legends for four years now so there were some similarities there, but Dota is its own thing. There were a lot of learning experiences this year.
BLIX: You mentioned before in a previous conversation, specifically the one with Richard Lewis, about how, when you join a team, they map out what it is that they want to see out of you and what you want to see out of them. What were the kinds of goals that nouns were asking you to fulfill in working with the Dota team and also with the CS team?
Cleland: Well, the CS one was a little bit more of my experience being leaned on. We co-created those goals and we're continually trying to grow and improve there as we are now so those goals were a little bit more flexible. In terms of the Dota goals, the primary goal was to make TI. The players suggested that as well. That was their goal as a group so that was the top of that mountain that we decided to climb together. There were secondary goals as well that nouns were interested in doing. In terms of me as a practitioner, they wanted to make sure I was improving the relationships and improving how they communicate together and their relationship with the organization as well, but those are more subjective. In terms of objective goals, making TI was really the big one.
Working closely with nouns
BLIX: The professional Dota scene is familiar with sports psychology. Of course, you're not really focused on just that. You're most focused on the whole holistic aspect as is evident in the name of your company. Did you take away any of the past work done within sports psychology for this stunt in Dota specifically?
Cleland: Actually no. I've considered if that's something maybe I should become more familiar with, but in terms of what I brought to Dota and into this team, it was myself and what my practice is like in other esports as well. So I think I leaned more on my toolset than trying to figure out what other tools have worked well.
BLIX: And exactly what were those tools that you wanted to map out in getting to know the team and just learning how each player does their business?
Cleland: We look at individuals as humans, we look at them as gamers and we look at the team as a group. We naturally help them as people and I think they would all say that, in one form or another, I helped them as people. And that helps in the server as well, right? As gamers, of course, I don't have any technical knowledge of Dota, but to make sure that they're best prepared and ready to perform. there was some growth that we helped them with individually. And then primarily, I would say, as a group, our best performances that I've seen this year together with these men have come when they are getting along and acting most like a cohesive unit within a family environment.
I don't know that we had a really good foundation of that—it certainly didn't when I joined—so it was about helping them break down some barriers between each other, improving some of the relationships and how they communicate. Dota is so complex and people aren't going to see it the same way. And we don't need to see it the same way but we need to act like we're all doing it together in a way that we're feeling a complete buy in for. It can't be the buy in just of Astini. It has to be the buy in of every single person together.
Every single person has to be on the same page. In life, if we're trying to do something because someone else thinks that it's a good idea for us, we probably won't do it with our full heart so I think Dota is unique in that way that if you're don't have full respect, if you don't have full trust from your teammates and everyone in the room, it's very unlikely that you're going to peak perform together as a group. So, it's in those three areas: individuals, gamers and as a team in really creating more of a collective experience for the guys.
nouns’ showing in TI 12 was the result of a process that spanned various months since the Bali Major (Credit: Edward Cleland/X)
BLIX: Right before the main event of TI, Gunnar [Nicolas Lopez] and Yamsun [Luke Wang] mentioned how the team experienced problems and how you helped resolve those issues. Exactly what were those issues that they mentioned?
Cleland: I'll save the actual specifications of the issues and kind of talk about the context of that concept. The first thing is we have to be willing to—and I use that word intentionally—we have to be willing to discuss things that are challenging with other people. And if you, let say, don't trust someone or maybe don't respect them fully, it's unlikely that you're going to be willing to have difficult conversations with them that make you vulnerable.
So we decided to, as a group, be willing to risk being vulnerable as individuals, and once you're willing to be vulnerable as an individual and not trying to protect yourself, your ideas or your ego, it allows you to connect with somebody more meaningfully. And I think that's really what we did. It wasn't that we resolved maybe an issue in, for instance, seeing the draft the same way or something because those issues are going to persist. We changed the way that we discussed and shared these feelings and struggles together and by changing that, at the fundamental level, I think we improved the way we work together in every way.
Comparing Dota to other games
BLIX: In making sure you were able to reach that favorable state, was it difficult in trying to reach that state compared to other games?
Cleland: Dota is different, but I would say no. Certainly the men in the room can be credited with that. That's not so much about maybe my ability as much as their willingness to do something special together. They were willing—and I'm saying this of all five and even six including Jacob [Jacob "Husky" Fifik]—to admit that they weren't where they wanted to be and were willing to seek some help for that. So, I give a lot of credit to anyone that says, "I'm willing to grow and I'm willing to evolve here" and then they trusted me.
So perhaps they were familiar with me a little bit and maybe that helped them open up to me quickly, but again, they were willing to say, "we might not reach our goal in the way we're doing this right now" and they were willing to seek help for that so credit to them for that.
BLIX: Dota, in relation to other games, is more susceptible to roster changes. And of course, you mentioned the six players with Husky and how you worked with him during the Bali Major and then he was let go for K1, who joined for the TI NA qualifiers. How did you work through the team during those roster changes?
Cleland: I've been with orgs and stuck around through roster changes before, so it wasn't the first time I've experienced it necessarily, but I'll say that onboarding players is a challenge. And I wasn't here when this team was onboarded. I joined the team after they were already together so they had been together for some time so I was dealing with problems that maybe weren't new problems. Maybe they were systemic and older problems and in the same way off-boarding a player is challenging.
So, when you're off-boarding a player, I think in esports we feel bad when we have to off-board a player and sometimes that makes us want to make it more transactional. We don't want to be sad with that player or be uncomfortable or admit that it's painful for them. In my job as a practitioner, regardless of what org I'm at, and I feel I've done this throughout my career in all the orgs I've worked with, when a player is let go or off-boarded, that's the time for me to support them as a human and help them. We don't just say goodbye and nouns are good at that too. They said, "As we off-board players, we've also made switches on CSGO as well" so I've had Bobby get taken out there [in CS] and Jacob on Dota. And in both instances, I'm accessible to the player.
Nouns have said that if the player wants to continue to work with you for an undetermined time, feel free to continue to work with them. And we're here to take care of people first, so if we're not doing that, then we're not living up to our own code of ethics and our morals. And I encourage my gamers to don't ignore this guy once you get rid of them or however you want to phrase it. It's important that we're meeting people as people first and that's what we're all doing in this space, right? We're all people and we need to treat each other with respect and dignity and take the perspective of what the other person's going through. So, I think our team tried to do that to the best of our ability.
BLIX: So, the process never stops because even though one iteration of the roster ends with one player leaving, that player is still going to keep continuing his career, right?
Cleland: Well, there's two points to that. For that player that leaves, even if they don't continue on their career, and let's say they retire. And maybe that was their last chance or something. I had a League of Legends player [do that] and that happens a lot in League of Legends in which [they also] cut the entire Academy scene. There are some players I've had to talk to and they said, "Edward, I think this is it for me," and it's okay, so what's next? And they're still people and all of our careers are going to end so we have to figure out the next chapters and I think I'm here to help people be good people before they are good gamers so that's not unnatural for me as a practitioner.
I'd also say, as a team, it's important that when the teammates change, it's the time to self-reflect about where the team is at and look in the mirror. Don't find scapegoats and let people go. Take some accountability and know what your role for that situation in getting to that point meant. And then hopefully, if the team has a good foundation and structure in place, then you're adding someone new to that system and they feel welcomed and ready to run with that system. If you don't have that system in place, you may have to recreate something new when you have that new player and kind of onboard a new team. So that really depends on what the team's situation is like.
With K1 [Héctor Antonio Rodríguez] specifically as it related to nouns and Dota, he was very easy just to plug in, you know? He came in and he knew what he had to do. It was a short period of time. It's to get to TI. It wasn't something where we had to do a whole retreat with Hector and he just kind of became part of the family. We just kind of let Hector be Hector a little bit and we were really welcoming to him in that way, and I think he enjoyed his time with us.
BLIX: One other things that you brought up in your conversation with Richard is how you viewed that esports, compared to other scenes, moves at a very breakneck speed. Where does Dota lie in relation to that speed? Is it faster, slower or in the middle?
Cleland: Well, it's certainly as chaotic if not more chaotic than all the other games and at nouns, we don't even have contracts so I mean it couldn't be more chaotic in some ways. And ambiguity, and I say this a lot so this might not be news to some people, is what drives anxiety. So it's the unknown of something that makes us more anxious. And in Dota, there's a lot of unknowns. "What's the prize pool going to be?" "What's the shuffle going to look like?" "How many teams are going to be there?" "Oh, we got eliminated so we gotta leave today." Oh, we're in it so we gotta stay another week." There's a lot of ambiguity so how you manage the ambiguity and unknown will determine how well you're able to focus on performance.
We did that as a good group, but in terms of the breakneck speed of Dota, it is breakneck speed. It's still an esport so it's similar in a lot of those ways. There's a lot of chaos and a lot of unknowns and even success doesn't necessarily mean that you're going to be rewarded with another opportunity. This is esports. I kind of joke that six months is more than two years and I'd say that's true. Let me put it this way, if I were to take a trip for another organization that wasn't esports and they said, "Hey, we have a conference in Seattle. We need you to go be a keynote speaker," I would come out here for a few days, give the keynote, go back home and collect my pay and then I would tell my friends, family and co-workers, "In October, I took a trip to Seattle." I've been here three different times this month. Three separate trips because we don't know if the team is going to win or not.
And we're not favored so we have other things in life that you prepare. I've taken three round trips from home to Seattle in one month. And I'm saying that with a sense of gratitude and it's not a complaint. I'm grateful that this opportunity arose and I'm thrilled that my boys did as well as they did. But with that said, again, the ambiguity so that requires a great deal of flexibility and lifestyle and practice. You can be both grateful and acknowledge that it is a pretty wild industry.
BLIX: Do you feel it was more chaotic than all of the other past work that you've done?
Cleland: In some ways, yes. In other ways, no. The tournament was unique in the sense that we played a hotel week, we played a conference week and then we played arena week. That's unique, but even Counter Strike, when I'm traveling the world it's similar. They'll have to make out of a qualifier and then they get into a convention center and they're playing in a hallway and then they finally get to the stage. So no, I think in a lot of ways, it felt similar. When you talk to other people in Dota, the veterans of Dota are acknowledging that things are changing. It feels like a real growth period and growth is complex. They're shedding off new experiences, but I would say it didn't feel out of the norm for me at all. It felt familiar.
Reflections on being with nouns for TI 12
BLIX: That said, looking back at your experience with nouns' Dota team, what's going to be the biggest takeaway that you're going to make from this whole experience?
Cleland: I would say witnessing the men experience something really special. I mentioned to them frequently "let's hold this and let's slow it down. How will we look at this in 20 or 30 years? Specifically, how will you look at your teammates? What you did together was special and let's acknowledge it." Walking behind Nico and Luke with their arms around each other through the arena and watching how they treat each other and how each one of them picked each other up, those are the things that are probably the long lasting moments for me. Witnessing them smile with each other is probably the most long lasting for me.
BLIX: Out of curiosity, as someone who has been very versatile in your line of work specifically in esports, which would you say has been the most favorite project that you've undertaken and your most difficult?
Cleland: It's a dangerous question. [laughs] I will always revert back to my first project in esports. With the newness of it and, really, my ignorance, you can't recreate that again. With respect and love to nouns, who have treated me fantastic and I'm planning on continuing to work with them and my company is going to continue to grow with them, the Renegades will always share a special spot in my heart. I'm still close with those men. That was a special project.
Honestly, I could sit down and walk through every single roster. And I have a special moment [for each]. I immediately think of trips with Complexity or G2 and 100 Thieves moments and all of them have special moments. You know, that's a tough question. The toughest thing is probably—sometimes, you walk into situations where people are really experiencing pain and they're really struggling. I would say off-boarding players is really tough in addition to helping players navigate difficult life moments. For instance, when HooXi [Rasmus Nielsen] lost his father right when we basically landed in Dubai. That was a unique experience and I think it really demanded me to be an empathetic practitioner and focus more on the humanity element of what we're doing. It's not a great answer but it's a very difficult question to answer.
BLIX: What should the Dota professional scene take away or identify the most from looking at your work and how you've been able to take nouns to basically being one of the best teams in the world at TI?
Cleland: I would say that the practice of looking at the whole person is really important. We can't look at a person in isolation and if you're just looking at their psychology, for instance, that can be dichotomous. You have to consider the body if you're looking at the mind. You have to consider the mind when looking at the body.
And these lifestyles are difficult. I loved what the coach for Liquid said yesterday right before the third map about how we're living privileged lives and I really liked that. And so I would say perspective taking and and learning that this is a short period of time in our lives and really holding ourselves accountable to how we want to engage with each other. And that's daily habitual practices.
nouns: NA’s best team in TI 12 (Credit: Edward Cleland/X)
I would say for Dota, what was unique in this tournament is that we played the opening match and we had to be up very early for that. And I liked that Astini and our team was focused on this concept of starting your day early and experiencing this life together early. By and large for gamers, don't be on the server all day. If you find yourself in a scenario or mental position you don't like, you need to spend some time in other areas of life. See the sun, move your body, spend some time with each other and really being honest. In Dota and maybe in other games, you see it too. Roster changes create a lot of behind-the-scenes dialogue and probably make people into some version of themselves they might not want to be, so I'd say stay true to yourself and be really open and honest with each other and transparent with people around you.
BLIX: How's it been working with each member in particular within the team and how different is it in working with the personalities of each individual?
Cleland: These are very different people. These five people are very different people. And they have some similarities and we find ways to co-create things together, but they are very different people with different needs, different interests, different relationships in their life and different goals from different cultures, of course. I've really enjoyed working with them. In my practice, I meet people where they are. That's how we define holism.
Holistic health is meeting someone where they are, so I've had the opportunity to meet them as unique individuals and work with them from that space. They each present their own challenges and strengths so I won't get into the weeds on what those might be, but I'm really thankful that they decided together to experience something cool even though they might not naturally be a group that would naturally come together.