Jarod Ericksen has embarked on something that he always wanted to do – teach. Combining his passion for helping others figure things out and his enthusiasm for esports, Jarod arrived as head esports coach in Cleary University, Michigan in February.
Since then, he has been busy setting up the college's esports program and teams. Yet, Jarod is not just someone who loves playing games. He's good and insightful enough to drive results. Jarod was among the top-performing players in Riot Games' League of Legends and Activision Blizzard's Heroes of the Storm.
His knack for teaching esports soon prompted him to found his own coaching company, a success he is now taking on an academic level. With this in mind, we jump in our conversation with Jarod, who is a unique esports coach with a lot of hands-on experience and a clear focus on the future.
Q: Jarod, I think it's fair to say that anyone in your position will find themselves a little overwhelmed with the importance of recruiting and training teams from scratch. How have you taken to your new position?
A: In my experience, Esports athletes are often unrefined and inexperienced with what it means to be on a team. They often are stuck playing alone in online ranked games hoping they get a team that can help them win and climb. This leaves me with a responsibility to train these young men and women on what it means to be athletes. Having an Esports athlete who played traditional athletics is definitely helpful, but as long as the members of the team are coachable and eager to improve, my job is really easy.
Recruiting proves a bit more challenging as Esports in the US is still growing at the high school level. Most schools do not have teams or clubs, but they have been receptive in allowing me to put promotional material out to bring this opportunity to their students.
Q: Cleary University will take part in numerous competitions, including League of Legends, Rocket League, Hearthstone, and Overwatch. Is it difficult for a head coach to stay proficient in all esports titles and keep up with the meta?
A: While proficiency is important, it is not required. You wouldn't expect to see Bill Belichick out playing a game of football in his free time. Instead, he studies the game and opponents to stay two steps ahead at all times.
In a similar manner, it is important for a coach to stay up to date on common metas and what is being done in professional leagues to find success. Though I will say that sometimes teams have to take a different approach if the athletes are not mechanically proficient enough to execute professional strategies. In that instance, it is the coaches' job to find alternative ways to win.
To give an example of what a coach needs to do, prior to working at Cleary, I was employed by a 2 year junior college as their Head Coach of Esports. Our Rocket League team was very talented, with all the athletes on it being Grand Champ or higher.
“It is important for a coach to stay up to date on common metas and what is being done in professional leagues to find success.”
I have played maybe 40 hours total of Rocket League in my life, but understand the concept of the game because of my familiarity with soccer and hockey. That team made back to back playoff appearances despite never playing together prior.
What I did as the coach was help them practice properly. Playing together for 8 hours a day was not the correct way to improve. I had them have open conversations with each other after their losses to identify weak points and then isolate the skills needed to fix those. Then we would practice those skills individually until we saw improvement.
Q: What do you reckon the biggest challenge for Cleary University will be insofar its esports program is concerned? Recruitment, performance or something completely different?
A: Recruitment during COVID-19 has proved the most difficult obstacle. That, and acquiring GPU's for our new computers being built as there is a worldwide shortage on graphics cards right now.
Q: Speaking as someone who runs an esports coaching business, do you see a lot of demand from players who want to compete on a top level? Do players approach you to just learn and improve their game a little, and not necessarily to a professional level?
A: While Esports is defined as “professional players competing for an audience”, I believe it is something that should be run for multiple levels of play. Regardless of an individual's talent at a game, if they enjoy the game and are competitive, they want to play in a league. Creating these leagues and running them for varying age groups and games will prove to be a profitable venture for whoever figures out the correct formula for marketing it and making it happen.
I got my start in coaching working with individuals who liked my approach to improving myself and wanted to figure out how to do that themselves, though I don't do much individual coaching nowadays.
Q: What do you think makes a successful esports team on the collegiate level?
A: It really depends on how you look at success. A successful esports program in the college's eyes brings in enrollment. Enrollment equals money and money equals success. Of course I have my mind set on bringing this opportunity to as many individuals as possible who want to get a higher education and play video games while doing so. So in that sense, while the money does not matter to me, it matters to my employer so I'm happy with getting more athletes in the program.
“What I did as the coach was help them practice properly. Playing together for 8 hours a day was not the correct way to improve.”
That being said, the university has given me a lot of scholarship money I am able to offer our athletes so that they come here. It is an even give and take.
Success to a coach and an athletics department is going to be a team that wins games and championships of course. In order to get to a point where you are winning games though, you have to focus on the small victories you will face in many defeats.
Shaping these athletes who may have never been on a team is sometimes difficult, so helping them understand how to find victory or improvement in defeat is imperative to a program that wants to find future and continuing success.
Q: You had said you believe in the “healthy body, healthy mind” philosophy and expect team members to exercise in sports as well as esports. What benefits does physical activity provide to aspiring players?
Physical fitness is something that is often foreign to Esports athletes. Not that they don't care about themselves, but they would have usually chosen to sit at home and improve at the game they love instead of spending time in the gym. As an ex-athlete myself, I understand the value that physical wellness brings to you as an Esports athlete. I still try and play soccer whenever I can, but that certainly isn't going to be everyone's interest.
Working out has been scientifically proven to improve people's moods and self-images. That is what I look to tap into when requiring my athletes to partake in our team workouts. The most important part is making all the athletes feel like they are in safe, judgment free space. I don't care if you start out only being able to lift a 5 pound dumbbell.
“As an ex-athlete myself, I understand the value that physical wellness brings to you as an Esports athlete.”
What is important is that you are bettering yourself and feeling better about yourself will build confidence which translates positively into competition.
It is important that I note that I do not expect my athletes to be on the same physical level as traditional sports. They only need to be healthy and happy with themselves.
Q: As a coach you will clearly be interested in driving results and bringing wins home for your university. Is this all that esports is at Cleary University, or have you guys taken a more comprehensive approach to competitive video gaming?
A: This program is designed to help students do what they love and get an education. Wins are nice, but the big emphasis is on education. I want my athletes to do well in school and set themselves up for a bright future. If they help us get a few trophies along the way I am not opposed to that of course.
We are also working on making this program curricular. That means that while students are attending Cleary, there are projects they can get involved with in relation to the Esports team to help them gain credits for their courses and eventual graduation.
Q: As someone who is invested in HotS myself, I just must ask you – do you miss competitive Heroes of the Storm?
A: Competitive HotS was one of the most fun and unique events to watch. I loved the rotating maps and different strategies that had to be implemented every single game. I would love for Blizzard to look at reviving that scene eventually, though I don't believe it will happen unfortunately.”