An earlier version of this story attributed somewhat inflammatory statements made by Shern “Shernfire” Tai to Nathan "Rippii" Mott and Curtis "Sharp" Morgan. Apologies to all parties for the error.
Q: Congrats on the Split 1 victory. You guys must be stoked, and super stoked about heading to the MSI?
[Note: this interview was recorded prior to the MSI, where Dire Wolves were placed in the "group of death" with Turkey, favourites Brazil, and Japan, and ended up placing 10-11th.]
Nathan "Rippii" Mott: Yeah we're absolutely stoked. This is the first win for Dire Wolves. We've come close the last couple of years, but now obviously the step up in infrastructure like the team house and LG supporters really got us there. It's been really big.
Q: Let's go back to the start of the season: what was the reaction from friends and family when you said you were moving into a house with your teammates?
Curtis "Sharp" Morgan: For me personally it was a pretty big jump. I had to quit uni and defer my job. My parents have always been pretty supportive of gaming in general, because I was always playing games as a kid, and my dad is a gamer as well, so he's always understood. My brother plays professional Counter-Strike so it's kind of accepted in the family, so it wasn't too bad for me to transition. I was old enough to make my own decision, so for me personally it wasn't too much of a worry.
Shern “Shernfire” Tai: Going from Korea and America back to Australia has been the easiest transition. [Shern spent a year in boot camp in Korea] I love Australia, so it was very easy. I decided to go to Korea for nine months when I realised I had to get better. I wanted to become the best, you know? That was my chance to invest in myself and have my family support me, which was really helpful, because I wouldn't have been able to stay in Korea that long by myself.
Q: Shern, did Dire Wolves approach you, or was it the other way around?
Shern “Shernfire” Tai: Dire Wolves came to Korea for bootcamp. That was towards the end when I was going to leave, and I wasn't sure what choices I was going to make for 2017. I approached them and we did good business and sorted out a good contract, and here we are now.
Q: What was the feeling within the team in those first few weeks of the split?
Nathan "Rippii" Mott: The first few weeks were pretty rough. After Korea, the environment we had built was kind of broken. So we had to rebuild a competitive environment and align our goals. The first few weeks were probably the hardest of the season 'cos we dropped our secondary jungler, and we made changes to our goals. Half-way through week five we pretty much had a wake-up call and realised we had to get better to actually win the whole thing. Week five and onwards, we knew we were going to win. We put in more work than everyone else, we made the changes we needed to to do well, and everything ended working out. We ended up easily winning the finals.
Q: What were the things you felt needed changing for you to turn things around?
Nathan "Rippii" Mott: I think it was just the environment. At the beginning, the first few weeks were very laid back and not focussed on the goal. Everyone would distract each other rather than help each other get better. That was one of the big problems we had living together. There's a time to have fun, and there's a time to practice and work hard and get closer to our goals. That was the major thing, and the other thing was we also had issues with how we should play the game. I think we didn't have a good grasp until we actually lost, which was around week five to Legacy. That really opened our eyes, and everyone decided things needed to change.
Curtis "Sharp" Morgan: From a coaching perspective, it did feel like a relatively new team. We had never played with this roster before – there were so many macro game errors in our gameplay, and there were so many areas to work on that it required a good five or six weeks to get to the point where we started gelling and the fundamentals started to come through, and we were able to get more into the complex macro style of the game. We didn't have specific areas to work on before that time, we were just overwhelmed by how much we needed to improve in order to be a world class team. It's only in the last few weeks we've really started to meet that standard.
Q: Are you friendly with players from other teams? Is there banter behind the scenes, or do you keep to yourselves?
Shern “Shernfire” Tai: That's the thing that intrigues me about the OPL: that everyone seems to be friends with each other, and everyone is like, 'Oh he's my friend, it's okay I lost to that guy'. That is pretty atrocious, honestly – this is competition, you know? This isn't high school, and that's what people treat it like. We don't have that approach, and that approach is for the weaker teams and the weaker players that don't care about first. They only wanna stay in esports because they don't wanna do uni.
Curtis "Sharp" Morgan: We're not enemies of any teams, it's just that we keep to ourselves. We kind of hold ourselves to a higher standard. We don't really tend to associate with the teams, other than when we need to in terms of practice and stuff. A lot of the other teams in the OPL are quite close – they'll go out after games and hang out – and we feel as though we don't really wanna breach that. We wanna keep every relationship with the teams purely professional. We are trying to hold ourselves to a higher standard, and I think that shows in our performances. It's helped us, especially on the mental side – people get intimidated by our approach. It has worked to our advantage.
Nathan "Rippii" Mott: We're just way more focussed than all the other teams. Our goal is to win World Championships come November, and that's how we're gonna get there. We're a very tight-knit group: we don't let anyone in, but no-one goes out. We're all just very focussed on the goal.
Q: There have been a lot of bans and controversies in the OPL this split, and a big controversy with Tainted Minds. What do you guys make of all that stuff?
Nathan "Rippii" Mott: Obviously it affects the scene – it's been going for a while. But it's more or less like, as long as we do our thing and set the standard that everyone looks at, that's what we care about. It doesn't help too much having the negative press around. We'll lead by example: solid infrastructure, development of players. That's where we're looking.
Shern “Shernfire” Tai: My personal reaction is: everyone thinks negatively of OCE, and so be it. We represent the region, but we don't represent other teams. I don't really care if other people think, 'cos I personally don't think of ourselves as a unified group. We are our own team and our own selves. Specifically on Tainted Minds, I think personally it's just a joke. They're just trying to victimise themselves, act like a big victim, and cry for help 24/7. You'll never see these people in esports again, I guarantee. All those players, all those managers – they're just leeches. They'll never be at the top because they never wanted to be. They're just trying to get attention, they're basically all just attention seekers.
Q: How do you deal with the pressure of live play and the cameras?
Shern “Shernfire” Tai: I think my very first game I definitely had issues, thoughts that would hold me down instead of being free flowing. It was a big problem that I had to overcome the first few weeks. Now I think I'm completely fine with cameras and stuff. Also we have the best cameramen in the league, and they make me feel more comfortable.
Q: How did you find the new house-sharing arrangement? I was asking this hoping for scandalous gossip, but it sounds like I might be out of luck.
Curtis "Sharp" Morgan: Shern and K1ng [Calvin Truong] had both been in gaming houses before, but no-one else had been in a shared house environment. Coming in, I think the majority of us didn't know what to expect. The major thing that made it quite a smooth transition was that we all share the same passion and goals. Everyone is here for the same reason. What happens is that everyone acts a certain way, and feels naturally comfortable because we're all working towards the same thing. And everyone gets on quite well, because we've all known each other online for years, which is a huge upside.
In terms of the negative stuff, obviously it's quite a small house so there's no private time. At times when there a conflict over the game, it will escalate really quickly. And since there's nowhere to go chill out, if there's an issue, it will come out straight away. Which is a good and bad thing. The good thing is it will get resolved instantly because there's nowhere to hide. But the bad thing is if you want some alone time, you don't really have that. It took a while for people to get used to that. Other than that, we all seemed to gel really well, and there were never any big issues.
Shern “Shernfire” Tai: This is my third gaming house, and this one feels like the best work environment I've been in so far. Not to say that others were very comparable. The only downside I see is that everyone has to clean and people don't like it when people don't clean up after themselves. We're all teenage boys. That's the biggest issue, that's the number one problem.
Q: Are there OPL groupies?
[A mix of "kind of" and "not really" echoes down the line]
Nathan "Rippii" Mott: Maybe online, but because we don't play with a live audience they aren't there.
Shern “Shernfire” Tai: In Brazil I'm sure there will be many, but we'll stay focussed.
Q: How much time do you putting into training as a team and separately?
Curtis "Sharp" Morgan: For the majority of the split we would do three scrim sets a day. The first would go from 11am–1pm, then we'd have a one hour break. Then we'd do 2–5pm, and then 7–10pm. So we would do nine hour days of solid scrims, and then at the end of the day, people would do their own solo practice if they want to. So potentially people could be practising for 12 hours a day. It's a pretty intensive schedule, but we felt we needed to separate ourselves and do that extra scrim set. Generally teams only do two a day, so six hours. We felt like we could push harder than that, and we all wanted to do an extra one so we added it.
Q: What do you do outside of training?
Curtis "Sharp" Morgan: A lot of people go to the gym, and we have a swimming pool in this area. Any fitness. We also go running down Darling Harbour. We are either exercising, playing, or getting food. It's either a necessity or it's work. That's it.
Q: I guess you can't play games that aren't League, then?
Nathan "Rippii" Mott: It's not forbidden, it's just everyone knows what needs to be done. No-one gets distracted or forgets what our goal is. We do play other games, but we separate and we know how much time we should be spending on what needs to be done.
Curtis "Sharp" Morgan: At the end of the day, we think about our actions like, 'Is this gonna get us winning the World Championships in November?' And if it's not getting us there, we won't do it.