The Los Angeles Thieves have made a midseason roster move, and Call of Duty legend-turned-coach Jordan "JKap" Kaplan is on a plane to Texas to hold an emergency huddle with the team -- and take them to Topgolf.
After an impressive 4-0 start to the Call of Duty League season, the Thieves lost to Dallas, dropped two of three in the first major and aren’t faring much better in Stage 2. By JKap's own admission, "We've gotta figure something out, quick."
So why would he fly halfway across the country to take the boys to the driving range to work on their approach shots rather than have them entrenched at their PCs practicing AR shots?
"Part of it was just to have fun," JKap said of his trip, which actually makes perfect sense in the context of what's ailing the Thieves.
In a wide-ranging interview with Nerd Street Gamers, JKap discussed in-depth the reasoning behind his retirement from competitive play, the influx of talented amateurs in the pro scene, why he chose to pursue a coaching job over other roles in the esports space and what he does for the Thieves in that capacity.
After a hot start to the season, LA Thieves have struggled lately. Photo credit: 100 Thieves
What's wrong with the Thieves?
The two-time COD world champion didn't hold back when dissecting his squad's woes, either.
"We've been having some of the same problems all year now where our teamwork is off," JKap said.
On the surface, everything appeared to be going smoothly when the Thieves emerged from the first two weeks of the season undefeated.
Behind the scenes, there was a feeling internally that a lot of those games could've gone either way and the team wasn't playing as well as their record indicated.
Stage 1 ended on a sour note with a 3-0 sweep at the hands of the Dallas Empire followed by a disappointing showing in the major, finally exposing the team's fatal flaw.
"Our comms are not very good," JKap said. "When you're calling out, obviously you're giving the calls of the players you see and when you die or someone is weak. You're gonna call that out naturally. But the next level to being a pro player is calling out your in-game strategies in respawn on the fly -- making sure everyone's on the same page and aware of where [opponents are] spawning, where we're spawning, where [opponents are] gonna be going, where we wanna be going, all that stuff.
"That small talk level is something we've been struggling with all year very badly."
It sounds less like a question of talent for the Thieves, but one of team chemistry instead -- hence, the bonding exercise at Topgolf.
"I watch the other top teams, and they kind of just know where everyone is on the map at all times, whereas we're getting caught off guard in gunfights 10 times a map," JKap said. "That shouldn't be a thing at this level.
"It's a lot to work on in a short period of time, but I think we've just got to get comfortable again on the map and in the heat of battle."
Has the next JKap already arrived?
The LA Thieves opened Stage 2 with a nail-biter of a win over the Toronto Ultra, then a heartbreaker of a loss to the New York Subliners after taking a 2-0 lead, prompting management to make a change. Offseason signing Donovan "Temp" Laroda was benched in favor of Carlos "Venom" Hernandez, a 19-year-old Los Angeles native who had been making noise in the Challengers circuit with WestR.
The switch necessitated JKap's presence in Texas in the first place, though not necessarily for the reasons one might assume.
"Ya know, that's a big move, a kid moving out of his parents' house for the first time," JKap said.
"Just trying to be out there for the first few days, make him comfortable with everything and adjust and meet the guys on the team,” JKap said. “He didn't really know them at all before. He was a completely random fourth basically, no prior experience with them, just joining the team. They didn't know each other's personalities."
Teams are increasingly taking chances on relative unknowns like Venom, JKap observed. Conor "Diamondcon" Johst has emerged as an early favorite for rookie of the year honors with New York, while the Minnesota ROKKR have seemingly turned their season around since the promotion of Eli "Standy" Bentz.
"It's more common now to pick up these young kids who haven't been pros before, young amateurs who are new to the scene," JKap said.
In the not-so-distant past, a young and up-and-coming Chris "Simp" Lehr, now an MVP candidate with the Atlanta FaZe, was once a JKap replacement.
"When I got dropped from eUnited in Black Ops 4, so two years ago now, it was for Simp, and anyone who knows a thing about Call of Duty knows that's been working out for them. I had my day. I was pretty good, but that kid Simp, he's different. He's different, man."
High praise from somebody widely regarded as one of the greatest COD players of all-time.
"That feeling kind of fades"
He didn't come right out and say it, yet one almost gets the sense JKap sees a reflection of himself in several of these rookies arriving on the scene.
"Somebody like Venom -- he's 19, first pro team now, he's only been playing for like a year or two -- he just loves playing," JKap said. "You can tell how excited he is just to get on every day and play COD."
Perhaps that also provides a glimpse into how JKap knew the time was right to call it quits.
JKap announced his retirement from competitive play last September, stating it was time to move on and find a new challenge -- a decision undoubtedly made easier after finishing a season on the bench for the second year in a row, this time with OpTic Gaming LA.
"When I got dropped from eUnited in Black Ops 4, so two years ago now, it was for Simp ... I had my day. I was pretty good, but that kid Simp, he's different. He's different, man." -- JKap
Really, it sounds like COD simply became more work than play.
"I just don't think I have the motivation to get on and play every day for as long as these guys do," JKap said. "I did it for 10, 11 years or something like that and it takes a toll on you, that wear and tear.
"Looking back at the last few years of my career, getting on every day for scrims, it became like a job, whereas when I was 19, 20, 21, doing this that long ago, I did have that same fun. I loved getting on a plane the same way he does now. But after so many years, that feeling kind of fades."
JKap, far right, ended his COD career last season with OpTic LA. Photo credit: Call of Duty League
In an alternate universe, JKap would be ...
The competitive itch is one JKap still gets the urge to scratch, so he'll fire up the game "occasionally." These days, that rush mostly comes from mentoring the Thieves, a role he's enjoying as it allows him to continue to be part of a team environment.
"It's a lot of pointing out little stuff on the mini map that players don't see," JKap said of coaching.
"Like, ‘hey, in this situation you should probably slow down a little bit, wait for your teammate.’ COD isn't all just go, go, go, so this is a situation where you've gotta wait for your teammates, this is a situation maybe you should've been quicker, you had this timing opening where you could've got map control."
In many ways, his new job is even tougher than the last.
"I thought it would be less stressful because I wouldn't have the pressure on myself to perform," JKap said. "As the season's gotten going, I've realized it's more stressful because I have no control over the matches.
"When the team's not going right, I'm like, 'This is so frustrating to watch, I wish I was playing because I know what needs to be done hypothetically.' But obviously, I'm aware it's much tougher in the situation to do all the right stuff than me having perfect 20/20 hindsight."
"Looking back at the last few years of my career, getting on every day for scrims, it became like a job, whereas when I was 19, 20, 21, doing this that long ago, I did have that same fun. ... But after so many years, that feeling kind of fades." -- JKap
For JKap, coaching beat the alternatives. He tried his hand at content creation previously and also considered a gig as an analyst or even a CDL commentator, only to determine none were the right fit -- especially the latter.
"I don't know if I have the energy to be a caster," JKap said. "The problem with that is when I watch COD, usually for every crazy play, the team who's at the back end of that, they're making a mistake. Rather than seeing the crazy three-piece, four-piece, the crazy 1-v-3 in [Search & Destroy], I'm usually like, 'Well, this other team's just stupid, they should never have let this happen.'"
“Maybe the problem is deeper”
As much of a desire as he has to build up team chemistry and relate to young players, JKap clearly isn't one to sugarcoat the issues.
The first weekend with Venom on the roster, the Thieves fared no better, losing to the last-place London Royal Ravens in four maps before getting trounced by an unbeaten FaZe squad (as tends to happen).
The Thieves are almost guaranteed a spot in the elimination bracket in the Stage 2 major set to begin next week, an unfavorable position to say the least.
"Winning a tournament starting in losers, beating every top team along the way most likely, is a tough goal," JKap said.
A few wins, maybe a top-four finish would at least be a sign of progress, he acknowledged. Absent some kind of run in the major, what's unclear is where the Thieves go from here.
The goal is to win championships in Los Angeles though, and JKap couldn't rule out more changes if things don't start moving in that direction.
"We either gotta turn it around," JKap said, "or maybe the problem is deeper than we originally thought and we have to look inward more and see what's going on with us."
Lead image credit: 100 Thieves