There are a lot of things I don’t like about Competitive 40K. This is…known. The hot takes (irony, I know). Some of the toxic personalities and poor gamesmanship that comes from putting prestige and prizes on the line over a game of dice and toy soldiers. It’s occasionally outsized impact on the online discussions about the game and as a result what is viewed as “default”.
But the recent trend toward competitive players offering coaching services isn’t one of them.
I actually think it’s a pretty great idea.
The Best General
The core of this is, well, rooted in the heroic narrative arc that is Adam Abramowicz and The Best General Podcast (still worth a listen to if you haven’t). Adam sought out coaching. A lot of it. From very good players – and I think it showed. Because, as I wrote at the time, the odds of Adam getting to where he ended up through chance alone were…slim.
But that process was also the process of Adam making himself a better player. Talking through that with people who know what they’re doing. Bouncing ideas off them. Taking feedback. Getting stomped, and then regrouping to try to figure out why. You know, coaching. But he did the work. He put in the games. At the end of the day, he had to play, and beat, really good players, including some people who had coached him.
Getting help doesn’t make you a lesser player, and the idea that top competitors, in any area, got there all by themselves, with neither coaching, support, nor feedback, is ludicrous.
But what happens if you’re not Adam? If you’re not already friends with top-ranked competitive players thanks to the group you’re in, a podcast you were previously on, or that you’re just a really easy guy to be friends with?
Or you’re in a rural area, like I am, where the local scene is somewhat small?
In those contexts, coaching makes perfect sense.
Pity the Newbie
We all want the hobby to grow – and as much as I’d like all of that growth to come in the form of people who are purely interested in Horus Heresy, Crusade and AT18 because I am at my core a selfish person, there’s every reason to want new blood in the competitive 40K scene. And to be frank, that scene is a little impenetrable at times. It often uses shorthand to refer to units or constructs (e.g. “Loyal 32” or “Smashcaptain”) or uses terminology from the old USRs to refer to an entire genre of rules (e.g. “Feel No Pain” or “Deep Strike”). It is, to be frank, hard to parse out advice from someone who should actually be taken seriously vs. someone who is good at talking authoritatively about received wisdom on the internet. There’s conflicting advice about how to get started, from the “Pick what looks cool to you” folks to the “Every purchase should be building to an optimized list” folks, and everything in between.
And there’s simply a lot of rules to digest, both within your codex as you try to fit together how the 76 data sheets in your cool new Space Marines codex work together, and between codexes in what is a rapidly changing game. The idea that someone is supposed to invest in what is a very expensive hobby and sort of just iterate and improve on their own feels a little like this…
We lose people to bad experiences. Getting utterly steamrolled with the excuse of “how else will you learn” is one of those bad experiences, and I’ve seen it do a number on communities first hand. If someone has a clear view of what they want from the game, and is willing to seek out help for that, I think that’s pretty obviously a good thing. And coaching is a fast way to do that – you get tailored advice, it’s at least in principle a little easier to sift through the dross, those services are marketed in a way where they may be easier to find, etc.
The Introvert’s Dilemma
I’m going to say something terribly controversial here: there are a lot of introverts in our hobby.
I know because I’m one of them.
This blog has helped me make friends in this hobby. Which is pretty perfect for me – long-form nerd ramblings in the privacy of my own home is a type of social interaction I can get behind. And I’d like to believe I’m a fairly…personable person. But am I going to build a broad network of people in the competitive scene I can ask for advice for things? Probably not. Am I going to message a stranger out of the blue to help me figure out how his or her list works? Definitely not. Am I more likely after three or four games and a lunch to be in my hotel room or flying solo for dinner than I am going out for drinks?
Many of the ways you build a “hobby network” are, to be frank, exhausting. Paying for coaching short-circuits some of that effort – you still have to build rapport with your coach, figure out ways to communicate, etc. but “I would like to pay for your advertised service” is a pretty easy inroad, as far as these things go. And that, to me, has value. Speaking of which…
The Value of Expertise
It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who reads this blog frequently that I think specialized expertise has value. It should also come as no surprise to people in this hobby that this hobby is really, really very hard to monetize. Compared to some other competitive nerd hobbies, competitive 40K tournament prizes are fairly modest. They utterly pale in comparison to upper level eSports. Probably the most prominent organization in competitive 40K, Frontline Gaming, is, to be frank, a small business. One I admire for managing to carve out a niche and make a run of it, but a small business none the less.
YouTube, Patreon, blogs, podcasts – honestly, nearly all of these are pretty hard ways to make money.
Charging for direct, personal interaction from someone who has built up a fanbase, but where the primary avenue of their fame is a pretty poor way to make a living is a model used over a wide range of different industries. Because it works, and works well. Especially when your expertise is difficult to either rip-off or replicate – as it is in the case of top-tier 40K players.
Pay to Win
So we’ve talked a little bit about a good sides – now let’s address the negative I often see brought up. That coaching is “paying to win” and somehow cheapens our games of toy soldiers. I don’t think this is particularly fair for two reasons.
The first is that you don’t need coaching to win. There are plenty of top players who do just fine without it – and there are plenty of people who pay for coaching who are slumming it at the middle tables and riding reversion to the mean to glory. Most of the resources you can get from coaching can be found elsewhere – winning lists aren’t trade secrets, in non-pandemic periods there’s plenty of commentary on events, websites, podcasts, software tools. It’s out there. When it comes down to it, coaching is essentially swapping time for money. And there are all kinds of things in this hobby that allow people to find the sweet spot for them on the Time <—> Money spectrum.
The second is that coaching can lift you up, but it can’t make you win. Coaching helps. Coaching is specific and targeted. But it’s not a substitute for playing games, putting your knowledge to work, etc. Anyone who has paid for one-on-one painting classes knows this too – techniques can be explained to you, shown to you, you can play the high rez video over and over, but at some point, you have to do it.
Also, most of the people doing coaching in 40K are also players. Which means there’s a big obstacle to “paying to win” – the person you’re paying is someone you have to beat. But even if we ignore that: coaching is a toolkit, it’s not something that will drag you across the finish line without you doing any work yourself.
Professional advice is valuable in all aspects of our hobby. Let people who want to access it. Let the people who have it realize the value of their skillset. And if it’s not for you? There’s a whole world of free advice out there.
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