The 2023 LEC season couldn’t have started better for MAD Lions. With two new players on its roster, and one returning player, the team grabbed its first victory of the Winter Split. But the Winter Split is long, and the road to LEC glory is even longer. For MAD Lions to reclaim the throne they sat on in 2021, the team has to qualify for and then win the Season Finals in the new LEC format.

Right before the LEC Winter Split kicked off, Em Dash spoke with MAD Lions head coach James “Mac” MacCormack. He reflected on the challenges of 2022, and he parted ways with three of his players in the offseason. Mac also spoke in-depth about each of the players he brought onto the team, and what his vision is for MAD Lions in 2023.

Reflecting on MAD Lions’ 2022 season

Welcome, Mac! Before we talk about the new season, I’m gonna take you back a year. At the start of last year, you told me that it was going to be a big test for you. It would be your first year as a coach without Humanoid in the team, and you wanted to see how big of a part he played in your success. How do you reflect on that now?

Oh yeah, true! Well, I guess if you want to be results-based about it, we kind of got smacked by Humanoid in the playoffs, right? [Laughs] You can always look at that as an answer. Generally though, without Humanoid, I think there definitely is a hole where he left. But I can also feel that I’ve retained a lot from working with him. I feel that, when I look at the game and compare myself post-2021 with myself pre-2021, I’d say that my philosophy has been consistently solid with his. I don’t think we’ve departed much in that sense. In those terms, I think I’m alright. [Laughs] I have survived. I can still watch and understand League of Legends without Humanoid and tell people how I think they should play the game.

I think 2022 was actually a year where I did a lot of my best work in terms of quality of coaching. Even if it didn’t show in the results. In terms of ‘process’, the things I learned, the number of hours I put in, and the results that it generated internally in terms of how much we improved and learned new concepts, I think the quality did go up. I think it will continue to go up pretty much every year, right? Every year, I look back at last year’s presentations and I’m like, “God, these are disgusting!” [Laughs] That’s a nice marker of how much we, as the staff, improve over the course of the year. That process has definitely continued without Humanoid.

“The best teams are the ones that survive until the end of the year. The ones that don’t collapse internally.”

That’s definitely good to hear. Nevertheless, in the end, teams compete to win. And in that regard, it was a much tougher year for MAD Lions. A seventh-place finish, a better Summer Split but disappointing Playoffs, you made Worlds but fell in the Play-In Stage… How do you look at that, and how you worked with a new squad that changed mid-year too?

It was a challenging year, that’s for sure. While I’m happy with my growth individually, do I think I did a good enough job to get the team to where it needed to be? Obviously not, right? There were loads of hard lessons that I learned last year. I think I made a crap ton of mistakes. In the Spring [Split] especially. I think the Summer Split was a lot better from all of us, but I think Spring was a really rough ride. I did some work that I’m really happy with individually, but I also had some of my hardest moments as a coach. Having to turn around to a rookie player, who you’ve just signed, who is super excited to work with you and saw his dreams coming true, and tell him, “Sorry, you’re off the team.” That’s probably one of the worst moments of my career as a coach. I never want to have to repeat that. That sucks.

It’s probably also the worst moment of Reeker’s career.

Exactly. So, coming off that, there is a lot of stuff I want to work on. I tend to feel that the best teams are the ones that survive until the end of the year. The ones that don’t collapse internally. Worlds Play-Ins were really decent for us, all the way up until the last day. And then, on the last day, we almost spontaneously imploded. Everything just went wrong. But before that, the tournament was fine. It wasn’t stellar, but I would say it was good. So, that was rough and unexpected. I would say it was a disappointing year results-wise for sure.

MAD Lions Chasy, Elyoya, Nisqy, Carzzy, and Hylissang
MAD Lions changed three players ahead of the 2023 season. (Source: Michal Konkol for Riot Games)

Rebuilding from the top lane down

You made a decent number of changes to the roster in the offseason. I think the most surprising one was UNF0RGIVEN being removed from the team. All things considered, he had a great year for a rookie. What was the reasoning behind your decision?

I can appreciate why that would seem strange. When we look to make a roster, and when we look to build a roster, we’re always trying to achieve balance. That’s balance in terms of many things. Balance in terms of personalities, balance in terms of motivations, balance in terms of communication, in terms of role on the team… We want an overall balanced roster. The conclusion that we came to was that, with the available pieces that there were on the market, we couldn’t build a balanced roster without making the changes that we did.

For example, having someone like Chasy on the team, who we were actually committed to quite early in the offseason because we really liked him, would make the roster hard to balance with UNF0RGIVEN on it. For a variety of reasons. I think that roster is much easier to balance with Carzzy on it, and I think it’s a much better fit. I’m personally really surprised that [UNF0RGIVEN] didn’t get an LEC team. I think he’s a really good player, but no one is bigger than the success of the team, unfortunately.

This is the case with Armut as well. The conversation I had with Armut in the offseason was probably the second-hardest conversation I’ve had in my career. I love Armut to bits. He’s wonderful, he’s a good friend, he’s a good person, and he’s a good player. I really like working with him. I have nothing but good things to say about Armut. But the team comes first, that’s my job.

“I don’t like to look at players in terms of ‘who is good’ and ‘who is bad’. I think it’s all about who is good under which conditions.”

So, when making the changes, you started at the top lane and then looked at who would balance well with it.

Yeah, I mean, it’s also down to the support players, right? Which pieces are available for you to be able to have a bot lane that works together with your jungler? Which support will help get you the best synergy on the map as a team? Carzzy is a player who is really good at playing a low-resource game. Chasy, I think, is gonna be quite a high-resource player. That’s a niche that he’s most likely going to fill within the team. He’s incredibly good individually. In order to make that shine, you need certain things around him. He is a rookie who is used to playing a certain style. He doesn’t have much experience playing internationally, so he still has a long way to go in terms of communication. We needed a bot lane that can step up in terms of communication.

Carzzy and Hylissang are fantastic leaders in that regard, inside and outside of the game. That was a big consideration. It’s not just in-game and who’s good. I don’t like to look at players in terms of ‘who is good’ and ‘who is bad’. I think it’s all about who is good under which conditions. There are many, many rosters in which UNF0RGIVEN and Armut can be top-tier players. Absolutely. They were, in Summer. [Laughs] I think that’s undisputed.

MAD Lions gives high fives to LEC fans
MAD Lions kicked off the 2023 LEC season with a win. (Source: Michal Konkol for Riot Games)

I can see why parting ways with Armut was a tough moment on a personal level. He’s a very charismatic, likable person. That said, he has received quite some criticism in the past about his champion pool issues—something he acknowledged himself. Why did you decide that this year was the year to bid him farewell?

I think there are a number of factors. If I’ve worked with someone for three years, like with Kaiser, I think I’ve done a pretty terrible job if I haven’t developed them as much as I possibly can. For Kaiser that was three years, for Armut it was two years. We have to factor in the ambitions of the organization, right? Our ambitions are always that we have the best possible chance at developing players in a system where they can be the best in their role, provided they have the things that will help them succeed. I think Armut can be a top player in the LEC. I think he can be incredibly good in the LEC. I think a lot of the narratives about his champion pool are a bit overblown, and I think he has the work ethic and the drive to overcome those. 

But if we start from the premise that we’re setting our ambitions as high as humanly possible, it’s not that Armut can’t do it, but it’s about the chance of us getting to that level with Armut versus the chance of us getting there without Armut. Or with Kaiser versus without Kaiser. Again, it comes down to balance. It comes down to who else is on the roster, it comes down to the qualities they bring and what niche they fill in-game as well. We just felt that it was better to go with a player of Chasy’s profile. As I said before, it doesn’t even come down to good versus bad. It comes down to what the best thing for the team will be in terms of how the roster works.

The most explosive bot lane in the LEC

I’m glad you’ve mentioned that a few times, actually. I’ve written an article that highlights how important the right puzzle pieces can be for a roster. We’ve seen it with Malrang on Rogue, and Nisqy on MAD Lions, obviously. Moving down to the bot lane: you’ve brought back Carzzy, who loves to go all-in with crazy plays and paired him with Hylissang, who’s even crazier with his plays. It might be the most explosive bot lane I’ve seen in the LEC. [Laughs] How did you bring them together?

Yeah I mean, volatile, high-risk, explosive, psychopathic… Those are probably all words to describe the bot lane. [Laughs] On a serious note, I think they’re gonna get the best out of each other. It’s not just about in-game pairing. It’s also about personalities. What do they want from their teammates? What kind of relationship do they want to have from their lane partner? When we interviewed Hylissang, I think it was really clear that they would fit well together interpersonally in terms of how they both want to improve, how they talk about the game, and what role they want to play in their relationship.

For example, Carzzy tends to be very loud in-game, and a bit quieter in reviews. Hylissang is fantastic in stepping up in reviews and saying, “If we do this, then they will do that, and then we can do this.” Stuff like that. He’s great at explaining his thought process for how everything works.

I think, in that sense, they can really get the best out of each other. I think that one was a big personality pairing. Obviously, Hylissang is individually also very strong. So, if you want to call Hylli a puzzle piece, I guess you could. I think he brings a lot of really, really great qualities as an athlete and as a competitor.

“Carzzy tends to be very loud in-game, and a bit quieter in reviews. Hylissang is fantastic in stepping up in reviews”

I’m looking forward to what they’re gonna do this year. If anything, it’s gonna be exciting.

[Laughs] They’re gonna do stuff!

The ones we haven’t talked about yet are, obviously, the two players you’ve kept: Elyoya and Nisqy. In the Summer Split last year, they really helped give an identity to the team. How do you view them in the context of the new MAD Lions roster? Do you think you’ll have a big shift in identity, with the new players?

I think that’s hard to say right now. You never know where the meta is gonna land, right? I’m generally in favor of throwing caution into the wind and saying, “Screw the meta, we’re gonna play Pyke every game, and Nisqy is gonna play Galio.” [Laughs] I’m down! I’m a big fan of that. But we’re gonna have to see where it lands and what works for us. I watched the LPL and they’re still playing a lot of ranged supports, to my great disappointment. I hate ranged supports. [Laughs] But that just might be the meta. Players and teams can fit together in incredibly unpredictable ways. Who knows? Maybe we end up being great with control mages and that becomes our bread and butter.

I’m all for specializing and going all-in on your style, but we also want our players to develop and become more flexible and more varied. That’s also part of their ambitions, right? I think, if you’re labeled as a control mage player for your entire career or a push-and-roam player for your entire career, you might get some motivation to start and change the narrative about yourself.

I think Nisqy is super motivated to become a more adaptable player and a player that has a bit more flexibility and versatility in his wheelhouse. He’s doing a really good job with that so far in scrims. I trust Nisqy, and I believe in him. I think we all do.

Mac leads a large team of coaches and analysts in MAD Lions. (Source: Michal Konkol for Riot Games)

Taking on 2023

To round it up, I’m going to bring it back to where we started. Last year, you told me that 2022 was going to be the test without Humanoid for you. What is 2023 going to be for you, personally?

Hm… I think in 2022 I focused a lot on knowledge, understanding, and strategy, to get the team to play the best League of Legends possible. I focused on getting them on the same page and having a coherent philosophy about the game. I think that’s always a challenge with the team. But we have much bigger and much more experienced voices this year with Hylissang and Carzzy. Overall, I would say we are a more experienced team than we were last year. So, I think our strategic understanding will develop naturally.

For me, the big challenge this year is more of a leadership challenge. How to manage people correctly. Especially because our staff has gotten so much bigger. We now have four coaches on-site, a data analyst, Orome still working remotely, and the performance staff… There are a lot of things I do inside MAD that require time, so a big part of it is developing to be a better leader in any way that I possibly can.

I want to make sure that MAD has the best team culture of any team in the LEC. That’s goal number one. I want us to have the best team culture, the best practice culture, the best environment, the best conversations, the highest standards for ourselves. The second goal is to have the best processes for our coaching staff. I want us to have the best prep, I want us to be the best organized, I want us to have the most well-run meetings, I want us to have the best communication between the coaches. I want us to be as on the same page as humanly possible. I want the information to flow as well as possible. So, a lot of my job is going to be about getting to that point. It’s very managerial. [Laughs]

It’s also very ambitious. [Laughs] But if you want to win the biggest league in the region, you have to be ambitious.

Yeah, man! Dream big, act accordingly.

MAD Lions plays its next game on Saturday, Jan. 22nd, at 7 PM CET against Astralis. You can watch the game live on the official LoL Esports site.