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MAD Lions coach Mac: “I think teenage me would be gobsmacked”

The League of Legends European Championship winner shares his thoughts on playoffs, MSI, and more

When James ‘Mac’ MacCormack started watching League of Legends over a decade ago, he never believed he’d be lifting a trophy – let alone a historic piece of silverware from one of the most competitive regions in the world. But, after an impressive Spring Split with MAD Lions, he’s done exactly that.

Last week, after an exhilarating best of five against Rogue, Mac and his team cemented their place in League of Legends European Championship history, becoming the fourth team in the league’s nine year history to ever claim a title. In the process, MAD forced two former champions G2 Esports and Fnatic to watch from the sidelines, ushering in a new age for European League of Legends.

The result might have seemed impossible at the start of the season, especially after the way the team crashed out of the last World Championship, but under Mac’s guidance, the team have bounced back bigger than ever. To get his take on MAD’s incredible Spring Split, the frenetic best of five series against Rogue, and his thoughts on facing the scene’s juggernauts at MSI 2021, we sat down with the head coach.

Here’s what he had to say.

The Loadout: Congratulations first off. How does it feel to be an LEC winner?

James ‘Mac’ MacCormack: It’s pretty weird actually. It’s been, what, four days now since we won and today’s the first day that I haven’t woken up thinking, ‘How did we win that game?’ It’s been pretty surreal. So, yeah, it’s nice. I mean, it’s fun to think that it doesn’t matter what I do for the rest of my career – I could fail everything else – I’ll always be an LEC champion.

I want to get your thoughts on the actual series because games one and two were rough. And then, in game three, it was like someone just flipped the switch and MAD woke up. So what was it like going through the series from a coaching perspective?

I actually think the finals was our worst playoff performance by far. I think we played super badly compared to our norm. In most situations, we’d close out games one and two, and then the series would have been a 3-0. But you know, I felt like we were kind of sleeping.

Everyone was actually really pissed off coming out of game two. We went backstage and our players were there like, ‘guys, we’re not losing to this team.’ The games were still close, like easily winnable, even though we were playing badly. So we were really confident that if we just played up to our actual standard, then there was no way we could lose.

After that, the series took a really weird turn. I had a lot of regrets after Worlds for not just picking our best champions and leaving the other team to do something about it. I really enjoy that drafting style and that confidence, but at Worlds we were far too worried about what the meta was and what other people were playing. So in game three, I was just like, ‘Matyáš ‘Carzzy’ Orság, you’re playing Ezreal. I know you’re going to lose lane, I know it’s going to be hard, but you’re playing Ezreal because you’re just so insane on that champion.’ And İrfan Berk ‘Armut’ Tükek did the same with Wukong and I think that actually had a really profound mental effect on Rogue.  You should not be able to do that, you know? Like that’s not advisable – it’s just not a good draft technique.

It’s something that I felt put quite a lot of pressure on Rogue losing game three to a blind pick Wukong after not punishing the guy in lane at all. So from then on we had this really big confidence boost. When you compare the atmosphere looking across from them to us across the stage, we were smiling, we were laughing, we were relaxed, and they looked like statues – completely ashen-faced. In their comms, they were really shaken going into game three, like they were talking about still being able to win. So I felt like that mindset was probably a big factor in the series and I could feel that in the way that they played against us in games three, four, and five.

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You said that MAD was kind of sleeping at that point. So what was said backstage to get the guys to wake up?

It was mostly players being openly angry about the fact that we were losing to this team. Because we felt like we weren’t playing at our best. And if we’d played well, then we would be 2-0 up in this series. So they managed to do a really good job of turning that into motivation. And I was really confident as well, saying stuff like ‘there’s no way we’re leaving here today without that trophy.’

I know MAD has put quite a big focus on mental endurance. How important is that training? And how important was that for that specific series as well?

I don’t know if it’s the training more just the overall team atmosphere and the personalities and the philosophy that we have. A lot of it also comes from being just calm and confident in those situations. In past playoffs, between games has felt like this mad rush where everyone wants to have their say. I made a real concerted effort this year to just be calm and take things slowly and be confident, and just give players simple answers. That’s had a profound effect on me as well actually, the level of stress that I felt in this playoffs was nothing compared to previous ones. Like I didn’t even feel stressed at all in the finals.

And the other part of it is just having the players that we have. When you compare Armut and Javier ‘Elyoya’ Prades Batalla to Andrei ‘Orome’ Popa and Zhiqiang ‘Shadow’ Zhao, they’re so much more outspoken with their confidence – and that’s really infectious. I think the mentality that they showed [after game two] was really key and I think it really impacted the entire team.

One of the things that you’ve mentioned in interviews before is after Worlds 2020, you played your drafts over and over again in your head. Does winning the LEC make up for that fact?

It’s definitely a start, put it that way! I mean, for sure. Funnily enough, I felt like finals was actually the worst that I drafted all playoffs, so in the last game when it felt like we were losing, I was really getting ready to beat myself up because the last game draft was pretty hard.

It’s something that I want to improve on at MSI. I think the redemption will hopefully come then. I don’t know what level we have to play at for that redemption to take place, but we’ll see. I don’t even want to be results focused, I just want us to be able to give performances that we’re proud of, and for me to be able to draft in a way that I think was the right decision at the time. I want to show that’s something that we’re capable of – and that we’re capable of giving our best at that level because I don’t think we gave our best in finals.

A while ago we spoke about Marek ‘Humanoid’ Brázda’s aggression and the fact that you wanted to just let him loose every now and then. Now that he’s not the main shotcaller, do you think this is the best iteration of Humanoid that we’ve seen so far?

I think it could be. He’s really proven that he’s as good as all of the other midlaners. Like, before, there were all the statements about him being strong on certain champions, especially when the meta was good for him last year. But now he’s done it on champions he doesn’t really play. Like in the game that we won in finals with Viktor where he completely destroyed every single team fight, that’s actually historically speaking one of his lower win rate champions – that’s a champion he’s not been that successful on in the past.

I don’t necessarily think we even realise how much he’s improving, because Humanoid is the player that requires the least feedback from us as a coaching staff. He just takes care of himself. On the other hand, I think one of the reasons why it’s looking so good for him right now, is that this is the time where he and I have been the most aligned on our philosophy about how we want to play the game.

Humanoid is, in a sense, my enforcer inside the game for playing how we want to play, because although he doesn’t shotcall the early game, he’s one of the biggest voices in the middle to late game because he has such a different read about how you’re supposed to play League of Legends then. He also has such an aggressive shotcalling style that he forces everyone else to play the game. And I think having teammates that believe in that leads to me and him being on the same page.

Last year, there were a lot of different ideas about how we wanted to play the game and often [the team] clashed. The worst arguments we have are when it’s me versus Humanoid, because he and I are both really opinionated and really stubborn. This is something that happened at Worlds last year where we had like this big fundamental change in how we saw the game. And it was like this debate that went on for the whole championship and we never were 100% sure on how to actually execute it correctly.

It’s something that we’ve put a lot of effort into this year by coming to a really healthy conclusion and a good balance. And the result of that is that we have a really consistent aligned message from what the coaching staff say in reviews, as well as what Humanoid is saying in game to the rest of the players, right. So it’s very easy then for the new players to adapt to the system because it’s so consistent, and it’s so strongly worded all the time.

Elyoya grins as he lifts the trophy alone

Elyoya had never actually been on stage before and it turns out he’s a total madman. What sort of advice did you guys give him before he went on stage?

Elyoya is a funny one. Jungle has always been like my position – I’ve always been the guy in the team that coached the jungler. You would expect that this is the player that I have put the most time in with and been there every step of the way. But I can’t take the credit for that because he’s one of the players that needs the least feedback on the team. He’s so driven, and so self critical, and has such high standards that he almost coaches himself. So we have to give him reminders of things and give him new input and he’ll go away and fix it.

So the only other thing that we’ve spent a lot of time with him talking about is more the mindset, right? Because he is very self critical of himself. And he tends to beat himself up quite a lot for mistakes. So, by instilling that mindset and encouraging him not to recede back into his shell if he makes a mistake is really important. And no matter what he does, he just doesn’t stop and that’s really amazing.

If the meta opens up again could we see G2 stomping everything or will MAD’s strength make it more difficult than last time?

I think we’re definitely more adaptable than we were last time and that’s something that I’m really happy about. The G2 question is interesting because I feel like that was actually what they tried to do in the later stages of playoffs. Against us they played four different top-playing champions into Gnar and none of them looked good. And they were trying to do that in scrims. Sometimes that was really annoying because they’d pick something like Tristana and Seraphine and you didn’t know where they’d be going.

So if they can find enough good options to be creative and draft like that, it is super difficult to play against them. But at the same time, some of the changes that have made the meta more stable or closed are like wider game changes than just balance changes. G2 has always been about giving up jungle, or giving up mid CS and diving sides to go and make the early game work, and then sacrificing a bit in jungle to keep lanes in good places. That doesn’t work anymore. So that’s one example.

The other one that I think G2 had themselves spoken a lot about is the Dragon Soul right? Which is that if Dragon Soul is threatened at like 20/25 minutes, you don’t have the chance to be creative because you’re just dragged into team fights non-stop. And they’ve been pretty outspoken about the fact that they’re not the strongest at front to back team fighting.

They can always find crutches but they’re like band aid solutions to a lot of the inherent problems they have. Obviously they can adapt, but that’s really difficult when you’re a team that has had as much success as they’ve had over the last three years. It’ll be really interesting to see how they evolve. There’s no doubt they’re angry right now and that’s usually when they’re at their scariest.

The MAD Lions League of Legends team huddled in their white and gold jerseys

Let’s talk about MSI. The LEC has its share of pretty good coaches. But now you’re going up against some of the best in the world. As a coach, how do you expect this to push you further?

I think it’s gonna be a really good test of the staff that we have right now. In terms of the regular season, we’re playing against teams that we know very well. Like we know these teams inside and out. At international tournaments, you have less information, less data, less time, but more pressure. I’m really looking forward to it actually, especially because you have different metas – Korea, for example, has been playing Renekton mid for like three patches since it got knocked into the floor, and every single European team – bar Rogue who occasionally play it in the top lane – dropped it.

Take a breather: Your guide to the League of Legends ranks

It’s always about adaptability and I think that’s improved with this team because we’re more versatile in terms of our play style. We’re also more confident and more experienced now.

What teams or regions are you most looking forward to playing MSI?

Always China. I love the way China plays League of Legends. MAD Lions is like a mini Chinese team. I want us to play like the LPL and a lot of the plays that we have actually implemented this split are borrowed directly from the LPL. That’s one of the reasons why we had such insanely strong early games in the regular season.

It’s so high speed, it’s about keeping your foot on the gas, and forcing your opponent into making mistakes. And that’s gonna be really good for our players to play against because I don’t think they’ve had that experience.

And how do you think you’re going to fare against China?

I honestly have no idea but it’s gonna be real explosive, that’s for sure. I think there’s always the chance for us to show up and play incredibly well. And at international tournaments, there’s stuff people don’t know because they just don’t have the depth of knowledge about your region, so there’s always the chance that you get to pop off on your signature champion.

It’ll be really interesting to see how they scout us and what read they have on us. And I think that’s going to that’s going to have a huge impact on the result of the game because, like, if we get our comfort champions, and we get our playstyle that we like, and we get a draft that we’re comfortable with, mechanically we’re on par with literally anyone.

Armut was telling Mark ‘Caedral’ Lamont about the unintentional Seraphine bait with Rogue. How much scrimming mind games will there be at MSI?

That’s a good question. I haven’t really thought about it. In finals, we had the luxury of being up there, waiting for people, and being able to test a bunch of stuff against different teams. I don’t think that’s going to be possible at MSI, because you don’t have the same number of teams to play against. It [the unintentional Seraphine bait] kind of happened by accident against Rogue because, honestly, we were prepping more for G2. Like, I was sure that G2 was gonna bounce back and be in the final but then they weren’t, and we showed Rogue a lot of our picks. That’s why there was a Nami ban in the second round because we played Ezreal/Nami against Senna and we destroyed them.

It was something that we played once with in scrims. And a lot of times, you mess up in draft and lock in a champion, but it’s like a filler pick. So then you message your opponent to say ‘oh, that’s not Teemo, that’s Udyr’ or whatever, right? But our players were memeing, saying the enemy team’s asking what Nami is. So yeah, that was a funny seeing the Nami ban pop up.

Have you got any predictions for MSI?

The spiciest one by far is what Cloud9 is going to do because there’s so much hyperbole around NA as a region right now. Like the region is getting completely flamed into the floor for being bad, only importing people, and not investing in talent. So I think what happens with Cloud9 is gonna be super interesting.

I want us to have a best-of-five against them – I think that would be like the absolute dankest timeline and obviously I think we can beat them. That would be the best thing to happen for MSI from a narrative perspective, apart from us going all the way and winning it. But yeah, I think the groups and the format is super fun. Like the format is so spicy. Plus, the fact that we have Turkey and Brazil in our group and we have a Turkish top player is just mind blowing. Like, it can’t be written any better than that.

MAD Lions League of Legends coach Mac

Obviously playing MSI eats into your downtime between splits. How are you and the other coaching staff managing the player schedules to ensure that they don’t burnout halfway through the Summer Split?

That’s gonna be really tough. I think that’s gonna be a really, really big challenge for us. As a team we’re very young, like both in terms of the actual age of the players and how long they’ve been playing competitively. So the burnout is gonna be really hard to manage for sure. Right now, we’re giving players some off time because we can’t scrim until teams get here for MSI. So for now, there’s not that much we can do. So we at least have some respite.

Related: MAD Lions’ sports psychologist on burnout in esports

And then after that, the gap between the end of MSI and the start of summer is like nothing, especially because we have to be in Berlin for quarantines. Theoretically, you have to be here 10 days before the split starts, which is like seven days after MSI ends. So, it’s going to be a big challenge. I think we’re one of the organisations that is best equipped to do it, though, because we have a really good understanding of that. We’ve already had conversations about this with our performance manager and our sports psychologist.

You started playing and watching League of Legends at a young age, right? Did you ever envision yourself lifting a trophy?

I started playing League when I was playing Wrath of the Lich King in World of Warcraft. That’s the age that I started playing League of Legends, so I was 12 or something like that. I only started watching competitive League in like season two, so yeah, I think teenage me would be kind of gobsmacked right now.

But this is something that I talk to the players about a lot about – I’m conscious of how rare it is that people even make a finals in their career. If you haven’t been on G2 or Fnatic, odds are you’ve never made a final, right? So it’s something that I’ve actually spoken to the players about when people are feeling down or lacking motivation or whatever. There are not many people who have made finals in their careers, so to actually win one is just mind blowing. It’s completely and utterly mind blowing.

The full MAD Lions team covered in confetti celebrate their LEC win

What are you going to do with your medal?

I don’t know. But we have something to fill the wall now. Around the office, we have all these really cool photos of the team. There’s one, for example, of the Splyce team going out to the crowd at Worlds in Madrid. Then there’s one from Worlds this year, and one from when we won the Superliga. Then Til, our director of European operations, had this really cool idea, which was to put up this blank canvas with a question mark on it that we had to fill.

Now we have something for it.

Additional reporting by Aaron Down.