We caught up with three-time LEC Coach of the Split James ‘Mac’ MacCormack to understand his coaching philosophy and how MAD Lions bounced back from a disastrous Spring split.
MAD Lion’s failure to qualify for the LEC Spring split playoffs was one of the biggest surprises of the first half of the year. Lauded as one of the best-run teams in the region, famous for their ability to scout young talent from the ERLs, MAD Lions had never failed to qualify for the playoffs until then.
That Spring failure was a blip on MAD’s radar. It forced them to refocus, take a step back and really look at what was important to their roster. They came back in Summer with a renewed fire and qualified for the playoffs’ upper bracket despite not having earned a single championship point in the Spring.
MAD Lions, who finished second in the regular season standings with the same record as G2 Esports, also saw their coaching staff recognized as the best of the split, and four of their players appeared on the LEC’s first All-pro team.
One split, and a universally praised roster swap on, the team are headed to the playoffs, off the back of what Mac describes as a “draining” final few weeks of the season.
He explained that the team would be taking four days off between the regular season and the playoffs. While not every player requires regular breaks from competing to keep themselves sharp, Mac explained that time off gives the team a chance to “step back”.
“When you’re scrimming every day for eight weeks as part of a team, you’re very close to all the issues you have as a team, and you’re very much inside all the problems you may have,” he told Dexerto. “Having a few days’ break allows you to take a step back and actually assess things with a bit more of a neutral perspective so you can come back prepared to work out some solutions.”
He did, however, admit that breaks weren’t necessarily adhered to by all members of the roster.
“I strongly suspect that our AD Carry (William ‘Unforgiven’ Neimenen) and support (Norman ‘Kaiser’ Kaiser) are just playing either solo queue or ARAMs at the moment.”
MAD’s Spring failure is a thing of the past — but it helped motivate the roster in the Summer split in a way that Mac couldn’t have predicted. The organization had never really failed in this way before, having made the playoffs every single split since entering league in 2020.
“The lack of championship points meant we had to get first or second to be seeded top four, which was quite a big ask,” he said. “So these last few weeks, we’ve just been grinding really, really hard because consistency was so important.”
MAD were one of the only teams coming into Summer playoffs contention with no championship points. They had no fallback, no safety net — but the Spring disappointment had brought the team even closer together, and made them take a hard look at their team play coming into Summer.
“I think it was clear that we hadn’t been… I suppose the word I would use is ‘healthy’,” he said. “We hadn’t been united and on the same page as a team, and I think we all understood that that was what had hurt us the most. Our team fighting was really bad, which is something I should have addressed earlier and realized way too late.
“All our offseason conversations were about how to fix that problem. How do we get on the same page as a team? How do we have the same approach toward the game? How do we have the same philosophy? How do we get over our difference in opinion on how to play?”
Building a team is more than just a numbers game
This cohesion and shared philosophy is one of the most important cornerstones of Mac’s coaching philosophy — the selfsame coaching philosophy that had already landed him two Coach of the Split awards in 2020.
He explained how he’s always seen his coaching philosophy as an extension of himself. Much more than any drafting minutiae or pixel-perfect objective control, Mac has always been more concerned with the people on his teams. It’s something he has always focused on when building rosters — a good culture fit for the MAD Lions organization is just as important as perfect mechanics and decision-making skills.
“People and players aren’t like Top Trump cards, where you have a nine out of ten on laning phase, a ten out of ten on CSD at ten minutes, and a five out of ten on team fighting,” he explained. “That’s not how you build a team, and that’s never how I’ve built teams for myself.
“I think part of my own personal philosophy as a coach is that I really value a sense of belonging and togetherness inside the team. It’s really, really important to me that everyone on the team feels like they belong there — I think you create the strongest teams that way.”
MAD Lions have always been famous for an externally strong team rapport. Everyone remembers their winners’ poses at the start of the LEC’s remote play period — and they’ve always seemed like a team who’ve gotten along well both on and off the rift, across multiple iterations of the roster.
Learning to be adaptable
When asked what his biggest learning has been from 2022, Mac was quick to respond.
“More than anything, I’ve learned to be as open-minded as possible,” he noted. “It’s so easy to become dogmatic — to assume that things that have worked in the past will work the same in the future. And that’s just not how competition, and more specifically competition in League of Legends, works.”
In Summer 2022 alone, we’ve seen fundamental changes to dragons – which in turn led to a huge shift in how pros had to approach the mid and late game. Unfortunately, it’s in the nature of a live-service game to change, and frequently, and that’s not something a coach can control.
Not only did MAD have to deal with the dragon changes in Summer, but they had to contend with the arrival of a new player. Yasin ‘Nisqy’ Dinçer has been instrumental in turning MAD’s spring fortunes around and is currently one of the players tipped as frontrunners for the MVP of the split award.
But integrating a new player is not quite so easy as seeing instant change. “Every time you change one player on a roster,” Mac explained, “it’s a new team and you’re starting from zero.”
“I think Spring was a good reminder of that, and I think Summer is a good reminder of what I mentioned before — that having a team where everyone feels like they fit is much more important than having a team full of ‘good’ players.”
“I believe less and less nowadays in players being good or bad. Having a binary understanding of a player’s skill and value is just not useful, and not an accurate predictor of whether or not a team will succeed. I mean, just look at Vitality.”
League is a game that has often discussed in binary terms. ‘X’ champion is good, ‘Y’ champion is bad — when in reality, it’s a game that is built almost entirely on nuance. Mac has come to understand that more than ever this year, and he says that changing his ‘good, bad, yes, no ways of thinking’ has been a priority throughout the Summer split.
“I’m trying to be as open-minded and have as much nuance as I possibly can, because I think that’s how you make good decisions,” he said. “Not by relying on narrative, or stats, although those are both important. Stats paint a picture, but decision-making is about how you interpret that picture as a whole.”
Matching up against Rogue
For MAD Lions, getting to the playoffs is only half the battle.
Their next hurdle will be overcoming Rogue, who await them in the first round of the playoffs on August 26. They’ve lost only a single BO5 to Rogue throughout their LEC tenure, but Mac is, in his own words, not “naive” enough to assume it’s a free series.
“I’m not hugely concerned about the matchup, but obviously I know Rogue are a great opponent and I think they deserve a lot of credit” he said. “Even if they’ve had their playoff struggles, I don’t want to rely on assuming they’ll always be bad in the playoffs. That’d be a really naive approach to take, considering all the lessons I’ve learned this year.”
Even if they do beat Rogue, the LEC playoffs are grueling. Winner’s bracket safety net aside, MAD will have one hell of a task on their hands to qualify for Worlds and to make it to the LEC finals.
But Mac is trying to temper expectations as best as he can, explaining that because MAD’s coaching staff has multiple members, there are a lot of things that are not directly under his control.
MAD have five members in their coaching staff (who were all recipients of the coaching staff of the split award). While that does mean MAD’s coaching system is incredibly thorough, it also introduces a significant number of variables that can’t always be accounted for when setting expectations based on previous results.
“My job is to make sure that we’re prepared – that we’re happy, healthy, have a good meta read, and that we’re going into the series with the right mindset. If our practice is good and we manage to do all of that, then we’ll win. If it’s not good enough, then we won’t.
“Are we good enough to be Summer champions? I think so. But it’s in our hands to win it or lose it, and we’re capable of doing either.”
Update: This article has been edited to remove inaccurate information about championship points.