This interview was conducted by our amazing Community Writer Max. Go give him a follow on Twitter!
This is part one of an interview conducted by Max Meads on July 20th with the head coach for MAD Lions, currently for many the best team in Europe, James “Mac” MacCormack. Part two will be released on July 24th.
Max Meads: Thank you for agreeing to this interview and taking the time to do it- it’s always great to hear from you, especially now considering the week you guys just had!
Mac: Thanks for having me! It was such an amazing week; a lot of the team’s highlight of the year. It’s not every day you beat a Worlds finalist, and it shows just how far these guys have come in such a short space of time. I’m super proud of them./
So, you have had some experience as a head coach of a team before, as well as experience working in an LEC team with Splyce, but you weren’t head coach back then, and it must have been a jump to go to a head coach position at the highest level in Europe.
As you said, I’ve been a head coach in the past, so I was sure I was at least intellectually capable of doing it, but there’s a big jump in the level of responsibility and the amount of stress that is placed on a head coach, and I was definitely a bit nervous about that. Thankfully I have a lot of really good people around me that are supporting me. Initially last year I wasn’t that interested in being a head coach; at the beginning of the year if you offered me a head coach position then obviously I would have been interested, but my preference at the time was to stay with Duke (now the Vitality head coach) and be a strategic coach, with him as the head coach, as we were a really good duo.
Fortunately I have the people around me to allow me to succeed, and one of the big reasons I was happy to take a head coach role was Peter (Dun) would be staying on as the guy immediately above me, and he’s there for me in a sort of mentoring and advisory role, as well as working with the team every day as well, so I have a lot of support, coaching and mentorship from him. That’s one of the big things that lessens the amount of stress, in addition to the other staff. We have a fantastic manager, a brilliant sports psychologist, our performance manager Jake. They ease a lot of that burden.
Definitely, Peter Dun in particular seems like a great person to work with; he’s got a lot of in-depth knowledge of the game.
Absolutely. More than anything, he has a really in-depth knowledge of coaching. He’s really good at getting the best out of people.
From the start of your tenure as MAD Lions head coach, you’ve been working with Kaas, and you guys have worked together in the past on Millenium. What sort of stuff does Kaas bring to the team? Did you have him earmarked for a managerial role going forward from his career?
I have been trying to convince Kaas to get into coaching from the moment I left Millenium! He obviously wanted to carry on playing for as long as possible; then when he stopped playing, he went and got a regular job, but we stayed in contact a lot, and when I was thinking of being head coach, we interviewed a bunch of people for an assistant coach role. I went and approached him, asking him to ‘come out of retirement’ to come and join us, because I thought he would be a great coach. He was the in-game leader on Millenium, but the big thing about him is that he understands people really well.
I can’t be there in the game, and any good coach has to have ‘enforcers’; people who buy into the system they’re running, and remind people of it. But also they have to be there to give insider information, like ‘I think this guy is feeling like this, and I feel it would be good if we were to give him some extra resources this game’ or ‘We need to take some pressure off him this game. Kaas was definitely working that role in Millenium, and that’s how I knew he’d be a great coach; he understands people. He definitely does a lot of that, but he’s honestly a jack of all trades.
He has really good game understanding, he’s worked a lot on understanding game preparation and drafting, he’s now super good at it. He does a lot of our scouting, and he’s just generally really hard working. I think he’s developing fantastically as a coach, much faster than you’d anticipate for someone who’s coming directly from a player role into a coaching role in the space of a single split.
That brings me onto my next question perfectly with regards to scouting; Rookies are quite a common sight in the LEC, but it definitely turned a lot of heads when you fielded a team made largely up of rookies. Humanoid had played for a year in Splyce, and Orome had some stage experience, but by and large this was a team that were completely new to the LEC. I’m sure a fair deal of scouting must have been done behind the scenes to make sure this was a team that could work well together, and match up to or even beat some of the top talent Europe has to offer. Was it a lot of work?
A big part of being a coach is ensuring you have a plan for the future. Peter and I both enjoy watching regional leagues to a certain extent, we really enjoy scouting talent, so it didn’t feel like a lot of work. Obviously, a lot of time went into it, but having worked in the European regional scenes, I have a good foundation of knowledge to understand which players have qualities I think are important, as well as how they interact with other players and the like. I’ve got a good frame of reference to track and identify new talent; a lot of coaches have that same skill; lots of coaches came up in the EU national leagues and every year I spend in the LEC that information becomes less niche!
Honestly though, these guys were not as hard to find as you may think. We’d been tracking Carzzy for a while, the same with Shad0w. Orome was already on our Academy team, and Kaiser was on the same team as Shad0w so those two came together very easily; I went and watched a few of their games and it was a very easy decision to pick up both of them, as I felt they understood each other in-game, so that was a pretty easy decision to make.
After an impressive Spring split where you guys finished 3rd overall, a lot of people had very high hopes for MAD Lions. However, you seem to have come out in Summer and completely one-upped those expectations, and you’re currently sitting in joint 1st. Did you and the team feel much pressure going into Summer considering all of the praise and expectations heaped on you all by the pundits and casters?
I felt like Summer was going to be harder. I always expect Summer to be harder as the competition steps up and now people understand how we like to play the game a bit more, they understand our strengths and weaknesses. I feel at the beginning of Spring we got away with a lot of stuff, and this was the case even towards the end of Spring, as people hadn’t necessarily scouted us and taken the time to fully understand what we were good and bad at as a team, or even had enough experience playing against our players. I think we’ve managed to stay a step ahead of the curve in a lot of ways, as we’ve been quite creative and innovative. I’d say that’s been the big difference, and it’s helped keep the pressure manageable.
Awesome, it’s great to hear. As for you, how has your experience been so far with coaching the team? Obviously, things are going very well at the moment, and everyone sees the work come together at the weekends, but few will be able to fathom the amount of work that comes with that behind the scenes, at obscure hours and in all day sessions. Do you see it as work all of the time or do you enjoy it too much to get ground down and frustrated with it?
A bit of both really. This team is so easy to work with so it’s a lot more fun than it has been in previous years. Working with these guys is great; they’re all super easy to coach and they all get along so well outside of the game as well. It’s rare that you’ll be in a team where scrims finish and all the players, coaches, manager and everyone else stays around and just hangs out after, watching games and enjoying each other’s company. It’s really, really rare in esports, so that’s taken a lot of the stress off it.
It is obviously still work and as a coach, your biggest challenge is you’re working with young people who are very passionate, very talented and with that comes a lot of emotion. Everyone wants to win. Sometimes, obviously, you lose, and I think managing those emotions is the most tiring part for me. As a coach, if the energy is really down and people are tired or angry about something, it’s then my job to come in and turn that around, and make sure those emotions are listened to, channelled in the right way, to make sure they’re responded to properly, and sometimes as a coach you have to be peoples’ energy a bit. You have to bring up the energy levels and the mood in the room to keep them positive.
In general, I feel that’s the most tiring part of coaching, rather than the actual workload. Watching League of Legends and analysing the games et cetera, that’s not the hard part. Once you have that knowledge you just have to keep up with what people are doing, and it’s not that hard. But yeah, I won’t say it only feels like work, or that it doesn’t ever feel like work; it’s still very tiring, but it’s really, really rewarding. I think that’s about as much as you can ask from a job.
Absolutely; from what I’ve seen on stage, on social media and in the content that you produce, you and the team seem to have a great relationship away from the screen and game. It feels as if it’s like one big adopted family.
Yeah! We have a lot of players who are really close anyway; Marek (Humanoid) and Carzzy were already friends. They played together a lot in the Czech scene before they both joined, when Carzzy was like 14 or something! Marek likes to tease him because he (Carzzy) never won a Czech LAN tournament against him. Shad0w and Kaiser were in the same team beforehand, so they came with some synergy. Carzzy and Orome played together on KIYF, in the Spanish national scene beforehand; they’re a real little duo together. There’s definitely a lot of really good team chemistry present here.
Going back to how young the squad is; in a lot of conventional sports, especially football for example, when young players experience a lot of success and external praise early in their career, there’s a danger that they either start to buckle under the pressure and struggle to handle the weight of expectation put on them, or they get a bit of an ego and their performances start to suffer, because they think ‘Ah, I’m really good, I don’t need to practice as much or work as hard because everyone thinks I’m fantastic’. However, this never really seems to be a danger at MAD Lions. Is it difficult to balance it so players don’t feel pressured by expectation and praise that they get, while also keeping their heads level so their performances don’t suffer as a result?
It’s definitely a delicate balance. A lot of it as a coach is timing; when you choose to bring up certain things, and when you choose to highlight others. I think complacency is the scariest one for sure; complacency can kill a team instantly. I think our players are good at handling pressure but we do everything we can to take that pressure off of them as well. I do everything I can to make them feel like I don’t have high expectations of them, and even if I do, I make sure they understand that if they make a mistake I don’t care. It doesn’t make me angry or think less of them, or anything like that. The only thing I care about is how they respond to their mistakes and how they go and solve them. If you make a mistake that’s fine, but it’s on you to go out and fix it.
Other than potential struggles with pressure and things like that, have there been many problems or challenges you’ve had in the past year or so with having such a young roster? And how do you fix them?
I think the biggest problem is definitely burnout. Coming from national leagues, it’s a huge step up for all the players and a big change in lifestyle. We have much higher expectations of them as an organisation and the things they’re supposed to do; meditate, go to the gym, all that extra stuff. We give them a lot of feedback on their diets and their sleep, and the things they’re doing to take care of their health. Those changes are stressors in a way; they’ll help you long-term, but people don’t always like changing their lifestyles completely. That stuff can be very hard for a young person who’s coming to live in Germany for the first time ever, being away from home, away from girlfriends, not getting to go homer as much because of COVID-19. All of these things can be attributing to burnout.
Mitigating that is always a case of making sure you’re keeping a positive environment, making sure people are still enjoying themselves and that their complaints are heard, making sure they feel like they’re making progress and being understood. Just making sure they have support and outlets; we like to ensure they take time away from the screen to disconnect and give them regular breaks, things like that. Luckily the players were able to go home for a bit recently and spend some time with their family over the mid-split break we had this year, which I think has been really great. I loved that break – please keep it Riot!
Check out part two of the interview, coming out on July 24th!