It was a bloody battle between MAD Lions and Fnatic in the 2021 LEC summer split grand finals on Aug. 29. Both teams showed no fear, constantly trying to push each other to the limit. With well-coordinated teamfights, MAD Lions came out on top with a 3-1 score and were crowned 2021 summer split champions, hoisting the LEC trophy for the second time this year. With this victory, the squad joined legendary competitors G2 Esports and Fnatic as one of only three teams to win back-to-back trophies in European League esports history.
With two regional championships under their belt, MAD Lions represent Europe as the first seed of the LEC at the League of Legends World Championship. The team’s peaks might seem high and to an outsider, who would assume MAD Lions have lived through a dream year.
However, while MAD Lions ended the LEC as the best team in the region, the road to get there was a challenging one. Their summer split journey began just two weeks after a semifinals appearance at the Mid-Season Invitational. After so much back-to-back effort, the otherwise lively group stared down collective burnout.
Dealing with setbacks
“I was really saturated at the start of the split,” jungler Javier “Elyoya” Prades said. “I wasn’t even playing solo queue. I never felt this feeling of not wanting to do anything with League.”
On top of feelings of exhaustion, a few people within MAD Lions’ League of Legends department tested positive for COVID-19 as the summer split started. For multiple weeks, everyone in the organization was placed in quarantine and confined to their own rooms. It was another setback for the team.
“Usually, just the feeling that you can leave the room is good because you’re free,” bot laner Matyáš “Carzzy” Orság recalled of the quarantine. “Now you’re locked in a small apartment and you just have to play League of Legends. That really goes onto your mental.”
— MAD Lions English (@MADLions_EN) June 12, 2021
For MAD Lions Head Coach James “Mac” MacCormack, it was a tough trial.
“I didn’t see the team until Week 4 of the Split,” he said. “It was six weeks of practice online, which is insane.”
He went on to explain that even things as simple as team talks were a difficult task. With players at the end of their mental energy and the team operating entirely online, it was difficult to hold the group together.
“It’s so hard to know if someone is not talking that much because they’re feeling super bad that day, or if it’s because they’re just not paying attention,” Mac said.
Tackling the beasts of burnout and boredom
Usually, when players are suffering from burnout, they’re advised to spend time outside, spend time with family and friends and enjoy nature. But when the doors to the outside are locked, an even more measured approach is necessary. Performance Manager Jake Ainsworth saw his players fall out of love with the game.
“At various points, everybody struggled,” he said. “To be able to take the foot off the gas and reset is really important.”
MAD Lions’ coaching staff decided to give their players liberty to deal with their issues how they saw fit. Whereas Elyoya normally grinds a lot of solo queue in order to stay in shape, he said he felt the need to take a step back from the game.
“I told my coaches, ‘I don’t feel motivated to play League. I can force myself, but it’s not gonna be good.’” Elyoya said. “And they said ‘Do whatever you have to do; we trust you.’”
Elyoya sank a lot of his time into playing other games such as Dead by Daylight and Magic: the Gathering. “I was playing everything I could. I just didn’t want to play League of Legends,” he said.
Each player had a different solution to this problem. Carzzy found Skyrim and mid laner Marek “Humanoid” Brázda got lost in the World of Warcraft universe. And though it was good for the players to not be obsessing over League of Legends, allocating the same time — if not more, due to the quarantine — to other video games wasn’t an ideal solution either. Physical inactivity would only prolong their mental slum.
“We tried to get them to disconnect to a degree, as much as we possibly could,” Jake explained. “There were a few key things we wanted to focus on when everything was online and interaction was minimal. We did a lot of postural exercises and a bit of mobility training. We had to coach them on moving, basically.”
Though he laughed when the exercises were mentioned, Carzzy too said that he sees the value of being put to work by his Performance Manager. “Everyone in our team is kind of lazy, so no one wanted to do them,” he said. “But they for sure helped. You feel healthier. I think it is a good idea.”
Peaking at the right time
Inevitably, due to their relaxed training schedule, MAD Lions’ competitive results were impacted. It was a problem Mac had anticipated from the very start of the season.
“I felt like I was a broken record for half of the Split,” he said. “Every day I was telling them ‘Yes guys, I know it’s really shitty. It’s gonna be rough, it’s gonna be ugly, and there will be bad games. But everything is going to be fine.’”
For a long time, Mac’s job was to ensure that every player understood what their teammates’ needs were in order to deal with their issues and minimize the friction between them.
“We are always at our best when we’re having fun. When we’re not having fun, that’s when it’s really rough,” Mac said.
Banking on their own intrinsic skills and other teams’ fumblings in roster decisions and lack of improvement, as Mac describes it, the team closed out the regular Split with a 12-6 record — tied for second place in the standings.
But even then, MAD Lions didn’t feel like they were back entirely. It wasn’t until the playoffs arrived that Jake noticed the energy within his group change. With higher stakes, he said, they started to live up.
MAD Lions are LEC champions once more
Mac had put faith in his players’ drive to succeed to pop up at the right time, and his faith was rewarded. “It definitely took us a long time to get our group back. The approach that I took was ‘eventually people are gonna get bored of things going badly and decide to do something about it,’” Mac said.
Interestingly, Elyoya, Carzzy, Mac and Jake all name the same moment to pinpoint when they felt 100% themselves: After the team had won their Playoffs series versus G2 Esports.
“I think that, as a team, we showed good gameplay against G2,” Elyoya said. “But I didn’t like my own performance at all. It’s not difficult to play officials when you don’t practice, but it’s hard to see you’re not playing at your best, that you’re not improving. I got really motivated to play solo queue and started playing fifteen games per day.”
One by one, the MAD Lions that had been champions of the 2021 LEC spring split got back to their usual habits and the team started taking shape again. Mac and Jake both mention Humanoid, whose activity in the team was a clear sign of change coming to MAD Lions.
“Once he started taking over our reviews, I knew that change was gonna come fairly quickly,” Mac said.
After defeating Rogue with a clean 3-0 and Fnatic with a 3-1 in the grand finals, MAD Lions turn their attention towards the World Championships. But they look back at their summer split with pride. Carzzy explained that he feels especially proud of Armut for stepping up in the playoffs. Elyoya is grateful for the assistance he was provided from the coaching staff.
Whatever challenge MAD Lions might face in Reykjavik, the team can tackle it. The hard lessons they’ve had to learn this year have made them smarter, stronger. Europe’s champions are ready to take on the world.
“This split really, really tested us,” Mac said. “There were points when it was looking pretty rough and everyone was frustrated. I’m just really proud of the way that everyone has coped with that.”