MAD Lions have begun dusting themselves off after a disappointing Split.
The back-to-back 2021 LEC champions fell flat in the 2022 Spring Split with their revised lineup and finished the competition in seventh place.
Now, they’ve yanked the emergency brake.
MAD Lions bought mid laner Yasin "Nisqy" Dinçer, who was sitting on Fnatic’s bench. That meant that rookie player Steven “Reeker” Chen was sold, one split after his debut. Especially the second half of MAD’s roster change equation appeared odd given the organization’s previous and repeated pledges that they see their players as long-term investments.
Till Werdermann, Director of Team Operations at MAD Lions, provided context on MAD Lions’ offseason choices. In a discussion with Inven Global’s Tom Matthiesen, he explained where MAD Lions’ philosophy of developing rookies came from and what it exactly looks like. Werdermann also went in-depth about the roster change MAD Lions made and what the expectations are for the team’s Summer Split.
Thanks for taking the time to do the interview, Till. Before we talk about the roster change in MAD Lions, let's talk a bit about the philosophy of the team regarding talent development. On Twitter, I spoke with Peter Dun a bit and he said that he was the one that publicly spoke about the one-year development commitment, not current management. However, Adam Adamou [CSO of OverActive Media] has also pledged that talent is a long-term investment. So how has MAD Lions' philosophy shifted?
To be fair, a lot of our philosophy comes from Peter. I think even when we won last year, the first thing we said was "thank you Peter" for everything he did for our organization. I think a lot of what he did had long-term impact. So, a lot of our belief in like "let's develop rookie talent" does come from Peter. Mac has very similar beliefs there.
Obviously, everyone handles it differently and everyone values players quite differently. Like, Peter looking at a player will value certain things differently than Mac will. Also, every coach has a certain sets of strengths. Mac picking up Elyoya might know that he's the right coach to make that guy really good, so it makes a lot of sense to pick him up. Maybe Elyoya wouldn't have been the right player for another coach. There are always those nuances in changes.
Otherwise, I don't think our philosophy has changed drastically. Rookies are always very interesting and we love the idea of developing from the start to becoming top-level players. Seeing someone like Humanoid over three years go from "who is this guy?" to the best mid in the west, that's a fascinating journey.
"If we need to make a change, it almost feels like the person we remove is to blame for everything. That couldn't be further from the truth."
So that's still in place.
Yes, but that doesn't mean that we're an organization that goes just for rookies. The end goal is always winning, winning sustainably, winning over multiple periods of time, and always going to Worlds. It just turns out that, in the last couple of years, doing that with rookies has been very useful. Also, if we create an environment for coaching staff and the support systems that we have, it allows us to take on a rookie and usually make them quite good, quite fast. It allows us to have a much wider range of players that we can get, allowing us to construct a roster that we want. If we're limited to the few good free agents on the market that we can get, then we can't perfectly build that roster.
Having the infrastructure that we have allows us to pick rookies that might be a better fit than some of the established players. A lot of the time we're right with that, and sometimes we're obviously wrong with that. That's the risk of getting rookies. But in the end, the end goal isn't "let's develop rookies," the end goal is to win. It's an esport, right? It's just been the case that developing rookies has been the path forward and it's the path forward that Peter, myself, and Mac have been very passionate about as well.
When you pick up a rookie, you obviously see the potential in them to make you a winning team, to get you to Worlds. I spoke with Mac before the Split about rookies and expectations, and he said that they're "sponges" waiting to soak up knowledge. In the post-Split video MAD Lions made, it was pointed out that it was the coaching staff who had failed to identify what was going wrong. So, when did you decide that Reeker had to go, and why him?
So, I think what makes sense to explain for us is that, whenever we have to make a change like this, it's always our failure. It's not a failure of "oh, we just picked up the wrong player." It's a failure of us probably managing the entire team incorrectly, the team composition that we set out wasn't correct. Otherwise, we wouldn't have ended in the situation that we were in. There is always instantly an admission of failure; that was far from a perfect season from us.
Unfortunately in esports, it then sometimes means that, if we need to make a change, it almost feels like the person we remove is to blame for everything. That couldn't be further from the truth. It's not like that Reeker was the weakest link and that's why he needs to go, we'll bring someone else, and that just fixes everything. Not at all. But we felt that, with the issues that we've observed in the Spring Split, we needed to make a change in order to resolve them quicker. Otherwise, we would halt the development for everyone on that roster.
"[Investing further in rookie talent] doesn't mean hanging onto a player for the rest of their life, especially if we're not the right environment for that player. Then we're not actually developing them."
We didn't think we could get into the top three range that we want to be in. We obviously want to compete for a Worlds' spot and, ideally, also for an LEC title, coming off two titles just last year.
For us, that meant the only logical reason was that we needed to make a change. It made sense to make that change in the mid lane, especially with Nisqy being available on the market and also having worked with him on Splyce before. We know what type of player he is and what he can bring on. That's how we decided to make that change. We still believe that Reeker could have a lot of potential, but we don't think that we were the right place for him to unlock that potential. Partly because of how the roster was set up, and how this Split went. I can totally see him get promoted by BDS and then maybe next season in the LEC he does really well, and that would be fine. But if we were to keep this roster, he would not develop as fast as he could. UNF0RGIVEN wouldn't develop as fast as he could. And we would not be in a good spot. That would be the worst-case outcome for everyone.
It's obviously hard to bench a player and it's never really fair to the player. But I don't think that, in sport, we often get to make decisions that are fair for everyone. At least, when you're losing. When you're winning it's great and easy, but now we were in a situation where we needed to make some tough decisions. We rather wanted to make them now and not too late. Even in 2020, we had to cut two of our rookies and we kept two of them. That led to a very winning team. The secret to rookie development is that you don't keep them for a couple of years if they're not showing the promise that you need them to, or if they're just not the right players. Shad0w continued to be quite successful in China and Orome we actually are working with as a positional coach. So clearly, they're not people that we dislike. It's just that they couldn't fit into the system that we had at the time. Keeping Carzzy and Kaiser around was obviously the right call. Ideally, we're hoping that this is another situation where we're making that type of call.
Let's tie that decision to how the philosophy was communicated by MAD because, in that post-Split video I referenced earlier, it was a "mea culpa" from the coaching staff, a pledge to continue developing rookies and that that would come with bumps in the road, and that people shouldn't blame an individual. But then a few weeks later, Reeker gets sacked. Do you see how that is, at the very least, clumsy communication and can be seen as contradictory?
To a degree, yes. I think a lot of people also understood that video as "investing further in rookie talent" meaning we're keeping everyone. That was never our intended message. Further investing just means that we will continue putting resources into developing players that we have before. It doesn't mean hanging onto a player for the rest of their life, especially if we're not the right environment for that player. Then we're not actually developing them. I don't think Reeker could've learned as much here as he could've if the environment was a better fit for him. I think that's the first thought of that.
I think the other part is that Mac wanted to do this [video] because he wanted to take responsibility for what happened in the Split. It's ultimately my responsibility as well, and of us as an organization. We didn't want the season to end with a placement that's way outside of what we would normally want to achieve, and then say nothing. I don't think that's right. I think our fans deserve an answer and as much insight as we could give. The issue is, of course, that when we make a statement before we've made our offseason moves, they can always be misunderstood. It's definitely something we want to review because I can understand how people can misinterpret it, but I don't think we said anything in there that we now went fully against with our decisions in this offseason.
"If I had a year-and-a-half to give [Reeker] that experience on our LEC team, that'd be great and I'm sure it could be good to develop"
So you've made the decision that Reeker is not the player that fit the puzzle of MAD Lions. What were you looking for in wake of last Spring Split? From the outside, it seemed like Humanoid — who is praised for his mid and late-game shotcalling, his ability to direct teams — was a big loss.
Obviously, Humanoid left a big hole in the team and that's not a surprise given the level that he was at. I think, especially for the shotcalling, Elyoya tried to take it on, but he was more of a secondary shotcaller combined with Humanoid.
Reeker was actually brought in because we do believe he has very good shotcalling abilities. It is just often very hard to come into the next level of play and then also shotcall. I would actually not be surprised if, in a year, he's actually a really good shotcaller in the LEC. I think at the time, though, that it didn't fully work out. But—
Sorry, but let me ask then: He came from ERLs, didn't know how to shotcall on LEC level. He struggled on MAD Lions and now he's going back to ERLs. What's gonna make him a good LEC shotcaller if he doesn't get the time and experience to shotcall in the LEC?
I mean, he can get the experience in an ERL or even a team like BDS if they choose to promote him. There's obviously a difference in a team on our level that ideally aims to go for Worlds again. If I had a year-and-a-half to give him that experience on our LEC team, that'd be great and I'm sure it could be good to develop. But if I do that, we would probably not perform as well the first year-and-a-half and that's not the ambition that we had. That's usually kind of the risk when picking up rookies for a team like ourselves, who have been to Worlds three times in a row now.
It gets a lot more difficult to pick up rookies and make that work as successfully. But I still believe that, even now, with the experience [Reeker] had with us and continues in ERLs where he might get promoted, allows him to get the experience. Maybe he's then also put into a team where there is an existing shotcalling structure where he can learn through that. To a degree, that was lacking in our roster, and that made it a significantly harder role for him. Because again, someone like Humanoid leaves such a hole in the team.
"We know that Nisqy is a vocal player with a lot of experience and, combined with someone like Elyoya, we think they can lead the game together."
Back to what you're looking for in a player. Nisqy is a great player, but not someone who's been widely lauded for being an amazing shotcaller. Is he gonna have the pressure of having to fill that Humanoid-shaped hole in the team?
We'll see how exactly we split the shotcalling with Nisqy coming in. What's worth saying about Nisqy, is that we know that he's an amazing teammate that is great for the culture and elevates everyone that plays with him. It's something I know from working with him in 2018. It's almost like a 5% buff to everything, just because of how he is in the team. I think that's definitely something that our roster needs. Nisqy is also someone that has been clutch. Every playoffs he's usually a really good performer. We have a couple of people in our roster that are already clutch. I think bringing in more clutch factor is generally a good idea. Bringing in the experience that he has — he has been at Worlds before, he has won titles before — would increase the value of someone like UNF0RGIVEN who is then the only rookie that needs to develop. So, that move made a lot of sense to us.
Sure, but you still might have that same issue of lacking a shotcaller. That's not something I hear will be fixed and that was the issue you pointed to for the disappointing Spring Split.
I think that often the perspective of the fans — and I guess some teams operate, to be fair — that there is one big shotcaller and that person does everything. And then that's solved. But people bring different levels of shotcalling. I also don't think that teambuilding is just "1+1+1+1." We know that Nisqy is a vocal player with a lot of experience and, combined with someone like Elyoya, we think they can lead the game together. It does not mean that Nisqy all of a sudden needs to be our shotcaller or that Elyoya is all of a sudden is gonna be our shotcaller by himself. We just believe that the measure of their personalities can lead to a team where they do most of that. But actually, even UNF0RGIVEN has actually slowly developed into more of a vocal person through this Split. If he can be a third voice behind that, it's much easier for him.
Hiring for shotcalling, I can tell you, is usually quite difficult because you don't get the voice comms of other teams, obviously. Some players have very different understandings of it. But here we already knew very well what Nisqy can bring. If someone like Mac then says "hey, we can make that work" it's usually been correct in the past. That's why we thought it was a good way forward.
"The clear thing is: making Worlds is the goal. I think we've made the right choice now for that to have a good possibility. Now it comes down to execution."
So in terms of filling that shotcalling hole Humanoid left, you're hoping that Nisqy and Elyoya together will be greater than the sum of their parts, and complete the team.
To work towards an end, then: The LEC Summer Split is gonna be very competitive. But with this change, you must now make Worlds, right? You cut a rookie's career short for your own business interests. So, how do you look at the Summer Split, and with the lessons of Spring do you already have things in mind for a possible post-Split?
I mean, if we do make it to Worlds, which obviously is the goal when we bring in a player like Nisqy, then it's "mission successful." Speaking about going plans for that now is going a bit too far forward, I think. It will completely depend on who is developing how in the season, and on what other teams are doing. I don't think there's much to comment on that. If we don't make Worlds, then we'll need to review what led to us not making Worlds. It could be that Nisqy was still the right person, but our failures were somewhere else. I think without that season happening, there isn't much to comment on there. But the clear thing is: making Worlds is the goal. I think we've made the right choice now for that to have a good possibility. Now it comes down to execution.
Ok well, to round up I'll give you the opportunity to say something to the MAD Lions fans about these decisions, or the season in general and the expectations they might have.
I'd definitely like to thank the fans, especially the ones that have reached out during the last weeks of the Split where we weren't games for weeks and it was really rough on the players. There were some fans that specifically reached out and sent paintings with "Don't give up!" that are now in our office. Those things are purely amazing, that's what makes this whole thing worth it and it's why we want to be good again. Those people clearly deserve to see us win. Also, I'd like to thank the fans that told us they had faith in us and our decisions when we announced Reeker was leaving. That type of faith from fans inspires us to do the right thing and do more of that. Those fans deserve it. We hope that we can bring a Summer Split that excites again.
Storyteller by heart. If something is competitive, I am interested in it.