How it's Made: MAD Lions' dramatic rebuilding project

Michal Konkol/Riot Games

As Till Werdermann sat backstage as his players and coaching staff walked out into the 15,000-seat Palacio Vistalegre in October 2019 in Madrid, he took a moment to take it all in. For the past year and a half, Werdermann served as the general manager of Splyce, one of the three European teams who had now qualified for the quarterfinals of the League of Legends World Championship.

Splyce wasn't supposed to be here. An impressive group stage performance had landed Europe's final of the top three worlds-qualifying teams now saw them taking the stage against SK Telecom T1, the biggest dynasty ever in League of Legends. That impressive Worlds 2019 performance, Werdermann thought, would make his players incredibly valuable offseason pieces and despite such, he didn't know how much further this set of five players could go past this.

Behind the scenes, Splyce was undergoing a lot of changes. OverActive Media, a Canadian investment group, had acquired the franchise -- with a footprint in both Rochester, New York, and in Berlin -- a year earlier, and then purchased majority stake in MAD Lions, one of Spain's most-popular amateur esports organizations.

Leadership for the League of Legends side of the business had been toying with the idea of scrapping Splyce all together, leaning more into those Spanish-origin roots and with Kiss "Vizicsaci" Tamás's retirement looming and the thought that no one in Europe could beat G2 Esports, maybe it was time for a reset.

So that's what happened.

In the month between the 2019 League of Legends World Championship quarterfinal loss to SK Telecom T1 and the beginning of League of Legends free agency, OverActive management made some tough calls. They scrapped four-fifths of their roster -- letting jungler Andrei "Xerxe" Dragomir and AD carry Kasper "Kobbe" Kobberup land lucrative deals with Origen and Team SoloMid in free agency -- and sold support Tore "Norskeren" Hoel Eilertsen's contract off to Excel. Only mid laner Marek "Humanoid" Brázda remained when the team would rebrand to MAD Lions.

"I don't think people appreciate how hard it is to make that call in that moment," Werdermann told ESPN. "That call exactly came from the fact that we knew with keeping most of our players from last year, we could be good, we could be competing, but there isn't a chance that that roster would have ever beaten G2 consistently."

The turn of phrase often goes "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em." But in the Splyce and MAD Lions case, it's more like, "if you can't beat 'em, invest for the longer term." It's an ideology seen in other sports, most recently in the NBA, where many teams have built young, talented rosters as rumors of Kevin Durant's 2019 summer departure from the dynastic Golden State Warriors loomed.

Lke Golden State in the NBA in the summer of 2016 with Durant's signing, G2 shook Europe by taking away Rasmus "Caps" Winther, the best mid laner in the region, from Fnatic in late 2018. G2 then became the most dominant European team and one of the most dominant teams in the world, losing in the 2019 World Championship final, the only title keeping them away from a League of Legends Grand Slam. So Werdermann and his executives read the room: let's build for the future.

As free agency approached, rumor had it that MAD Lions would promote their backup top laner Andrei "Orome" Popa and sign three star rookies from the Premier Tour German amateur league to plug into the jungle, AD carry and support roles.

"[The] issue is frankly that there's not enough talent to dislodge G2 in 2020 so we're building for 2021 and 2022," OverActive co-founder Adam Adamou said to me on Nov. 16, two days before free agency started. "I think we'll be top four or five in 2020 and maybe top three if some of our picks come together. We're not signing anyone to less than a two-year deal and most are signed for three years. Can't wait for the new season to start."

Identifying those rookie choices came down to MAD's coaching staff, Peter "Peter Dun" Dun and James "Mac" MacCormack. A rookie class like what was available this most recent offseason only comes every few years, Werdermann said his coaches explained. Splyce was the first home to some of the current best players in the League European Championship. Part of that's been because Dun and Mac have kept their fingers on the pulse of amateur regions.

"This wasn't something where we, by the time even before Worlds, we didn't know some of these names and we knew if it came to it, these would be the players we're going for," Werdermann said. "This wasn't like, 'we can't get the players we actually wanted and these are our backup players.' This was very much the plan from a long time coming."

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One choice seemed obvious: Matyáš "Carzzy" Orság, the then-AD carry of Berlin International Gaming. While watching some solo queue and scouting several years ago, Dun stumbled across a player who was hyper-aggressive in lane, had incredible micro instincts and was competing with the best of players in Europe on the ladder. Surely this is a pro's alternate account, Dun thought.

"It turned out to be 14-year-old Carzzy," Werdermann said.

So Werdermann, Dun and Mac waited. BIG would scrim Splyce in the 2019 season and Carzzy would have flashes of brilliance. Clearly this was someone the team needed in their ecosystem, especially if Kobbe were to move on. But to play in the Western professional League of Legends leagues, a player must be 17 years old. In the meantime, Carzzy continued to grow -- making a name for himself on BIG and becoming one of the hottest sought-after rookies this past offseason.

Carzzy's value rose exponentially, as MAD Lions wasn't the only roster who'd do a reset. Several others were in the market for a new AD carry and of course, Carzzy would fit that bill.

"The upside of making the hard decision of when you're a top eight team at Worlds to go rookie is you can point to that our last match was against SKT," Werdermann said. "'We went to Worlds, do you want this too? It's a very easy, basic pitch.'"

Then came jungler Zhiqiang "Shad0w" Zhao and support Norman "Kaiser" Kaiser, both then-members of German amateur team mousesports. In both, MAD Lions looked to up their level of aggression from the past Splyce roster and play more like the Chinese teams who have found success internationally in the past two years. With the players settled, MAD Lions was formed.

Early scrimmages were rough. The team flew to North America to visit their Canadian ownership and while there, played newly-assembled North American teams, some from the League Championship Series and others from the Academy league. MAD Lions lost a lot of scrimmages, even to some of those Academy teams.

"At the start, we were really terrible," Humanoid said. "I got kind of depressed from that, because we were losing almost every single game against really bad teams. I thought we weren't going to get too far in LEC. But after two or three months, we actually started winning most of our scrims and it went much better."

The spring split went well for MAD Lions, as the team placed fourth in the summer. It then found itself in an upper bracket Round 1 playoff match versus G2 Esports, the very team it was built to outlast. It seemed pretty clear cut that they'd lose, at least in the opinion of most.

"Nobody expected us to win. We expected to lose," Werdermann said. "No one has any expectations for you. Playing the game, especially in this free-flowing, full-aggressive style that our team does becomes a lot harder when losing means completely failing everyone's expectations, because then you have a lot more to lose."

Yet, they did win. They beat G2. In an emotional moment for the MAD team, the potential to be competitive now was apparent. Expectations for the summer, even after losing to Fnatic and G2 in a rematch later in the spring playoff, were sky high.

Summer competition remained online and MAD continued to thrive. G2 looked out of whack. Fnatic, too, was a shadow of themselves. MAD and Rogue pulled ahead but the real question remained: were these two teams capable of making deep playoff runs?

The answer to both was no. Both lost early, with MAD only beating Schalke 04 in the losers bracket, and Rogue beating just MAD right after. Yet their placements qualified them for the world championship and now, MAD are preparing in Shanghai to face some of the best teams in the world.

Pressure will be the largest hurdle for MAD. For Humanoid, he's not too worried -- only a year ago he had to stare down Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok, the greatest player in the world, at those quarterfinals in Madrid. His teammates, however, will need to show that courage if they want to make it as far into the world championship as he did.

"I just tell them it's really insane to play on the big stage and that's why we should all try hard to get there," Humanoid said. "The feeling of playing in front of the huge crowd is really different from playing in the LEC in front of 100 people. It's pretty crazy."