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League of Legends

The Magic of MAD Lions

Tom Matthiesen

MAD Lions are writing their name in the League of Legends history books. The rookie squad surprised everyone this year as they fearlessly took on the best teams Europe has to offer, quickly making a name for themselves. Their meteoric rise has been magical to watch. I am enthralled by this roster. Rarely have I felt this excited about any team in any competitive environment. The closest analogy I can provide, as a matter of fact, isn’t from esports at all. It’s from soccer.

MAD Lions

The rookies squad of MAD Lions is taking Europe by storm. Photo by Michal Konkol for Riot Games.

The Sons of God

As a child, I was a loyal fan of Ajax Amsterdam, nicknamed ‘Sons of Gods’, as passed down by my father and his father before him. With wonder I stared at the TV as my heroes dribbled across the screen with moves I’d later try to mimic on the field myself. For years I supported the club which, as is now more true than ever, serves as a talent farm for the really big teams in Europe. However, as I got older and developed other interests (esports, most notably), my childlike wonder and interest for soccer waned.

Until 2019. In a miracle run, the rookie squad of Ajax Amsterdam fought their way to the playoff stages of the Champions League, the most prestigious club-based soccer tournament in the West. There, they faced the international titans of Real Madrid. By all means, Ajax’s run in the tournament should’ve ended there. But it didn’t. With grace, flamboyance, and bravery, Ajax dominantly triumphed against Real Madrid. It completely reeled me back into my love for Ajax, and I wasn’t the only one. All across the country, across Europe, soccer fans fell in love with the team. When they lost in the semi finals, it didn’t matter much. Ajax had exceeded everyone’s dreams, and pride lingered. We had witnessed the Sons of Gods play.

Ajax/MAD Lions

MAD Lions brave the European League of Legends field like Ajax conquered the Champions League in 2019. Photo via Reuters / Michal Konkol for Riot Games.

For those who have been following the LEC this year, the parallel with MAD Lions may be obvious. Here is a rookie squad, built from the ground up. The goal: to have a worthy top contender within two years. As publicly disclosed by several staff members of MAD Lions, the vetting process was strict. The team went as far as doing long personality tests to determine which players a) could become the best player in their role and b) would fit together perfectly. The old Splyce team kept mid laner Marek “Humanoid” Brázda. Around him, the team was built. Andrei “Orome” Popa joined in the top lane. Zhiqiang “Shad0w” Zhao became the team’s jungler. The bot lane was rounded out with AD Carry Matyáš “Carzzy” Orság and support Norman “Kaiser” Kaiser.

Climbing the Stairway to Stardom

As with any rookie squad, there were no real expectations for MAD Lions heading into the 2020 Spring Split. After all, there was little to base expectations on. Though the first two weeks weren’t anything special, the potential the team has became more obvious in the middle of the Split. After a 2-0 third week, MAD Lions defeated the titans of Fnatic in week four, and Worlds runner-up G2 in week five.

A rookie squad determined to prove themselves. While their playstyle was linear and had some rough edges, their stage performance was admirable. They sought team fights where other teams would have walked away. They dove towers so unexpectedly that even the casters had to catch up sometimes. When behind, MAD Lions did everything in their power to claw their way back into the game. The MAD Lions played with grace, flamboyance, and bravery.

The excitement for the team reached its peak in the Spring Split when they impressively defeated G2 in a best of five. I, and many others with me, wanted MAD Lions to win the Split. While that bubble burst—they stood no chance against Fnatic afterwards, nor did they have much of a say in the rematch against G2—the bar was set by and for the MAD Lions. And it was set high.

MAD Lions

Part of MAD Lions’ appeal is their stellar play. The other part? They’re incredibly goofy. Photo by Michal Konkol for Riot Games.

Anxiously, I followed MAD Lions as they headed into the Summer Split. Were they a one-Split dream? Would they, like Origen in 2019, collapse immediately after they had raised everyone’s hopes in the first half of the year? An eight-week break is long. It affects players and teams. Furthermore, other lineups had made tweaks to their rosters, hoping to perform better and qualify for Worlds.

Soon, though, it became abundantly clear that MAD Lions were still as sharp as ever. Sharper even, comparatively, as the LEC descended into a pandemonium where every team was beating everyone. The loss to G2 at the start of the Summer Split was an anomaly. Together with Rogue, another surprise this Split, MAD Lions were the most consistent team in the league as G2, Fnatic, Origen, and all others faltered. This time around they did it with more than just one playstyle too. When they needed to play it slow, they held back. But when the opportunity arose, MAD Lions struck with unrelenting aggression. They were innovative with their draft, giving their own flair to the league.

Cubs with Charisma

Anyone watching a few MAD Lions games this Split will have noticed the sheer amount of talent on this roster. Every single member on this team can step up during a match and when they do so, they immediately perform on a level that will put them into the conversation of best in the league. It’s a magical feeling, watching them play. The fact that these players are so young contrasted with their excellent execution of the game creates a sensational paradoxical feeling. It’s fire and fury delivered in a stone-cold manner you’d only expect from veteran teams.

But their surprisingly stellar play is only part of the appeal of MAD Lions. Their surprising success has brought the spotlight on its team members and it emphasized even more that this is a squad of rookies. In every positive sense of the word – these are kids playing. Their behind-the-scenes footage shows how much they still like to goof around. When they win, they show pure excitement. And yet, they are professional and confident, teasing with their charisma in interviews.

It is impossible to not like a team. MAD Lions have done in the LEC this year what Ajax did in 2019 in the Champions League. They have united fans. On platforms such as Reddit and Twitter, League of Legends esports fans hum the same tone of praise and support. The magic is infectious. When I watch them play, I can only smile.

The New Pride of the LEC

MAD Lions seem destined for making it to the World Championship, and everyone wants them to. I want to see Humanoid play against Top Esports’ Knight, who made a splash this year in the LPL. Give me Carzzy and Kaiser versus Teddy and Effort in a best of five. Even if they don’t make it out of the Group Stages, it won’t matter. They’ll already have defied all odds, and everyone will cheer for them regardless.

When the season ends, the real nail biting begins. As said earlier: it’s MAD Lions’ goal to keep this squad together for multiple years and mold each player into the best version of themselves. But as with traditional sports, there are always bigger sharks. Much like how Ajax Amsterdam has to rebuild their team at the start of every season after their prime talent get picked up by the larger teams, I expect that MAD Lions will have to pull up their strongest shields to fend off incoming offers. Already their players have had offers from North America and China. I sincerely hope we can witness this team project develop for many years to come.

For now, I’ll happily indulge in watching more of the magic unfold. In my years as an esports fan and journalist, I have rarely been so excited about a team as I am about the MAD Lions. I’m not loyal to any esports brand. I’m drawn to greatness. And when I watch the MAD Lions play, it feels like I’m watching divine children. The Sons of Gods.