League of Legends

Kelsey Moser: The definition of making it

by Kelsey Moser

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Every team in the League of Legends Worlds Play-In has the opportunity to 'make it' and Unicorns of Love were no exception.

The image of Jos Mallant, owner of Unicorns of Love, will always be inextricably linked to the LEC studio in Berlin. In 2017, the first year I visited the then-EU LCS studio, he stood outside the entrance meeting fans. July heat didn’t dampen his mood, and he was the first person to recognize me and greet me, even before I made it through the front door to pick up my press pass.

In 2019, upon making it back to the studio after over a year away for the World Championship Play-In, Jos Mallant was the first recognizable face I met past the front doors. He stood behind a card table untangling pink, black, and white rubber Unicorns of Love bracelets and didn’t notice me until I said “Hello” first.

Since Unicorns of Love joined the EU LCS in 2015 Spring, they had one of the most vibrant and vocal fanbases. On match days against Unicorns in 2018 as a member of H2K-Gaming’s staff, I could always hear chants of “Unicorns!” echoing in the coaching room backstage. They were the only team my team didn’t take a single game from in Spring or Summer.

Jos was always the quietly present backbone, very involved with the press, the fans, and the other teams and owners. As the father of Unicorns Head Coach Fabian “Sheepy” Mallant, Jos Mallant defends his son and his team, and proudly boasts on his Twitter “This account is an example why young people hate parents joining social media.” Any errant analysis condemning UoL was often met by a DM from Jos reasonably defending his team’s position.

I can’t truly imagine an LEC studio without Unicorns. Play-Ins gave me a chance to defer having to for at least a while longer. Unicorns of Love didn’t qualify for the 2019 LEC franchising, but as the World Championship representative of the CIS region, Unicorns were one of the two last teams to play on the LEC stage in 2019.

Play-Ins, for every team present, meant something a little different. In concept, it elevates the previous International Wildcard Qualifier to an event more integrated into the World Championship proper. While history has demonstrated that emerging region representatives from CIS, Turkey, or Brazil have less of a chance to play in the main Group Stage, it also guarantees that each emerging region winner gets a chance to play against at least one major region team at Worlds.

Wojciech Wandzel/Riot Games
Wojciech Wandzel/Riot Games
Tolerant during Royal Youth’s final series of Play-In.

“It was my first Worlds experience I ever had,” Royal Youth support Barış “Tolerant” Çepnioğlu said after his team lost 0-3 to Clutch Gaming. “It was really enjoyable for me. I was enjoying every single game, even playing against DAMWON, competing against one of the best teams in the World, probably.”

For many players in attendance, Tolerant’s experience accurately reflects the wide-eyed attitude of a first international event. Expectations ride relatively low, sometimes the state of practice and infrastructure in a domestic region makes the idea of advancing to the main stage a fanciful more than anything, but it’s still an exciting chance to introduce yourself to an international audience.

Unicorns of Love AD Carry Nihat “Innaxe” Aliev placed the opportunity to go to Worlds over sharing an Academy spot for a major region team in LEC. 

“Even though I learned a lot in Excel,” Innaxe said of his decision to join Unicorns between Spring and Summer, “especially from kaSing, I felt like I wanted to show how good I can be by getting to Worlds. Obviously it’s a goal for everyone to go to Worlds, right?”

The World Championship has made itself the penultimate goal of every member of the esports community: journalists, casters, coaches, players, even production staff at Riot Games. I remember my first time in World Championship press room in Seoul in 2014. The coffee was gritty, there was hardly space for me to sit anywhere, and I didn’t ask for any interviews, but I just felt like I had made it.

Max “Atlus” Anderson, recognized by many as one of the best Play-By-Play casters globally, hasn’t casted an international event since 2015 despite his skill. This year, he lit up the Play-In stage with charm, his own set of LCK in-jokes, and chemistry with some of the old casters he used to cast with as a member of the LPL broadcast crew.

Michal Konkol/Riot Games
Michal Konkol/Riot Games
Atlus and Froskurrin on the desk.

“Being back at Worlds has been like coming home this year,” Atlus said. “Not only is it great to feel like my work has been recognised over my years in Korea but also to have the opportunity to work with friends that I haven't had the chance to see for so long. 

“For every commentator in League of Legends, worlds sits at the top of the pedestal, and I am truly humbled to be back with another chance to show the Atlus style on the biggest stage.”

But it’s when the same teams and players get constantly gate kept by Play-In that the question marks start to appear. Players like Juckkirsts “Lloyd” Kongubonn have competed and proved themselves the cream of the domestic crop since 2013 without finding success in match results.

Lloyd and Nuttapong “G4” Menkasikan have been to multiple international events together as representatives of Thailand. They’ve appeared as players for Bangkok Titans and Ascension gaming, all without winning a single game at Worlds Play-In or the Worlds Group Stage in 2015.

Unicorns’ Edward "Edward" Abgaryan was once the support for Moscow5, one of the most internationally dominating teams in League of Legends history. Two years in a row, he has lost the Play-In best-of-five qualifier 2-3: one game away from the World Championship main stage.

For the likes of Edward and Lloyd, just going to Worlds can’t possibly cut it anymore.

After a few international events, as press, the coffee starts to taste worse. You realize that, as a journalist, you’re all crammed into a tiny room watching a massive event happening only feet away on a broadcast screen you may as well have just watched at home. When the games end, you wait in a hallway for the players to arrive, sometimes an hour after everyone else goes home. The magic is gone. Then, when the fans go out to experience the city at night, you stay home to write and edit.

Some of the magic of the first event wears off.

But sacrifices made by the players who attend World Championship Play-In keep stacking up. Lloyd, G4, and top laner Atit "Rockky" Phaomuang of MEGA were all part of the Ascension Gaming roster that participated in Play-Ins in 2018. With limited funding, they supported themselves financially to make it to the event and compete.

Edward worked as a coach for Rogue Esports in LEC this spring. He gave it up to join Unicorns of Love on their adventure back to the LEC studio and attend the World Championship Play-In.

Even if it means butting heads against loss again and again, players still demonstrate a drive to compete in their actions more than their words. And little-by-little, they’re rewarded.

At 38 minutes on Day Two of the Play-In, MEGA bottom lane Kim “DeuL” Deul and Ha “PoP” Minwook shoved pushed the mid wave forward first to rotate to Baron. Though they passed one of LowKey Esports’ wards in the river brush, they moved quickly to collapse on jungler Đỗ “DNK” Ngọc Khải and start the Baron.

LowKey’s remaining member rushed in to contest to try to stop the Baron, but G4 followed up an engage from PoP with Pantheon’s Grand Skyfall. Rockky, Lloyd, DeuL and the rest of the team made short work of LowKey’s remaining forces and pushed forward through the mid lane to close the first ever win by a Thai team at a World Championship Play-In.

Michal Konkol/Riot Games
Michal Konkol/Riot Games
MEGA after a loss.

Though no doubt dotted with asterisks, MEGA’s win was emblematic for the 2019 Worlds Play-In as a whole. This is the first time no team has gone winless, and chances for success for Pool 3 regions like Oceania and Brazil seemingly increased with tie-breakers taking place at the end of Groups A and D.

The Oceanic representative in particular usually comes with the most fanfare on the English broadcast. Atlus, Jake “Spawn” Tiberi, and Bryce “EGym” Paule all have roots in the Oceanic Pro League and could hardly contain their excitement when Mammoth took two games off Unicorns of Love, taking them to the first round of tie-breakers for Group A.

“OCE always seems so close,” ex-OPL caster Atlus told me, “but this year we had a rough group and took it all the way to tiebreakers. I think the future is bright despite Mammoth not making it this time.”

For players and teams who advance to the Play-In year after year, but have yet to make it to the main Group Stage or beyond, the feeling of leveling up is almost as intoxicating as the allure of a first World Championship. Goal posts move, the objective is always just out of reach, but definitely attainable.

“I remember Turkey,” Tolerant said after Royal’s elimination, “as an example, three years ago — they were not like — close to LEC/LCS level, now we’re starting to get so much closer to them, and we’re scrimming against them as well. I can see the gap closing.”

Even Kim “Canyon” Geonbu, jungler for DAMWON Gaming, the first LCK representative to ever participate in Play-In, acknowledged the strengths of his opponents. “The other teams prepared a lot of pocket picks,” he said. “They seemed stronger than we expected. I think it was an overall good experience for our team to start from the Play-In.”

Wojciech Wandzel/Riot Games
Wojciech Wandzel/Riot Games
DAMWON after a victory against Royal Youth

Esports, for anyone who participates from fans to some of the greatest players of all time, draws in the competitive drive. Worlds is the focus of an entire year of grinding and perfecting a craft. Every journalist checks and rechecks his content in hopes of receiving the editor’s approval to make the trek to Worlds at the end of the year. Casters wait for recommendations after putting fire into every cast and studying each player, champion, ability, and item. Every loss for any team is one less chance to make it all the way, one extra hour of practice a player feels he should have put in.

But for Unicorns, in a very big way, it was a chance to make it home. 

When I spoke to Jos Mallant at the front of the stadium on Day One of Play-In, he very casually asked me, as he always did when I saw him in 2017, “What do you think about the games today?”

Unicorns had a very real chance to make it out. The team’s first draft in the opening game of Play-In against Clutch Gaming almost perfectly countered the win conditions of the opposing team. Though their execution wasn’t optimal, the wave clear stalled out for Tristana to burst through structures and close out against a melee heavy team on the side of Clutch. It showcased them as a threat.

When Misfits Gaming Head Coach Hussein “Moose” Moosvi assisted in the Playoffs draw show that resulted in Unicorns of Love and Splyce facing off, he apologized to Europe on Twitter.

A fitting final best-of-five of Play-Ins pitted Unicorns against Splyce, a matchup that occurred multiple times during Unicorns’ participation in the EU LCS. But players on both rosters had past loyalties to Unicorns and Splyce.

Tamás “Vizicsacsi” Kiss, the Splyce top laner, qualified with Unicorns of Love for the EU LCS at the end of 2014 and was a mainstay player for the team until 2018 when he joined FC Schalke 04. Andrei “Xerxe” Dragomir, the Splyce jungler, played with Unicorns in 2017 before joining Splyce in 2018. Innaxe, Unicorns of Love’s AD Carry, was a substitute for Splyce in 2018 Spring.

“You don’t really go out when you’re practicing anyways,” Innaxe said when I asked him if it felt different to compete in the CIS region over a European National League, “so you don’t really feel like you’re in Russia or in EU. And because you play on EU West, and because you play the same scrims vs the same teams, it didn’t really feel like a different thing… I still felt like I was part of EU.”

Though the LEC team Splyce should have had the home field advantage, the throngs of Unicorns of Love supporters — previously dubbed “Love Hurts Crew” — nearly overwhelmed them. Unicorns of Love, in its inception, was a German organization. Their very first World Championship event took place in the studio they had grown used to from 2015 through 2018.

Riot Games
Riot Games
A victorious Splyce at the end of Play-In

“I tried to look at what team I’m not playing against,” Vizicsacsi said in the broadcast’s post-series interview, “because I didn’t want to be emotionally involved too much in the game… Yeah, I didn’t want to get them.”

Even with the Unicorns’ defeat at the hands of Splyce, for some fans, it can still seem like a victory. After all, in EU LCS, Unicorns of Love never qualified even for the World Championship Play-In, and UoL’s failure to make it into the LEC franchising could have easily meant that Jos, Sheepy, and the Unicorns of Love brand could have never appeared in the Berlin studio again.

And if Unicorns had to fall short, Splyce was the best team to carry forward their aspirations. Vizicsacsi and Xerxe both advanced to Group Stage for the first time in their careers after having an EU LCS start on Unicorns. Beyond Splyce, Unicorns debut roster member Zdravets “Hylissang” Iliev Galabov will represent Europe as a member of Fnatic in his second ever World Championship appearance. Even Fabian “Grabbz” Lohman, Head Coach of G2 Esports, previously worked for the UoL EU LCS team.

It’s easy to dismiss Play-Ins as not the “real” Worlds. It has less viewership, the teams participating haven’t refined their strategies or their mechanics as much as the best teams in the World. But it’s also easy to relate to and empathize with the Play-In participants.

Just as Play-In ends in failure for so many players and teams who strive to advance and never make it, it also represents opportunity and the desire to be better. Even as a competitor achieves his short term goals, he makes new ones. A journalist or a caster works to capture the perfect moment, a player improves with each game he plays, competing against himself as much as the opponents on the opposite side of the rift.

Every participant in Play-Ins constantly revises what it means to “make it.” And that’s why, no matter my circumstances, I’ll keep coming back, year after year.