In the final moments of the Unicorns of Love and Pentanet.GG’s tiebreaker match, the Mid-Season Invitational broadcast showed the team’s coaching staffs watching the game unfold behind the scenes. The mood was joyous in the Pentanet.GG camp, whose team had been in a winning position and ahead in gold since the 15-minute mark. Over in UOL’s corner, the mood that closed out their MSI run was quiet and somber.
UOL’s head coach, Fabian “Sheepy” Mallant, sat at attention in a sparkling suit jacket; he angled himself slightly forward as if trying to impose his will on the players through the screen. The team’s substitute bot laner Antonio “Frappii” Botezatu and coach Dmitrii “Invi” Protasov both had their hands on their heads. Frappii looked as if he was trying to hide himself from the game he was watching as Invi dug his finger into his temple.
When the UOL nexus exploded, knocking the Russian team out of the international tournament, Sheepy said he felt a flurry of emotions. Disappointment, disbelief, even a twinge of embarrassment filtered through the coaches mind. Frappii wasn’t much better off.
“My team could have performed way better, and they know it.” Frappii said. “So it sucks.”
After the loss, Sheepy went to the stage and talked with his players, discussing the logistics of the next few hours. He and the players had multiple interviews after the loss, as most people thought the League of Legends Continental League representatives would conquer the Oceanic team in the end.
“It was one of the weirdest feelings to lose against Pentatnet.GG, and then understanding that it was kind of deserved,” Sheepy said. “Getting to that point kind of feels ridiculous.”
Normally, Sheepy would hang around in the back room where he watched his team lose. Alone, usually sitting in a chair, hand on his chin or cheek, he would stare into space as he thought of ways to approach his team after a loss. In this time, he would run through the various conversations, evaluating whether a light-hearted approach or a stern tone would get his point across accurately.
“Sometimes it takes longer, sometimes it’s shorter,” he said. “The times where it takes longer are probably the tougher times,”
But the UOL head coach needed to do his rounds in front of the camera and shuttle his players back to the hotel. His time spent contemplating his next move would have to wait. He gave them instructions for when to meet at the shuttle and what to do in between. A discussion about the game, and their tournament run as a whole, could wait until they made it to the hotel.
To Iceland, with promise
Unicorns of Love have tyrannized the TCL since the organization joined in 2019. They have four playoff titles to their name and have attended every international tournament possible in that time through winning their league. But in the 2021 Spring Season, the usual steadfast Unicorns of old were seemingly nowhere to be found. They looked beatable in the regular season. In fact, they recorded two losses in the time before the final week of play, matching their previous recorded losses across the whole 2020 regular season and playoffs combined.
This year, UOL were just coming off of a top 16 placement at the 2020 World Championships, and Sheepy said some players may have gotten complacent in the Russian league.
“When we started out the season, I think our mid jungle duo was not as strong as I expected and didn’t step up the way that we wanted to,” Sheepy said.
According to the players, the dip in form had more to do with the new addition to the team, French league AD Carry Frappii. The language barrier presented by Frappii’s inability to speak Russian slowed them down, as communicating in English with their French teammate proved too tough. They wanted a change and thought the solution was to sub in former Gambit Esports AD Carry Stanislav “Lodik” Kornelyuk to improve their performance.
The Russian player was not waiting on the bench for a chance to play — rather he was studying and trying to finish school at the time. Sheepy said he took some convincing but yielded to his player’s desire to sub out the French bot laner.
“It was tough for me to understand the point, but my assistant coach, Invi, explained everything to me, as much as he could from his perspective, as he’s Russian as well,” Sheepy said. “So, from that point onwards, we just changed the AD Carry to a Russian speaking player,”
But after the swap in players, not much improved before the TCL playoffs. UOL dropped their final two regular season games and a tiebreaker for the third seed in the playoffs. Sheepy, a coach with high expectations for his players, let them know what he expected from them for the playoffs and beyond.
“I’m not feeling that they’re bringing their best, and they’re not working in a way that should represent what our team is all about: Doing the best they can,” he said. “I think that talk was very eye opening for the team, which afterwards I think we performed better.”
After the conversation, and more time with Lodik in the starting roster, UOL went into the TCL 2021 Spring Playoffs and secured first place and their spot in MSI.
Back home, disappointed
After the team and Sheepy completed their press duties, they loaded into the shuttle back to the hotel in Reykjavík, Iceland. The head coach told Invi to let the players know they would be having a discussion in 15 minutes in their room. Sheepy didn’t want to give any impression what kind of talk he wanted to have after their surprise exit.
UOL ordered food and drinks from the hotel as Sheepy prepared what he wanted to say to his team that rebounded from a poor regular season right into a short MSI run. As he stepped into the room and conversed with his players, their food grew cold as the discussion ran long.
Sheepy said he created a more light hearted vibe to start, but then moved toward a more disciplinary tone once the tension broke. But at the end, he opened the floor to the players to ask questions and discuss the Summer Season. They talked about the death of their tournament run, the TCL regular season and their future expectations for almost two hours.
“Everybody was thinking and talking a lot about their emotions and their feelings and their thoughts and their expectations,” Sheepy said. “Then after everything was done, I was more like, ‘Okay, well, what should we do next? What are you expecting, what am I expecting?'”
Afterward, the players and staff ate their cold food and had some beers as the day ended. The players had just hours before their flights home, as their trips were booked the second they lost their final game.
Some players went to sleep, others stayed up and grinded more League of Legends together while enjoying the last of their room service beers.
Following MSI, UOL and Sheepy said they expect to make the 2021 World Championships and return to their dominant form in the TCL. Their exit was swift, and performance forgettable, even the team’s substitute player wasn’t happy with their performance, or their losing moment, on the international stage.
“I don’t see our MSI performance as like a ticket to a vacation,” Frappii said with a chuckle.