The EU LCS summer playoffs feature star power, storylines, veteran legacies, and rookie uprisings.
They also feature the Unicorns of Love.
UoL will face Giants in the first quarterfinal, on Saturday, Aug. 13, in a battle of teams that weren’t supposed to be here, but made it happen anyways. For the Unicorns’ hardcore, pink-wearing, cake-making fans, the playoffs are a chance to prolong the glory of over-achieving, a chance to cheer some more, cosplay some more and revel in every moment.
But for the Unicorns’ players and organization, these playoffs are about far more than just enjoying the journey, and far more, even, than winning games. These playoffs are about establishing the future security of the franchise, about finding momentum and relevance as a team worth playing for, worth cheering for, worth loving, and perhaps most importantly, worth signing with.
Unicorns of Consistent Mediocrity
By objective standards, the Unicorns of Love are not, and have never been, an especially good team, but they’ve never been awful, either. They did just enough to squeak into the 2016 summer playoffs in sixth place and earn their meeting with Giants, putting together a thoroughly middle-of-the-pack array of performance statistics.
|Win Rate||GSPD||EGR||K:D Ratio||Dragon Control||Jungle Control|
GSPD: Gold spent percentage difference. EGR: Early-game rating.
This is the kind of finish we’ve come to expect from UoL, who have consistently hovered around the edges of respectability during their two-year EU LCS history. Over four splits, they have finished the regular season fifth, fourth, fifth and sixth. Their playoff fates have varied, from an unexpected finals run and second-place result in spring 2015 to a quarterfinals exit in spring 2016, with a 3-0 loss to Origen thrown in during the finals of the 2015 regionals tournament to prevent them from reaching the World Championships.
UoL are not among Europe’s most robust organizations from a business perspective, either, judging by their public-facing online persona, at least. They lack the multi-esport presence boasted by most of the other EU LCS brands, and their official website is a simple merchandise store, with no team or player information, news, or promotional content. Instead, they rely on social media (not visible via links on their website, for what it’s worth), including a Facebook page and a Twitter account, both with modest followings.
Still, the Unicorns’ online presence is more impressive than, for example, H2K-Gaming’s sub-30,000 Twitter followers and merch-only website, despite H2K fielding teams in multiple esports while the Unicorns operate only their LoL team. In their online presence, too, UoL are unexceptional, but not irrelevant, bordering on respectability.
While the Unicorns don’t carry the legacy of Fnatic, the star power of Enrique “xPeke” Cedenõ Martinez’s Origen, or even the relative financial clout and multi-game presence of organizations like H2K or Vitality, their goofy branding and consistent LCS presence has earned them the kind of hardcore, highly vocal fan base you’d normally associate with the most established, successful esports franchises.
UoL owe much of their fanbase to their bizarrely brilliant pink-themed branding. The informal, self-effacing, we-are-all-mascots vibe of the Unicorns of Love name and logo has a strong pull for fans who want to feel part of something bigger than themselves. When all five players dye their hair pink to start the split, it evokes the theme of a “friendship team,” the little guys making their own path through the world. It appeals to the same emotional triggers of belonging and self-determination that have made the bunny-eared, Ginyu Force-posing, lack-of-stable-sponsorship Tigers of LoL Champions Korea such an international fan favorite.
But there are two enormous differences between Europe’s Unicorns and Korea’s Tigers. First, the Tigers are one of the very best teams in the entire world, while the Unicorns are a mid-tier EU LCS squad with minimal international experience. Second, despite their branding, their hair-dyeing, and their manager’s cult of personality, the Unicorns are not a friendship team.
Revolving Door of Departing Friends
Since UoL joined the EU LCS, they have fielded 16 different players, due in large part to intentional departures, rather than roster decisions made by the team’s management. That’s a lot of short-term friendships.
It began with jungler Mateusz “Kikis” Szkudlarek leaving the team during the summer 2015 regular season, citing issues with the team’s communication and work ethic. Then star mid laner Tristan “PowerOfEvil” Schrage also left at the end of the split, seeking greener pastures with Origen. UoL were faced with gaping holes through the middle of their lineup. They managed to fill those holes with waning star Danil “Diamondprox” Reshetnikov in jungle and Hampus “Fox” Myhre in the mid lane, also bringing on Pierre “Steeelback” Medjaldi at AD carry to replace Pontus “Vardags” Dahlblom.
That mid lane and AD carry pairing would turn out to be one of Europe’s more talented carry duos, but the Unicorns’ spring split was ultimately a disappointment, featuring a tumultuous string of temporary jungler replacements, none of whom stuck with the team for more than a few weeks, after Diamondprox was forced to step away due to visa issues.
After the Unicorns’ early playoff exit, Fox and Steeelback left for Schalke 04 and Roccat, respectively, moves that, both on paper and in final results, didn’t exactly carry them further up the standings, perhaps suggesting other motives for the transfers. UoL had been forced into another roster rework, and this time they signed uninspiring Korean veteran Kang “Move” Min-su in the jungle, while mid and ADC were taken over by rookies Fabian “Exileh” Schubert and Kim “Veritas” Kyoung-min, the team’s second import.
With these moves, as in UoL’s previous offseasons, the team lost talented players and replaced them with what appeared to be on-paper downgrades at worst, or “sidegrades” at best. This has been the primary trend of UoL’s tenure, the theme that has underpinned their narrative. It’s perhaps arguable that Fox was a mid lane upgrade over PowerOfEvil, but it would have been hard to make that claim at the time he joined the team, when he was a mid-tier, just-relegated alumnus of SK Gaming. Similarly, hindsight shows that Steeelback was an improvement over Vardags, but his career trajectory at the time made that outcome very uncertain: the year before, Steeelback had been removed from Fnatic after an abysmal showing at the 2015 Mid-Season Invitational, and he had gone on to bounce around the periphery of the Challenger scene for several months with nothing to show for his efforts.
In the midst of each offseason of change, it must be admitted that the Unicorns struggled to retain and attract noteworthy talent, instead settling for veterans with few other options, or playing the lottery with unproven rookies. Players like Fox and Steeelback joined UoL because they had to earn back the league’s respect, and once they had done so, they moved on.
Yet, despite all this turbulence, despite having to scrounge up so many replacement players from the Challenger scene, or find veterans that more prestigious teams were unlikely to pursue, the Unicorns have maintained their unbroken streak of playoff appearances, while nearly all of their alumni have failed to find success elsewhere.
How have they done it? Say thank you to their stable two-man core, support Zdravets “Hylissang” Galabov and top laner Tamás “Vizicsacsi” Kiss.
Hylissang and Vizicsacsi: The Two-Horned Threat
If there is a “friendship team” core to UoL, it is a love triangle between Hylissang, Vizicsacsi, and coach Fabian “Sheepy” Mallant, a former jungler who helped found the team before stepping back from playing in May 2014 to take over the coaching duties.
Throughout their careers, Hylissang and Vizicsacsi have been relatively low-profile players, their performances ranging from average to good. Their stability has been among their biggest assets, and their loyalty to their team has been the glue that held the organization together.
The more they’ve been needed, the more both players have upped their game, and this split featured Vizicsacsi and Hylissang at their most impressive — both were among the league’s best in their roles. Without the efforts of the two UoL veterans, there would have been no playoffs; instead, there would have been the very real threat of relegation, and you can be sure that if the Unicorns of Love had dropped out of the EU LCS instead of high-profile Schalke 04, it would not have led to outcry about franchising and protecting owners’ investments. Money talks.
Despite being consistently decent, the Hylissang plus Vizicsacsi pairing doesn’t carry the gravitas of, say, Heo “Huni” Seung-hoon plus Kim “Reignover” Yeu-jin, or of Søren “Bjergsen” Bjerg plus Yiliang “Doublelift” Peng. They are not a duo whose name power is likely to attract free agents to play alongside them.
At least, they haven’t been before.
Playing for the Future
With Vizicsacsi and Hylissang playing better than ever, these playoffs are a chance to send a message to the entire EU LCS: “We are the Unicorns. We are winners. Join us.”
In the absence of organizational prestige or significant financial backing, establishing Vizicsacsi and Hylissang as legitimate LCS stars is the best shot the team has to stem the bleeding on their perpetual inability to retain talent. It’s an opportunity to secure UoL a brighter future, one where they rise above their mid-tier status and threaten to become something greater. Everything Vizicsacsi and Hylissang do over the coming weeks needs to shout: Imagine what you could do if you were our jungler, our mid laner, our AD carry. Imagine what we could achieve together. This is the task the Unicorns face, the goal they are chasing.
The Unicorns are a sixth seed, a clear underdog. Beating Giants will be a challenge. But the real challenge of these playoffs — and the Regional Qualifiers beyond them — is to put on a good enough show to convince future free agents that the Unicorns are a team worth playing for, and not just when your career trajectory leaves you short on options and happy just to play another LCS split, regardless of the gaudy uniforms.
There’s plenty at stake for Move, Exileh, and Veritas, too. They are playing for their spots in the spring 2017 lineup, because up to this point, none of the three have cemented themselves as players who demand to be retained. A breakout performance by any of these three would help their own cause, and would also help UoL, firming up their image as a team with potential.
In the end, for some teams these playoffs are about so much more than chasing a trophy, or even earning a spot in the Regional Qualifiers. For the Unicorns of Love, their hardcore fans, and their two longsuffering, underrated veterans, the coming weeks are a quest for stability, a quest for respect. It’s a quest to keep the love alive.
Tim "Magic" Sevenhuysen runs OraclesElixir.com, the premier source for League of Legends esports statistics. You can find him on Twitter, unless he’s busy giving one of his three sons a shoulder ride.