The spirit of Easter generally centers around reconnecting with family members, celebration and relaxation. But for the Mallant family in Hamburg, Germany, Easter Sunday came with a twist, as they watched the Unicorns of Love fight for a spot in the European League Championship Series finals.
Fabian Mallant, known as Sheepy in the League of Legends scene, coached the squad through a nerve-wracking best-of-five series against Misfits while his parents cheered through two victories, sending him regularly scheduled updates on how things were at home. When the third game brought defeat, Sheepy received these updates at an accelerated rate.
"My parents are generally always stressed out when we're playing," said Sheepy. "[They] sent me a picture while we were playing here of them being on the couch. When we lost the game, they were all, 'Oh my god!' I heard my mother couldn't even stay in front of the TV because she's getting too excited."
Sheepy's parents have been on board since the start of his journey through the LCS. His father, Jos Mallant, even took on ownership duties when the squad qualified for the professional league. In a way, it was also their semifinals.
"Since the beginning, since we're not coming from a big organization, and we didn't have all the people and management coming in, we had to look out for ourselves," Sheepy recalled. "It was natural for us that the people that were closest to me were helping out and were supporting me with any kind of help that they could."
One game later, the Mallants had cause to celebrate, as Sheepy's squad closed the series decisively. They had known that UoL would be playing, but a finals appearance made the event even sweeter.
"We go to Hamburg and the whole family is coming," Sheepy said. "It's one of the greatest things -- that you have people that are supporting you like this and are there when you really need them. Hamburg finals, for everyone, will be absolutely mind-blowing."
It's been a long split for the Unicorns of Love, if you count the offseason.
After a narrow elimination at the hands of Splyce (3-2) in the 2016 European LCS Regionals, the squad's focus shifted to 2017. Top laner Kiss "Vizicsacsi" Tamas and support Zdravets "Hylissang" Iliev Galabov were on board and so was rookie-turned-sensation Fabian "Exileh" Schubert in the mid lane. Spirits were high as they marched onward to an Intel Extreme Masters San Jose title in December 2016, but change was fast approaching.
Fresh out of a victorious Turkish Champions League summer campaign came Andrei "Xerxe" Dragomir, a jungler that UoL simply could not ignore. If his performance during the TCL wasn't enough, the impression he had made on Vizicsacsi surely did.
"Csacsi and Xerxe were duo-queueing before and Csacsi knew that this guy was insanely talented," said Sheepy. "He told us that we should give him a shot to go for it."
"Xerxe was showing promise already from his history," he added. "He didn't die a single time in the finals match when [Dark Passage] qualified as a Wild Card region. When we scrimmed with him, he seemed to be very confident on the champions he's playing, and he seemed to be someone that is very strong at the game. That was exactly what we looked for in the jungle position: someone who's willing to improve, who's humble, but is also confident and who is adapting. Not somebody who is second-guessing himself constantly."
Xerxe's hire was hardly a risk. His success (and the team's success by proxy) was a matter of fast-tracking his development, a matter that "HyliCsacsi" and Sheepy tended to. Fast forward to the end of the season and his performance warranted the 2017 EU LCS Rookie of the Spring Split award.
However, his arrival to the lineup was not the only roster change, as Kim "Veritas" Kyoung-min left the squad on late notice, prompting UoL to sign Samuel "Samux" Fernández Fort. In contrast to Xerxe, the Samux move was not a surefire one.
"We had the choice between some ADCs that were talented but not stage proven," Sheepy said. "From all the choices we had, we felt that Samux had the most talent."
Samux grew into a stabilizing anchor for the team with performances that were reliable at worst and dazzling at best. This translated outside of Summoners Rift as well.
"He's motivating people to give it their all," added Sheepy.
Mixing and matching the right personnel is one thing, building chemistry is another matter. The Unicorns of Love had growing pains, but they overcame them. In the end, the only thing left was to keep the players focused on winning. And learning.
"After the initial figuring-out-each-other [phase], it felt really comfortable practicing, and everyone had kind of the same goal," he said. "After that, it was focus on success, becoming better, and chasing after what is really important. We could show how strong we were in the beginning of the split. We were just a new team, with new people, and every day I'm learning something. We're improving, as we should."
UoL's initial difficulties went unnoticed to the untrained eye as the squad steamrolled to a perfect start in Group B, but it encountered defeat one week before IEM Katowice against G2 Esports after a risky attempt to destroy the nexus backfired.
After that, UoL lost to the Flash Wolves. Their experience holding scrimmages and playing against the Taiwanese team shaped the remainder of the season, as UoL took note of what made them so successful.
"Those guys were just insane. They played smartly with their champions, they were playing on the limit [and were] really energetic," said Sheepy. "Afterwards, we focused a lot more on macro as well: where to be, what to do, what's important, how do things interact. Cause and effect. From there on out, we just improved and learned more."
As the dust settled from the regular season, the Unicorns of Love emerged at the top of Group B and earned a direct ticket to the semifinal round of playoffs. On April 17th, they qualified for the finals in a 3-1 showdown against Misfits.
"Every challenge we had so far didn't put us down, but rather helped us improve and grow. Everybody has learned so much in the team, especially from Hylissang and Csacsi," Sheepy said. "All the b------- about something is wrong or something not right and we just agonize over it -- that's something that we really cut."
Against G2, the smallest of margins may determine victory or defeat, and the squad has trained itself on several gameplay elements that may land them an edge. If UoL had to play the finals on the same night, Sheepy is confident that the team could win.
"I think we have a really good grasp of the meta right now. All the people are very comfortable and confident with their champions. They also know what they want; that's really a driving force for them," he said.
However, for now, the time for celebration has come. The Unicorns of Love head into Hamburg as finalists, rather than third-place prospects. On Easter Sunday, Sheepy's efforts yielded an LCS finals appearance for the second time in two years. Near the end of the interview, he reflected on the people that helped him reach the finals.
"I'm really glad, and I'm really fortunate as well, that the people I've met -- Romain [Bigeard] -- my parents who were supporting me, and everyone in the Unicorns of Love were helping so fantastically, I'm extremely appreciative," he said. "In the end, I just want to say that I'm really proud of -- and I'm really grateful -- what is happening right now. This is something that I will never forget."