Months after a heartbreaking departure from the League of Legends European Championship, the Unicorns of love returned to their home arena in Berlin, to the delight of their once-heartbroken fans.
When UoL's EU LCS franchising bid failed last year, they were left with no home to call their own. It was time to move on and relegate those times to nostalgia.
There would be no more crazy LEC base races, no reckless plays on Summoners' Rift that spiked heart rates across the board (or garnered mockery, depending on who you ask), and no more crushing European regional qualifier runs, where they failed at or near the final steps three years in a row.
As a result, the Mallant family no longer attended the show donning their colors as they did every week from 2015 to 2018 in Berlin. The fan club, the Love Hurts Crew, faded from view; some vowed never to attend the LEC ever again.
The team then decided to move to Russia for another shot at the world championship in a brand new league. After a tense summer split campaign in the LCL, the Unicorns of Love earned a golden opportunity to qualify; this time around, they would not be denied, beating Vega Squadron 3-2 and making worlds for the first time in their existence, which coincidentally kicked off inside their former LEC home in Berlin this week.
"That Unicorns of Love made it to worlds, I feel, is the biggest gift. We finally made it," Fabian "Sheepy" Mallant said. "It's been such a fascinating ride."
They returned to the Berlin LEC Studios on Wednesday to a raucous crowd shouting their names, wearing onesies, and cheering them on as they beat Clutch Gaming.
"Seeing the fans is amazing; we have so many dedicated fans," Sheepy said. "The people that have been supporting me, I feel more than grateful. [It's] something you can't buy with money, it's something that is given. I'm extremely grateful.
"I'm really, really happy to be back here. This feels like home; I've spent four and a half years here already."
When the team failed their franchising bid, Sheepy had no choice but to move away from the organization he built, as he sought to build a sustainable future for himself in the scene. He had to carve a new path, and find a new home.
"There [were] a lot of thoughts [in] my head about what I should be doing," Sheepy said. "I had a lot of different offers."
At that time, SK Gaming were on their way back to the top of the European League of Legends circuit through their successful franchising bid, three years after suffering relegation. The storied German organization SK fielded rosters that attended the world championship in different eras, and they were about to write a new chapter in their history with a new, young lineup.
Sheepy and SK matched well on paper: his track record and talent for growing emerging players (which SK had aplenty) was needed. Nevertheless, after a 3-5 start in the LEC spring split, both sides decided it was time to split.
"[SK's] people were extremely nice; and I felt that if I were in the organization, we could grow something really sustainable within years," Sheepy said. "It didn't turn out exactly like expected. There were some hiccups.
"In the end, when we started parting ways, I was looking for my next adventure."
Sheepy's father, Jos Mallant, wasn't about to throw the towel: Unicorns of Love could reach the world championship through other means. Motivated by his daughter Vivien, he labored to acquire a spot in either Brazil, where he used to own a business, or possibly go to Russia in the LCL.
An opportunity manifested itself when Team Just offered their LCL spot for sale, and he obliged. After all, Unicorns of Love hadn't been to worlds before, and the LCL presented a golden opportunity.
The team they assembled boasted four players with international experience: ex-Vega Squadron members Vladislav "BOSS" Formin, Kirill "aHaHaCiK" Skvortsov and Lev "Nomanz" Yakshin played in the 2019 Mid-Season Invitational, and Edward "Edward" Abgaryan played in Moscow Five and Gambit Gaming, two teams with strong European legacies at the World Championship.
In doing so without outside investors, and in assembling a roster on short notice, Mallant took a monumental risk; but he wouldn't let the organization he sustained out of love, for no money in return, go to waste.
Mallant couldn't abandon the family's dream. Neither could Sheepy, who returned to the team he and his father founded.
"It's a dream project and, in our family, we're dreamers," Sheepy said. "The flipside is to not invest any money and not do anything. I think that's a very boring way of living."
But to return to his former team, Sheepy had to leave Germany, and the Unicorns of Love ought to build firm roots in Moscow. His assistant coach, Dmitrii "Invi" Protasov, smoothed the transition; together, they endeavored to make the team as competitive as possible to reach worlds.
"I was obviously hesitant because I don't want to go to Russia and perform poorly," Sheepy said. "So, when I knew what the plan was, and when I could help that as well, I was way more interested. If I would go to a different team as the second hand, and we make it to Worlds, I didn't feel that it was the way I wanted to do it.
"The second huge point is because it's the Unicorns of Love. That's home."