BERLIN -- Splyce top laner Kiss "Vizicsacsi" Tamas and Unicorns of Love coach Fabian "Sheepy" Mallant hugged each other after a long final day in the League of Legends World Championship play-in stage on Tuesday.
The two made great memories together on Unicorns of Love from 2013-17, and they also experienced heartbreak three times during the Unicorns' appearances in the European Regional Qualifier for the region's third seed at Worlds.
When both teams qualified to Worlds in 2019, many in Europe dreaded one specific scenario: UoL facing Splyce in a decider game. When Clutch Gaming narrowly emerged first in Group A, they pushed UoL toward that waking nightmare.
In the end, Splyce prevailed. A few days later, they secured Europe's first win in the world championship group stage in decisive fashion over Gigabyte Marines. In doing so, they looked visibly sharpened by their play-in bouts, and they brought a twinge of solace to Unicorns of Love fans.
But it still won't change how bittersweet Splyce's victory over UoL was and the meaning behind that hug Tuesday: Vizicsacsi consoling Sheepy, and Sheepy celebrating Vizicsacsi's qualification.
"I'm sad that we were the ones to knock them out in the end because maybe both could have made it to the groups," Vizicsacsi said that day.
The loss served as a reminder of Unicorns of Love's most bitter memory from their time in Europe, too: their 3-2 loss to Splyce in the 2016 decider match. Back then, Vizicsacsi's UoL eliminated Fnatic and Giants Gaming, and he felt that UoL were the better team going into the final game. However, Splyce's rookie squad qualified in a tense fifth game, one that reminded Vizicsacsi's of the Game 5 he had just played against Unicorns of Love, which is now representing the Commonwealth of Independent States internationally.
"It happens in Game 5's a lot that people get overanxious or just want to force and get it over with, not play it properly," Vizicsacsi said about the 2016 gauntlet final. "Mentally, we lost out even though we were better skill-wise."
He wouldn't let that happen on his new team; not when the world championship group stage spot that he has desperately chased was once again in reach.
It wasn't easy. Splyce squandered a huge early-game lead in the first game to poorly planned Baron Nashor fights and lost the ensuing scaling war. In the fourth game, their composition lacked priority picks and, as a result, Splyce were unable to apply pressure on the map.
And in a decisive Game 5, Splyce initially overextended and nearly threw away the elimination match.
Splyce's otherwise crisp gameplay in Game 5 spoke volumes of their mental fortitude. They would not squander this opportunity, and Vizicsacsi would not allow another slipup under his watch as he neutralized his matchup and carried Splyce to the group stage.
"We did not play as well as we could have," Vizicsacsi said. "There's quite a few things to clean up. Overall, we showed a few good things. I have mixed feelings about this."
Their experiments and wild gameplay choices were within reason, as their outlook on the meta remained foggy at best-with Kayle yet to be mastered. Add to that how metas change from a play-in phase to the group stage, and you receive even more uncertainty.
Splyce answered some of those questions Saturday as they opened Group B play along with FunPlus Phoenix, J Team and Gigabyte Marines. Against GAM, they converted a smooth laning phase into a map-wide takeover, empowered by Marek "Humanoid" Brázda's LeBlanc picks. In doing so, they encouraged European fans at large through much cleaner play than in the play-ins.
"The Group Stage is where worlds begin," Vizicsacsi said. "This is where the super strong teams are. We probably look weaker than other group stage teams right now. That doesn't mean that we should be written [out] of the odds. Anything can happen."
Splyce currently lead Group B alongside J Team, and they look poised to take over it. So far, they have proceeded in typical Splyce fashion: Vizicsacsi holding the fort up top, Humanoid and Andrei "Xerxe" Dragomir opening the map and the bot lane scaling into teamfights. Because of that, many perceive their gameplay to lack the ability to surprise their opponents, forgetting that they have unveiled quirky picks in the LEC.
"I think the group stage teams are getting a bit comfortable, that we would just open the normal way all the time," Vizicsacsi said. "We need to surprise them once; then everyone will fear us."
Should they succeed, Worlds viewers will be in for a wild ride, with three European teams headlining the quarterfinals.
"This should not be the final step [for us,]" Vizicsacsi said about qualifying in the group stage. "You get to Worlds once a year, and this isn't something [where] you go to participate. This is where you want to achieve something."