Andrei "Orome" Popa had his roots in competitive games before League of Legends became a worldwide phenomenon. Today, the Romanian Top Laner, plays for MAD Lions, splitting his time between the current number one team in the League of Legends European Championship, and its regional league team, MAD Lions Madrid, in the SuperLiga Orange.
The moment leading to his career in the League of Legends scene would not come without the first interest for Blizzard Entertainment’s RTS StarCraft II. He had built a network of high Elo players, who pushed him to Master, the second-highest rank in the game. Eventually, they introduced him to the Riot Games MOBA, and he was immediately hooked.
“I enjoyed the game a lot more than SC2, to be honest, and so I started spamming it — actually spamming it, ten hours a day”, recalls the Top Laner.
In the early years of Romanian esports, when the scene was relatively poor, there was still high interest from players and the tournament schedule was vibrant. Even competitions for pocket change would attract large crowds.
“In Romania, there’s not a lot of organization going into the tournaments. It's just random people meeting at a random place where there's an internet cafe and playing a tournament for like €20 or something. In that sense, it's not very developed, but every weekend you can play somewhere.”
He explains that despite the lack of professional support in the past, the scene still grew to be very competitive when it comes to gameplay skills. The Romanian Esports League has been established since then, and it is currently in its second season. With proper organization facilitated by Riot Games, the prize pool has slightly increased to €6,000.
Back in the early days of his career, Orome played in the Bot Lane. As he progressed through the competitive scene, the best team in his region had made an offer, with the condition he would play in the Top Lane as opposed to being an AD Carry. “I kind of liked ADC more, but I couldn’t refuse the offer”, and off he went to practice his brawl abilities until eventually, Splyce had made an offer for him to play on their academy team, Splyce Vipers.
Orome recalls that at age nine, he would participate in mathematics competitions, thinking to himself “I don't know if it's also because I'm a competitive person or this built up the competitiveness in me”. His stellar academic performance was short-lived, until about he encountered League of Legends.
“I told myself that if I could be good at League of Legends that's ten times more fun”, said the Top Laner.
According to him, mathematical knowledge is directly applicable to League of Legends, “When you learn math or logical sciences, you have to learn how to learn, if that makes sense. How to spend your time, memorizing as many things as possible in as little time as possible. That was the big step for me.”
The interest in playing professionally, however, took time to mature. In StarCraft II, Orome would look for pro player builds and gameplays to improve his performance, but the competitive scene, which was one of the earliest to develop, was not of his particular interest. That was the start of building up stats and information to learn how to improve his gameplay.
When asked if he had plans of eventually making it to professional League of Legends, he recalls “Oh, I had no interest in that. *laughs* I just wanted to be really good at it and the pay just came. ‘Oh, by the way, we can pay you a 300 EUR salary if you play for us,’ and I'd be, Oh, OK, I was going to play anyway, but thank you’.”
“For me, every team I've played with and everything I've done in my career has led to this team. This team is my heart and soul.”
When meeting with the Lions for the usual Sunday brunch, Benedict pancakes, our conversation shifts to Orome’s LEC trajectory, which led him to open up about the team environment he has encountered at MAD Lions.
“On my journey to LEC, I've played with Shad0w in Italy a couple of times. I've played with Carzzy in KIYF for a whole year. Humanoid is a good friend of mine and Carzzy's. Kaiser has also become a really good friend to everyone in the team, so I feel like I have an emotional connection with everyone on the team on a really deep level. The fact I've played with Shad0w and Carzzy before amps me. When KIYF ended and when I went to MAD Academy — well, Splyce Academy back then — and Carzzy also got his offer from BIG, we talked to each other and kind of promised each other that we will play together again because we love each other so much.”
Team bonding is often underestimated by esports organizations — though, admittedly, less now than in the earlier days of LoL — but it is arguable that a big part of a team’s success in and out of the stage. The best teams in the West describe their mates as “family” and the very same vibes come from Orome and MAD Lions, a team that took the bronze in the 2020 Spring Split with a roster of five rookies, something that almost never happens. “We want to help each other, we don't want to win the game alone”, says Orome.
“I feel like if we never had this deep connection, this would never happen. When I watch other teams, I feel like some players play for themselves and I'm not sure if their teammates force this from them, but I'm pretty sure that happens. When they have to sacrifice themselves to get someone ahead, they don't do it, because they either don't trust them, or don't like them, or a myriad of other reasons. That never happens for us.”
Confident in the team's potential for the remainder of the Split, Orome hopes to reach worlds, making it out of groups and winning the Finals. An unrealistic dream, the Top Laner admits, but why shouldn’t one dream of it?
“Winning Worlds in my first year would be insane, no?”
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