“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.” – Robert Frost.
Not every great decision is taken on purpose and in the case of Unicorns of Love that is certainly the case. Today, they stand out from the crowd as a team with a unique identity and a striking visage, a flash of brilliant pink against esports’ mainly black and blue backdrop, but their arrival at this point was far from a deliberate choice.
From shocking the world with their maiden voyage in the LCS to their move from Europe to the CIS region, the Unicorns’ story has never been predictable and is anything but boring. So when we got the opportunity to sit down with their GM Vivien Mallant, it’s fair to say we jumped at the chance. She’s been part of the management group since the early days, alongside her dad Jos and brother Fabian, or Sheepy as he’s known to League of Legends fans.
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What started as a German team is today a CIS superpower. The LEC franchising that came in 2018 left UOL out in the cold and forced them to flee across borders to the CIS — a region that’s never really been known for its League of Legends scene. But as Mallant explains, even in an area dominated by CSGO and Dota, there are compensations — if you know where to look.
“It’s a challenge for sure,” Mallan told Inven, “but it’s also a bigger potential over there because in the CIS regions CSGO and Dota are much bigger than League. In European/LEC countries, League is quite big and so the big communities already are in there just being fans, so the growth potential is not as big for them, just with new generations, of course. With the CIS region, there is a very big potential to just have enormous growth of the community if you can attract fans from other games to LoL, and we got a huge growth on our channels so I think there is a lot of potential.”
To some extent, this potential for growth underlines the values that make the Unicorns what they are today. The team started out as a conversation around a family dinner table and has largely remained there despite considerable growth. With a leadership group that has remained the same since the company’s inception, the Unicorns have been able to maintain a consistent ethos, as well as a level of clarity and alacrity about their decision making that other, larger orgs simply can’t keep up with.
The Unicorns of the round (family) table
“If we make a decision, basically our headquarters has always been our family dinner table, so the ways to get to a decision is pretty short, and we are very fast in decision making and changing direction or just going for a certain idea,” Vivien told us. “That’s a huge advantage because other teams lose so much time because the managing of the company and the communication needs so much time. So yeah, I think being a family if you have a good relationship with each other, is a huge advantage for us.”
Of course, the flip side to this family setting is the progress other orgs have made on the corporate end, which the Unicorns are now rushing to catch up to with their newly secured investment. Taking things slow and waiting for the right partner has allowed the Mallant clan to regain control over their brand, but equally given some of their competitors a headstart in other areas, as is to be expected.
“It was the reason that pushed us to say we have to do the company ourselves, because these players would just get fucked over if they sign one of these contracts."
Family dynamics tend to be very different from the sort of interpersonal relationships you’ll find in corporate settings, but the Mallant family have a fairly healthy distribution when it comes to hashing out their decisions around the dinner table. Most of the time there is a good consensus, as you’d expect from such a group, but there are still times when things are less harmonious according to Vivien.
“It’s like, let’s say 70/30 or something, most of the time we are on the same page and it’s not a discussion, more like a brainstorming,” Vivien told us. “Sometimes, of course, we have a disagreement and then the dynamic is very individual, because my dad and my brother are the nice people in our company, and I’m the bad cop for sure. At the same time, my dad and I can fight very well with each other because we really like to argue, where my brother is not really into that at all, he hates fights or discussions, so then there’s a different dynamic going on, so it’s very interesting.”
It seems that this approach has worked out well enough for the organization, even if there have been hiccups along the way. The Unicorns now dominate the LCL, having won five consecutive splits and have not missed a year at Worlds. Moving to Russia was a different challenge though. The region is far from a hotbed of League talent, and some sections of its society are also less-than-enamored with the colorful branding the organization is known for.
To Russia with love
To get to the Russian part of the story, we must first go back and revisit the early years of the Unicorns, when they shocked the world of League with their bold strategies and left-field picks. There was no shortage of interest in the company from outside investors, but it was the player-first ethos of the owners that kept them from taking on investment as the Mallant family wanted to do things the right way, and found many potential investors didn’t line up with that mindset.
Even from day one, Vivien and her family were aware of the predatory nature of some of the money that could come into the game. “Right from the beginning when the guys qualified for the LCS, the EU version, we had many big companies coming to us and wanting to buy the team or the org, let’s say, but they only wanted the LCS spot, so the contracts they gave us were insanely bad for the players.” This in turn motivated the Mallants to stick with their vision, rather than cash out and move on, a decision that has paid off tenfold in the long term.
“It was the reason that pushed us to say we have to do the company ourselves, because these players would just get fucked over if they sign one of these contracts, and they were all pretty young, of course. We had to take care of them and of us, and my brother so that’s why we decided to not go with investors or sell the company and I think this moment just really stuck in our head”.
"We were proving a point that it doesn’t really matter how cool your branding is, you just have to win the games."
As League of Legends has grown — and along with it the number of pro teams — Unicorns’ other unique selling point, its branding, became their next main perk. Its bright colorway left the org in a great spot to wrack up clicks, even if some sponsors have avoided sinking cash into such a uniquely dressed company.
“There have been challenges that came with that [colorway], especially in terms of sponsors in the beginning but there have been a lot of positive aspects coming with it as well,” Vivien explains. “We have a huge media presence because usually, websites tend to pick Unicorns of Love pics when they write an article about esports, because pink, and people would stop scrolling through their timeline if they see a different color. I’m also very surprised that people didn’t pick this up more, I thought we would have a much more diverse scene of brands by now…”.
This diversity of brands may be coming in the future, but equally, it isn’t just the sponsors that may have second thoughts about splashing their logos across the bright pink tops the Unicorns made popular. Moving to Russia — a place not known for a love of all things pink and “non-manly” — wasn’t simple, but Vivien doesn’t personally believe that would have been any different elsewhere, especially when you consider South America was another region they looked at moving to.
“For sure, there are people in the CIS region, in terms of the community or the fans, that think UoL is just a bit too pink and too colorful and too… let’s say feminine. I think this doesn’t just go for the CIS region, but the entire esports scene.”
But for the Unicorns, winning is what counts for a lot of people. “This was also a reason why we called ourselves Unicorns of Love and chose pink in the first place, because we were proving a point that it doesn’t really matter how cool your branding is, you just have to win the games and then you can be pink and be called Unicorns of Love if you win in the end.”
Reality check at Worlds
While the organization has been run in a way that many would envy, things are not always simple when you work outside of the established big four leagues (the LEC in Europe, LCS in NA, LCK in Korea, and LPL in China). Dominance in the LCL translated into nothing of note at Worlds 2021, and a single win eliminated UOL in last place in the Play-ins group stage. The org subsequently announced they were releasing their entire roster, citing the need to let the players continue their growth, and forcing the team to rebuild from scratch.
Vivien was fairly honest about the reality of playing in the CIS division and then trying to make the jump to Worlds. “Obviously there are challenges, the level of the play is not as high as in the LEC or other regions like Korea or China. It’s very difficult to make the transition from playing in CIS and then go to Worlds and face all the big terms, that you haven’t had the chance to practice against through the year, so that is our biggest challenge now.”
You’d think that it would be possible to at least scrim a few of the best sides from Europe, but the Unicorns struggle to even find quality practice partners from outside their region. “They mostly scrim each other or maybe even just the academy teams from the LEC. We had the same thing when we were at the LCS, it was the same thing. There are some teams that will, but…”
The future is bright, the future is pink
As an established part of the CIS furniture, the Unicorns are firm friends with many in Moscow, but the specter of the LEC always looms in the background for the team that was born in Germany. When we asked Vivien about the chances of returning to the LEC area, and what it would take, it was clear that the decision would be taken with a heavy heart, as the group has put down roots in Russia.
“It’s unrealistic for us on our budget to go into the LEC, it’s too much of a stretch,” she told us. “If that grows closer together we would of course do it, although I have to say I really like operating in Russia and away from the LEC and then coming in back through to Worlds to meet all the teams again. If tomorrow someone just gifted us the money and we could just say, 'OK, we’re back', then I would still be kind of sad to leave the CIS region because this is also a great area to work in, at least for me. Of course, the players would love some more competition but I would be kind of sad to leave.”
Perhaps the biggest problem with rejoining the European scene proper though would be the change in dynamic, from dominating the LCL to trying to compete with powerhouse spenders like G2 in the LEC. We asked Vivien if she thinks winning is the key to success, or if marketing is a viable way to survive even if you can’t take trophies home. “Winning is the easiest way to get reach and growth because there are a huge amount of people out there that just like to follow teams and personalities that are successful.”
However else their empire has grown, it’s fair to say players are a central part of what has driven their story since day one, from Sheepy’s initial plan to their ability to operate on a shoestring and develop talent, and that has paid dividends as time goes on, and League has grown. Throughout all of that, the Unicorns have been a player first org, and as time has gone on that has made them stand out in ways that provide genuine value, even to this day.
“We've had so many players come to us and ask to play for us as they’ve been fucked over by so many orgs and had so many bad experiences.”
“We've had so many players come to us and ask to play for us as they’ve been fucked over by so many orgs and had so many bad experiences,” Vivien said. With a rebuild on the cards and money being thrown around European League like nobody’s business, the Unicorns may need to trade on that goodwill now, more than ever, as they seek to find their spot in the pantheon of the esport going forward.