The Evolution of MAMMOTH, by Ahilleas Papantos

Ahilleas Papantos
October 2, 2019

I’m writing this from a plane heading to Berlin where our team, MAMMOTH, is representing Australia in the League of Legends World Championship event. The second team from Oceania to ever qualify. Even though the journey so far has been incredibly long and challenging, the true test has yet to begin.

Above: Mammoth lineup for LoL Worlds 2019 (source)

For context, I am the co-founder of ROAM Esports and partner of Outpost Group. My career began in the music business, originally as a musician, then a failed musician, which led me to co-found ‘Zero Through Nine’ (ZTN) – a record label and management company, created with two very close friends. Here I had the opportunity to discover and release music that I loved. ZTN was best known for signing and developing Australian artist Japanese Wallpaper, and collectively we were very successful. Highlights included a Hollywood soundtrack placement, a Top-40 Australian charting record, back-to-back consecutive placements in Triple J’s Hottest 100, and touring acts all over the world at coveted festivals such as SXSW.

In 2015, on a return business trip from Europe, I met my current business partner Mark Richardson, former director of Sony Music S2 Records and Independiente in the UK. His company in Australia, Outpost Management, is a very successful record label and management company – with multiple ARIA wins and a Grammy under its belt for artists such as Bertie Blackman and Kimbra. I introduced Mark to the world of esports in Australia, and together we founded ROAM, spearheading towards opportunities to diversify our client representation in esports. Since then we’ve owned esport teams, consulted for the likes of PwC, CJ Group, Fortress Australia and built campaigns for Trippie Redd, XXXTentaction, Thundamentals and Good Things Festival.

In 2016, as part of our consultation for a major telecommunications brand in Australia, we met Christian ‘StarJuan’ Dirk, the owner of Sin Gaming, who provided us with further insight into the operations of professional esport teams. After working together for several months, we bonded closely to Dirk. It was at the end of 2016 when Dirk notified us of Riot Oceania’s exciting plans of expansion for the OPL and how it would be broadcast live from a studio in Sydney in 2017. This meant that all teams would need a gaming house in Sydney, which required resources that Dirk did not have. My business partners at the time, Mark Richardson and Drew Skinner, were captivated by this opportunity of investing into an esports team and Riot’s esport dream. There was only one concern – Sin Gaming had to not lose in their upcoming relegation matches – or they would be removed from the OPL. Thankfully, Sin finished 7th in Split 2 of the OPL in 2016, which gave us the green light to purchase 50% of the brand at the end of the year.

The beginning of 2017 was incredibly exciting for us, as we asked, “what could we do to build the team from 7th place to a top team?”. We began by executing the first Oceanic international player import deal, bringing Flaresz from North America into our top-lane. Flaresz decimated on his signature Poppy pick. This, along with the combination of a young FBI, Ry0ma, and captain Juves, we ran the infamous Sinderella Gauntlet, finishing 3rd and qualifying for Rift Rivals. 

While it was a dream run for the team externally, it was anything but a dream internally. The screws started to come loose by the beginning of the Gauntlet, and by the end, our team management structure was off the rails. Originally it was Dirk’s inability to answer phone calls, but things escalated to a point where Dirk would be AWOL from the house for several days at a time while he was supposed to be managing the facility. By the end, Dirk was completely gone, not to be heard from anyone again. I have a lot of gratitude for Brandon ‘Juves’ Defina, for his support during this period. It was not easy for the team to receive a brand-new management overhaul during Sin’s most successful competitive run, but he guided me and allowed the transition to be as smooth as possible for all parties involved.

Split 2 ran similarly, and we as a business struggled to bring in revenue to offset the large expenditure of running a professional esport team. Cracks were starting to appear, and the board of investors noticed. The Sinderella run did not eventuate in Split 2, with The Chiefs playing out their revenge. The other shareholders and I were left to contemplate the feasibility of running in 2018 without a guaranteed major sponsor. As one shareholder decided he did not want to run the risk, the sale of Sin Gaming was instigated. This was two weeks before the team was required to make a commitment for the 2018 season, but we refused to let Sin die.

Through previous meetings and a personal connection, Sin Gaming was able to find an amazing group of investors that shared the vision of building a winning team and the goal of competing at the League of Legends World Championship. It’s worth noting here, and to his credit, Dirk reappeared in February 2018 and assisted us during the sales process. While the business acquisition was taking place, Sin Gaming was left to operate at a bare minimum during Split 1 of 2018, highlighted by the fact Sin was the only team without a gaming house in the OPL. We earned a 6th place finish, which was not a terrible result considering the circumstances. However, Split 2 was our time to shine, and after all parties agreed on a re-brand, the new board of investors settled on Mammoth, a name aptly chosen given the goals and expectations of the individuals in the team.

Above: Initial "Mammoth Esports" re-brand (source)

For Split 2 we brought in LCS veteran ‘Mash’ and LCJ mid-laner ‘Remind’ to beef up the skill within our squad. With a last-minute transfer deadline acquisition, we also picked up former OPL Split MVP ‘Chippys’, with only ‘Juves’ and ‘Cuden’ from Split 1 retaining a place in the continuing squad. We started off incredibly well – 2-0 over Bombers. We were ecstatic, and believed that we could accomplish our goals of reaching Worlds. Reality hit hard and fast over the next few weeks, with a 0-2 against The Chiefs and dropped matches to both Dire Wolves and Legacy. The cracks within the team started to appear, and we ran out of time to fix them. We lost out on a Gauntlet spot by a single point as we fell to Legacy 0-2 in the last match of the Split. That loss ended our split preemptively, and our team went back to the drawing board to figure out “how can we win in 2019?”.

One of my big philosophies in life is to get the best results, you must work with the best people. To me, the best person was Richard ‘Phantiks’ Su. I met him during 2018 and closely followed his journey with ‘Intuition’ in the OCS, being so close to challenge for an OPL position of his own but just missing out in the end. This resonated strongly internally with me and I could see the appetite he had to win. We spoke at the end of the Melbourne Esports Open in 2018, and I explained Mammoth’s vision and my belief that he could lead the strategy to accomplish these goals. After a few months of conversations, Phantiks signed with Mammoth as Head Coach for 2019.

It was at this point we began to articulate what our dream team was, and how we can not only guarantee success in the OPL, but also push OCE’s previous limits internationally. The answer was Topoon, Babip, Triple, K1NG and Destiny with Cuden as manager and Jido as an analyst. The media believed it, the OPL believed it, and the fans believed it – MAMMOTH was a super team destined to win the OPL. Reality, again, had other plans, as we finished in a disastrous 5th place.

With such huge expectations on every internal and external member of the team, we buckled under the pressure. Consecutive match losses raised alarm bells early on, then a loss to Dire Wolves (their only win of the season) confirmed this alarm. We couldn’t understand why we were losing on stage – training was fantastic, on an individual level Solo Queue climbing was great, and team chemistry was strong. What was happening? A big part of what was happening was our fear. Fear of losing, as opposed to the trust of winning. Expectations on the team were so high, that it became difficult to overcome and translate practice into match success. Though once we exposed this as the root of the issue, we momentarily managed to overcome it, going on a five-game win-streak. However, just when we thought we reached our best, ‘Order’ dismantled us in the opening round of the Gauntlet. Out of all the failures between Sin Gaming and Mammoth – this one hurt the most.

As the team director it’s my job to high-level manage everyone, and make sure that our line-up, strategy, and players are in peak condition to take out the win. However, with this team I became incredibly personally invested in the emotions and obsessed with winning. This loss hit everyone hard, including me. The team was in disarray, and with only a short period between Splits, it was our job to put it back in place before Split 2.

In Split 2 we introduced young blood in the top lane with the prodigy ‘Fudge’ and after time to self-reflect on the loss, things clicked for us. As a team, we identified our culture and principals, to act as fundamental guidelines as to how we wanted to see ourselves, along with the expectations of our teammates. A sports psychology team helped us further define this culture, instilling resilience within the team that previously didn’t exist. Our match day performance was finally able to correlate with our training results and our fear was replaced by trust in each other. This was able to take us to Melbourne Esports Open, closing it out with a 3-0 result against The Chiefs. It was by no means an easy journey, but it felt much more in our control.

With the short lead-in time between the business acquisition, the new team creation, and launch of the Mammoth brand – we never had the opportunity to thank the Sin Gaming fans and explain why this transition happened. We want all fans to know that the DNA and spirit of #FIGHTO lives on in Mammoth. We built this team with the very same philosophy, that we are a family first and together we stand stronger than individuals.

Through supporting each other, we ultimately reached our goals, learning from the failures along the way. We now prepare for the opportunity to take Oceania further than ever before, and I believe if there is a team that is resilient and strong enough to do it, it is Mammoth.