Presented by

Starting Over: Cloud9's bumpy road to the NA finals

by theScore Staff Aug 27 2016
Thumbnail image courtesy of Riot Games/lolesports / NA LCS Summer 2016 / Riot Games

The 2015 North American League Championship Series Spring Finals were a last hurrah for the original Cloud9 qualifying roster of An “Balls” Le, William “Meteos” Hartman, Hai “Hai” Lam, Zachary “Sneaky” Scuderi, and Daerek “LemonNation” Hart.

C9 initially took NA by storm following their undefeated qualifying run in the promotion tournament for the 2013 NA LCS Summer split. They finished 25-3 in the regular season and razed the playoffs without dropping a game, sweeping NA darlings Team SoloMid in the finals with a resounding 3-0.

With their Summer Finals victory, C9 locked in NA’s first seed at the Season 3 World Championship. Despite their loss to Fnatic in the Quarterfinals, C9 ushered in a wave of hope for their region’s improvement. At the time of their 2015 NA LCS Spring Finals loss, this C9 roster had won two NA LCS titles, and had been to four domestic finals. Alongside TSM, C9 were America’s team.

Their defeat in 2015 Spring marked the end of this era. Hai retired shortly afterwards citing wrist issues and fatigue. One of the most-asked questions in the offseason between 2015 Spring and Summer was of who could possibly step in and fill Hai’s shoes. Nicolaj “Jensen” Jensen (then called “Incarnati0n”) was selected and hopes were high for C9 in the 2015 Summer split to continue the organization’s prior standard of Finals-worthy performances with a presumed stronger mid laner.

C9 went 2-4 in their first three weeks of the 2015 NA LCS Summer split and sunk to the standings. By Week 6, C9 were ninth place in the region and looked utterly lost. While Jensen was an upgrade in lane and mechanical prowess, C9 was without a leader.

“It was never going terribly but something just didn't click,” Sneaky later said on his stream. “Without [Hai] it's like, no one's really there to fill that void so we're kind of all like headless f***ing chickens."

Their poor showing led to Hai’s return to the team in Week 6, this time in the jungle position. Change was not instant and Hai’s much-touted presence could not save C9’s Summer season. They finished in seventh place, narrowly qualifying for the 2015 NA Regional Finals. Thanks to Hai’s direction, crucial Baron calls, and a dash of luck, C9 fought their way through the gauntlet and won their third World Championship appearance, this time as NA’s third seed. Like the Regional Finals, little was expected of C9 in their group, but they sprinted ahead of the pack in the first days of the group stage on the back of Azir/Tristana pushing compositions. The rest of Group B caught on by the back end of groups and banned Azir against C9 in their final three games, and their tiebreaker against ahq e-Sports Club where the Taiwanese team eliminated C9 from further Worlds contention.

Again, C9 attempted to reboot their roster at the start of the 2016 NA LCS Spring split. Former Team Impulse jungler Lee “Rush” Yoon-jae took over the C9 jungle, and Hai moved to a support substitute while the team turned to former Gravity Gaming support Michael “BunnyFuuFu” Kurylo. BunnyFuuFu played a mere three games in the 2016 NA LCS Spring split before C9 selected Hai as their starting support. C9’s over reliance on Hai and his leadership abilities was now memetic. The team managed to finish third in the 2016 NA LCS Spring regular season, but was easily mowed down by a rising TSM in the quarterfinals.

It was time for another reboot. Hai was simply a bandaid for larger team problems, and while it could have meant another rough stretch for C9, they finally committed to a new team — Jung “Impact” Eon-yeong replaced Balls in the top lane, Meteos returned to the jungle, and the support position was divided up between BunnyFuuFu and Andy “Smoothie” Ta. Most importantly, Bok “Reapered” Han-gyu joined as C9’s coach. His initial impressions of the team were of a loose collection of solo queue players, somewhat affirming Hai’s memetic status as the gold standard for NA shotcallers.

“It seemed very clear to me that the players are mechanically sound,” Reapered said upon arrival to the team’s bootcamp in Korea. “But don't know how to play as a team effectively. It amazed me how these players that have been pros for two, three seasons play the map as if they were in solo queue.”

There was little doubt that C9 had talent going into this split. Questions of whether they could do it without Hai, and how the team would manage to gel lingered through the first few weeks, as the team played fast and loose, often too hesitant to pick advantageous fights while also fighting at inappropriate times. Yet, as the split wore on, C9 started to look more and more like a team. If one player faltered, another would step up, and the team adjusted accordingly. They finished the 2016 NA LCS Summer regular season in third place, but it was a far more confident and dominant third place than their Spring run, which was more like a race against time before the team fell apart. This time, C9 had made visible improvements throughout the split, and while they weren’t favored against Immortals in their Semifinals series, C9’s eventual 3-2 victory came as an unexpected surprise, rather than met with shock and disbelief.

Few people expect C9 to beat TSM this weekend. TSM is inarguably the best team in North America, and likely the region’s best chance at the 2016 World Championship. Yet, going into the Finals, C9 have far less to lose than TSM, who enter the finals with the weight of NA on their shoulders. This split has already been a successful rebirth for C9, regardless of what the scoreline reads come Sunday afternoon.

Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter.