Feet on the Ground, Head in the Clouds: Cloud9

by theScore Staff Sep 25 2016
Thumbnail image courtesy of Riot Games/lolesports / NA LCS Summer Finals 2016 / Riot Games

When evaluating League of Legends teams, there are concrete statistics that can back up what a team showcases on the Rift. Then there are intangible qualities to keep in mind like leadership or mental fortitude and, for teams, factors like coordination or experience.

As difficult as it is to describe how or why experience is such an important factor — there are no statistics that back up experience aside from games played as a unit — the fact of the matter is that it can give a team a definitive edge over their opponent. Experience is steady and reliable. Experience is hard to bet against. Experience usually wins out. Cloud9's current roster has experience as individuals, but not nearly as much as a unit, especially when considering Group B counterparts Flash Wolves and SK Telecom T1. This makes them a tricky team to evaluate and an interesting one — their current lineup the first truly formidable unit since that of their professional debut in 2013.

Top laner Jung “Impact” Eon-yeong is a veteran player who won a League of Legends World Championship with SK Telecom T1 in Season 3. Jungler William “Meteos” Hartman and AD carry Zachary “Sneaky” Scuderi have been with the organization since they qualified for the LCS in 2013. Mid laner Nicolaj "Jensen" Jensen attended last year's World Championship with C9 and played in the 2016 NA LCS Summer Finals this past split. Their coach, Bok "Reapered" Han-gyu is a legacy player from LoL's initial rise as a prominent esport.

At the start of summer, C9 was a promising upstart that lacked coordination and strong macro play. Against a surging Team SoloMid and an Immortals team determined to right their own ship after an embarrassing loss to TSM in the Spring Semifinals, C9 were a distant third. They too were fed to the TSM woodchipper in the 2016 Spring Playoffs, and had just undergone their third roster reboot marking Meteos' return to their LCS squad and the acquisition of Impact as well as Team Liquid Academy rookie support Andy "Smoothie" Ta.

Their first two weeks of summer were rockier than their 3-1 record suggested. C9 proved that they had the talent to take out Immortals, pressing the spring regular season kings to all three games in their series. Yet, C9 struggled to close out games, and overly-relied on individual performances to carry them, looking disjointed and disorganized, dropping games to eventual bottom feeders Echo Fox and a Phoenix1 team without their eventual starting jungler, Rami "Inori" Charagh. They won both series, but failed to recognize when or when not to fight. Both Meteos and Impact looked lost at times, with the former initiating fights without his team and the latter arriving too late.

Through their bumpy start, Jensen became the constant, holding up the mid lane even when Meteos did not provide the early pressure that they needed. One of their more telling statistics from the season is their long average game time of 36.7 minutes, the third longest of any NA team in the 2016 Summer split, hinting at C9's early passivity and inability to recognize opportunities to be aggressive and take kills or objectives from their opponents.

As the weeks wore on, Jensen continue to rack up Player of the Game points while his team learned to coordinate with each other and better focus objectives. Their mistakes grew fewer, and while some of them still proved costly, it became apparent that C9 was learning — transforming from a talented group of individuals into a true team for the first time since their original LCS roster. A multitude of teamfight mistakes in games dwindled down to one or two less costly engages, failed objective trades due to passivity turned into C9 finally contesting opponents for neutral objectives and turrets. Still, despite their improvement and 3-1 Quarterfinals victory over Team EnVyUs, C9 was not favored in their Summer Semifinals matchup over regular-season kings Immortals and their duo of top laner Heo "Huni" Seung-hoon and jungler Kim "Reignover" Yeu-jin.

The end result was a sloppy 3-2 victory that didn't showcase the best of either team involved aside from Impact's impressive carry performances. While Impact had made a lasting impression, their impending Finals series against TSM was overwhelmingly called in TSM's favor. TSM had been consistently strong, also improving throughout the split into NA's strongest team. Dropping only one series all season and fresh off of a 3-0 stomp over Counter Logic Gaming, TSM appeared an insurmountable obstacle for C9, who had a 1-4 game record against TSM during the regular season with two series losses.

C9 defied expectations and struck first. Jensen kicked things off with a solo kill onto TSM mid laner Søren "Bjergsen" Bjerg's Vladimir just past five minutes. Meteos and Impact ensured that they were available to group up for skirmishes or counter-engages with their global ultimates — on Rek'Sai and Shen respectively — with Sneaky using his Enchanted Crystal Arrow for good measure. Smoothie had one of his strongest performances of the year on Trundle, with crucial pillars to aid C9's teamfights.

TSM overwhelmed C9 in later games of the series, beating them 3-1. It was a crushing loss for C9 that showed not only how far they had come, but how much further they had to travel to be the best. They lacked the unity of TSM and Meteos in particular had suspect timing in teamfights that pointed to larger communication issues still present on the team. Still, they had grown enough to more soundly defeat Immortals a week later in the Regional Finals with a far cleaner showing than when the two teams had met in the Semifinals two weeks prior. Again, C9 were learning.

Their latest iteration will now be put to a greater test at this year's world championship. and it will be interesting to see if they can make the most out of their collective experience and continue the growth that the team has undergone throughout the 2016 NA LCS Summer Split.

C9 have attempted to reboot their roster only three times since the team first qualified for the NA LCS, a rarity when looking at other organizations that change their roster every split — or in some cases multiple times during a split based on behavioral or performance issues. That initial roster that featured the likes of An “Balls” Le, Meteos, Hai “Hai” Du Lam, Sneaky and Daerek “LemonNation” Hart, made C9 North America’s darlings at the 2013 World Championship. With two NA LCS titles under their belts, two more finals appearances, and two World Championship bids, C9's original lineup could do no wrong. Even now, they’re touted as one of the strongest North American squads in the region’s history.

Yet, after the 2015 NA LCS Spring Split, these five players had seemingly run their natural course as a team. Sure, they had a ton of experience under their respective belts, but they struggled to maintain the dominant form that fans had become so accustomed to seeing. C9 kicked off their first two weeks of the split with a 1-3 record that included losses to TSM, Gravity Gaming, and Counter Logic Gaming. Rising steadily throughout the split, C9 finished in second place but were taken to all five games by Team Liquid in their spring semifinal match, and were subsequently swept by TSM in the 2015 NA LCS Spring Finals. Even in their 2014 Summer Finals loss to TSM, they were fresh off of a 3-0 semifinal sweep of Team Curse and managed to take TSM to all five games in the finals. The field was slowly creeping up behind C9 — and had been since Hai’s lung collapsed prior to the team’s trip to 2014's All-Stars in Paris — but C9 had previously been strong enough to mostly stave off their advances, only falling to TSM at the very end.

Their comparatively flat 2015 spring split precipitated the team’s first major roster change — Hai’s initial retirement. The departure of Hai and acquisition of Jensen (then called “Incarnati0n”) in the mid-season shuffle between spring and summer seasons was supposed to usher in a new era for C9. Jensen was a mechanical upgrade from Hai and didn’t suffer the same wrist injuries or fatigue that plagued Hai throughout the 2015 spring split.

The 2015 NA LCS Summer split was the worst split in C9’s history. Lost without an effective team leader, C9 were uncoordinated — the opposite of the clean, crisp dynamic upon which they had built their brand since 2013 Summer. With a dismal 3-7 record across the first five weeks of summer, Meteos stepped down and Hai returned to the team as a jungler. It was too late to save C9’s slumping season, but they eked out a qualification to the 2015 NA Regional Finals where they produced a stunning series of reverse sweeps to unexpectedly earn another World Championship appearance. In Worlds Group B, C9 continued to surprise fans and opponents alike with a fast-push Tristana/Azir combination and Jensen’s pocket Veigar. By the second week of groups, C9’s adversaries adapted to the NA upstart’s strategies and banned out Jensen’s Azir, leading C9 to an 0-3 run and a tiebreaker loss to Taiwan’s ahq eSports Club. Again, C9 were faced with a roadblock that they could not overcome.

C9’s second reboot came prior to the 2016 NA LCS Spring split with former Team Impulse jungler Lee “Rush” Yoon-jae joining the squad and Hai stepping back to a substitute position as a support behind Michael “BunnyFuuFu” Kurylo. BunnyFuuFu played a mere two games in the first two weeks of the split before Hai permanently took over the starting support position. Finishing third overall in the regular season with a 12-6 record, only one game behind second-place CLG, C9 was unceremoniously dispatched 3-1 by a rising TSM in the Spring Quarterfinals.

That loss precipitated C9’s third, and most successful reboot since their original starting five. Hai left C9’s LCS team to head up the organization’s challenger squad, Meteos returned to the starting roster and former SK Telecom T1 K top laner Impact was signed as the team's new top laner. Former Team Liquid Academy prospect Smoothie joined BunnyFuuFu to split starting support duties, yet C9’s greatest offseason signing was not a player, but their coach, former Azubu Blaze and SK Telecom T1 legacy top laner Reapered.

Reapered’s arrival was met with a small amount of fanfare and a healthy dose of skepticism. While Reapered had micromanaged the likes of An “MighTiLy” Jeong-uk in-game, there was no guarantee that it would translate into a similarly successful coaching career, especially with the lack of a common language between him and his team outside of Impact.

Throughout the 2016 NA LCS Summer split, Impact took a backseat to Team SoloMid’s Kevin “Hauntzer” Yarnell, Immortals’ Heo “Huni” Seung-hoon, and even Apex Gaming’s Jeon “Ray” Ji-won. Fresh off of an unimpressive split with NRG eSports, Impact was widely regarded as a washed-up top laner who was good enough to hold his own, but not strong enough to make a lasting impression. While on NRG, he suffered from obvious communication issues — poor Teleport timings, engaging ahead or behind his teammates, and joining teamfights too early or too late to be effective. These problems haven’t completely disappeared during his tenure on C9, and remained an issue in their recent 2016 NA LCS Summer Finals loss to TSM and their Regional gauntlet run.

Yet C9 have consistently grown from a loose collection of talented players into a legitimate team, with Impact’s rise to the top the required weight to tip the scales in C9’s favor, eventually earning them tickets to the World Championship. With phenomenal Gnar play, Impact took the 2016 NA LCS Summer Playoffs by storm. His engages with his teammates were increasingly timely, but his lane dominance was what truly overwhelmed C9's adversaries, even when he received little to no jungle help. Across the four weeks encompassing playoffs, finals, and the gauntlet, Impact had a whopping 18 solo kills in lane. Drawing pressure top, Impact’s carry prowess allowed C9 conveniences elsewhere on the map, patching up holes in C9’s early game.

“Honestly, I’m not sure what changed with me,” Impact said after their qualifying victory over Immortals. “I just played the way I normally play but I just [started getting] solo kills so ... there’s not much to say. I’m just good.”

Looking in from the outside, there’s little to suggest as to what facilitated Impact’s sudden rise to the top of NA outside of his lengthy in-game experience and growing comfort with his C9 teammates. The reason that he joined C9 was to go to another World Championship, and with that on the horizon, C9 and Impact’s continued improvement relies on what they learned from their recent Korean bootcamp. Their road to the quarterfinals is tough, as Group B has two squads with far more experience as a team than this C9 lineup — Flash Wolves and the always threatening SK Telecom T1.

Individual members of C9 have lengthy amounts of experience, including Impact, Meteos, Sneaky, and their coach Reapered, yet these two Group B teams have played together for much longer, with better understanding of how to cover up their own weaknesses. C9’s challenge will be continued improvement to overcome their lack of experience as a unified group of five — something they’ve spent the better part of the 2016 NA LCS Summer split mastering.

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