Hai “Hai” Du Lam is a professional.
Tapped once more to do a post-match interview, he jokes with David “Phreak” Turley about the Challenger Series trophy. He grins, quips, and answers questions with a breezy, practiced air.
“I think different people want to do different things,” Hai says. “For me, I like playing but my wrists are getting kind of bad again so I don't think I can keep up with it, you know? It's a lot of practice and it's not something I can keep up with.”
His current team, Cloud9 Challenger, has just won the 2016 North American League of Legends Challenger Series Summer Finals 3-2 over Team Liquid Academy. Both have professional teams in the League Championship Series. Both have players on their roster who are LCS — in the case of TLA Chae “Piglet” Gwang-jin, also OGN Champions — and League of Legends World Championship veterans.
Hai is one of these players. Already immortalized as the brightest shotcaller to grace the NA professional scene, he has attempted retirement and been drawn back in to aid the C9 organization multiple times. This time, he helped carry their challenger team through the NACS along with former C9 teammates Daerek “LemonNation” Hart and An “Balls” Le.
Nearly every one of these interviews, he says he’s tired. He cites ongoing wrist injuries as a reason for his impending final exit from the NA scene.
This exit has still not come.
“For the other players,” Hai says. “I think they're still pretty hungry for the LCS, and obviously we have to sell the spot. We can’t have two C9 teams in the LCS.”
In the 2017 NA LCS Spring, the running joke is that C9 have two teams to rule the split, not just one. Cloud9 proper sit atop the NA standings with an undefeated record. Just behind them are FlyQuest, formerly known as C9C.
Six months after his interview with Phreak following C9C's NACS Finals victory, FlyQuest mid laner Hai greets the Riot Games caster again, this time after FlyQuest's first 2017 LCS win.
"I feel like I'm old, man." Hai smiles, rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet with pent-up energy from the recent match. "I'm not super old, but compared to them I feel ancient." He says this despite being teammates with LemonNation, the oldest player in the NA LCS.
FlyQuest are the Milwaukee Bucks-backed, new organization that bought C9C. They make the controversial decision to retain four of the five qualifying members from their challenger endeavors: Hai, Balls, LemonNation, and AD carry Johnny "Altec" Ru. In the waning moments before the roster deadline, they add much-maligned former NRG eSports and Team Liquid Academy jungler Galen "Moon" Holgate. Expectations of this team in the 2017 NA LCS Spring are low, to say the least.
"It's kind of weird juxtaposed to when I was on Cloud9," Hai tells Phreak. "Everyone always expected us to be first, second, third. Now people are just saying that we're going to be tenth, ninth so I have — I play for myself and I don't have any expectations to live up to. People in the past were saying that we're NA's only hope at Worlds and things like that. Now that people expect nothing out of us, it's relaxing, you know? I don't have to do good for people, I can just do good for myself."
FlyQuest are currently 5-1 in series and 11-3 in overall games. Only C9 has a better record at 6-0 and 12-2. Five newer players under the C9 banner. Three of the original C9 LCS players — Hai, Balls, LemonNation — on FlyQuest. The two teams meet this Sunday. A battle of old against new. Hai will face Nicolaj “Jensen” Jensen in the mid lane, the player who replaced him after his failed 2015 retirement and fellow teammate for a time when Hai was called upon to jungle, and later support, for C9.
Team SoloMid’s Søren “Bjergsen” Bjerg still holds the mid lane crown in North America, but fellow Danish import Jensen is slowly creeping up behind him. The 2016 NA LCS Summer season not only served as a new dawn for top laner Jung “Impact” Eon-yeong, but saw Jensen shed a greener, 1v1 mentality and take up the mantle of a smarter, stronger mid laner — a central, steady point around which the team could pivot and grow. Jensen retained his laning prowess. His mechanical outplays can still turn entire C9 teamfights. Yet, his true strength for C9 is his increasingly masterful control of the mid lane. He draws enemy pressure and still holds his own, allowing his teammates to make other plays around the map.
While Hai and C9C raze through the challenger series with former Ember jungler Juan “Contractz” Arturo Garcia in 2016 summer, Cloud9 has a rocky start in the 2016 NA LCS Summer split. Cloud9 begins 4-2 in the first three weeks. Dropping series to Immortals and TSM, they also sloppily drop games to Echo Fox and Apex in 2-1 series victories. C9 aren’t bad, but they aren’t good either, showcasing a lack of coordination and over-reliance on individual outplays from Jensen and occasionally Impact.
The tide begins to turn towards the end of the split and beginning of playoffs. C9 settles on Andy “Smoothie” Ta as their starting support instead of rotating between him and Michael “BunnyFuFuu” Kurylo. Despite being a young rookie, Smoothie is, and continues to be, cited as a major voice on the team. More stability in the bottom lane along with Jensen’s improvement precipitates Impact’s breakout playoffs run. Suddenly the top laner is solo-killing opponents left and right, drawing more pressure than ever to his lane. C9 unexpectedly make it to the 2016 NA LCS Summer Finals, where they lose to TSM, and later run the regional gauntlet, representing NA at the 2016 World Championship.
This past offseason, C9 shop around their challenger team and shop for a new jungler to take the place of William “Meteos” Hartman. In the case of their jungler, the search is brief. The organization promotes Contractz — a standout, aggressive player while on C9C — to the main lineup.
Cloud9 immediately leaps ahead of the pack at the start of the split. They kick off this NA season with a 2-0 victory over Team SoloMid, and follow it up with a 2-1 win over Team Dignitas two days later. Contractz is the perfect fit for C9, an aggressive, carry-style jungler raised by former C9 veterans in the 2016 challenger series.
Much of Contractz’s success is owed to strong laners, which allow him to farm or aggressively invade his opponent’s jungle. He’s also more than willing to initiate teamfights, even on DPS carries, which occasionally gets him into trouble along with some of his riskier blind invades. His penchant for dying has followed him from the challenger series to the LCS, and while it hasn’t hampered C9 thus far, it’s something he knows he has to address as the season unfolds.
“I think I’m just an aggressive player,” he says after their Week 1 win over Team Dignitas. “I can get too aggressive sometimes and it’s pretty bad, but I’m working on it. I just like being aggressive.”
Showing off similar aggression is FlyQuest jungler Moon, who has burst onto the scene as the polar opposite of the hesitant and overly-cautious NRG jungler in 2016 NA LCS Spring. When C9C beats TLA 3-2 in the 2016 NACS Summer Finals, the first player to rise from the TLA booth and congratulate Hai and company is Moon. Even in defeat, he looks far happier than he ever did in an NRG uniform. A known player with stage fright, Moon was a jungler that many people were familiar with, and his challenger outings seemed to indicated to be a strong talent, if only he could get over his fear of the LCS stage.
“I think it helped to not be onstage for a split,” Moon says of returning to NACS during 2016 summer. “Just playing at home comfortably in NA CS helped.”
There’s a faint, but interesting, parallel between the FlyQuest jungler and mid. Hai, who reiterated throughout his off-role performances with C9, and his time on C9C, that his wrist was deteriorating and he felt old, seems to be playing without as much pressure on FlyQuest. Although he’s had a few teamfight positioning mishaps, he’s also had remarkable carry performances this season. FlyQuest’s recent Week 3 annihilation of of Immortals treated audiences to an 11/2/4 Zed outing reminiscent of his early C9 days.
Moon is playing with similar abandon and has transitioned into the role of DPS carry jungler for FlyQuest remarkably well. He is currently tied for the highest team damage percentage of any NA jungler (18.6 percent) with Team Liquid’s Kim “Reignover” Yeu-jin. Moon also holds highest earned gold per minute (250.8) of any NA jungler and the second-highest experience difference at 10 minutes of any NA LCS player at 275. Only Phoenix1 mid laner Yoo “Ryu” Sang-ook is higher.
In Moon, Hai has found his new dive buddy, and FlyQuest operates similarly to how C9C won their challenger series split: pushing lanes and good coordination between jungle and mid. Similarly, C9 also uses mid lane to facilitate most of their plays through the duo of Jensen and Contractz, but the two aren't as in tune with each other yet. Moon and Contractz are heavily involved in their respective teams’ skirmishes — both have the highest kill participation on their teams at 73.1 percent and 70 percent. C9 does like to get Impact more involved, and the team’s average kill participation of 67.46 percent is a little over four percent higher than FlyQuest’s average of 63.14 percent. FlyQuest prefers to generally leave Balls to his own devices on Maokai, Shen and Nautilus and he has the lowest kill participation on his team at 53.9 percent. Meanwhile, Impact is often in the thick of things for C9 with a kill participation of 67.8 percent.
Tied with Counter Logic Gaming for the highest combined kills per minute in the league at 0.82, FlyQuest are just behind C9 in kills to death ratio at 1.72 to C9’s 1.64. FlyQuest prefer smaller skirmishes where C9 are more adept at large-scale teamfights, especially with Impact.
The true strength of FlyQuest and C9 this split is the same strength that made the original C9 good. Both teams are well aware of their strengths and weaknesses and know how to leverage the former to make up for the latter. More than the matchup of former C9 sister teams, more than watching Hai take on his former organization or Contractz fight against his former challenger teammates, this will be a match to watch simply due to how well these teams know themselves.
Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter.