The Maestro in the Clouds: an in-depth look at Hai's career

by Tyler "Fionn" Erzberger Apr 23 2015
Thumbnail image courtesy of Riot Games

"Cloud9 announced the departure of Hai Lam from the League of Legends team. Hai will continue to play a significant role in the Cloud9 organization and stay heavily focused on the League of Legends space along with all the other growing eSports scenes." - Jack Etienne, Founder & Owner

With the announcement that Hai will be stepping down as a player and moving into a management role on Cloud9, the team's status as the longest running starting five in professional League of Legends history has officially come to an end. Since the NA LCS Summer 2013 qualifiers on May 10 2013, where Cloud9 (then Quantic) rampaged through the competition to make it into the premiere North American league, the starting lineup has stayed the same. While other teams made constant moves throughout each season to try and one up each other, C9's roster remained constant and the organization kept their faith in the five players who made it into the NA LCS together.

At the helm was Hai, the team captain and shot-caller, who, along with LemonNation, failed to make it into the LCS as his team's jungler. A team of solo queue stars the first time around, Cloud9 and Hai were upset in two Bo1s against Azure Gaming and Team MRN, falling out of the qualifiers and having to watch starting AD Carry WildTurtle move over to Team SoloMid.

Hai's team would get picked up by Quantic for the next run-through of qualifiers, this time with the five players who would become synonymous with the future Cloud9 brand. Balls, Sneaky and Meteos — the amateur prospect who would take over Hai's role in the jungle — joined the team, pushing Hai into a new role in the mid-lane. The new team flourished in the qualifiers, and Hai even played one final game as a jungler in the first map against Complexity in the match that would take them to the NA LCS, going a perfect 1/0/6 on Zac.

Before Quantic even played their first game in the NA LCS, they were picked up by the C9 organization, trading in their black and red uniforms for the now iconic blue and white apparel. A close friendship with the reigning champions TSM, there were even mutterings of C9 being a pseudo-sister team to the most decorated team in North American LoL history.

Cloud9 would set countless records in their first NA LCS season. They were seen as a threat coming into the league with highly touted rookies and players who had all been in the upper echelons of the Challenger solo queue, but no one could have expected the carnage they left in their wake during their rookie campaign. C9 only dropped three games during the regular season, winning 25 games out of 28, and then one upped themselves by winning the championship without dropping a single game in the playoffs.

TSM and C9, especially now with Hai leaving, will always encapsulate the past two years of play in the North American region. The two teams met in the finals in four straight seasons, C9 winning the first two with little trouble and TSM taking the past pair of titles, with Hai effectively retiring in the most recent 3-1 LCS Grand Finals victory.

In a rivalry that has shaped a region, the two teams' ideology have been radically different over that time. TSM are built around their namesake —  a solo mid laner —  and have gone from Reginald to Bjergsen, both of whom rely on an aggressive, heavy carry-oriented champions to help win games and titles. Cloud9 were the opposite with Hai in the middle; instead of having their mid laner serve as their centerpiece, the team used their captain in the middle lane to build up everyone around him.

Bjergsen is undoubtedly one of, if not the most, mechanically gifted player in North America. He uses his outplay potential and mechanics to lead his team to victories, with the other four members of the team conforming around him to let their ace player be in the best possible position to carry. Comparing that to Hai, the C9 shot-caller was an entirely different player. He had the ability at times to carry games on his back through his stellar signature Zed play, but Hai's true lasting memory on North America will be his ability to conduct.

Although most top teams around the world have a playmaking mid laner who, at times, uses brute force to tear down the opposition's wall, C9 played the game differently. Hai was at his best when put in the utility/support role, carrying his team by moving his chess pieces across the map meticulously and giving boosts to Meteos, Sneaky and Balls whenever they were in the designated role to serve as the squad's main carry.

If we compared League of Legends to basketball, Hai was an elite point guard-style of player, utilizing his teammates around him to make sure they were in the best position possible to get points. This mindset trickled down to Cloud9's polished team-fighting, the five-man core were known for their superb coordination in the most chaotic of situations.

In situations when the team didn't dominate their lanes and transition into the mid-game with a sizable lead — which, quite frankly, wasn't often in the early days — the players in blue and white were still able to win games through their communication in large, drawn-out team fights. Hai was playing the point guard role, propping up his teammates in fights and hitting the right timings with flanks that pushed them into the lead with continuous Aces. 

The 2014 Spring Playoffs were the peak of Hai's greatness as an all-around player. He not only showed off his map control expertise with Twisted Fate and his support utilization with Lulu against Team SoloMid in the Grand Finals, but he was also able to showcase his solo carrying skills on LeBlanc. While Hai's greatest moments came from his conducting around the map and his shot-calling, you can't forget how well he was able to perform as a main carry if needed before his struggles with wrist and health issues.

C9 played five games in those Spring Playoffs, winning each one of them as Hai finished with a ridiculous 34.5 KDA ratio. This was possibly the height of C9 up until now; they were unmatched in North America, had made the Top 8 at Worlds (albeit auto-placed there by format), and the future only looked brighter for the five American heroes.

With the good came the bad, the lowest point of Hai's career coming shortly after his peak MVP performance in the postseason. Cloud9, winners of the NA LCS, won a spot to compete in the upcoming All-Stars event in Paris, France, pitting the champion teams across the world in an event to decide which region's king was the strongest.

Shortly before C9 were set to jet off to Paris and compete with the likes of SK Telecom T1 and OMG, Hai's lung collapsed. He was hospitalized and not allowed to play in the event. After talking about how excited he was to test his mettle against the world's best mid-laners, consisting of China's MVP Cool and Korea's MVP Faker, all he could do was watch from home as his teammates and friends went to Paris with an alternate.

CLG's starting mid-laner Link stepped in for Hai during his absence. He did well to start off the tournament, C9 even beating and placing above the Chinese winners in the group stages. The team would come back down to earth during the semifinal bracket stage, OMG getting their revenge on C9 and Link by beating them 2-0 and making it to the finals. All the while, thoughts of what would have happened if Hai, at his peak before the health issues and wrist ailments, could have participated.

Hai would fight back from his injury and return to the team for the start of the Summer season, pulling out a Teemo against TSM's Danish wunderkind Bjergsen in the middle lane. Like so many times in the past, Hai was able to bring out something new and win with it, as C9 made sure that people didn't forget who the top dogs in North America were.

Still, the level of dominance Hai and C9 had never really returned after the hospitalization. His wrists started to act up — he needed to wear braces during his off time so that it didn't affect him as much when he played. With the health problems coinciding with the fact Bjergsen was rising to prominence as undoubtedly the best mid-laner in North America, Cloud9 started to falter. The crisp map movements and team fighting was still there most of the time, but the technical skill and absolute power of players like Bjergsen and XWX were able to run through C9's mind games and swift calls.

Cloud9 were playing chess, but what did that matter if teams like TSM and LMQ could simply punch them in the mouth repeatedly?

In the latter days of his stint on C9, for every great game he played that still showed the Playoff MVP Hai, he would also have a game where he would try to play an assassin champion like Yasuo or Talon and die upwards of 10 times a game with almost no kills to his name. The mind for the game and the genius flare that he brought to Summoner's Rift was still there, but the constant wrist issues hampered him from being able to preform at the level mechanically of the newer generation making themselves known in the Western scene.

My favorite Hai match isn't one during his dominant early days, but closer to the end. At the 2014 World Championships, Cloud9 once again punched their ticket to the Top 8 with a solid group performance. With their placement already certified, they then played one final match against Korea's third-seeded NaJin White Shield to see who would top the group. Most importantly, the group winner would avoid all other Korean teams in the bracket until a potential finals match-up, while the loser was given the task of trying to take down one of the Samsung giants, Samsung Blue.

On the surface, the game was a one-sided affair for White Shield. This was another one of the later Hai games where he locked in an assassin, Talon, and fell flat on his face. He died seven times in the first 35 minutes, only having a single kill to his name and no assists. NaJin were up 7k+ gold, grabbing Barons as they pleased and were led by Ggoong, a mechanically gifted mid-laner on Zed.

This game really summarized what I think Hai will be known for for years to come. Cloud9 were outmatched positionally, most notably in the middle lane where Hai went up against a more technically gifted player than him. Ggoong came into the tournament as one of the star mid-laners in Korea, having a resurgence at the position with the return of assassins taking over the meta. A former StarCraft: Brood War professional, Ggoong's raw talent and micro ability were the exact opposite strengths of Hai's.

Ggoong wasn't the smartest player, sometimes making haphazard plays and needing to rely on his individual skills to get out of mistakes. Hai was getting worn down with health issues, never praised in the same way Bjergsen or XWX, even though he could always make up for it with his mind. If White Shield were pressuring one side of the map or grabbing a kill, a Cloud9 member would be in a side line and trying to split push, taking turrets and trying to breakdown NaJin's base in the process.

White Shield's mid laner would make a big play and pick up a kill on the map. C9 would respond with their team's mobility by deploying Ball's Nidalee, Hai's Talon or Sneaky's Corki to try and break through Shield's defenses, sniping a tower or objective before the other team could turn around and kill him. Their suicide missions would end up with them dead in the end, usually by the hand of Ggoong's Zed, but the plan was working — down so much gold, they were up seven turret kills to six at the 38 minute mark.

Even losing by 11k gold and in a position where Ggoong could rip the Cloud9 team apart almost all by himself, C9 were still able to knock down a Nexus turret and repeatedly pester the Shield base, hoping that their thousandth try to break the more powerful opponent's base would be their ticket to a win. But, after all that annoying split pushing and genius mind games, C9 were stopped at the brink, being knocked back by the more talented opponent and lost the game at 41 minutes.

Hai finished that game 1/8/0. If people are flipping at scoreboards years from now looking at past Worlds performances, they'll stop at his score and laugh. 'Wow, this guy was awful. He fed so much. No wonder why NA lost,' not knowing the impact he had within the game itself. All the rapid, smart moves will be lost, with the average fan never knowing how close a game that looked like a blowout actually was.

That game was Hai in a nutshell. He was never the flashiest player in the mid-lane. Most people don't even remember his amazing Spring Playoffs performance, destroying people on various champion types and winning MVP with a KDA over 34. When XiaoWeiXiao and Bjergsen were putting up big points and getting spammed constantly in dubstep Youtube highlight videos, Hai was maneuvering his team from the background. He might have not been the player to always pick up the big kills, but the plays he called and the moves he made were the reason why Meteos, Sneaky and Balls could be the amazing players they are today.

A 99-31 career record in the NA LCS regular season and playoffs.

Two-time NA LCS champion.

2014 NA LCS Spring Playoff MVP with a KDA of 34.5.

Four straight NA LCS Grand Finals.

IEM San Jose champion.

Back-to-back top eight placements at the World Championships.

Now moving into a management role with Cloud9, Hai will put his brain and brisk movements to helping his friends and teammates grow into the next era of C9. One of the smartest and well-spoken players in League of Legends, the maestro of Cloud9 now moves onto his next job — becoming a legend behind the scenes as he was under the spotlight.

Tyler "Fionn" Erzberger is a staff writer for theScore eSports. He wishes Hai the best of luck in his new role as the CGO (Chief Gaming Officer) of Cloud9. You can follow him on Twitter.