The narrative for the first game of the 2015 NA LCS Summer Season couldn't have been any better.
On one side you had Team SoloMid, the reigning, back-to-back North American champions who were returning to the LCS to defend their title after a disastrous finish at the Mid-Season Invitational. On the other was Cloud9, the team Bjergsen and co. had beaten in the past two NA LCS Grand Finals, who came into the season shedding the identity and static roster they held for two years. The new piece to C9's puzzle was Incarnati0n, a solo queue superstar who's known for his heavy aggression assassins and playmaking abilities. In the first game of his professional career, Cloud9's rookie mid laner was tasked with squaring off against the strongest ace in North America, his Danish countryman Bjergsen.
When Hai stepped down as C9's captain, shot-caller, and starting mid laner, it was a turning point for the organization. A passive, point guard-type player in the middle lane, Hai's greatest strength was his ability to direct his team like chess pieces, setting up flanks, optimal team fights, and making rapid, crisp calls to move his squad into a position where they could secure a win. For all intents and purposes, Incarnati0n is the direct opposite: he's a player who prefers to be his team's main carry, not to mention that he's never played in a professional game before Saturday.
Some critics and fans thought that Incarnati0n needed to be C9's savior. After a year of complete dominance in NA and making two Worlds quarterfinals, the C9 team that we saw this past Spring were a shell of their former selves. Their shot calling was inconsistent and C9 would sometimes resemble the undisputed NA champions of old before following that performance up with a game where it was clear that none of the five players on the rift were on the same page. Even in a season where it looked like they sleepwalked through the regular season, C9 finished as runners-up in the regular season and playoffs, only trailing TSM. With the cracks starting to show in C9's once rock-solid foundation, they decided to make their first roster change in 100 games and opted to roll with an aggressive, high-scoring mid laner who could not have been more different than Hai's defensive, thinking man's style of play.
Cloud9 beat Team SoloMid with their new lineup, netting Incarnati0n his first victory as a pro in his LCS debut, but it wasn't the storybook opening that many fans had dreamed of. C9 picked a composition that let Incarnati0n's AP Kog'maw be the centerpiece of their strategy and they protected their new carry in a way that would allow him to do what he did best — damage TSM's back lines with bullseye accuracy. Unfortunately TSM had other plans and they made sure to punish Incarnati0n's nerves and C9's unfamiliar dynamic early on by forcing him to give up his flash summoner with an early-game gank from Santorin's Rek'sai. With a favorable match-up in the laning phase, Bjergsen's Viktor took that small advantage and widened it, amassing a gigantic CS lead while the rest of TSM continually denied Incarnati0n his all important blue buff which in-turn affected his ability to spam his long-range ultimate.
By the 20 minute mark, Incarnati0n's debut was starting to resemble a nightmare. C9 made key moves to keep their carry safe, relinquishing dragon control to keep eyes on the late game in the hopes that they would stall long enough for Incarnati0n to become a factor with his time sensitive items. Every time TSM would go for a dragon, C9 would do their due diligence and check the dragon pit to see if there were any openings, but pulled back after a few parting shots from Kog'maw which returned their attentions back to the late-game.
Incarnati0n eventually got to a point where he could start doing damage, and C9 fortified their jungle in a way that allowed their glass cannon to secure his blue buff. What won Cloud9 the game was not a solo performance by Incarnati0n or a heroic carry performance from their newly acquired ace, but the way that C9 have routinely won their games over the past two years: perfectly timed and placed team fights. They forced TSM into chokes where Balls was able to get off key Equalizers with his signature Rumble, which separated the reigning champs long enough to tear down the necessary threats, win the battle and snowball their advantage into objectives.
When C9 ultimately widened their lead enough to push for the win and destroy TSM's Nexus, Incarnati0n was an important piece to C9's victory, but not the key. After a few shaky team fights and movements in the early game, Meteos' shot-calling and team fight set-ups started to work out, and C9 got the required items and power spikes they needed to take down a TSM squad that got ahead early by picking on the rookie mid laner.
Balls finished the game 2/2/11 on Rumble, raising his undefeated record on the champion to 17 games. Once seen as the strongest top laner in NA, Balls went through a slump in the Spring season, wavering around as an average player that couldn't take control of games like he had done so many times when C9 were at the top of NA. While he will most likely never get Rumble again this season (and that will force him to adapt to the changing top lane meta), Balls, when at his best, is as good as any top laner in the region. With the Balls of old on C9 and playing at the level we are used to seeing from him, it adds another threat and element to Cloud9 that they didn't wield last season.
Nerves and growing pains will come with Incarnati0n. He's not a Korean import from Champions or a famed Challenger player finally making his LCS debut. He's a green solo queue player who possesses a high level of potential, but will likely take a few weeks, months, or maybe years to fully realize his skill ceiling. Until then, there is no better team in the West for a player like him to go through his shaky early days on. If Incarnati0n can stick to Meteos' shot calling and the compositions C9 build around him, he won't need to be that superstar ace people expect him to be until the playoffs at the earliest. When C9 played today, Incarnati0n played as directed, fell in line when C9 team fought, and outside of a mishap in the early game that saw him get deleted, was positioned well enough to do what was needed of him in the end-game.
Cloud9 do not need a savior, and Incarnati0n, unless he adapts to the speed of Faker's debut, won't be the unstoppable ace that takes C9 to the top of the world rankings. While he'll improve with the team and his nerves will start to drift away after a month or two, the playoffs and World qualifiers will be the time where Incarnati0n will need to turn his potential into results. The current team with arguably the best jungler in the West in Meteos, and Sneaky, who could also make a case at the ADC position, are strong enough that even through the games where Incarnati0n falls behind early or gets killed due to his over aggressive tendencies, can back him up and support him.
Cloud9 need a player that can give them a different facet to their game and hopefully, by the time Worlds rolls around, be an aggressive carry they can rely on.
Incanati0n needs a team of friends to show him how to mature and transition his solo queue skills into becoming a full-fledged professional.
It's not always going to be easy for either side during the season, but C9 need the potential of a player like Incarnati0n to have a chance to make the next step at the international level. And Incarnati0n, having won his first professional game with his new team, needs a band of brothers to help him achieve, and break through, that ceiling of potential.
Tyler "Fionn" Erzberger is a staff writer for The Score eSports who covers the North American LCS and Korea's Champions. You can follow him on Twitter.