There is no conceivable reason as to how Cloud9 have made it to their third straight World Championships. Really, I have no clue why I'm sitting here writing about a team that, two months ago, was on the fast track to battling in the promotional tournament to keep their spot in the NA LCS.
Every instance where C9 should have been eliminated from Worlds contention, they hung on — not always in glamorous fashion, but Cloud9 embodied the mantra of doing just enough to stay alive one more day in their hunt for a Worlds berth. In a season where they didn't even make the playoffs and were flailing around in the toils of a relegation battle, the boys in blue were able to outmaneuver the Grim Reaper at every turn to qualify for the Regional Finals and avoid the stress of going through the promotional tournament.
Coming into Worlds, it's no secret that Cloud9 are outgunned as they were drawn into a group with European juggernauts Fnatic, Taiwanese champions ahq e-Sports Club, and Invictus Gaming from the LPL, the perceived strongest region heading into the competition. Everything points to a quick exit for North America's third seed.
A miracle seems unlikely. With a notebook of strategies, a wily veteran captain at the forefront that thrives in disadvantageous scenarios, and nothing to lose, Cloud9 head into France with the same mindset that got them here:
Everyone believes we're set to fall, but that day (hopefully) won't be today.
The Road so Far
At the start of 2015, Cloud9 fielded the same roster that they had since they rampaged their way to the top in their rookie season: An "BalIs" Van Le, Will "Meteos" Hartman, Hai "Hai" Lam, Zachary "Sneaky" Scuderi, and Daerek "LemonNation" Hart. They were the team with the longest standing starting five in League of Legends' history and they played like it. Their strategies and communication were second-to-none in the Western scene.
Although they lost to Team SoloMid at the end of the 2014 LCS year and were eliminated 3-1 by Samsung Blue in the quarterfinals of the 2014 World Championships, Cloud9 were the safest bet you could have hoped for: even when they started slow and limped out of the gate, you knew they'd figure things out sooner rather than later.
The same pattern held true this spring, as Cloud9 had the worst season in their franchise's history and looked to be aimless for a majority of the split. But, like clockwork, everything started to work out for C9 as the playoffs approached — Cloud9 climbed the standings by the final week of the season to force a tiebreak with Counter Logic Gaming for the second. By the time playoffs began, the landscape was back to normal: Team SoloMid and Cloud9 were atop the region's standings, CLG stumbled right before the finish line, and the rest of the league trying playing catch up with the North American staples.
C9's story ended up the same as their last — TSM beat them in the finals, this time by the score of 3-1 to tie the record between the two squads in NA LCS Grand Finals at two apiece. While discouraging, Cloud9 were still in an optimal situation to make the World Championships. All they had to do was keep the same five players together with their topnotch teamwork and glide into the Top 16. No matter what new meta would emerge in the summer, their core was strong enough to battle through adversity and find themselves in the Top 2 by the regular split's end with their synergy.
Cloud9 did the opposite of taking the safe road. The team started to breakdown at the end of the spring split and instead of trying to grit through another season, they decided to make their first roster move in over two years in the biggest way possible: they replaced their captain and lead shot-caller for a player who could perform better in individual situations. It was the gamble of a lifetime, trading away an almost guaranteed spot at Worlds for the chance at maybe becoming a better team with a brand new configuration.
Hai's departure from the starting five paved the way for Nicolaj "Incarnati0n" Jensen, a brash prospect from Europe that had previously been banned for more than a year due to his behavior in online games. It was a trade that changed the entire design of Cloud9 as a team. Hai was a selfless player that would die 12 times a game if it meant that his team could win through objective control and pressure across the map. Incarnati0n brought the expectations of player that could go toe-to-toe with TSM's ace mid laner, Søren "Bjergsen" Bjerg in terms of lane play and carry potential from the center of the map.
The believed tradeoff was that Cloud9 would lose that unity that made them such a dangerous team and force Meteos to grow as a lead shot-caller on the team and they would gain the advantage down the road of possibly — if Meteos as captain could work out — a team with the same structure of the previous C9 with the added bonus of having a mid laner player with the capabilities of hard carrying consistently.
It sounded too good to be true, and it was. Cloud9 went through the same struggles they had in the spring split, but without the buffer of knowing that not before long they'd right the ship and return as the region's standard-bearer. Meteos couldn't transition into the role as the head shot-caller and had difficulty creating a partnership with his new mid laner. Incarnati0n also found himself slogging through the first few weeks of the season doing little or nothing to improve his stock as a star solo queue player out of water in the world of pro-gamers.
The Current State of the Team
C9's continual fraction through the ranks forced them to reshuffle their deck in the middle of the season. Meteos surprisingly left the team with only a few weeks left in the season, prompting former captain Hai to return home to the starting roster in an entirely new position. Hai played as a jungler during Cloud9's early days as a Challenger league team before Meteos joined the squad, but his move back to the jungle was one of forced urgency instead of some rabbit out of the hat. With little time left in the season and at the bottom of the standings, C9 threw the only card they could in their lackluster hand: bring back Hai and hope that his leadership and shot-calling can revitalize a team that was a mere shell of its former self.
Hai and Cloud9's ascent up the rankings wasn't an instantaneous result. The team and Incarnati0n started to play better as a unit with the improved chemistry and focus on the mid lane, but Hai's jungling was still sub-par compared to the better players at his position in the league when it came to pathing and pressuring the map. Hai made up for his shortcomings in terms of individual play with — like he always had — his sharp intellect and decisive play calls that C9 lacked in the first half of the season.
The improved performances slowly started to swing in the favor of Cloud9, close losses against the top teams in the league evolving into well-played wins that got them closer to their goal of dodging the promotional matches at the end of the season. After getting into striking distance of the seventh place spot on the final week of the season, Cloud9 were faced with a match on the final day of the season against the squad they wouldn't meet in the NA LCS grand finals for the first time in four seasons, Team SoloMid. A loss would have eliminated Cloud9 from Worlds and forced them to compete against a Challenger team to keep their once comfortable spot in NA's premiere league.
C9's game against TSM was the start of their miracle run to Worlds, defying the end of the road by finding new shortcuts each time they were faced with a new eliminated. They beat TSM in one-sided fashion to force a tiebreaker against Team 8 for the coveted seventh spot in the regular season standings, and C9 once again steered their way out of despair with a victory to secure their spot in the LCS next year and a place in the Regional Finals to select the final North American team to get a ticket to Worlds.
0-2 to Gravity in the NA Regionals? Cloud9 piloted their way to a reverse sweep.
0-2 to Team Impulse in the next round? Cloud9 came alive on the final three maps for the second straight day and move onto the finals.
Team Liquid turned out to be the easiest match of the weekend relatively for Cloud9, only needing a four game series to dispatch of them to make their miracle run to Worlds.
North America had eight chances to knock Cloud9 out of Worlds contention, but they couldn't do it. The gamble they bet their lives on, somehow, in the most ridiculous, unpredictable way possible ended up with them in the World Championships with both Hai and his replacement Incarnati0n in the starting lineup.
Outlook for Worlds
Unless you're the most fanatical Cloud9 fan alive, a family member of one of the players, or a part of the organization, you're probably giving C9 little to no chance to get out of Group B. Cloud9 made an unbelievable run to Worlds and were gifted with one of the hardest possible groups they could have asked for — placed with three teams who all have aspirations of making it to the quarterfinals or higher.
For Cloud9 to get out of the group stage or even have a chance at winning a few games, Hai is going to need to be the catalyst. In one of the most memorable matches in Worlds history, Hai orchestrated Cloud9 against NaJin White Shield last year in a tiebreaker match that will have the same narrative as this year's entire group: C9 will be outmatched when it comes to team fighting and raw skill, and Hai will need to find a way to chip away at the giants of Group B without getting knocked out.
The key players for Cloud9 at Worlds, besides Hai, will be Balls in the top lane and Sneaky at AD Carry. Balls has been a source of criticism leading up to Worlds, as his shaky play over the last year coupled with the fact the tournament is going to be played on a top lane-centric meta being a major warning sign in a group with Zzitai, Huni, and Ziv, three top laners who are all considered elite in their domestic region. Hai and Cloud9 can play mind games all they like with their opposing teams, yet it'll all be for naught if Balls can't hold his own in the first 15 minutes before Cloud9 can even start playing to their strengths.
On the other hand, Sneaky is a player that has all the tools to be a game changer for his team at Worlds. He has the experience of playing in the tournament twice, and his play during the final weeks of the season and the Regional Finals give hope that while they're outmatched pound-for-pound in almost every position, Sneaky is a veteran and has the talent to keep up with the bottom lanes in Group B.
All in all, Cloud9's run end should ultimately come to an end in the group stages. Time will tell how much longer C9 can run before they're stopped following their wild, unforeseeable ride to Worlds.
Tyler "Fionn" Erzberger is a staff writer for theScore eSports. You can follow him on Twitter