July 25th, 2015
Cloud9 were on the brink of destruction.
Heading into the final week of the NA LCS summer season, C9 needed to win their final two games to give them a reasonable chance at avoiding relegation and getting into the North American Regional Finals. In a must-win game, Cloud9 lost to Team Dragon Knights, the last place team in the standings and a squad that was already auto-relegated before they even loaded on to the rift.
At this point, the signing of European prospect Incarnati0n looked to be a bust. The roster change ruined the chemistry C9 had built over the past two years, leading their star jungler, Meteos, to leave the team and join C9's Challenger squad. With no other options, they brought Hai out of retirement, and while the team improved under his leadership, it was far too late to change their fate.
For Cloud9 to somehow avoid relegation, they needed to win their final game of the season over Team SoloMid. They also needed Team 8 to fall in their last regular season game, and then win a tiebreaker against them.
In short, for a team that had gone through their worst season in franchise history, they needed a miracle.
October 6th, 2015
I don't know how I'm here. I don't know why I'm still writing about Cloud9. They were dead. Seriously, the last few shovels of dirt were getting poured on top of their graves. They had lost to a team that was already auto-relegated in a must-win game, and their destiny was out of their hands. If Team 8 had been able to upset Counter Logic Gaming in the final game of the NA LCS summer season, Cloud9 were done. We would be talking about how they had to play Team Imagine or Team Coast in the relegation rounds and what members should be cut for the 2016 season.
What's currently happening with Cloud9 is unprecedented in the history of League of Legends as an eSport. We've seen upsets and Cinderella stories from all the regions across the world, but there has never been a team that has been on the chopping block a dozen times and somehow, someway, always found a way to escape. C9 got the chance to redeem their loss to TDK on the final day of the season when T8 lost to CLG. Hai and co. went on to beat TSM to force a tiebreaker game against T8 that would decide if they'd be heading to the North American Regional Finals or preparing to play a Challenger team for their jobs. They won.
So, how did they do it? How have Cloud9 gone from the grave to sitting atop Group B at the World Championships and only needing one win to qualify for the quarterfinals?
It's been a combination of three things: experience, leadership, and something every great team needs — pure luck.
Getting into the gauntlet for the final spot at Worlds was a godsend for Cloud9. Getting a direct spot to Worlds would have been nice, but the sheer amount of games they played during the North American Regional Finals forged the Cloud9 you see now.
Signing Incarnati0n was never going to be a one split solution. Although an amazing individual prospect in terms of mechanics and overall potential, the LCS system doesn't lend itself to helping rookies in their inaugural season. While in Korea and China, a newcomer can play a vast amount of games to learn the ropes, transitioning from a solo queue mindset to one of a pro-gamer's. You only play 18 best-of-ones in the League Championship Series. That is far too little time for a player to make the jump from online to offline, needing to learn how to play with a team, how to get over nerves, and become a true pro.
As we saw with Rush on Team Impulse, a jungler who is possibly one of the greatest individual talents in the world, it takes a full season to really learn how to be a pro-gamer. After a year of playing on a professional team, Rush has become the strongest jungler in North America and possibly the entire western region, winning the MVP award for the summer split. Eighteen games just isn't enough for a prospect to absorb everything he needs to learn to become an elite player in the professional scene.
During Cloud9's three day gauntlet to make it to the World Championships, the team played 14 games. The North American Regional Finals were a Hyperbolic Time Chamber for Cloud9. They essentially got to play an entire season's worth of important games in three days, pushing their backs against the wall and forcing the team to come together or have their dreams of getting to Worlds crushed. You could see the development of players like Sneaky and Incarnati0n through those three days, but you also saw Cloud9 become a full-fledged team, working together, following Hai's split-second objective calls, and looking like the C9 team that had made back-to-back World Championship quarterfinals.
If Cloud9 had gotten the direct seed to Worlds after beating Team 8 in the tiebreaker on the last day, there is little chance that they would be in the same position they are in today. Those 14 games were the time C9 needed to mature as a team, trust Bubbadub completely as their head coach, and get on the same page heading into the World Championships. What looked to be an impossible task actually turned out to be the training they sorely lacked because of LCS' format.
Even with their rapid development in the gauntlet, a 3-0 record at Worlds after the first week is something I never expected. When I wrote C9's preview heading to Worlds, I spoke about their strengths: the ability to outmaneuver and beat teams through Hai's brains and shot calling instead of relying on pure brawn with mechanical skill and outplay potential. Even so, I thought they could possibly win two or three games at most in the group stage, yet they've defied all expectations by already reaching the three victory mark after the first half of the group stage.
So far, Group B has been completely controlled by Cloud9. All three teams have played into C9's hands when it comes to the pick-ban phase and playing at their tempo. When C9 played against the aggressive ahq e-Sports Club in their opening match, they didn't fall into the same trap that Fnatic did a day later. They didn't play to ahq's strengths of complete chaos, brawling all across the map, and skirmishes that could have given the Taiwanese champions an edge. Cloud9 stuck to their fast push blueprints of picking up Tristana for Sneaky, bringing in a new pick in the form of Veigar for Incarnati0n, and pushing down the heart of ahq.
ahq were punished for their lack of wave clear and lack of preparation against the Veigar pick, as Cloud9 wrapped up their impressive game in under 25 minutes. The next game was more of the same from Cloud9, this time picking up Incarnati0n's Azir when Invictus Gaming took the bait and banned Veigar. The fast turret pushing strategy worked even better with Azir in the lineup, as Sneaky got his hands on Tristana for a second straight game and Incarnati0n's Azir going 10/3/9 in another game where Cloud9 were able to outsmart their opponents.
When you would think Fnatic would realize C9's Tristana-centric strategy, they completely ignored the Tristana and Azir combination in the draft phase. To make matters even more dire for Fnatic, they picked Yasuo for Huni in the top lane against Balls' Darius. Fnatic were able to beat Cloud9 when it came to overall strength as their trio of carries — Huni, Febiven, and Rekkles — all had impressive games, but they were outsmarted by a Cloud9 team that used their intellect, map movement, and ballsy shot calling around objectives to continue getting the edge in gold.
At the end of the day, you can have 50 kills to Cloud9's meager amount. But none of the flashy plays, solo kills, or picks in the jungle mean anything if C9 are able to knock down all the turrets, take Baron through better vision control, and beat you through strategy while your bloodthirstiness gets you nowhere except for a broken down Nexus.
One of the best comparisons I've heard about Cloud9 is from the Chinese casters who call Cloud9 the 'Artistic Team'. When you watch a C9 game, you're watching a squad whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Hai uses Summoner's Rift as his canvas and uses his different colors (his teammates) to paint a beautiful picture through Baron calls, rotations, and objective control.
Right now, we're watching Hai's greatest masterpiece at work.
I'd be amiss if I talked about C9's success and Hai's brush strokes on Summoner's Rift without mentioning the carry duo that has emerged at Worlds: The Apple Pie and Pølse Connection between America's Sneaky at the AD carry position and Denmark's Incarnati0n in the middle lane. The two players have worked perfectly together through their first three games, the tag-team setting up countless kills for each other and protecting one another when teamfights break out around objectives.
Sneaky, a consistent performer on the world-stage, has been on the upswing ever since C9's extreme training at the North American Regional Finals. After being mostly mediocre for a large part of the summer split, he was given a chance to truly carry C9 alongside Incarnati0n during their games in the gauntlet, using champions like Vayne to break enemy teams and lead his squad to Worlds.
Incarnati0n, like I mentioned before, is the biggest benefactor of getting to play in the NA Regional Finals. Eighteen games in the regular season were enough to help him improve from a mere accessory to an underperforming Cloud9 team to one of the better mid laners in North America by the time the regular season came to a close. The extra games to get to Worlds and the two months practice between the end of the regular split and the World Championships have created one of the very best carries at Worlds.
He's transformed from being exclusively known for his assassin play to being a team player that can carry games on control mages like Azir that help C9's turret pushing strategy. Even when you look past his individual play, he's working synchronized with the rest of Cloud9, assisting on plays and coming up big in team fights to allow his comrades the chance to succeed.
Cloud9 took a world-sized gamble on signing Incarnati0n before the summer season.
Incarnati0n is rewarding Cloud9's management and then some with his incredible individual play, teamwork, and maturity as a pro-gamer.
Hai, LemonNation, and Bubbadub have been at the top of their games when it comes to the drafting phase and shot calling. Incarnati0n and Sneaky have been absolutely unstoppable with their fast pushing, carrying, and team fighting.
That leaves Balls, the man who was picked apart as the weakest link of Cloud9 when they arrived in Paris. He practiced more than anyone during the Korean bootcamp when a large majority of the Worlds teams came to practice, only managing to hang around in the Diamond class of solo queue before heading to Europe. His play in 2015 was sub-par, Balls appearing to be a shell of himself from when he was one of the best top laners during the 2013 and 2014 seasons.
Cloud9 have done the opposite of trying to hide Balls: they've put him in a position to win every game. They've put him on Gangplank and twice on Darius in their three games, giving him high priority and putting him on champions that, if handled correctly, can unload a titanic amount of damage in the late-game. C9's faith in Balls paid off in their game against Fnatic, Balls' Darius ending the match in a Pentakill following a nice set-up from Incarnation's Azir.
In C9's mindset, Balls isn't their weakest link. If the meta points to having top laners playing carry champions, they won't be fearful of the potential outmatch in the top lane and put Balls on Maokai or a utility champion. They'll give Balls the best possible chance to succeed along with the rest of the team backing him up.
In Group B, a lot of the games have been players from teams trying to make big, individual outplays and squads fighting endlessly.
Cloud9 are atop of the standings because they are the one team in Group B that's actually played like a real team in the first week. Although I wouldn't expect the teams in the group to let them continue their Azir/Tristana fast push strategy for all of next week, don't forget this is Cloud9 — LemonNation and and the rest of C9 will undoubtedly have another strategy in their notebook to outsmart, outmaneuver, and outlast their opponents to extend their 2015 season one more day.
Tyler "Fionn" Erzberger is a staff writer for theScore eSports. You can follow him on Twitter