Last summer was the gamble of a lifetime for Cloud9. When the status quo would have most likely kept them in the top two spots of the NA LCS for the foreseeable future, the two-time domestic champions decided to risk everything they had built over four seasons to try to move from North American title contender to international contender.
The result? At first it appeared Cloud9 had lost everything. Longtime franchise jungler Meteos took a step back from the team in the middle of the season, and newly-signed mid laner Incarnati0n struggled with growing pains in his transition from solo queue to the professional scene.
In time, though, former captain Hai returned to bring the group back together. His newfound synergy in the jungle with his replacement Incarnati0n saw Cloud9 make a Cinderella run through the North American Regional Finals to qualify for the 2015 World Championships, despite a seventh-place finish in the regular season.
Following a group stage exit at World, in which they dropped their final four games of the tournament after beginning with three straight wins, Cloud9 have retooled their starting roster once more. The new lineup will see Hai starting in his third position in less than a year as the support player for the team.
Replacing Hai in the jungle role will be Rush, the reigning NA LCS MVP. He won the award the previous season on a Team Impulse squad that was on track to possibly win the summer split before their starting mid laner, XiaoWeiXiao, was suspended due to ELO boosting.
With the signing of the West's most aggressive jungler, Hai will now be playing in the bottom lane, while former support player LemonNation will serve as the new head coach. Alongside Hai in the support position will be another new face on Cloud9, Bunny Fufuu, who played as a starter for Gravity last season, another squad that appeared to be a title contender before an end-of-season slump.
Staying in their roles from last season will be Balls, Incarnati0n and Sneaky, all re-signing with the team in the offseason to keep the nucleus that grew together throughout the end of 2015.
The rebuilt Cloud9 will see action for the first time this weekend at IEM Cologne, the final significant international tournament of the calendar year. IEM's San Jose tournament was played on an old patch with teams still in the process of making decisions on team members for 2016. But the Cologne competition should provide us more clarity on what these teams could have in store for us in their upcoming spring splits across the globe. All six teams participating — with the possible exception of EVER from South Korea — have stable starting fives, and they'll be playing on a patch that implements the preseason changes that will shape the differing playstyles in 2016.
C9 will be immediately tested in the first round of the single elimination tournament, placed against another revamped Western lineup: H2k Gaming. After failing to sign Svenskeren during the offseason, H2k decided to shift their attentions to picking up Roccat's backbone of Jankos in the jungle and Vander at support. They topped off their acquisitions with this year's spring MVP in the EU LCS, FORG1VEN, who will be hoping he can find a steady home at H2k after starting for both SK Gaming and Gambit in 2015. Like Cloud9, if the new parts can come together and live up to their potential on paper, H2k are a team that can improve from their group stage exit at this year's Worlds.
On paper, Cloud9 should be fielding their best team since their first season in the NA LCS when they only dropped three games en route to a dominating title victory. Incarnati0n and Sneaky built a rapport through the NA Regional Finals and World Champions that almost carried an outgunned Cloud9 to the top eight of the tournament. Even in defeat, they were two of the strongest carry duos in the group stages of Worlds, and an almost three-month offseason will only improve their chemistry.
On of those two, you throw in the current MVP of the league, Rush, who has the ability to push his carries ahead in the opening minutes of the game with his brash jungle pathing and ganking style. And Hai, the heart and soul of the team as the captain and primary shot caller, is now in a role of support where, if he can transition as well as he did with the jungle, he can command this high-powered offense to become the best in North America.
Last season, Cloud9 played with a handicap of sorts. Hai only had half of a season to become a full-fledged jungler before going against the best teams in the world, and they didn't necessarily have the firepower to contend with the globe's best. Now Hai has been put into a position where he doesn't need to carry, and Cloud9 has added one of the most mechanically talented players in the world, Rush, who is consistently in the top five of Korea's solo queue Challenger ladder. Outside of Cloud9's first year when they essentially steamrolled everyone in their way from the laning phase to teamfights, the team has generally used their minds and tactics to beat teams. The trio of Rush, Incarnati0n and Sneaky gives Hai three different threats he can deploy in any given game.
The other two members of the roster, Balls and Bunny, will also be essential if Cloud9 hope to take the same steps that took the European pair of Fnatic and Origen to the final four of the 2015 World Championships. Balls has fallen off since his golden days as NA's strongest top laner in 2013, but he did have a respectable Worlds, even picking up a Pentakill against the very same Fnatic in the group stages. Fnatic would get the last laugh when they romped C9 in the second stage of the round robin the following week, yet C9's four straight losses on their way out of the tournament can't be attributed solely to Balls. Cloud9 failed to adapt their strategies from the first week to the next, much like CLG's follies in their group, and were beat by teams that simply possessed more skill pound-for-pound in the starting lineup.
Time will tell what Bunny's position on the team is. He could potentially split time with Hai like the now famed Faker/Easyhoon combination that rampaged through South Korea this year. Or Bunny could learn shot calling and other leadership skills from the veteran Hai before becoming a full-time starter in the summer season. Who knows, Bunny could even be used sparingly and work from the bench to help his friend Hai make the move seamlessly to the support role.
Technically, Bunny is one of the better supports in the Western scene, having the potential to win games through outplays and highlight reel moves that turn the tide of battle. Hai brings the shot calling and leadership, and Bunny brings the mechanical ability and comfort of someone who is in their natural role. Together, if they can help each other make up for their weaknesses, both players could improve dramatically by year's end.
2015 was a year where Cloud9 could have been sent to the relegation rounds. For most of the summer season it looked like it was going that way. But, by the skin of their teeth, they somehow came together at the final moments with a makeshift roster and won the gamble they placed down on Incarnati0n when they signed him in the middle of the year.
In 2016, we will see how far they can truly go. No more talk of a shaky lineup or not enough time to come together. They signed two new players, put Hai into another new position, and kept together the Incarnati0n/Sneaky partnership that carried them through to the final tiebreak game in the group stages at the World Championships.
Cloud9 saw themselves nearly fall to the very bottom of the North American ladder.
This year, it's time to look up to the sky — it's time to regain everything they lost in 2015.
Tyler "Fionn" Erzberger is a staff writer for theScore eSports who covers the North American LCS and Korea's Champions. You can follow him on Twitter.