Initially, amidst farewells, highlight reels, and career retrospectives, the 2015 retirement of Cloud9’s Hai “Hai” Du Lam was met with respectful celebration of his mid lane play coupled with a general acceptance that his time had come and gone. Nicolaj “Jensen” Jensen (then called Incarnati0n) was seen as a more-than-suitable mid lane replacement, especially with growing criticism of Hai’s in-game mechanics.
Cloud9’s first foray into the North American League of Legends Championship Series without their former captain started dismally, especially when one considers Cloud9’s successful NA LCS pedigree. After five weeks without Hai, Cloud9 was 3-7, tied for second-to-last in the 2015 NA LCS Summer Split with Team8 and Enemy eSports. The former mid laner returned to the starting lineup in Week 6 as a jungler, but it took another three games for Cloud9 to finally win another game. Cloud9 squeezed into the Regional Qualifier for the 2015 World Championship on the good graces of their second-place Spring finish, even with a Summer record of 6-12. On the back of a miraculous gauntlet run, including two reverse-sweeps, Hai led Cloud9 to their third World Championship appearance in as many years.
“I don’t really like being told what to do and I don’t really like having to follow someone else,” Hai said in an interview with Travis Gafford following his retirement. “It was a combination of me being extremely confident in what I want to do and it being a good thing to do. I understand the game very well, and I learned a lot in my losses back in the day. Having experiences that grew me into being a better shotcaller helped a lot. And just the fact that I’m generally speaking very confident in who I am, what I am and what I do.”
This proactive confidence that had led Cloud9 to multiple North American championships and a ticket to Worlds every year since 2013 is now seemingly entrenched in any and all Cloud9 success. In the offseason, starting support Daerek “LemonNation” Hart became their coach and Hai moved to the support role, presumably as a substitute or backup. Former Team Impulse jungler Lee “Rush” Yoon-jae replaced Hai, giving Cloud9 a more aggressive starter with stronger pathing and jungle experience. Even then, the team’s initial showing this 2016 Spring Split is reminiscent of their struggles without Hai last summer, albeit with the organization’s decision to start Hai coming more quickly. After losing to Immortals in their first game with Michael “Bunny FuFuu” Kurylo at support, Cloud9 immediately started Hai against Echo Fox, netting their first win. Bunny FuFuu started only one more time for Cloud9, resulting in a fairly embarrassing loss to a Team Impulse team without their actual roster. Hai is now their starter for the foreseeable future.
Cloud9 currently finds themselves in an awkward situation. There’s little doubt that Hai’s leadership for the team is peerless; however, he’s also become a security blanket that could be detrimental to Cloud9’s long-term growth. With Hai on the Rift, the team is coordinated, decisive and unified. They produced a strong blueprint to beating Immortals — in spite of their eventual loss to North America’s still-undefeated squad — by banning Janna and Soraka from support Adrian “Adrian” Ma and matching Immortals’ overwhelming aggression at every turn. The result was a bloody spectacle that showcased a few of Immortals’ previously-unwitnessed weaknesses. No team other than the Hai-led Cloud9 has pushed Immortals into making as many mistakes. In spite of this, there’s a finite cap that Cloud9 will indubitably reach with Hai still on the team. This isn’t to disparage his mechanics, but more to point out that his presumed micromanagement of the team can only take them so far.
The organization’s choice, for now, is to continue their dependency on Hai and see how far it can take them in the 2016 Spring Split.
In contrast, Team Liquid last year was a team that won thanks to their individual talent. Acquiring former SK Telecom T1 K AD carry Chae “Piglet” Gwang-jin, Liquid looked to dominate North America on talent alone. Unfortunately for Liquid, Piglet was a disaster at first, resulting in his subsequent benching for Yuri “KEITH” Jew (formerly called “KEITHMCBRIEF”). The team looked far better with KEITH in the 2015 Spring Split, as they were able to play around top laner Diego “Quas” Ruiz and mid laner Kim “FeniX” Jae-hoon with KEITH taking the role of cleanup. When Piglet loaded onto the Rift, he had to carry and demanded resources from his team, pigeonholing them into one specific playstyle that was easily exploited, especially with their fractured synergy and lack of communication.
Resigned to make the most of their expensive import, Team Liquid returned to Piglet for the 2015 Spring Playoffs and shook off their fourth place curse — a fourth-place finish had haunted the team prior to the Team Liquid branding back when they were called Curse — finishing third overall that spring. Piglet remained their starting AD carry throughout 2015 Summer, boasting the highest KDA of his position (9.9) in the regular season and dealt 30.2 percent of his team’s damage. While Team Liquid had certainly improved, they continued to rely on individual outplays from their primary damage dealers — Piglet and FeniX, especially when the latter was on Azir — and lacked team synergy. Finishing first in the regular season, Team Liquid fell to Team SoloMid in the 2015 Summer Playoffs, and were subsequently eliminated from Worlds contention by Hai’s Cloud9 squad in the Regional Qualifier.
Team Liquid’s 2016 start was also less than ideal. They dropped their first three games to Renegades, Team SoloMid and Counter Logic Gaming in rapid succession, in spite of Piglet’s best efforts to hard carry his team to victory. The complete opposite of Cloud9 — who immediately depended on Hai’s in-game management to coordinate their efforts and win games — Team Liquid continued to rely on the raw talent of Piglet. It didn’t work.
In some of his best showings since late 2013-early 2014, Piglet dazzled audiences and opponents alike in Liquid’s losses, including a 6/1/10 Lucian performance in a losing effort to Team SoloMid. However, with each passing game, Liquid looked a bit more coordinated, a bit more understanding of how to play the map, and a bit more like a team.
This is in large part thanks to the organization’s commitment to new additions Joshua “Dardoch” Hartnett and Matthew “Matt” Elento at the jungle and support positions respectively. Following their first game against Renegades, in which Team Liquid appeared wholly lost, jungler Christian “IWillDominate” Rivera retired and support Andy “Smoothie” Ta took Matt’s place on Team Liquid’s challenger team, Team Liquid Academy. Liquid had previously looked completely lost in fights, especially without a primary initiator. Matt has stepped into this role well, especially when he gets his hands on his favorite champion, Bard. Even with noticeable errors, like Matt’s engage with Piglet’s Kalista in their recent match against Cloud9, Liquid’s team fighting has improved immensely. The team still struggles sometimes, notably when Matt cannot initiate for the team, but are markedly improved from their 2015 selves, who relied solely on 1v1 outplays.
Everything that Team Liquid does now goes through the aggressive Dardoch, who currently has the highest kill participation of any starting jungler in North America at 81.6 percent. Immediately behind him is Cloud9’s Rush with 74.8 percent. These two junglers, and teams, met on the Rift for the first time in 2016 this past week, and the game did not disappoint. Equipped with a strong poke composition around Jensen’s Corki and AD carry Zachary “Sneaky” Scuderi’s Lucian, Cloud9 bested Liquid in 28 minutes and 58 seconds. For now, Cloud9 remain the better team, happily ensconced in third place with a 6-4 record while Team Liquid is tied at .500 with NRG eSports. However, look for Team Liquid to continue to improve, not as a group of individually talented stars, but as a coordinated team.
Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore eSports. She has high hopes for this new Team Liquid lineup. You can follow her on Twitter.