For Cloud9, the end of the spring split was supposed to end in celebration, not upheaval. Yet here we are, awaiting clarity on what could be significant changes to the team’s starting roster as the organization has announced its plans to get a new Challenger team off the ground.
So where did it all go wrong?
At certain points this season, Cloud9 was not just considered to be a good team, but, alongside CLG, a leading candidate to knock Immortals off their first-place pedestal. Led by MVP-esque performances from Nicolaj "Jensen" Jensen and plenty of great playmaking from Lee "Rush" Yoonjae, Cloud9 were fun to watch, easy to cheer for, and buoyed by a fanbase that clung with fervorous devotion to undead narratives about Hai’s “world-class shot calling”.
Then Team SoloMid walked onto Summoner’s Rift, applied their playoff buffs, and beat up Cloud9 in a tidy 3-1 quarterfinal series. TSM would later come one teamfight away from a championship, while Cloud9 were left to pick up the pieces of a failed split.
To better understand why Cloud9 is looking at such big changes leading into Summer, it’s time for some 20/20 hindsight.
There were red flags waving around Cloud9’s play during the spring split that foreshadowed their eventual playoff collapse. Ultimately, Cloud9’s regular season success was built on a shaky foundation of poor information flow and questionable decision-making, held standing by a duct tape-like patchwork of individual skill and decisiveness.
Jensen and Rush are two of the most mechanically skilled players in the NA LCS; there’s little debating that. And whatever else you may say about Hai and his role-swap to support, he is a strong leader who knows how to get his teammates to follow his calls. These were Cloud9’s strengths: they followed their leader’s calls, played with confidence, and could rely on Jensen and Rush to pull off big plays in important moments.
But despite the highlight reels Cloud9 could generate, they were held back by some glaring weaknesses, problems they may be trying to solve through whatever roster changes they end up making.
Weak Vision Control
A bottom-tier vision game was a big problem for Cloud9, which led to some of their other challenges. During the regular season, Cloud9 averaged the lowest team wards per minute (WPM) and wards cleared per minute (WCPM) in the NA LCS. The blame for that lies on everyone’s shoulders, but Hai and Rush should bear more of the responsibility. Hai’s 0.97 WPM in the regular season was lowest of all support players (though his 1.11 in the quarterfinals was a small improvement). Rush’s 0.75 WPM in the regular season was middle of the pack, which was partly inflated by Lee Sin ward-hopping (he placed 0.84 WPM on Lee Sin, his highest on any champion), but he produced an abysmal 0.43 WPM in the quarterfinals, which was worse than TSM’s Top, Mid, or AD carry, partly because he spent multiple games as a Skirmisher’s Sabre-bearing Kindred.
With such poor ward coverage and subpar denial of enemy vision, Cloud9 based a lot of their decisions on incomplete information and allowed their opponents to see Cloud9’s plays developing. That’s a recipe for disaster and contributed to the two weaknesses highlighted next.
If Cloud9 makes changes to their jungle and support roles, improved vision coverage is one way they will hope to benefit.
Overreliance on Outplays
Cloud9 gained in-game advantages in two ways.
Firstly, they built leads by being proactive and decisive. Rush, Jensen, and Hai are all capable of creatively moving around the map and pulling the trigger on a play. Even when the calls were suboptimal, the team managed to come out ahead by fully committing as a unit. Secondly, they sometimes gained advantages by simply reacting to opponents' moves with superior mechanical play. Even when an enemy got the jump on Cloud9, they sometimes found ways to land surprising counterpunches based on raw skill.
Eventually, skill-reliant play that isn’t grounded in sound tactics can and will be overpowered by better decision making. In the regular season, Cloud9’s frequent map play mistakes and misuse of their team compositions were often punishable, but not always punished. A lot of Cloud9’s games boiled down to whether they could exploit their opponents’ mistakes harder than their opponents could exploit theirs. That’s a pretty dangerous game to play, and it ended up costing Cloud9 in the playoffs when TSM didn’t provide them enough mistakes to work with.
Roster changes could shift the balance of talent and tactics within Cloud9: for example, the team may be looking to add a more conservative, structured Jungler and shift away from Rush’s outplay-based approach.
In the mid-to-late game, Cloud9 relied on working with a gold lead to cover imperfections in their map play and team fighting. Closing out games was a struggle at times, as evidenced by Cloud9’s pedestrian +1.8 Mid/Late Rating (MLR) in the regular season. Based on the leads Cloud9 were usually working with, they should have been able to close out more wins than they did, but they were hampered by inconsistency in their teamfighting, often stemming from forced, suicide-based initiations, and by an unhealthy Baron Nashor fixation that introduced the risk of Smite coin-flips and enemy initiation opportunities.
It’s not that forcing fights or Baron baiting are inherently poor strategies, but those strategies rely on having the right kind of team compositions — either strong initiation and diving tools if you are looking to force fights or strong zone control and disengage/counter-engage tools if you want to set up at Baron (or Dragon) and force the enemy to engage onto you. Cloud9 didn’t always play to the strength of their composition, and their poor MLR was a symptom of that. So was their modest 1.19 kill-to-death ratio (compared to Team Liquid’s 1.28 and Immortals’ 2.09), which showed how often Cloud9 had to give up sloppy deaths in order to secure kills themselves.
Throw in the weak vision control we discussed earlier and you have a recipe for mid/late-game difficulty — exactly the kind of difficulty Cloud9 was able to cover up so often through sheer item advantages in the regular season.
Cloud9’s rumored pursuit of Impact to replace Balls in the top lane might provide a boost to their mid/late-game play, and particularly their team fighting. Impact could provide a team fight initiation skillset that Balls has struggled with. Strategically, a move away from Hai as the shotcaller might bring a fresh approach and would hopefully help the team reevaluate how they prioritize objectives like Baron, and how to recognize the ideal tactics to use with their different team compositions.
At the end of the day, the spring split was a failed venture for Cloud9.
A quarterfinals loss was far beneath this team’s ceiling, given their talent, but the issues Cloud9 displayed aren’t likely to be fixed with simple practice time. Something has to give, and judging by the rumors that have been emerging, it’s looking like the summer version of Cloud9 could have a few new faces.
Cloud9 has a strong carry core, and Jensen especially is a great piece for them to build around. With the right tweaks to his supporting cast, Cloud9 should absolutely be able to challenge for a Top 4 finish in the summer season. Thinking practically, though, Cloud9 may need time to find their footing early in the summer split, so they should be taking a longer view. The team’s best bet at a World Championship berth will likely come from the Regional Qualifier tournament.
This mid season break has Cloud9 in an unfamiliar place, questioning the team’s future direction and core roster, and aspiring for growth rather than thinking “win-now.” The last time Cloud9 had to deal with this kind of thought process was a year ago, when Hai retired to make way for Jensen’s arrival. The organization earned poor results with that change, and soon welcomed Hai back as their savior.
Cloud9 needs to prove that they’ve learned from their last attempt, and are ready to lead their team into positive, long-term changes, even if that means ending the "Hai era" for good.
Tim "Magic" Sevenhuysen runs OraclesElixir.com, the premier source for League of Legends esports statistics. You can find him on Twitter, unless he’s busy giving one of his three sons a shoulder ride.