There’s been some turbulence up on cloud number nine, and it seems, at long last, that enough is enough.
Change is here. It’s about time.
Cloud9 has taken on a very different look going into the 2016 summer split, and it’s been an impressive makeover. Each change the team made should help to address some of the weaknesses they suffered from last split.
Winds of Change
After a disheartening 3-1 loss to Team SoloMid in the NA LCS spring Quarterfinals, Cloud9 was forced to admit that the team’s current setup had some problems. From weak vision control to poor mid/late-game decision-making and an overreliance on mechanical outplays, the version of Cloud9 built around the power duo of Nicolaj “Jensen” Jensen and Lee “Rush” Yoonjae was fatally flawed. Even the mystical leadership powers of Hai “Hai” Lam weren’t enough to save the team from an early exit.
Cloud9’s staff merited a share of the blame, as well. The team’s most noticeable issues were all in preparation, strategy, and team play, areas that should be led or influenced by coaching. Though it’s always difficult to assess a team’s coaching from the outside, Cloud9’s approach to coaching has consistently seemed to be behind the curve, preferring to give the players the loudest voices. Cloud9 provided its players with soft-spoken supporting analysts in 2015, then handing the coaching title to former support player Daerek “LemonNation” Hart this spring when he retired. Last year’s miracle Regional Qualifiers run aside, those arrangements have produced less and less consistent fruit.
Seeing those problems, Cloud9 has made sweeping changes. Cloud9’s summer roster will feature three new faces. One is a returning veteran, in true Cloud9 style, as Will “Meteos” Hartman comes out of hiding to once more roam the LCS jungle. One is a freshly promoted bench player, as Michael “Bunny Fufuu” Kurylo takes a starting role after being pushed out of playtime by Hai last split. And one is a brand new addition, former world champion Jung “Impact” Eon-yeong, who left NRG Esports in search of greener pastures.
On top of the roster shift, Cloud9 has finally embraced the professionalization of their coaching staff, signing Han-Gyu “Reapered” Bok away from the LPL’s EDward Gaming, with Seunghwan “Robin” Lee to help him as analyst and translator.
The result of all these changes? A team that looks much better balanced, at least on paper, and an organization that has showed an awareness of its own shortcomings. From the new coaching staff to each new starting player, Cloud9 stands to benefit in some very important ways.
The Coaching Staff
Reapered tends to share a lot of the praise for EDward Gaming’s successful 2015 with Ji “Aaron” Xing, with opinions mixed about which of the two deserves more credit. Cloud9 shouldn’t be too concerned about whether Reapered was the hidden genius behind all of EDG’s wins, or whether he was “just” a high-profile analyst; either way, the fact that the team has brought in a respected outside voice is a very positive sign that they’re looking for a big culture change.
There will be growing pains, as the Korean coaches get their team on the same page, earn the players’ respect and attention, and start to refine and implement their game plans. But with so many coaching accolades under Reapered's belt, including domestic success throughout 2015 and an international win at MSI, the potential payoff for acquiring him is huge.
In practical terms, Reapered should provide Cloud9 with a stronger grasp of the meta, including an outside voice about which champions to play. He’ll hope to improve the subtlety of the team’s strategies, as well, and reduce their reliance on outplays and their obsession with Baron Nashor. He should also help enhance the team’s vision game: EDward Gaming had the second-highest wards per minute at the 2015 Mid-Season Invitational and third-highest at the 2015 World Championships.
Assuming that Cloud9 is able to integrate Reapered and Robin smoothly into their team environment and culture, their presence could go a very long way toward addressing some of their most glaring holes from last split.
Of the changes Cloud9 has made to the starting roster, Impact could be the most significant. The former world champion has the experience and skill to massively upgrade Cloud9 in the top lane, improving their mid/late-game decision making and teamfighting.
Last split, Cloud9 played most of the game away from their top laner: An “Balls” Le ended the regular season with just 53.9 percent kill participation, the lowest of any starting player in the NA LCS. Now that Impact is stepping in (with his 78.4 perecent kill participation, for what it’s worth), Cloud9 has a much better balance of talent across their roster.
Despite individually excelling, Impact has yet to find real team success in the NA LCS, but results notwithstanding, Impact is one of the most complete top laners in North America. From split pushing carries like Fiora to team-focused tanks like Maokai, Impact can play a variety of roles well, and can take over games as either a damage dealer or a playmaker. Impact is especially effective when he’s playing within a clear team concept, using good Teleports to affect the map, but he’s had trouble finding consistent structured play from his previous teams.
If Reapered can get Cloud9 to play a unified game, Impact will be right at the centre of their success, both because of how Impact plays, and because there could be strong rapport between Impact and his new coach. Both are SK Telecom alumni, and Reapered was one of the earliest top lane superstars. That should make for a productive environment for Impact, and if he can’t succeed in these circumstances, he may not get a better chance.
Meteos is the biggest wildcard in this new Cloud9: we haven’t seen him play competitively since week 5 of the 2015 summer split. For his comeback, Meteos is returning to a very different game, and it’s anybody’s guess how well things will go.
The potential for success is high. In the 2015 spring regular season — before Hai’s short-lived retirement — Meteos was a top-three NA LCS jungler in KDA, kill participation, death share and damage per minute, and led all junglers in CS per minute. In past years, he has been one of North America’s very best, and a farm-heavy, carry-oriented jungle meta should suit him just fine. His ability to reclaim his past form is threatened, though, by the possibility of rust and the absence of Hai, whose leadership, in his best days, made everyone around him look stronger.
Cloud9’s vision game should benefit from Meteos’ return. Meteos has never topped the WPM charts, but he doesn’t need to—even just riding the middle of the pack will be a step up from the low-vision game Rush played, especially in the playoffs.
But losing Rush’s weaknesses also means losing his strengths: Meteos will probably pull off fewer crazy outplays. There are very few players who can match Rush’s mechanical prowess, so Cloud9 will have to make up for it by getting playmaking contributions from across the roster, and executing better in their macro game.
All things considered, Meteos was a relatively low-risk option for Cloud9, since they needed to replace Rush and his import slot to make room for Impact’s arrival. Yes, there’s a hint of the Hai situation present in Meteos’s return, but Meteos isn’t role-swapping, and is presumably being brought back in for his actual talent, not for his leadership skills, like Hai was. If Meteos can fit in well with his new teammates, and especially find synergy with Impact, there is plenty of reason to be optimistic that he’ll be a successful piece of the puzzle.
Bunny Fufuu is a natural support player, in the sense that he has a long competitive history in the role. That in itself represents a meaningful upgrade over Hai, who role-swapped into the support position and struggled to fully embrace it, lagging way behind in his vision duties with the worst wards per minute of all NA LCS supports, and sticking to a very limited champion pool of just four champions, only earning more than one win on Morgana and Alistar.
Cloud9 will instantly benefit from Bunny Fufuu’s more developed sense of vision control — in the two games he played, he averaged 1.42 WPM, second-highest in the league — and his broader champion pool, no matter how much he continues to show a preference for Thresh and Morgana. On top of that, Bunny Fufuu should be more comfortable than Hai in pulling the trigger on plays at the right time — something he was very effective at in 2015.
Bunny Fufuu doesn’t need to be an All-Star to shore up some of the holes Cloud9 experienced from the support position last split. If he can just be above-average, he’ll be an upgrade. And if he can show some leadership and shotcalling, as well, to fill the in-game leadership void that will be left by Hai’s departure, then Bunny Fufuu will very quickly become a highly valuable member of the team.
Onward and Upward
As a whole, Cloud9’s changes are a breath of fresh air — even if there’s a bit of recycled oxygen mixed in. By moving Hai off the starting roster — this time hopefully for good — and completely remaking and professionalizing their coaching staff with an outside voice, Cloud9 has shown some very important growth in organizational self-awareness, and has measurably improved their talent.
There is risk in Cloud9’s moves, of course. The team may lose the strength they found in completely, unquestioningly following their leader’s calls, and they broke apart the most talented jungle/mid duo in the league. They have also lost some playmaking ability, which they’ll have to replace through Impact in the top lane and Bunny Fufuu at support. But while it will take time to address those losses, they should be temporary setbacks, as long as the team commits to staying the course and giving themselves time to gel.
After clinging too long to a structure, culture and roster that has become rapidly outdated, Cloud9 has finally taken the necessary steps to reclaim their spot as one of the NA LCS’s most successful organizations. Now all that stands between Cloud9 and yet another North American title is arguably the strongest lineup of NA LCS teams in the history of the league.
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.