C9 vs. TSM: The (rebooted) North American final

Hai “Hai” Du Lam could do little more than cast Zed’s Razor Shurikens as Team SoloMid fell upon Cloud9’s nexus. The famed captain and shot-caller of C9 rested his chin on the backs of his hands as he stared blankly into the defeat screen. His crew sat with the same dejected acceptance. TSM’s players, meanwhile, stood up with excitement weaker than a sleep-deprived student rising to the bell they had been counting down. The calm betrayed how expected the result was, as if the players had just been waiting for the inevitable.

So ended the fourth consecutive meeting of C9 and TSM in the final of the North American League Championship Series to cap the 2015 spring split. It’s been more than a year since the two fabled franchises have met in an LCS final, but that’ll change this weekend, as the two will play for an automatic berth in the League of Legends World Championship.

Returning to this matchup is like watching a decades-old movie franchise reboot. Only a few of the original stars have reprised their roles while some well-recognized faces and new blood take up the roles left by their predecessors. It’s missing some of the quirks of the original, yet it’s familiar enough to take veteran viewers back. Ultimately, it is the beginning of a fresh take on a classic.

Seven players have clashed in all previous C9/TSM finals. Two remain: C9’s Zachary “Sneaky” Scuderi and William “Meteos” Hartman. The others have either been moved to a Challenger team, left for another organization or retired. Gone is Hai’s cunning leadership; gone is Marcus “Dyrus” Hill’s steady reliability; gone is Jason “WildTurtle” Tran’s impulsive aggression.

This reboot focuses instead on how these organizations reinvented themselves. Starting with TSM, the prior years reflected its namesake. It truly relied on mid laner Søren “Bjergsen” Bjerg to hard carry in order to grasp victory. But to prepare for 2016, it completely gutted the roster, save Bjergsen, and all-inned on star power. It acquired Yiliang “Doublelift” Peng, Bora “YellOwStaR” Kim, and Dennis “Svenskeren” Johnsen to create perhaps the greatest stacking of Western talent in League of Legends history. Top laner Kevin “Hauntzer” Yarnell supplemented the other four as a solid local pickup who comfortably carried Dyrus’ torch.

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For the most part, the lineup failed to meet the expectations tied to such big names. It struggled in the regular season before making a run to the finals and losing to Counter Logic Gaming. Afterward, TSM bucked YellOwStaR, who struggled to mesh with his duo lane partner and was not given a a main shot-calling role within the squad, and held support tryouts, eventually signing rookie Vincent “Biofrost” Wang. Unlike the experiment with Nicolas “gleebglarbu” Haddad, it has been successful. And though the move was largely motivated by team synergy, it reflects some of TSM’s spoiled sentiment surrounding star names.

C9 had its own struggle. Hai was the team’s greatest strength but arguably its biggest liability. His shot-calling gave C9 a unique identity, but his mechanical abilities (aggravated by deteriorating wrists) had slowly lapsed behind other players in the region. Still, removing Hai left the remaining players lost in the game, unsure of who was going to take on Hai’s mantle. It all led to Hai playing in the jungle, and then as a support player, hoping that he could adequately serve in a more supportive position and lead C9. The experiment ended in the spring, after TSM beat C9 in the quarterfinals.

The truth had to be confronted: C9 could not lean on Hai and win the region anymore. So it shuffled the roster. Hai was replaced by Andy “Smoothie” Ta, who gelled better with the team than other prospective replacement Michael “Bunny FuFuu” Kurylo. Meteos came back, and C9 also replaced An “Balls” Van Le with Jung “Impact” Eon-yeong. Most importantly, C9 hired Bok “Reapered” Han-gyu as a coach who focused on teaching the team how to communicate with Hai gone. Although C9’s macro play has taken a hit, it has finally moved on from the system it relied on for so long.

C9 and TSM are about to stage the next act in this rivalry. But this is not like the others. They have hit the reset buttons on their own accord to keep pace. Two of the oldest guards of LCS have refused to rest on past accomplishments and fade into memory. Their endurance is a message to all competitors that adaptation is the key to survival, no matter how successful one is.

The banners on the wall may be the same, but the actors on stage have grown, or been changed out. We’ll breathe a collective sigh of nostalgia, and then see what new grounds this rivalry will tread.

Photos courtesy of Riot Games.

Freelance writer for Slingshot, Liquid Legends, and DraftKings.

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