At the TD Garden in Boston on Sunday, Team SoloMid claimed its sixth North American League of Legends Championship Series title. The NA LCS has played 10 finals in its history, and TSM has been to all of them.
TSM has made the League of Legends World Championship every year since 2011, back when it was simply the first international LAN Riot Games organized. But TSM has not always been North America’s best team. For a stretch from late 2013 through early 2014, Cloud9 held that honor.
Similarly, Cloud9 has made it to worlds every year since joining the LCS. It’s difficult to imagine a World Championship without TSM and C9 representing North America. It was C9, not TSM, that was heralded as NA’s greatest hope in 2013 and 2014, despite the fact that C9 fell to TSM in grueling summer finals series.
Admittedly, much of that was due oddities in TSM and C9’s groups — then-SK Gaming jungler Dennis “Svenskeren” Johnsen’s suspension, KaBuM! e-Sports’ upset victory over Alliance — and also perception of their respective quarterfinals opponents, Samsung Galaxy White and Samsung Galaxy Blue. But the perception of C9 as NA’s greatest hope of international success has stubbornly prevailed from C9’s 2-1 loss to Fnatic at the 2013 World Championship, to a surprising 3-0 start in the first week of the 2015 group stage, to the team’s most recent world quarterfinal loss to Samsung Galaxy last year.
“The only thing that matters every year is, ‘Do you go to worlds?’ and how well you do at worlds,” Cloud9 CEO Jack Etienne said. “Cloud9 has historically placed higher or the same place as any other North American team.”
C9 always makes it through the gauntlet if the team is required to play in it. C9 always makes it to worlds. And, unlike other NA teams, C9 almost always makes it to quarterfinals at the worlds.
“Historically, my team has always been able to advance at gauntlet,” Etienne said after Cloud9 loss to Dignitas in the NA LCS summer playoffs, chuckling a bit. “I hope we have the same results and win it, and head into worlds.”
Yet, this weekend’s gauntlet to determine NA’s third and final worlds seed presents a difficult test for this C9 team. Even during its miracle run through the 2015 regional qualifier — three best-of-fives that totaled 14 games over three days, wrought with reverse sweeps, poor baron setups from C9’s opponents, and a pinch of magic known as Hai “Hai” Du Lam’s shot-calling — C9 was not expected to win, hence the miracle qualifier. That contributed to C9’s return to Hai, time and again, as the team’s security blanket. Only last summer did C9 finally begin to step out from under his. The arrival of rookie jungler Juan “Contractz” Garcia this spring and Hai’s fresh start on FlyQuest marked the final severing of that tie.
There’s a whiff of irony that FlyQuest, a team whose backbone is made up of former C9 veterans Hai, An “Balls” Le, and Daerek “LemonNation” Hart sits in the gauntlet’s first round. Few expect FlyQuest to advance, and its games in the final few weeks of the regular season support that hypothesis. FlyQuest has an 0-4 record in series against C9. In those, Hai and company have only managed to win a single game against their former organization.
C9’s trip to this year’s regional will likely include a formidable opponent in either Team Dignitas or Counter Logic Gaming. Unlike previous years, C9 is now the final boss, the team seeded the highest in the gauntlet.
Up until its recent playoff series, C9 also had a winning record against Dignitas, but struggled against CLG during the regular season. Dignitas’ 3-1 quarterfinals victory was a significant setback for C9, not only due to the smaller amount of championship points, resulting in C9’s gauntlet placement, but because of the team’s regression to a more passive play style.
“The core issue we had before was that we were just playing reactive to what our opponents were doing,” C9 mid laner Nicolaj “Jensen” Jensen said mid-split. “So we weren’t really forcing fights or getting into a comfortable position where we could fight evenly. We would always just react and win team fights simply by being better than them, if we were to win.”
One of C9’s greatest improvements from this split was a shift from an over-reliance on scaling compositions and late-game team-fighting to addressing the team’s weak, passive early game. With that shift came more of a focus on pushing early lanes and better coordinated efforts between Jensen, Contractz, and support Andy “Smoothie” Ta, who took to the tanky engage support meta immediately since it suited his roaming play style.
This particular C9 roster has proven slightly more malleable than past iterations of the team, especially when substituting between top laners Jeong “Impact” Eon-yeong and Jeon “Ray” Ji-won. The team’s improvement from the beginning of spring to the end of the summer was notable, largely thanks to individual development from Smoothie, Contractz and All-Pro mid laner Jensen.
It took nearly a split for Contractz to look broadcast interviewers or members of the press in the eye. By the spring playoffs, he opened up about his rookie struggles coordinating with the team, especially Jensen. They got along, and were both strong players, but that was all and Contractz already knew at that point, after only one split as a professional, that this wasn’t enough to be a champion in North America or elsewhere. One of the team’s improvements of which he was most proud was his increased coordination with Jensen.
By summer, the young C9 jungler was joking about his anime choices and how much he respects Flash Wolves jungler Hung “Karsa” Hauhsuan. Both he and support Smoothie expressed tremendous desire to win an NA final with this team and to make it to worlds. The opportunity for one has already come and gone, but a ticket to worlds is still within C9’s reach.
“This loss absolutely hurt the players,” Jack said of C9’s quarterfinals performance. “But it will serve as a way to stoke their passion and desire to play harder over the next three weeks as we prepare for gauntlet.”
What lies behind C9 is an impressive organizational legacy: Five, fresh-faced kids on an upstart team that saw success from the moment it entered the NA LCS in 2013. What lies ahead of C9 is a ticket to the League of Legends World Championship.
And at the end of the gauntlet, the members of C9 will be waiting to prove themselves to North American audiences once more.
Cover photo courtesy of Riot Games