Something unusual is happening in NA LCS: Cloud9 have fielded a bad team. In fact, the former North American champions and spring runners-up have fallen so far and so fast that they’re going to be very lucky if they manage to avoid relegation this season, and now the desperation moves have started.
Despite hopes that the return of Cloud9’s long-time leader and charter member Hai Lam would restore the team’s fading fortunes, Cloud9 had a winless weekend against Team Liquid and the struggling Team8. Now, at 3W-9L and only three more weeks in the summer split, Cloud9 have to start playing for 2016.
Since they arrived on the North American scene, have been one of the region’s most consistent and successful teams. They swiftly overtook Team SoloMid as the best team in the region, and have been dueling them for supremacy ever since.
But this season has brought nothing but upheaval to Cloud 9. After the spring split, their longtime captain and mid-laner, Hai, retired due to RSI problems with his wrist. The team’s implosion followed immediately, as they won just three games in the next five weeks. Hai’s replacement as in-game shot-caller, C9’s longtime jungler William “Meteos” Hartman, abruptly stepped down from the starting roster this past week, forcing Hai to come out of retirement to replace him in the jungle.
It looked like a desperation move, either in response to something happening internally between Meteos and the rest of the team, or simply to get Hai’s superior shot-calling back in the game. But whatever the motivation, Hai did not prove to be Cloud9’s lucky charm this week as he led the team from a new position. After a good start against Team Liquid on Saturday, Cloud9 went on to lose both their games and fall into a tie for next-to-last place in North America.
It’s hard to read Cloud9’s recent moves as anything other than a white-flag of surrender for their 2015 campaign, and an acknowledgment that the only relevant goal now is avoiding relegation. But it’s also hard to escape the feeling that Cloud9 are further complicating an already troubled transition.
What’s worrying about the musical chairs between Nicolaj “Incarnati0n” Jensen, Hai, and Meteos is that the team is weaker with every change. Incarnati0n replaced Hai at the mid-lane position but hasn’t delivered the clear performance upgrade that was expected. established himself as a difference-making mid.
Meanwhile, Meteos seems to be a living demonstration of the Peter Principle. Cloud9 went from having one of the best junglers in North America to having a mediocre field-captain whose tactical shortcomings made him and many of his teammates less effective. It’s no wonder why Cloud9 would want to get Meteos out of the shot-caller position, but losing his jungle play is a very steep price for that trade.
What’s scary about where Cloud9 find themselves now is that there’s no clear way forward for them. Hai’s return to shot-calling definitely resulted in some improvements in Cloud9’s first game against Team Liquid, despite their loss, but they looked as hapless as ever when they faced the under-performing Team8. Absolutely nobody looked good.
Cloud9 were always going to have a difficult time transitioning away from their original, record-setting LCS lineup. Losing Hai first only makes it more difficult. He’s irreplaceable. He’s a highly-skilled player, who also happens to be a great in-game tactician and a great team leader outside the game.
Losing that kind of team member is almost worse than losing the rest of the team. Look at Fnatic, who were able to transition smoothly into the 2015 season because they were able to rebuild around YellOwStaR. Trying to find a player who fills the niche of a YellOwStaR or a Hai is much, much harder than finding a top mechanical player on solo queue.
Whether or not Cloud9 limp across the finish line this season and manage to avoid relegation, they have some massive problems they need to address. The can’t hope that they can recruit for a “new Hai” next season. Think about it: Hai helped found Cloud9. It’s his team. He was a great player who forged a great squad alongside his friends, and they won many laurels together. You can’t recruit for that kind of credibility, trust, ability, and leadership.
But you can build a better organization to support the players you have. One that doesn’t rely so much on having a one-in-a-million player leading the team. By all means, find a better shot-caller… but also don’t look to your shot-caller to also be the disciplinarian and the morale officer for an entire team of accomplished players. What has happened this season, with five good players combining into a single crap team, points to weaknesses in Cloud9’s coaching and team management. In the past, Hai could do it all. Now he can’t, and Cloud9 need to adapt to that reality rather than hoping roster switches will lead them out of the hole they’ve dug this season.