Reaching for the clouds

Remembering Cloud9 at the 2018 World Championship.

Fnatic face off against Invictus Gaming in the 2018 World Championship finals (Photo by Richard Ye)

NA LCS 2018 Summer.

At the end of Week 5, Cloud9 was 3–7 and in last place. They trailed Clutch Gaming and Optic Gaming, each tied at 4–6.

Cloud9 had just lost to Optic in a definitive stomp.

Prior to the split, fan-favourites Jensen, Sneaky, and Smoothie had been subbed out for their academy counterparts Goldenglue, Keith, and Zeyzal. Citing attitude issues in Spring, coach Reapered wanted them to prove that they had what it took to fight for their spot on the LCS roster after a disappointing 0–3 quarterfinals loss to the eventual champions Team Liquid.

Many fans were less than optimistic about the state of the team. It seemed that C9 was trying out different rosters every week, hoping that something would stick. In the opening weeks of summer, the team would frequently establish massive gold leads over their opponents, before gradually throwing and losing the game. They were losing to teams they should have beat.

Many remembered NA LCS 2015 Summer, where C9 finished 6–12 and nearly ended up in relegations, having to miraculously win three best-of-fives in a row to get to Worlds.

Week 6. Day 1. Cloud9 faced off against their longtime rival TSM, who were having internal issues of their own. The team’s starting roster was the same as the week prior: Licorice, Blaber, Jensen, Sneaky, and Zeyzal.

In a 35-minute game, C9 bested TSM and began a historic winning streak.

From Week 6 to Week 9, they tore up the LCS in an eight-game winning streak. They shot from tenth place to second, just a single win behind Team Liquid — a team they had gone 2–0 against during the split.

They secured a bye to the semifinals, where they encountered TSM. In a full best-of-five series, C9 recovered from a 1–2 deficit after subbing in the “swole bros” Svenskeren and Goldenglue for games 4 and 5. For the first time since Spring 2014, C9 had beat TSM in a best-of-five and were heading to the NA LCS finals in Oakland to face off against Team Liquid.

“Svenskeren and Goldenglue complete it! It’s the 3–2 victory for Cloud9!”

In the words of Svenskeren, C9 was “smashed 3–0”. It was a humbling moment for fans and for the team. The C9 squad that had seemed invincible for weeks was brought to its knees by Team Liquid.

As a result of their finals loss, C9 had to play in the final round of the gauntlet to make Worlds. Their opponent? TSM, of course. This series, however, played out differently than that of the semifinals. While the individual games themselves were somewhat close, the series ended in a definitive 3–0 win for C9.

For the sixth time, C9 was going to the World Championship. They would return to Korea where, in 2014, they had made it as far as the quarterfinals before being served a 1–3 loss at the hands of Samsung Blue.

Since they were the third seed from North America, they had to begin in the play-in stage. Seeded into Group C with Japan’s DetonatioN FocusMe and Brazil’s KaBuM! e-Sports, C9 went 4–0 and made it to Round 2.

C9 faced Gambit Esports, the team from the Commonwealth of Independent States and with two remnants from the legendary Moscow Five roster that dominated in the early days of LoL: Diamondprox and Edward.

Most didn’t expect the series to be close. While North America lagged behind Europe, China, Korea, and occasionally the LMS, it was unlikely that a Russian team could take down a top North American team.

Gambit took C9 to five games. While C9 managed to win game 5 in 30 minutes and thereby secure a spot in the group stage, it didn’t help to ease the concerns of fans who were unsure about the team’s prospects against far better international teams:

The group draw was finalized after the end of play-ins. C9 were placed into Group B, alongside Europe’s second seed, Team Vitality, Korea’s third seed and the reigning world champions, Gen.G, and China’s first seed, Royal Never Give Up.

Bluntly speaking, there wasn’t a lot of hope for C9.

RNG was coming off victories in both LPL splits, as well as a dominant victory at the Mid-Season Invitational. Additionally, three RNG players were on the Chinese national team at the Asian Games, where they reigned supreme over Korea and others. Logically, many analysts and fans believed that RNG would be the 2018 world champions.

Gen.G, despite a weak showing in both LCK splits’ playoffs, were the reigning world champions from 2017 and had proven themselves time and time again as a strong and unpredictable team.

Team Vitality, while the weaker of the three, was known to be an aggressive and confident squad.

When the group stage started, things generally went as planned.

Almost.

On day 1, C9 lost to RNG.

But, just an hour later, Vitality pulled off an insane backdoor victory over Gen.G. I still recall Deficio yelling, “come on boys!” as the Vitality members laid siege to Gen.G’s base in a spectacular upset.

Earlier the same day, G2 had defeated the Afreeca Freecs. There was building hope that Western, or at the very least European, teams could defeat their Eastern counterparts. Maybe this would be the worlds where it happened.

On day 2, C9 defeated Vitality. On day 3, they lost to Gen.G. After the first round robin was said and done, C9, Vitality, and Gen.G were sitting in a three-way tie for second place behind the undefeated RNG.

Everything would come down to the second round.

Team Liquid and 100Thieves, the other North American representatives, had also gone 1–2 in week 1. There wasn’t much hope that 100Thieves would make it out. Team Liquid had more hope, but it was still extremely unsure.

The second round began.

Vitality beat RNG. Then C9 beat Gen.G.

Then VIT beat Gen.G. Gen.G. was knocked out. At 1–4, they could not make it out of groups anymore.

The reigning world champions were out.

This was the first time since 2013 that a Korean team had been knocked out of the group stage at Worlds.

It had to be two of RNG, C9, and Vitality exiting the group.

Western fans were absolutely ecstatic. Reddit was being blown up with hype.

Then, C9 beat RNG. It seemed absolutely unthinkable that any of what had happened was even possible.

The night wasn’t even over yet.

While Reddit and Twitch chat were being blown up with pro-Western hype, it soon came to an end with the sad realization that only one of the two Western teams were going to make it out.

C9 vs Vitality begins. The fifth game of the night.

32 minutes in. C9 initiates a teamfight when Svenskeren’s Nocturne jumps on Attila’s Draven. Many of Vitality’s members fall, and they are driven into their base as C9 begins the final push.

“Cloud9 pass the group of death and qualify for the quarterfinals!”

C9 fans are elated. Everyone is in disbelief. No one really saw that night going the way that did.

No one thought that C9 would make it out of that group. No one believed Vitality would play as well as they did, either.

What is most important is that it didn’t seem like they were “cheesing” their way to victories, getting lucky, or taking advantage of their opponents’ choking. For the first time in awhile, it seemed as though these Western teams were playing better than their Eastern counterparts.

C9 and RNG finished the night 4–2, tied for first place. They would battle it out for first seed.

In an intense 39-minute game, RNG came out on top over C9.

While it was disappointing for the fans for C9 to lose the tiebreaker, most remained jubilant at the fact that they had even made it out in the first place.

The bracket stage draw. C9 is put up against Afreeca Freecs, Korea’s second seed that topped Group A.

If C9 managed to beat Afreeca, they would play either Fnatic, Europe’s first seed, or EDward Gaming, China’s third seed.

Quarterfinals, day 2.

C9 faces Afreeca.

In a 3–0 sweep, Afreeca is defeated at the hands of North America’s only representative in the bracket stage.

“The last vestige of Korea has been destroyed! Cloud9 will make it to the semifinals! A 3–0 sweep! The first time in seven years!”

In three games, Sneaky and Zeyzal play out of their minds. Sneaky performs insanely well on Lucian, one of his best champions.

The passage of C9 to the semifinals marked the first time since 2011, when the first World Championship was held, that a North American team had made it to the semifinals.

This was also the first time since 2012 that a Western team had beaten a Korean team in a best-of-five, when CLG Europe beat NaJin Sword in the OGN Summer 2012 semifinals.

Having watched professional League of Legends since late 2014, it was difficult for me to imagine that a North American team would make it as far as the semifinals. I watched, in 2016, as C9 were demolished by Samsung Galaxy in just three games.

I watched again in 2017, as C9 were brought to their knees in a devastatingly-close five game series against Team WE.

For a Korean, Chinese, or European team, reaching the semifinals is almost always a given, with a few exceptions here and there. Fans of those regions expect at least one of their teams to make it that far. If they don’t, they are failures.

For us North Americans, the semifinals was just barely out of reach. Every year, we are left defeated in group stage, or smashed in the quarterfinals.

It is an understatement to say how much of an accomplishment it was for a North American team to not only make semifinals, but to do it by being the first Western team to defeat a Korean one in a series in years.

There was magic in the air at that World Championship. Everyone believed that their team could do it. Everyone believed that that year, at that worlds, the trophy could be theirs.

For years, Worlds had been dominated by Korean teams. It wasn’t even close.

Something had changed. There weren’t even Korean teams in the semifinals.

I didn’t believe that Cloud9 could win worlds. That seemed like a dream that could never come true. After all, it was logical to believe that Fnatic and Invictus were simply better than them.

But I had hope. Blind hope, I guess. When the “battle of the West” began, we were all hyped for a competitive series between the two best teams from Europe and North America respectively.

I really thought they had a chance to make the finals and prove everyone wrong again. I really believed that these guys could do what no North American team had ever done before.

But it wasn’t their time.

C9 was obliterated by Fnatic in three games.

In retrospect, maybe I was an idiot. Maybe I was delusional. I just remember thinking that these guys could do it. That it was within the realm of possibility.

It wasn’t all bad. After all, we made it to semi’s and knocked out one of the two remaining Korean teams in quarterfinals.

But it was bittersweet.

And when Fnatic were themselves beaten by Invictus in the finals, it felt even worse. It felt as though we never had a fighting chance. It felt like we would always be worse than the others no matter what.

No matter how far we got, it would never be enough to impress anyone but ourselves.

At least Cloud9 did it, though. That’s the memory I hold onto. Watching them celebrate after taking down Afreeca; watching them rejoice after escaping the “group of death”.

Did they lose? Yes, humiliatingly so in the end.

I don’t weep at their defeat. I just remember how far they made it against insurmountable odds.

Worlds 2018 will go down as one of the most memorable championships the game has ever seen.

Many teams, not just Cloud9, proved that you can make it farther than anyone expected you to if you play to your strengths and be confident in yourself.

It proved that nothing is impossible. Regardless of what the fans, analysts, and even players say, you can make it against even the worst odds.

You cannot carry out fundamental change without a certain amount of madness. — Thomas Sankara

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