Cloud9 and Na’Vi: Dueling disappointments

There's a weird similarity in the waxing and waning fates of performance of Cloud9 and Na'Vi.

Photo via DreamHack

FaZe and G2’s pre-playoff elimination at the PGL Major was the biggest story of the Swiss, but their disappearing act wasn’t an uncommon feature at this event. Na’Vi and Cloud9 also failed to breach the top-eight and earn “legendary” status even though both teams had just had a top-four showing at ESL One Cologne a little more than a week prior.

But perhaps it’s fitting that both Na’Vi and Cloud9 made this synchronized leap up before tumbling back down. If you look back through this past year of play since the August player break of 2016, Cloud9 and Na’Vi have borne a striking resemblance in their overall results and rankings. And it seems highly likely that they will meet the same end this August as neither of these five-man lineups will likely remain completely intact at the end of this year’s player break.

To start though, you would not have ever expected Cloud9 and Na’Vi to align if you looked at the two teams at the beginning of 2016. Na’Vi were the number two team in the world at the beginning of the year, and seemed like the best contender to end Fnatic’s year-long dominion over the entire Counter-Strike scene. And their results proved their potential. Na’Vi placed second at the StarLadder i-League StarSeries XIV Finals, first at DreamHack Leipzig 2016, top-four at IEM Katowice 2016, and first at Counter Pit League Season 2.

At the same time, Cloud9 were trapped in a turmoil of near existential portions. Following the departure of Sean “seangares” Gares in November 2016, Cloud9 picked up a still very raw Jake “Stewie2k” Yip. The pick up massively disappointed their fan base, as much bigger brand-names such as Christopher “GeT_RiGhT” Alesund and Tarik “tarik” Celik were rumored candidates. Once Stewie2k and the rest of Cloud9 performed poorly or below expectations under the leadership of Jordan “n0thing” Gilbert at their first few LANs of the year, many fans assumed that the end was nigh for the long-time leading North American roster.

However, the delta between Cloud9 and Na’Vi started to diminish moving into March. The hand injury of Na’Vi’s world-leading AWPer, Ladislav “GuardiaN” Kovács, prior to MLG Colombus Major negatively affected his performance at the event and in the coming weeks and months. Not only did Na’Vi fail to overcome Fnatic, the clear number-three team, Luminosity instead became the world leader and dominated the era. But as Na’Vi dipped slightly, Cloud9 showed some improvement following the departure of the team’s dedicated entry player, Ryan “fREAKAZOiD” Abadir, and the addition of proper in-game leader in Alec “Slemmy” White with Stewie2k even becoming the team’s leading player

Still, the two rosters were leaps and bounds apart. Na’Vi still placed highly at DreamHack Masters Malmö, ESL One Cologne, and ELEAGUE Season 1. The mostly CIS mix was still one of the best teams on the world stage even with GuardiaN not looking the same after the injury. They just weren’t threatening to be the best anymore. Cloud9, on the other hand, looked good occasionally defeating Astralis in a best-of-one at ECS Season 1 and nearly beat Luminosity (soon-to-be SK) in a best-of-three in their ELEAGUE group. But they were never close to being the contenders they once appeared to be in the Summer of 2015.

One factor more than anything else tied the two teams together: the performance of the S1mple-backed Team Liquid team at the next Valve Major at ESL One Cologne 2016. With Liquid placing second, the best-ever major result for a North American team, Cloud9 saw their position as the purebreds of the region crumble, and they decided to make another roster change. Na’Vi instead saw the huge possible boost that S1mple could give to a team, and decided to make a change as well.

To make room for S1mple, Na’Vi removed their former in-game leader Danylo “Zeus” Teslenko, who had become more of a pure-support player as Sergey “starix” Ischuk took tactical control of the team from the coach position. Cloud9 likewise removed Slemmy to add Timothy “autimatic” Ta who had been a lurker for the North American TSM team who had knocked Cloud9 out of the ECS Season 1 finals and placed top-four themselves. While both teams essentially made the same decision, choosing brains over brawn, the public’s reaction to these changes were completely at odds with one another. Most assumed they would return both teams to their prowess of six months prior. Cloud9 would reach new lows, while Na’Vi would be a championship contender again.

But both changes would be irrecoverably contorted by a sudden decision by Valve. As first revealed in a letter that leaked on Aug. 17, Valve made a ruling change to dramatically reduce the role of coaches. Previously, coaches could communicate with players throughout the game unfettered, which allowed them to effectively act as an “in-game” leader from outside the server.

The timing was terrible. Na’Vi had removed Zeus and added S1mple on Aug. 4 under the assumption that Starix could continue to lead the now leaderless five-man squad, but Cloud9 had it worse. They publicly announced the acquisition of Autimatic on Aug. 17 just hours after the leaked letter surfaced which may have influenced Slemmy or the org’s decision not to keep the squad’s former leader on as a coach. Either way, both teams had turn on of their players into a tactician. On Na’Vi, Denis “seized” Kostin was made the new IGL, while the role was quite surprisingly given to the still-inexperienced Stewie2k on Cloud9. With both teams best-laid plans ruined, the stage was set for a new synchronicity.

Moving into the Uncertainty Era, each team had a rough first event with their new lineup. Cloud9 failed to win the talent-light Northern Arena Toronto event, after losing to Immortals in a controversial final. Then, Na’Vi didn’t make it out of groups at Starladder i-League StarSeries Season 2 after losing their opening two best-of-ones to TyLoo and a pre-Gla1ve Astralis.

But both managed to become or at least look like a top-five team afterwards. Cloud9 placed top-four at Starladder, second at Dreamhack Bucharest, and actually won the ESL Pro League Season 4 finals, which was the the first premier-level win by a North American Counter-Strike team in the last decade. Contemporary, Na’Vi also took strides to stand out. They won the second LAN they played together, ESL One New York, even defeating the best team in the world in the earlier Uncertainty Era, Virtus Pro, in the finals. And they cemented their position as a top team by placing top-four at the next premier-level tournament they entered, EPICENTER 2016.

While both teams looked significantly less structured following their respective changes, both team succeeded early in large part due to their new respective pickups. S1mple retained much of the form he showed at ESL One Cologne 2016 with team Liquid, producing numbers and performing feats that made look like the clear absolute best player in the world. But more surprisingly, Autimatic looked significantly improved on Cloud9, even looking like a top-10 player worldwide at the EPL Season 4 finals, as he looked much improved after from lurking and asserted himself more across the map in tandem with a a still effective Stewie2k.

But this initial surge of successes for both teams didn’t last and there were already hints that they would both crumble even before their early runs ended. Cloud9 failed to make it out of their ELEAGUE group with losses to mousesports and the brand new FaZe with Finn “karrigan” Andersen just a week before their win at EPL. Also, Na’Vi’s top-4 at EPICENTER was perhaps unfairly due to a sub-optimal tiebreaker system using round differential in the group stage. And things only got worse from there on out.

Beyond a second place finish at the tier-two iBUYPOWER Masters event (thanks to another loss to Immortals in the finals) Cloud9 failed time and again to make it out the group stage of the best LANs. C9 just missed the playoffs at IEM Oakland, went 0-2 at ECS Season 2, and even failed to attend the major for a second straight time after falling out at the ELEAGUE Major Qualifiers. Likewise, Na’Vi failed to make it out of a tough ELEAGUE Season 2 group with losses to SK and the new Astralis with Lukas “gla1ve” Rossander, and also fell out of IEM Oakland with a 2-3 record which was a just a win short of making the playoffs.

During this period, the issues inherent to both squads started to become more or less discernible. Na’Vi and Cloud9 both suffered from an unstable map pool, declining performances from their former stars, and the individual failings of their respective leaders. In 2015 under the leadership of Sgares, Shroud and Skadoodle were Cloud9’s obvious leading pair of players, but both seemed out of place in the fast-paced, limited-utility executes and attacks of Stewie2k. On Na’Vi the same story repeats. Flamie and Guardian functioned as the team’s stars at their peak in late 2015 and early 2016, but never seemed to have the same level of impact in this new iteration of the lineup without the structure of Starix or Zeus.

But the struggles of being a leader expressed themselves in different way for Stewie2k and Seized. Stewie seemed capable of still performing as one of Cloud9’s two best players as most of their game was still centered around himself, but he struggled with the actual leading. As reported by his teammates, sometimes Stewie would “run out of ideas” when struggling in a half, could fail to call a timeout when needed, or have emotional outbursts when Cloud9 needed to reset at a crucial juncture. On the other hand, Seized’s issues were more prototypical for a player suddenly made into a in-game leader. Since taking up the in-game leader, Seized had significantly less output fragging-wise as an individual player despite arguably being the team’s third best player in the previous lineup.

Going into the new year and the Parity Era, Na’Vi and Cloud9 diverged slightly with Na’Vi looking a step above Cloud9. Na’Vi made it into the playoffs of four straight premier-level LANs: the ELEAGUE Major, DreamHack Masters Las Vegas, IEM Katowice 2017, and Starladder i-league StarSeries Season 3. However, Na’Vi were eliminated early in the playoff each as they constantly had to face the top challengers of the scene. They were defeated by Astralis at the Major, the new SK with Felps at DreamHack Masters, and Astralis again at IEM Katowice. At Starladder, Na’Vi made their only top-four when the defeated Fnatic in the quarterfinals, but Na’Vi once again had to go up against Astralis in the semifinals, which they predictably lost.

While attending these same tournaments, Cloud9 were often just shy of clinching a playoff berth at the tournaments they could attend. At DreamHack Masters, they came up three rounds short of beating Ninjas in Pajamas in a best-of-three to make the playoffs. Then again, at IEM Katowice, C9’s 2-3 record was a game short of the quarterfinals. But as both teams stagnated in this early part of the year, they each looked to the coach role to help them take a step up. On Feb. 3 before DreamHack Masters, Cloud9 brought in Autimatic’s former teammate and coach Soham “valens” Chowdhury as the new head coach. On March 10 after IEM Katowice, Na’Vi ended their seven-year relationship with Starix, and their analyst Andrey “Andi” Prokhorov was instead put into the head coaching role.

While some praised the coaching change on Na’Vi, their results actually started to fall not long afterwards as we moved closer to the Summer. Na’Vi were very surprisingly eliminated from the eight-team, tier-two DreamHack Tours event in the group stage after following a best-of-three loss to Misfits, the North American/French mix team led by Seangares. They also performed poorly at the ESL Pro League Season 5 Finals, where they finished near the bottom of their six-team group on their way to an early elimination. Conversely, Cloud9 maintained their not-awful, but still unimpressive level. They placed fourth at the talent-lite cs_summit event while using Braxton “swag” Pierce as a stand-in, but also went out in the group stage at three straight events afterwards: DreamHack Austin, DreamHack Summer, and the ESL Pro League Finals.

By this point, fans and analysts alike had long given up on a revival of these squads to their initial heights. The discussion surrounding the pair almost completely centered around who needed to be cut. The near-eternally slumping Guardian was the name most mentioned for Na’Vi in addition to Seized due to his poor overall fragging as the in-game leader. On Cloud9, Shroud seemed to be the obvious first shoe to drop, but a somewhat improved Skadoodle meant that n0thing was the secondary name on the chopping block. Those “who to cut” conversations briefly ceased as an entirely different story cropped up in the summer, however.

At the ECS Season 3 finals last month, Cloud9 won straight two best-of-ones on their two best maps, Train and Mirage, to immediately place top-four at the tier-one event. While they immediately lost to FaZe in the ensuing semifinals, this was Cloud9’s first playoff entrance at a premier-level tournament since their win at the ESL Pro League Season 4 last October. And they made magic happen again at ESL One Cologne. After squeaking through the swiss with 3-2 record, Cloud9 defeated NiP and Na’Vi in the playoffs to attend another big-tournament finals, though this time they would be summarily dismantled by the current world-leader, SK.

But Cologne was obviously good for Na’Vi as well. They made it through the Swiss more cleanly with a 3-1 record and defeated a widely considered top-four team in G2 in the quarterfinals before falling to Cloud9 in the semifinals. And both team succeeded through a similar means. Skadoodle had a great tournament in Cologne even looking on the level of Stewie2k and Autimatic, looking especially good in the NiP series and versus TyLoo and Na’Vi in the Swiss. Likewise on the Na’Vi side, Guardian had one of his rare tournament showings since the hand injury and the formation of this current roster where his performance actually rose to the occasion of his late 2015/early 2016 reputation.

Despite both squads’ long months of failures and ever-present mediocrity, fans had something to be excited about with the biggest tournament of the past half year just days away. If both former star AWPers could just carry over their Cologne form, Cloud9 and Na’Vi could surely reach Legendary status or more at the major.

It just didn’t happen. Neither team could find the three wins necessary to move on in the Swiss. You could list a bunch of reasons for this dual failure, from questionable vetoes, to missing members, to limited practice. But in the end, after seeing both teams play for a year, you can’t say the result was a big surprise. Because of mismatched personnel or deficient teamplay or a lack of leadership, neither team ever lived up to their potential.

Na’Vi, with an additional superstar in S1mple,was supposed to be one of the best if not the best team in the world. Cloud9 with Autimatic wasn’t supposed to be anything, yet they looked they could be up there with the world best before they came up short for eight straight months. Both looked much better for a moment at Cologne, but both regressed to the mean at the major, and were upstaged at the major by far less firepower-rich teams such as Gambit and BIG.

But if there’s been any benefit to be had in this near year-long production of disappointment, perhaps Cloud9 and Na’Vi have developed a far better understanding of their breaking point than the average alternative. While the lack of an experienced in-game leader is the obvious gaping hole to be filled on both sides, perhaps the lumps they received at LAN after LAN could be their best guide in terms of personnel and playstyle changes as they each try to re-shape themselves in the off-season.