How Cloud9 rebuilt from regional power to international challenger

In three clean shots, Tyler “Skadoodle” Latham came up huge for his team in the final round of the second match of the ESL ESEA Pro League quarterfinals, killing three players and winning the match versus EnVyUs

In three clean shots, Tyler “Skadoodle” Latham came up huge for his team in the final round of the second match of the ESL ESEA Pro League quarterfinals, killing three players and winning the match versus EnVyUs. This was it, the first time an American Counter-Strike team had taken down a European squad in a “best-of” series since October 25, 2014.

The community was shocked. No one expected the recently rebuilt North American giant to beat EnVyUS.

Cloud9 met arguably the best team in the world in the finals. The Swedes of Fnatic had struggled in their group, but made it out after nearly taking down rival Team SoloMid. The Swedish squad took first place at the majority of the events they attended over the past two years, including the monumental ESL One Katowice in 2015. Cloud9 came close versus Fnatic, but were unable to close it out. Still, this is the beginning of a new movement for the North American team. 

Saranthus said Cloud9 is expecting a “top three” finish at ESWC.

A few months ago, few would have expected them to earn second-place finish at one of the year’s biggest tournaments. And it all happened thanks to a major rebuilding of the team in April, when the squad added Latham—one of the best AWPers in the world—and an unknown quantity: entry-fragger Ryan “fREAKAZOiD” Abadir. Since then, domestic results have shown Cloud9 to be the best team in North America. But abroad things haven’t gone so smoothly—until the Pro League finals.

“The addition of Freakazoid and Skadoodle has been one of, if not the best move we’ve made thus far,” team manager Tres “stunna” Saranthus told the Daily Dot, “During the roster shuffle it was unclear which direction C9 CS:GO was actually going to go, but with the outcome showing such promise as this, it’s easy to say the right choices were made.”

Prior to accepting the Cloud9 offer, Latham’s name was connected to several teams as he shopped around for a new squad. In April, popular player Spencer “Hiko” Martin attempted to construct a super team with Latham being his “package deal” for interested sponsors. Other North American great Counter Logic Gaming was interested in grabbing Latham after a falling-out with sniper Peter “Ptr” Gurney.

But nothing was quite like Cloud9’s prestige. The team was already the best in the states before the changes, but with so much talent circulating during the infamous “NA Shuffle”—a series of roster changes among the best teams in Counter-Strike through April and May 2015—Cloud9 had a lot of options.

“Obviously, choosing Skadoodle to be our AWPer was an easy choice,” in-game leader Sean “sgares” Gares said.

It was the entry-fragger position that Cloud9 struggled with. The team parted ways with long-standing member Kory “Semphis” Friesen on April 24 and began trialling replacements. One popular Twitch Counter-Strike streamer and former Counter-Strike: Source pro, Abadir, who had been focusing on school, at first seemed to be a longshot chance for the team.  “When it came to an entry fragger we knew it would be much harder,” Gares said. “After a week of talking about various players in the scene we knew the same problem would arise, which is why Jordan came up with the idea of using Freakazoid. After one scrim of playing with Ryan we all knew that his confidence and positive energy was exactly what we needed.”

Jordan “n0thing” Gilbert, another long-standing Cloud9 player, said that Abadir brought a “lot of heart to the team.”

“And I think that’s important for when you face adversity and issues within the team,” he said. “He also is someone who will do exactly as you tell him to do things, so its great to have someone so willing as our frontman.”

Abadir’s having the same effect in-game as he’s having on morale. The job he holds on Terrorist sides of the game is tough. While pushing into a bomb site, his mission is to aim for the head and attempt to kill the Counter-Terrorists who are waiting for his team’s arrival. Last weekend, he managed to pull off a clutch one-on-two and defused the bomb—a highlight-reel play.

The Cloud9 squad is completed out by riflemen Jordan “n0thing” Gilbert and Michael “Shroud” Grzesiek, as well as in-game leader Sean “sgares” Gares.

Gilbert is a veteran player of the game and had success in one of its earlier iterations, Counter-Strike 1.6. He’s best known for his time with Evil Geniuses’s 1.6 squad, as well as a long line of domestic competition during his teenage years. He’s a highly popular streamer, like Abadir and Grzesiek, and recently was interviewed by comedian and Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) sports commentator Joe Rogan.

The sole Canadian member of the squad, Grzesiek is one of the most popular Counter-Strike streamers on Twitch. Like Abadir, the team (then known as compLexity) took a gamble on Grzesiek shortly after former player Todd “anger” Williams left on July 17, 2014. After a short period as a stand-in, he was made official when the team signed with Cloud9 on Aug. 1, 2014.

His performance has been great for the team. He’s one of the most consistent fraggers on the squad and his recent performance at the ESL ESEA Pro League Finals was dominant.

Gares is the team’s captain. He’s rarely at the top of the leaderboard, but the strategic mindset and shotcalling he brings to the table are invaluable. When former AWPer Shahzeb “ShahZam” Khan joined the squad, Gares began to focus on the team game instead of the more individual pursuit of sniping.

“I feel like I’ve put in the same efforts that I always have, but the difference is that I probably have a little more control now,” he said, “In the past I was probably a little bit more accepting of strategy ideas in a live match. As shown in the POVs, I’m still willing to change a previously called tactic, but more I’ll veto ideas quite regularly.”

This was an instrumental part of the team’s success last weekend. Cloud9’s unexpected victory over EnVyUS came thanks to proper preparation from both Gares and the rest of the team. Gares says that prior to traveling to Cologne last weekend, he sat the team down to review previous matches of its opponents for the event.

Abadir’s having the same effect in-game as he’s having on morale.

“Similar to what happens in our hotel room, I discuss what an opponent does and what holes are in our current game. It also is extremely valuable to me because four extra sets of eyes can make suggestions. I think team demo sessions alone helped improve our game drastically.”

Gilbert agrees that the team’s preparation—and executing it properly—led them to victory:

“As a team I think we did a good job at sticking to a game plan and executing it. We are going to continue to try to improve our chemistry and preparation so that the term “less is more” is able to really flourish once we go live.”

Another factor to the team’s success is from the organization that backs it, Cloud9. Formed by former Team SoloMid VP Sales and General Manager Jack Etienne and League of Legends squad captain Hai “Hai” Du Lam in May 2013, Cloud9 has spread out to support some of the best talent amongst League, Counter-Strike, Dota 2, Hearthstone, Heroes of the Storm, Super Smash Bros., and more.

“Cloud9 support us [the team] in basically every way possible.” Gilbert said, “No one else has ever come close to the support Jack [Etienne] and Cloud9 have offered our team. Jack, you the real MVP!”

For his venture into Counter-Strike, Etienne brought in Saranthus, a former Army Sergeant Infantryman with a love for the scene. Saranthus manages the team’s day-to-day, takes care of the players while on the road, and makes sure business dealings—tournaments and events—go according to plan. And that’s just the start.

“The role of Manager for a CS:GO team isn’t one that’s defined by any set guidelines,” he said. “That to me is the most interesting aspect of what I do. I’ve gone as far as to find myself playing in a match or two at the professional level. I think what I have done previously in the Army as an Infantryman and sergeant has taught me a good bit about dealing with the unexpected. My main focus is putting the team in position to excel and setting them up for success both in and out of game.”

The team is actively pursuing other ways to improve chemistry. One possibility has become something of a trend in North American Counter-Strike: team houses. Like in other esports, the players live, breath, eat, and sleep in the same home. Counter Logic and Luminosity are two other North American teams who have put this into effect recently—both moving their sets of players to a central location. Cloud9 has discussed doing something similar with its Counter-Strike team and has done so with its League of Legends team over the past two years.

“We have most definitely discussed [moving into a house] internally but there have been a few road bumps.” Saranthus said, “The timeline in which we were looking to make the move happen didn’t exactly fit in with the hectic summer LAN schedule that we are currently operating on. A C9 CS:GO team house is in the works and we expect to have it all figured out by the start of the next online seasons commence.”

Saranthus added: “Living together as a team can be a great thing or it can be a team killer. The biggest component of the team house environment is the personalities and mentalities of the players who are going to be located there. You learn a great deal about another person once you live with them and as of right now that is essentially what is going on within the team as we spend countless weeks living in close proximity of one another while on the road.”

The victory over EnVyUs and close games with Fnatic were monumental. But its biggest challenges are still ahead. This weekend, the team plays in the Electronic Sports World Cup, a yearly LAN event in Montreal, Canada. In the group stages, Cloud9 will face Ukrainian squad Flipsid3 Tactics, who will be fielding former Cloud9 Spencer “Hiko” Martin.

If the team makes it past groups, more European squads will likely be waiting: EnVyUS, Titan, SK Gaming, Natus Vincere, and LDLC White are all attending the event. Cloud9 has previously struggled with several of these opponents, but after their performance last week at the ESL ESEA Pro League Finals, the expectations have been raised.

Saranthus said Cloud9 is expecting a “top three” finish at ESWC.

No one expected the recently rebuilt North American giant to beat EnVyUS.

“We realize there is a lot of expectation to fill from the community perspective but in the player’s mind it’s imperative to play the game they know how to play, and more importantly to play it as a team. As we get deeper into this summer schedule, it’s very key to handle each tournament, each bracket or group, and each opponent one by one and that’s just what the plan is. Overlook no one and prepare for everything you can.”

With so many tough opponents ahead, the team has to prepare quickly and also has to focus on learning the most it can about who it’ll be facing. Preparation is key. Gares explained that playing to the team’s strengths while also minutely adjusting to its opponents is highly effective.

“Although it’s effective to create hard counters to your opponents, it’s also very risky. I think the best choice is to make small adjustments to previously designed tactics for each opponent.”

The team’s first objective is to due well at the Electronic Sports World Cup. Shortly after, it’ll be gearing up for the North American qualifiers of one of the summer majors, ESL One Cologne, which takes place on August 22-23.

Images via ESL/Flickr | Remix by Jacob Wolf

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