Last week, instead of jetting across the globe to Katowice, Poland to face some of the top League of Legends teams in the world, Cloud9 stayed home. They relaxed—and prepared for an important week of action in the LCS.
For An “Balls” Le, the veteran top laner who is now one of only two players who have played in every match in Cloud9’s storied history, the break was “refreshing.” In each of the past two years, Cloud9 attended IEM Katowice, competing in a stressful event during the middle of the LCS season.
“Not going this year sucks but it also gives us a chance to rest a bit,” he says. “We were still scrimming, taking the weekend off. It’s refreshing to watch the games and sit back and relax.”
Cloud9 certainly wouldn’t have turned down the chance to go. Balls even believes his team would have fared better than the other American representative—the team’s play style is likely a better fit for the international stage, he feels—but in some ways gaining an extra week to stay at home and practice, while rival Counter Logic Gaming struggles with jet lag and poor practice conditions in Poland, was a blessing in disguise. The team gained a game in the standings this weekend, beating both Renegades and Team Impulse, as CLG fell to Team Liquid.
Now the two are tied at 11-5, vying for that second seed in the playoffs and the important first round bye it provides. And Balls is feeling good because Cloud9 now controls their own destiny: if they win out next week, including a potential tie breaker against CLG, they’ll earn that playoff bye.
That, apparently, is worth missing one of the three biggest international tournaments of the League of Legends year. That’s in part because, for the veterans of Cloud9, attending an event they’ve competed at in each of the past two years isn’t exactly a new or invigorating experience. But it’s also because over those two years, a lot has changed.
Two years ago, Cloud9 were kings of North America, in the thick of their dominant run of three straight LCS titles. Two years ago, Balls himself was hailed as the best top laner in the region.
At the end of last year, Balls was a “worrying trend,” as one analyst put it, a veteran player who many weren’t afraid to call washed up. Last year, Cloud9 needed to bring back their retired captain, Hai Lam, to save themselves from relegation.
If Cloud9 wants to win the championship, they’ll need Balls to continue upping his game.
This year, things are more back to normal. Cloud9 is 11-5, challenging for another LCS title. Balls is once being whispered about as the best local top laner thanks to his superb play on tanks. But their recent struggles have left an indelible mark on Cloud9.
“I think for this season compared to last season, we’re focusing on not getting last and not getting relegated, not trying out new things anymore and focusing on placing higher this split,” Balls says. “The best of threes is where we can test out stuff.”
Talking relegation, of course, seems ludicrous for a team also talking about playoffs byes, a team we’re used to seeing compete for championships. Last year, however, Cloud9 made their first roster swap ever by adding talented rookie mid laner Nicolaj Jensen, but then nearly fell out of the league when Jensen failed to gel at first. That’s left a specter hanging over the team.
It’s played out in some of the team’s decision making this year. They picked up support player Michael “Bunny FuFuu” Kurylo to pair with their long-time in-game leader Hai, swapping players every match at the start of the season. But after two weeks with Bunny producing losses, even against a tougher schedule than the one Hai faced, the team quickly ended the experiment.
The team still regularly scrims with Bunny, Balls says, preparing for the possibility of using him next split or even in the playoffs, if the right opportunity rises.
“When it was looking grim we just decided to not risk it too much,” Balls says. “We want to get first or second this split and prepare for next split. We’re still scrimming with Bunny and stuff, but we’re just practicing and making sure it’s all right before using him for next split.”
The criteria for deciding when it’s “all right” is still up in the air. Right now, Hai is playing a solid support, and his shot calling and initiation are still invaluable to a team that seems to lack leadership whenever he’s out of the lineup. But Hai still has wrist issues, even if he’s learned to mitigate them by simply playing the game less. He retired last year for health reasons, only returning to essentially save his franchise from oblivion.
“It also depends on how Hai feels or if he can keep that kind of level or if we can improve ourselves and be able to play with Bunny,” Balls says. “That’s all how well we as individuals improve and we can move that shot calling over with Bunny too, and also if Hai is willing to keep playing LCS.”
So, even as the team prepares for the final week of the season, building up a base to compete in the playoffs, they’re still practicing with their support understudy. And it’s helped them learn some of their weaknesses through the season.
For example, the team identified an issue with communication thanks to swapping supports. With Hai in the lineup, the team works better not only because of the leadership and calling that Hai provides, but because the rest of the team responds to it by communicating more themselves. So Cloud9 has made efforts to practice communicating more while Kurylo is in the lineup, and it’s paid dividends.
“Jensen is having more confidence, he’s talking a lot more now too,” Balls says. “With Hai helping out and telling him what else he needs, it’s working out. His synergy with Rush is pretty good. This compared to last lineup, everyone is talking way more.”
That’s showed in the team’s play this season. Adding Lee “Rush” Yoon-jae, the last LCS MVP, certainly gives any lineup a big boost. But he’s not the only player driving Cloud9 to success this Spring. In fact, he’s learned to play a more supportive role from the jungle, when the team requires it, forgoing the carry style he loves to play. That’s opened up a player like Jensen to show just why Cloud9 decided to pick him up as a rookie last year over other talented options.
“We can still get a bit higher, but we don’t know how high.”
Le believes Jensen is finally “comfortable” after a shaky rookie split. “He had some settings wrong a few times in LCS, he had some rookie mistakes, but now he’s really comfortable in LCS and he can just go all out now.”
So far this season, Jensen leads all mid laner in kills with 77, 10 more than the next ranked player. He’s played solid in lane and leads the entire league, including all positions, with 695 DPM. Jensen scored weekly MVP honors this week for the second time this season thanks to his play on Varus.
That gives Cloud9 three potential carry threats in the jungle, mid lane, and AD carry, leaving Balls to play the more supportive tank role that seems to fit him. The veteran player, once hailed for his ability to play any top lane champion and his unbeatable Rumble, was seen as the weak link for Cloud9 at the World Championship a few months ago, where mechanically talented carry top laners stole the show. But this season, Balls is showing he is hardly weak.
His kill participation is last in the league among top laners at 52 percent, by far below the next lowest player, the split-push-heavy Darshan Upadhyaya. Balls has the lowest gold share among top laner starters. But he still often wins his lane and rarely loses it, allowing his team to focus resources on their other lanes as he builds into an impactful tank. In week six he showed he can still carry when needed with a game that showcased why Gangplank is a contested pick. This week he put together two solid games with Trundle, his game against Team Impulse standing as a textbook example of how to play the tank (plus, he even scored some solo kills).
That really puts the “worrying trend” in perspective. Balls just shrugs when asked about the criticism he took for his play surrounding worlds, noting that if it doesn’t come from another player’s mouth, he isn’t listening. He still has the respect of his peers, and for very good reason.
If Cloud9 wants to win the championship, they’ll need Balls to continue upping his game. He feels that the key matchup against their toughest competitor, Immortals, is his own lane.
“For us to beat Immortals, it’s just focusing top side, matching stop side, or snowballing the other side,” Balls says. “It’s just me doing well versus Huni and then maybe take out a few champions like Soraka maybe. Not sure. We’ll figure out a plan before then. Immortals play a lot top side, so we have to plan around not getting dove and just playing around top side and making sure I’m safe.”
Whether that plan is to throw Balls to the wolves and let him fend for himself against the star Heo “Huni” Seung-hoon or something that takes a bit more of his team’s attention, Cloud9 can count on their top lane rock.
“It’s refreshing to watch the games [at Katowice] and sit back and relax.”
This will be Le’s sixth LCS playoffs, but he competed in League long before the LCS. Most of his contemporaries have hung up their mice, with others, like his teammate Hai, threatening to do the same. Balls isn’t concerned about worrying trends or calling it quits.
“I think about retiring from time to time, but I think the benefit of staying as a pro player and me still enjoying the game makes it so I just want to play until it ends,” he says.
When I ask him why anyone, like Hai, would consider retirement after seeing that HTC eSports’ retirement home, he chuckles. “Who knows?”
Cloud9 may have had their ups and downs last year, but now it looks like they’re rounding out into a championship team once again—if they can curb a few key mistakes. Balls points out their Saturday match against Renegades, where they gave up some early free kills, something that could doom them against tougher teams in the playoffs.
Ever since Cloud9 fell from the top, questioning their ceiling became a common theme of discussions surrounding what used to be America’s top team. Were players like Hai and Balls individually skilled enough to shine on the world stage? Now, with Jensen and Rush in tow, the team has more talent than ever. And Le’s not going to hold them back.
“I still think we all can definitely get better,” Balls says. “We’ve all been playing for three years and we still can improve. Our ceiling… we can still get a bit higher, but we don’t know how high we can get. It’s hard to tell.”
But we’re going to find out.
Photo via Riot Games/Flickr (All rights reserved, used with permission)
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